The holiday gift-giving season will soon be in full swing. Some of Santa's helpers, also known as AFB TECH staff, have provided the following guide to gifts that may be of interest to the more technically inclined on your list. They also have some ideas if the gift giver has some technical experience to share.
Stocking Stuffers, $10 to $100
It may be true that the best things come in the smallest packages. For those small but very welcome items, sources such as Independent Living Aids and the LS&S Group offer dozens of accessible products to choose from. Each organization also offers toll-free ordering.
Clocks and watches with either voice output or large numbers are convenient to many people. The latest generation of clocks automatically sync to the U.S. Bureau of Standards radio time signal. They also offer some of the best-sounding voices available. This is especially important for those who are not accustomed to synthetic speech or for those with hearing loss. Watches, again with large print, braille, or voice, are available in a wide variety of styles.
Kitchen tools that provide convenience at meal time shouldn't be overlooked. Talking meat thermometers, a variety of timers, and talking food scales are just a few things the cook on your list might find useful.
For the hobbyist with low vision, you can find items to make crafting or gaming easier, such as lamps, stand magnifiers for assistance with building models or sewing, and games with large-print and high-contrast colored pieces.
Books, Books, and More Books
Among the most important uses of technology by individuals with vision loss is gaining independent access to the written word. Here are some gift ideas for the bookworm.
Portable Book Reader, $299 to $350
About the size of two decks of cards, these devices can store and play a variety of electronic book formats. Leisure reading titles available for free from the National Library Service (NLS), as well as books for purchase from Audible.com, are fully narrated. Titles from Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic would appeal primarily to the students on your list, whereas the text files of the tens of thousands of titles from Bookshare.org have broad appeal and are read by the text-to-speech voice included in this class of technology.
HumanWare's VictorReader Stream is the standard bearer in this group. It is well regarded for the clear speech of its menus and its logical control layout. However, its very soft-spoken loudspeaker may be a shortcoming for some. Further, whereas its small size makes it portable, it is also considered fragile by some users, so care should be taken to avoid dropping the Stream. The GW Micro BookSense includes an FM radio in one of the three versions on offer. The unit is somewhat smaller than the Stream and more closely resembles other popular consumer electronics. The ability to manage MP3 files is a strength of this player. Again, the speaker is small and volume levels are best suited for personal listening in a quiet area. The BookPort Plus is the newcomer to this trio of readers. Built on an existing and sturdy hardware platform, this device includes some of the most sophisticated and effective recording capabilities to be found in this group. A software update expected sometime this month will enable the BookPort to use Wi-Fi connectivity to stream Internet radio, podcasts, and eventually DAISY books online.
Among the many features of Apple's iPod and iPad product lines is the accessible iBook format. The required software is available, free of charge, from the Apple App Store. Titles are purchased individually for $9.90 on average. Many public-domain titles can be downloaded free of charge. All titles that AFB TECH has evaluated are accessible, making iBooks the most accessible of the competing eBook reader formats. We must caution readers that not all periodicals, especially popular on the iPad, are accessible. All current versions of devices that use Apple's iOS4 operating system will play iBooks using the included VoiceOver utility.
Book Reader Accessories, $10 to $100
Whether it is a portable book reader, the free player from the National Library Service, an Apple product, or some other reading device, well-chosen accessories often make the reading experience a real pleasure.
External speakers can be connected to these devices and may be especially welcome by those who sometimes want to relax in a favorite easy chair and spend some time reading. Altec Lancing manufactures a variety of self-powered speakers. The smallest and least expensive of them, the IM207, has been a hit in the AFB TECH lab. It resembles a large muffin, only made of plastic. The audio quality is surprisingly good and the three AAA batteries operate the speaker for many hours. The speakers are available from several online sources and are priced from $10 to $15. For additional speaker ideas, a trip to Radio Shack or a computer store may be helpful. In addition to Altec Lancing, JVC and Logitech offer many high-quality products. On Amazon, search results can be arranged by average customer rating. This can be a helpful tool when deciding between two candidates, or to gauge customer reaction to devices with which you are not personally familiar.
