At the spring 2013 M-Enabling Summit, Sprint CEO Dan Hesse announced the upcoming availability of the LG Optimus F3, "the first phone to come pre-loaded with Google TalkBack, which allows users who are blind or visually impaired to receive assistive voice prompts." According to Hesse, "By pre-loading Google TalkBack onto the new device, we've enabled users to start getting prompts the moment they take the phone out of the box and turn it on."
I obtained a test unit from Sprint and spent some time putting it through its paces. Here is what I found.
A Brief Tour of the LG Optimus F3: Inside and Out
The Optimus F3 is 4.57 inches long by 2.44 inches wide by 0.40 inches thick, and weighs four ounces. This touchscreen LTE phone felt very comfortable in my hand, and slipped easily into my pocket. The device is housed in a durable, textured plastic shell, available in either silver or purple. The design is extremely uncomplicated, with just three buttons: the Power button, located on the upper right edge, the volume rocker, located on the upper left edge, and the hardware Home button in the lower middle of the phone's 4-inch LCD display. The 3mm headphone jack is on the upper left edge.
The Optimus F3 comes with Android Jellybean version 4.1.2 installed, and it is powered by a 1.2 GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor, an 800 by 480 resolution display, 1GB of RAM, and 4GB of ROM. There is only 1.2 GB of program storage. You can expand this by up to 32GB with a micro SD card installed in the appropriate slot inside the battery compartment, but as is common with many Android phones, you can only use it for data; you cannot install apps on the phone's removable storage.
The Optimus F3 features N-standard Wi-Fi, Near Field Communications (NFC) capabilities, and Bluetooth for headphones and external keyboards. It also sports two cameras, a 5-megapixel, LED flash-enabled rear facing camera and a VGA front facing camera.
The quality of the speaker compares favorably with my iPhone 5, but unfortunately for left handers such as myself, it is located on the phone's back surface, exactly where the fleshy ball of my thumb meets the phone as I hold it in my right hand while typing with my left. Typing an "A" or an " R" is fine, but typing a "P" or an "L" causes me to press the right edge of the phone into my palm, blocking the speaker and muffling the voice output by up to a half.
Call quality was good, as were 3G download speeds. I was unable to test LTE download speeds, because this service is not yet available from Sprint in my town. Battery life was high to excellent for me, but I did experience Wi-Fi interruptions in rooms in my house where other devices have no problem.
In short, the Optimus F3 is a solidly constructed, value-priced Android phone whose features make no pretense of being the "latest and greatest." For the sight-impaired community, however, build-quality and price are only a part of the value proposition. Sprint has touted the Optimus F3 as the first phone with Talkback not just pre-installed, but also pre-enabled. Here's how it works.
Many Android phones and tablets allow you to hold two fingers on the screen to activate Talkback when you first power up. The LG Optimus F3 does not require this step. After inserting the battery and pressing the Power button, Talkback came up with no user intervention. All users, sighted or not, receive the message voiced using the Google speech engine.
Before activation, you can turn on the Talkback voice navigation feature for the visually impaired. Double tap the center of your screen to activate this feature. To enable other features, tap "Accessibility" then "Settings." To continue activation, tap "Next."
While the phone continues to activate the Talkback tutorial comes up. You can cancel this tutorial or use it to practice several Talkback gestures, including touch navigation, swiping, double tapping, two-finger sliding up and down lists, and navigating by letter, word, or paragraph. At every step you are offered a "Finish" button to skip the rest of the tutorial.
While I ran the tutorial, I was interrupted by messages alerting me that the activation was complete and prompts for menus to set location services and Wi-Fi. These could easily distract and confuse first-time Talkback users; it would be better if they were held until after the tutorial is completed or exited. On the positive side, when I tried resetting the phone to factory settings after two reboots, Talkback auto-started with the same opening message, again allowing me to get up and talking with minimal user intervention.
The pre-enabled Talkback on the Optimus F3 is not the latest version. Consequently, many useful Talkback features are not available out of the box, including enhanced sound cues and automatic scrolling through long lists. One of the benefits of running Talkback on an Android phone versus Voiceover on an iOS device is that the screen reader can be updated independently of the operating system. Talkback can be upgraded to the latest version via the Google Play Store, and this was the very first app I downloaded.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Android operating system itself. The latest version of the OS features several enhancements that enable additional screen reading capabilities, but as is the case with most Android phones, there is no telling if and when the Optimus F3 OS will be upgradable.
Talkback and the Optimus F3 Interface
Like most other Android phone manufacturers, LG adds a number of add-in programs and other interface elements that don't always interact well with Talkback. For me, the problems started with the LG keyboard.
