June 2016 Issue  Volume 17  Number 6

Low Vision Technology

Choose the Right Electronic Magnifier, Part 1: Identify Your Priorities

Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series covering electronic magnifiers, and offering advice to readers who want to acquire one.

People with low vision have more choices than ever when it comes to magnification. You can choose from full-sized desktop electronic magnifiers (once called CCTVs), portable units that are small enough to fit in a laptop bag, and handhelds you can tuck into a pocket or purse. Features, too, give potential buyers a lot to choose from. To find the right one, you'll need to prioritize the features, such as viewing options, OCR, connectivity with computing resources, and high-quality optics, that are most important to you. But magnifiers are expensive, and it's a challenge to choose one that does all you need it to do for a price you can afford. In this three-part series, AccessWorld guides you through the world of video magnifiers, helping you zoom in on the products, features, and support options that match your needs.

Along the way, you'll learn how to ask the right questions, not just about products you're considering, but about how you will use a magnifier in your daily life; at work, at school, at home, or on the go. In this first article, we focus on you, the potential magnifier buyer, and how understanding your priorities is key to making a good purchase decision. Part 2 will introduce the wide array of desktop and larger portable/transportable devices on the market. In part 3 we will get small, with coverage of handheld electronic magnification solutions. These articles won't tell you which product to buy, or provide reviews of specific devices. Instead, they will give you as much information as possible about all of the products available to you, so you can choose a device that does what you need it to do.

Electronic Magnifier Portability Considerations

Brochures for electronic magnification products often show smiling students, crafters, seniors, and office workers, each seated in front of the same device. The message is that whatever your needs, Product X is the right choice. As consumers, we know that there's more to the story. A full-sized, feature-rich magnifier can be a great addition to the office, but won't be of much use if you're traveling a lot. Similarly, a college student might prioritize Internet connectivity over advanced camera technology or a large screen. Ease of use and extreme portability are very important to older folks looking for an efficient way to read medication labels at home. Before you choose a device based solely on its specs, be sure you've thought about where you will be when you use it, and how often you need to magnify text and objects away from your home or office.

A good place to start is to think about whether you want or need to move your magnifier, and how often. The largest desktop magnifiers feature displays of up to 24 inches, along with a camera that moves on a sturdy track or arm. In addition, many units include an x-y table. The combination of these components makes for a feature-rich system that will take up a fair bit of space on your desk or table, and is likely to weigh in at 15 to 25 pounds. If you need to traveling regularly with your magnifier or set it up in locations with close quarters, a desktop unit might not be right for you. On the other hand, having all the features of a desktop magnifier at your fingertips, including a bright, easy-to-read HD monitor, can help you maximize your productivity and your ability to do anything you want to do with magnification.

For some, extreme portability is critical. With a handheld magnifier in a pocket or bag, you can take the device to the thing you want to magnify, rather than the other way around. Do you need to examine documents or labels in a variety of settings? Perhaps you travel a lot, or perhaps your work simply keeps you moving within your office or a retail store, for example. You can share a handheld magnifier with others, or take it out when you find an unexpected need to read text or zoom in on objects during your busy day.

For many folks the best choice isn't a tricked-out desktop model with a great monitor or a lightweight handheld, but somewhere between these two extremes. If that sounds like you, there are still location-based choices and priorities to consider. If you want a device you can travel with, how portable must it be, and how easily will you be able to move it? Perhaps you crave a unit that folds into a shoulder bag and won't slow you down as you make your way across campus or through an airport. Some portables are based on Android tablets, and gain their weight advantage by not requiring separate cameras or screens. There's a subset of desktop-class magnifiers that vendors call "transportable." You might not want to carry them on a daily bus ride, but you can move them in a provided case or rolling bag. These units typically feature a large LCD monitor and camera, all mounted on a foldable stand. To move the unit, the user often needs to disassemble some of the unit's parts in order to fold it into a protective case that has wheels or sturdy handles. This arrangement might work for you if you're a college student moving once a term between home and school or a worker on long-term assignment to a different office.

Electronic Magnifier Feature Considerations

An electronic magnifier will make all sorts of things easier to see. But what do you need to see most? What kinds of magnification will add the most productivity or enjoyment to your life? Figuring out how you plan to use a magnifier, and which magnification features are critical versus those that might be merely nice to have, will significantly narrow down your choices and build confidence in the purchase decision you ultimately make.