Another popular solution is to use a high-quality table radio as a speaker. Those products that include a line level input for an external source are all set to amplify the output from a book player or iPod.The Tivoli table radio has been popular for many years. Both mono and stereo sound models are available with or without clock radio functions. Pricing and availability are available on the Tivoli website.
On the Universal Radio website, you will find a wide variety of FM tabletop radios. The helpful staff at this Columbus, OH, store is also a toll-free phone call away and will provide expert and friendly guidance. Be sure to let them know that you are looking for a model with line level input and that quality of speech is of paramount importance.
Connecters and Memory, $10 to $50
Regardless of what book player or portable device is used, some extra memory or other accessories are sure to be a hit. The three portable players above all use SD memory cards. These can be purchased at retailers including Best Buy, Target, Walmart, or at computer stores. Available in sizes of 1, 2, 4, or 8 GB, most major manufacturers' cards should work in any of the players. If you are uncertain, purchase your card from a source that can be easily reached by the recipient in case an exchange or return is necessary.
For those who have the free digital Talking Book player, provided by the NLS, a specialized memory cartridge and data-transfer cable make it possible to download and play Talking Books immediately using the NLS BARD website. Perkins Products sells both cartridges and cables. A gift of two 2-GB cartridges and a transfer cable can be had for less than $30. Each cartridge can store between 15 and 18 average-size books.
Thumb drives (also known as jump drives or flash drives) are an easy-to-use, flexible, and affordable way to save and transfer data files, MP3 music files, library book files, and anything else you would otherwise save to a hard drive. In our experience, the most basic thumb drives work best in devices that are not running Windows, such as the new NLS digital Talking Book player. Sizes of 4, 8, and 16 GB are most popular. Avoid more elaborate technology that will be identified as using U3, a format that can block some devices from accessing the drive's contents. Prices range from $10 to $50. Target, Office Depot, and computer stores offer good choices.
Don't forget the connecting cables. If you are giving someone a device that they will be connecting to another bit of technology, make sure you provide the necessary connecting cables. For iPods and other music players used with an amplified speaker, a 3.5-mm audio cable is likely to be what you will need. RadioShack offers cables that are a bit more rugged than the least expensive kind, and the quality is worth the slight price difference. For devices that transfer data to or from a computer, a USB cable is likely to be a requirement. Several differing standards, including "micro" and "mini" are used, so check carefully in advance of purchasing.
Earphones or Headphones, $50 to $500
The opposite of listening in the comfort of your home is reading or music listening on the go. There are many aftermarket headphones and earphones available, almost any of which will provide a better sound than the typically inexpensive earbud-style phones included with portable players. Earphones are designed to fit snugly in the ear and often extend into the ear canal. Headsets or headphones fit entirely around the ear or rest (float) on the surface of the ear. Many individuals have a strong preference for one style or the other. For those with vision loss, traveling independently and safely with a cane or dog may also influence style preference. An additional twist is the necessity of a small in-line microphone and controls when using many Apple products. Often, manufacturers sell a version with and without iPod controls. Sources such as Consumer Search provide reviews of all styles across a wide price range. Headphone.com sells an almost bewildering array of models. They provide good online information, including the ability to group products by activity. Each product is also assigned a rating from 1 to 5. The company enjoys a reputation for honesty and rigor when rating and describing the products. The Bose QuietComfort noise-canceling headphones are popular. Many frequent travelers consider them indispensable, but not everyone is as enthusiastic, with some noting the feeling of pressure on the ears when the noise-canceling circuits are engaged. It is a good idea to make some inquiries before giving these or other noise-canceling earphones.
The Perfect Bag, $7 to $300
Whether it is a perfectly chosen digital camera bag designed to hang on the belt, or the latest in design from Tumi or Crumpler, a bag to hold a collection of gadgets and related paraphernalia might be just perfect. For the person who already has a bookport or similar device, a belt case intended for a point-and-shoot digital camera is a good choice. Best Buy and Target usually have good selections. If possible, take the player with you. If it is going to be a surprise, choose from the largest of this kind of bag available. Luxury goods stores and specialty luggage retailers can provide guidance if you are giving a high-end bag. Tumi offers several in both leather and synthetic materials. Such bags are also sometimes referred to as "Euro totes." For online purchasing, eBags offers dozens of suitable options and has a good reputation for quality phone support and easy exchanges.