Logging into my Google account, I discovered the Speak Passwords option had not been enabled, so I was unable to log in to the Play Store with the preinstalled LG keyboard until I had returned to the Accessibility menu and toggled this option. This is a Talkback setting, so I can't count this as a strike against the LG keyboard, but the problem was enhanced by the fact that the preinstalled LG keyboard disabled (not turned off by default; disabled) all touch and sound feedback. Plus, there is no way to add the voice dictation key to the keyboard.
The keyboard is very small, but considering this is a four-inch screen, that is to be expected. However, the keyboard is positioned very low, practically touching the "Back" and "Menu" soft keys on either side of the Home button. These buttons are touch activated. You don't have to lift your finger; merely touching these buttons causes them to activate. Also, where you might normally find the Dictation button, the LG keyboard has a keyboard settings button. This button is also touch activated, and the upshot is that it is nearly impossible to touch explore and type a space character or to reach either the Shift or Symbols keys without activating one of these soft keys and finding yourself tossed out of the app into which you were trying to enter text.
I solved this problem simply enough by installing the Google Keyboard, but there were other accessibility issues that weren't so easy to work around.
LG phones feature a suite of QSlide apps that allow users to play music or videos, access a web browser, jot a memo, check a calendar appointment, or do a quick calculation from a window inside your current screen. You can resize QSlide windows and adjust their transparency so you can work in another app while they are open. You can even run more than one, making it possible to control your music and jot a note, all without leaving your browser. I can see where the QSlide suite would be very handy to have around, at least as a sighted user. As a user with vision loss, these apps quickly became a major headache.
The QSlide apps are only minimally accessible using Talkback. They were exceedingly easy to invoke accidentally, however, interrupting my workflow while I searched for the Close buttons, which were not always easy to locate and access. Often, I could not find the Close button at all, causing the QSlide apps to announce various options (everything but "Close") as I navigated my home screen using a left or right one-finger swipe. The QMemo app was particularly annoying. You can invoke this app by pressing the middle of the volume rocker. This is something I did frequently by accident when used my thumb to adjust the volume, again, interrupting my workflow with an unwanted pop-up app. You can't delete the QSlide apps. I am told you can hide them, but there are no instructions in the phone's documentation, and I was unable to determine how to do this during my time with the phone.
Of course LG is not alone in modifying the stock Android experience on their devices. Indeed, most Android phone manufacturers add custom interfaces that modify many aspects of the user experience with enhanced home screens and keyboards, extra programs and widgets, and the like. In a crowded marketplace these custom interfaces help phone makers distinguish their offerings and can increase the appeal of a given device. Unfortunately, almost universally they also interfere with accessibility to one degree or another.
Phone companies also customize their offerings with carrier-specific software. Sprint and Virgin Mobile encourage users to install ID Packs: bundles of applications, ringtones, wallpapers, settings, and other interface elements that can customize your phone to reflect your particular needs or special interests. My Optimus F3 came with the Essentials ID pack preinstalled, which included quick download links to access Facebook, Twitter, Buzzfeed, and Pandora. The Mobile ID app also featured links to Entertainment, Green, and Socially Connected ID Packs.
Invoking the "All ID Packs" button called up a search box, and a few keyword searches led me to five listings of particular interest to the visually-impaired: Accessibility ID Pack, Accessible Entertainment ID Pack, Accessible Navigation ID Pack, Accessible Daily Living ID Pack, and Reading Made Easier ID Pack. Unfortunately, none of these ID Packs were even mentioned in the phone's documentation or promotional literature. I only stumbled upon them as I neared the completion of this review, and when I tried to download one or the other, I received a "server unavailable" error message. I reported the problem, and a few days later I was delighted to discover that an Accessibility ID Pack had been added to the others listed on the default ID Pack menu. I still had to download the currency identifier, accessible music player, and other apps contained in this curated list, but I did not have to slog through the Play Store discovering and locating them one by one.
Veteran Android users will doubtless already have a number of must-download apps they will want to start using right away. Novice users may not be as familiar with the growing number of accessible apps that are available. The Accessibility ID Pack is a great way for the company to help new users get started, and I was pleased that they took such quick action to not only correct the problem, but also to bring the information to the forefront. I hope they will be just as quick to update the Accessibility ID Pack with newly minted accessible apps, and even better, perhaps they could offer a "Would you like to install this now?" option to the initial Talkback setup.
The Bottom Line
New Android phones are constantly being introduced and released, and by the time you read this, the Optimus F3 may already have been superseded by a newer model. Almost certainly the new Android Kit Kat OS will have been released, potentially enabling even greater accessibility. However it's doubtful the Optimus F3 will be upgradable to this newer OS, at least not immediately. The reason for this review, therefore, is not so much to evaluate this particular phone as it is to assess Sprint's announced commitment to accessibility, which the Optimus F3 represents.
During my conversations with senior User Experience Designer Justin Eddings, he expressed the hope that soon every Sprint phone will be as useable by the vision impaired as they are by sighted users. Enabling Talkback for all users is an excellent start, but as demonstrated above, there is still much work to be done.