Enlarging text is the first use most people will think of for an electronic magnifier. There's good reason for that. Everyone needs to do some amount of reading, whether it's mail, a recipe, or a printed contract at work. Many people also need to be able to view objects and activities, like crafts or tools, up close. A number of the features that make it easier to read text will help you magnify objects, too. A number of magnifiers also give you the ability to view what's happening across a room, such as what is being written on a whiteboard in class, or a performance in a theater. A video magnifier with a camera that flips gives you the option to use it to apply makeup, style your hair, or just take a look at yourself. Consider the combination of features you need, and whether you want to purchase accessories or attachments that make it easier to add features to the basic magnifier you choose. Like knowing where you will use a magnifier, thinking about how you use it most will narrow your search for the right product.

Most magnifier users want to enlarge and enhance text. This might mean that you want to read books, articles, or other lengthy documents associated with your job or education. Other reading tasks consist of smaller blocks of text, such as mail, package labels, or appliance instructions. To read and process long text blocks, you might prioritize a large display and a camera that supports a wide range of text enhancement and color options. You might also want to add an x-y table, or at least consider whether the unit has the ability to display an entire page of text at once. If reading a lot of text is important, yo may also want to capture text with OCR, either to hear it read aloud by your magnifier's speech software, or to convert it to a computer file for later use. Some magnifiers provide OCR as a core feature, while others offer it as an option, complete with a camera and software optimized for that purpose.

As we discussed in the portability section, it's sometimes easier to read text where it is, rather than bringing it to your magnifier. For reading bills, pill bottles, or the serial number on a television, flexibility in your magnifier hardware is important. A portable unit might serve you best if you like to read the mail or recipes in your kitchen, or when you need to read a label that can't be placed under a stationery camera. In these cases, you will need to be able to position the camera at will, while also being able to view the screen.

Many jobs, as well as most classrooms, involve some kind of group viewing, using a whiteboard, a slide projector, or other distant presentation method. Some electronic magnifiers include a camera specifically for distance viewing, or an option to switch the main camera to distance mode by rotating the camera. If you choose a device that supports distance viewing, you should also consider its portability. Carrying the device to class or to a conference room will be easier if your magnifier is foldable or light enough to be carried in one hand. Also consider where you will be seated while viewing what's going on across the room, and whether this location makes it possible for you to train your camera on the board, stage, or presenter. How often do you need to view far away happenings? Is it enough to warrant choosing a magnifier that supports distance viewing?

Just as distance viewing is a special case for some users and a daily need for others, self-view can seem like a luxury for those who don't need it, and a necessity for those who seek to maintain a flawless appearance. Consider where you and your magnifier will be when you use self-view mode. Is the device portable enough to move where you need it? Is the light provided by the device, along with your room's ambient light, sufficient for you to get the most from self-view?

Electronic Magnifier Cost Considerations

Video magnification does not come cheap. That's sometimes a source of frustration, especially as magnifier makers move to off-the-shelf parts that remind users of the monitors and cell phones they may already have. Vendors point out that most magnifiers include custom hardware, such as stands, remotes, and control panels adapted for users with low vision. Software, too, is often custom. OCR programs and even the apps that control the operation of the magnifier are built or licensed specifically for desktop and portable magnification systems. Cost is also a function of volume: far fewer video magnifiers will be sold this year than computer monitors, or handheld HD cameras. Whatever the reason, buying a video magnification system is usually a major purchase, so choosing well, and knowing what to expect when shopping, is important.

Prices of electronic magnifiers can be thought of in ranges. At the high end are desktop models and large transportables whose prices range conservatively from $2,400 to $3,000. A few units, with accessories like x-y tables, rolling bags, and OCR cameras, cost more. In the middle range, costing up to $2,500, are larger portable units, some of which are based on tablet computers, others featuring a screen with an integrated camera. Others resemble desktop or transportable units, but include mid-sized displays. In the low range are true handheld magnifiers, ranging in size from three to seven inches in size. You can pick these up for under $1,000.

Next Steps

In this first installment of our magnifier series, we focused on how different kinds of people can make smart decisions about the type of magnifier that's right for them. Next month, we will take an in-depth look at the range of large and mid-sized electronic magnifier options, with an emphasis on features and specs. We'll also discuss how you can tell the difference in important features, and how to think critically about product hype.

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