A Gift of Your Time, $0
It's likely that not everyone on your gift-giving list is a geek. Still almost everyone can benefit from technology if it is accompanied by a helping hand. The NLS is rolling out the new digital Talking Book program. In addition to receiving books by mail from the library, the entire catalog of digital books is available for immediate download. With an aftermarket cartridge and data-transfer cable, any Internet-connected computer can be used to transfer books for immediate playback on the library's free digital player. Why not offer to download books for someone who enjoys reading but may not have access to their own computer? At the NLS BARD website, you will find registration information and be able to log in to begin downloading titles. Note that an e-mail address will be required for the subscription process. Titles can be browsed by subject, category, and author. New titles are grouped together and are usually posted on Friday. A wide variety of magazines is also available.
Teaching someone to use a free screenreader is a bit more ambitious, but may prove to be a very valuable endeavor. Two reasonably well-regarded free screenreaders are available for Windows. NonVisual Desktop Access and System Access to Go are both free. NonVisual Desktop Access is installed on the computer or can be operated from a thumb drive. System Access to Go requires Internet connectivity and is downloaded via Internet Explorer each time it is used. Of the two, System Access is the most popular and also provides very good screen magnification for those who wish to both enlarge the screen and use speech. Every Mac computer running the current operating system can be made accessible by activating VoiceOver, Apple's screenreader, or ZOOMS, the screen magnification program. These utilities are powerful and comprehensive. They require advanced understanding of their use by the person providing assistance.
Major Home Appliances
The holidays are a time to share ourselves with others, and very often this includes food. At AFB TECH, we are always tracking the availability of accessible appliances. Although not as personal as some gifts, the opportunity to independently operate a major appliance in the home may very well make an accessible range, dishwasher, laundry room pair, or microwave a truly memorable gift this year. A listing of our top picks can be found in the sidebar at the end of this article.
A Gift for All Year, $19 to $130 per month
It should never be taken for granted that everyone has Internet access or good mobile or landline phone service. These services can provide an indispensable connection to information and entertainment from this holiday season to next. However, deciding to provide an ongoing service requires a bit more research.
Internet service can often be purchased as an add-on to an existing phone line or cable contract. If available, DSL service from the phone company is often the least expensive Internet connection. Prices of $19 to $35 per month are typical. Introductory rates are also common, but caution must be exercised in the event that taking advantage of a low introductory rate may obligate the subscriber to an extended contract. Cable Internet is typically more expensive than DSL, from $35 to $60 monthly, without discounts. Again, introductory rates are usually available, and cable companies are less likely to require an extended contract.
An accessible cell phone may be welcome this year. AFB TECH is very impressed with the Haven, a basic phone available from Verizon. The phone is priced at $39 with a new contract or qualifying upgrade. All phone features are voiced, including text messages. For information on using the Haven with low vision, see the review article in this issue. The Haven isn't the most feature-laden phone available. That honor, perhaps, goes to the iPhone, currently available exclusively from AT&T. All iPhones offer built-in accessibility, and that accessibility is free. The VoiceOver and ZOOMS programs provide either voice output or screen enlargement on the iPhone. The best value may be the iPhone 3GS. Priced at $99 with a new or qualifying renewal, it offers almost all of the same features as the $199 and $299 iPhone 4 models. The accessibility is the same and many accessories are available for the 3GS family of phones.
Mobile broadband allows the Internet to travel wherever you go. A recent product introduction has many technology analysts, including David Pogue of the New York Times, talking. The $40-per-month plan from Virgin Mobile uses a $150 device called the MiFi to send and receive Internet signals using the cellular phone network, in this case, from Sprint. The MiFi device creates a small WiFi network wherever it is, allowing as many as five laptops and mobile devices, including iPods and iPads, to connect to the Internet. Unlike some competing offerings, including Sprint's own plan, Virgin Mobile will not meter or cap data use. It is not necessarily the plan for everyone; speeds are on the slow side and service may vary from area to area. It has enough speed to support radio or video streaming, including Netflix. Downloading NLS books is possible, but may require considerably more time than using another kind of Internet connection.