I applaud Sprint's commitment to accessibility and trust it to be genuine. But without the device makers' support I think their efforts can only achieve so much. One of the first questions I asked Justin Eddings was why the company had chosen an LG phone over products from other manufacturers for their first Talkback pre-enabled device. "We wanted to partner with the company who most shared our passion for accessibility," he explained, and perhaps of all the current Android phone makers, LG does demonstrate the strongest commitment. But actions speak louder than words. When I tried installing the Netflix app on the Optimus F3 I was utterly unable to review the sign-in screen. I finally asked my sighted wife to log me in, but even then, the app was completely inaccessible. When I mentioned this to Eddings he offered to ask the engineers at LG why this might be happening. He repeated the request several times, but to my knowledge he still has not heard back.
In monitoring the Eyes-Free news list, a gathering place for Android users and developers, it's been my perception that the happiest Android users are those who use a Nexus phone, which features an unmodified upgradable version of the Android OS, and those who have "rooted" their devices, which is to say they have wiped their phone's ROM clean and installed an unmodified Android version. Nexus phones tend to be expensive, however, and they are generally not subsidized. And "rooting" a device should definitely be left to the technically savvy.
As for the rest of us: The LG Optimus F3 is an adequate if not exceptional Android phone with a price tag that may appeal to many novice Android users, especially those who do not have sighted help readily available. You will definitely want to replace the default keyboard, however, and first time Android users should also explore the accessibility ID Packs to jumpstart their Talkback experience.
Update: Another New accessible Phone from Sprint
As I was completing this review Sprint doubled down on its commitment to accessibility by introducing the KYOCERA Kona, a feature phone with built-in text-to-speech and voice commands. I spent a few days with a sample unit. Here's a quick look.
What You Get
The KYOCERA Kona is a clamshell phone with a 2-megapixel camera and an accessible keypad, which is to say, the keys on the dial pad have enough separation to distinguish them by touch. The phone includes a text-to-speech engine and a "Voice Guide," but the guide is not turned on by default. You will need one-time sighted assistance to enable this feature from the Settings/Other menu. The voice is medium quality, but when using ear buds (not included) I heard a constant clicking sound in one ear. The speech can be set to slow, medium, or fast. There are no pitch or tone controls.
The Voice Guide reads most menu controls, with the exception of the Help and About screens, which did not voice. It did a good job speaking names and addresses in my contact list, and reading text messages. Entering contact information and replying to text messages was also completely accessible. Tapping the 2 key three times typed a C character, although the Voice Guide did not voice the intermediate A and B characters, only the final character after a brief pause. Numbers and punctuation are accessed by pressing the Right Soft Key, which calls up three options: characters, numbers, and a grid of punctuation marks and other symbols. You move among these options by pressing the 3, 6, 9 and 12 o'clock positions on the navigation wheel that surrounds the OK button.
The KYOCERA Kona includes web browsing capabilities, though it runs entirely over the Sprint data network. There is no Wi-Fi functionality. Web pages voiced from the top down, and the reading was continuous. Pressing the 12 or 6 o'clock positions on the navigation wheel is supposed to stop the voice and advance one line up or down the web page, but often the only way I could stop the voicing was to press the "Back" key and exit the built-in browser. There are no navigation features to move from heading to heading, link to link, etc. Also, long URLs for unlabeled buttons and other web page elements were read character-by-character in their entirety, often slowing my web experience to a crawl. As mentioned, using the 6 and 12 o'clock positions on the navigation wheel ring moved up and down the page by lines, but I never was able to navigate word-by-word, or letter-by-letter, in either the browser or anywhere else on the phone.
The KYOCERA Kona also features rudimentary voice recognition. Pressing and holding the Talk key just above the keypad number 1 brings forth a prompt to "Say a command." I tried "Call Bill" and the phone dialed my home number, which I had previously added to my contact list. Other commands I successfully invoked included "Check battery," "Check time," and "Open settings." Open Accessibility did not work, though I was able to create a shortcut to the Accessibility menu for one-button access.
The Voice Recognition menu includes an "Adaption" option to train the phone to your voice. Unfortunately, this screen did not voice. The Voice commands only work on the main "Idle Screen." Pressing and holding the Talk key within a menu caused the voice commands either not to work or to redial the last number I called.
Many people wish to use a cell phone to make phone calls and to send and receive occasional text messages, and that's all they want. For them the KYOCERA Kona is an excellent accessible choice. Like the Optimus F3, the phone is free after a $50 mail-in rebate with a two-year service contract. The downside is you need to enroll in the Sprint unlimited My Way program for $60 per month, excluding taxes and fees, in order to access the data network you are not likely to use to full advantage. This pricing may be comparable to a land line phone, however, and for those considering cutting that cord, the KYOCERA Kona paired with the My Way plan may be an excellent, accessible choice.