Skype is a popular and remarkably economical alternative to either cell or landline phones, particularly for international calling. The service uses software, which you install on a computer, smartphone, or iPod Touch to place and receive phone calls to either other Skype users, free of charge, or to any telephone using SkypeOut. In order to activate SkypeOut, an account needs to be established, which can charge a credit card or a prepurchased Skype card. The SkypeOut service is priced at $2.95 per month. A SkypeIn service, which includes an inbound phone number, is also available at an additional cost.
Although Granny Smiths make wonderful pies, and Golden Delicious are great by themselves, as technology guys, we prefer Apples of the electronic variety. Thanks to VoiceOver and ZOOMS, all currently available Apple products are accessible. Deciding on a gift from among the rich offerings is a pleasant task.
iPod Shuffle and iPod Nano, $49 to $149
These are the simplest and most affordable iPods. Both devices are intended to play music and other audio files. In addition to audio playback, the Nano offers picture and video viewing. VoiceOver controls use the recently introduced touch screen. The same screen is used for controlling the Nano and navigating songs, albums and play lists. The shuffle has no screen, instead using three buttons for playback and file navigation. Both of these iPods record audio, when a compatible microphone or earphone/microphone is used.
iPod Touch and iPad $249 to $600
These products range from the middle to the high end of the iPod line. They all share the basic ability to play music and audio files with their siblings, but the universe of applications or "apps" sets them apart as powerful and flexible personal computing devices. AccessWorld has reported on the capabilities of these products and we encourage you to refer to those articles for more detailed information.
An Internet-connected Windows or Mac computer running iTunes, a free application, is required to activate and manage all iPod and iPad devices. Versions for both Windows and the Mac OS are downloadable from the iTunes website. System Access to Go provides excellent support to iTunes on Windows computers. While the accessibility of iTunes is very good, it should be noted that the interface is complex and uses some navigation conventions that may not be familiar to some users of screen-access technology.
In order to be used as intended, a WiFi connection should be available to the iPod Touch and iPad. A version of the iPad that connects directly to the cellular network is available. Unlike the iPhone, data for the network-connected iPad is purchased on a monthly or as-needed basis and requires no contract.
Mac Computers, $995 to $2,700
Mac computers have increased their market share in recent years. Fortunately, VoiceOver and a suite of accessible applications included with all Macs make Apple a serious alternative to Windows for blind and visually impaired individuals. Since there is no additional price associated with accessibility, shopping for the best combination of price and service should guide the purchase of a Mac for use with VoiceOver or Zooms.
It is important to recognize that despite the robustness of VoiceOver and the many accessible applications that it supports, the relatively few options for training remain an issue. Many Web-based resources, including Blind Cool Tech and Sero Talk, offer audio tutorials and reviews for those experienced and motivated individuals who want to learn how to use VoiceOver independently. In-person training, especially for the beginner is not widely available. Consumer organizations, including the National Federation of the Blind and the American Counsel of the Blind, may be good resources to locate VoiceOver training providers
A Gift to AFB
On almost every holiday gift list is that "hard-to-buy-for" person, or someone who "has everything he or she needs." Consider a gift to AFB in support of our valuable work. You will celebrate the holiday season with the certain knowledge that your donation is working 365 days a year to provide valuable information to expand opportunities for people with vision loss.
AFB TECH's APPLIANCE BEST BETS
For Nonvisual Use
Washer and dryer
Whirlpool Duet (full size)
$800 to $1,200
Whirlpool, models beginning with GF
$600 to $1,000
Whirlpool Gold 2320 and similar models
$400 to $600
Panasonic 25603 (Walmart)
For Low Vision Use
Washer and dryer
Sears Kenmore washer 49032, dryer 89032
Microwave, over the stove
Frigidaire Gallery FGMV173KW
[Note: We have not evaluated countertop microwaves for low-vision accessibility.]