The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has released BARD Mobile, an iOS app designed to play the talking book titles available from the BARD website. These titles are also available, and used to be only available, on special cartridges designed for the Digital Talking Book Players produced by the NLS. Now, it's possible to play these titles on iOS devices. BARD Mobile has been highly anticipated, since the NLS is the last of the three major producers of accessible electronic books (Bookshare and Learning Ally are the others) to make their titles accessible on iOS devices. For this evaluation, I used an iPhone 4S running iOS 7.0.4.
Documentation and Initial Setup
The documentation for BARD Mobile is available online and within the application itself. The guide is thorough, easily accessible, and well organized, with headings that make for easy navigation. Almost every aspect of the application is described in the guide. The only missing item is the fact that books can be transferred to BARD Mobile from your computer using iTunes.
When you open the app for the first time, you will be presented with the BARD Service Agreement screen. The window where the agreement is displayed does not encompass the entire page but stops at the bottom quarter of the page. Below this window, there is an "Agree" button on the left side of the screen, followed by a "Start" button that is centered at the very bottom of the screen. To proceed with the initial setup, you must first activate the "Agree" button, and then activate the "Start" button. The "Agree" button will be labeled as "Selected" when it has been successfully activated. If you attempt to activate the "Start" button first, an alert will appear instructing you to agree to the agreement before proceeding.
After you have agreed to the Service Agreement, you will be taken to a Sign In screen. This screen contains a "Back" button in the top left corner of the screen that will take you back to the agreement. Next to the "Back" button is a heading labeled "BARD Account"; below this heading is another labeled "Login Information," followed by the user name and password text fields where you can enter your BARD credentials. At the very bottom of the page is a "Done" button that stretches the width of the screen. This button is hidden by the on-screen keyboard, so in order to see it, make sure to click the "Done" button on the keyboard itself when you've finished entering text.
Acquiring Books: The Get Books Tab
The BARD Mobile home screen is separated into four tabs that are always displayed at the bottom of the screen for easy access. They are (left to right): Bookshelf, Get Books, Settings, and Now Reading. After you have logged into your BARD account, you will be placed in the Get Books tab, which provides access to the BARD catalog of digital talking books and braille books. The screen boasts a simple layout: the various options are arranged in a single column that extends across the entire screen for easy navigation. The first item at the top of the screen is the Get Books heading, followed by an item that opens your Wish List. Following the Wish List item, there is a heading labeled "Recently Added Titles." Below this heading are items that display recently added audio books, audio magazines, braille books, and braille magazines. At the bottom of the screen there is a heading labeled "BARD website." Below this heading is an item labeled "Browse BARD," which allows you to navigate the BARD website. To download books from this screen, they must either be in your Wish List or in Recently Added Titles; there is not a standard search function on this screen.
The Wish List and the Recently Added Titles items are nearly identical in layout. These screens begin with a heading with the title of the screen and the number of items listed for the given category. For example, the heading might read something like: "Wish List. 1 item." The Wish List screen has an edit button on the far right of the heading that when activated, allows you to delete unwanted books from the list. The Recently Added Titles screens have a table index so that you can quickly move through the list; an edit button is not present on these screens. The books on the Wish List and Recently Added Titles screens are in a single column; activating the title of the book will produce an alert that asks you if you would like to download the book. Beside the book title is a "More Info" button that launches a details screen, which lists the title, author, annotation, narrator, total time, and book number. Below this information there is a "Download" button that immediately begins the download when activated. If the book is in your Wish List, it will disappear from the Wish List and appear on your bookshelf. If it is in one of the categories under Recently Added Titles, it will appear on your bookshelf and remain in the list of recently added titles that you were browsing. Between the book title and "More Info" button will be displayed the percentage of the download that has been completed. Only one book can be downloaded at a time; therefore, if you add others they will be listed as "Queued for Download." Once a book downloads, a chime plays and an alert is displayed notifying you that the book has finished downloading.
The "Browse BARD" option at the bottom of the Get Books screen allows you to navigate the BARD website so that you can search for titles and add them to your Wish List for download. When browsing the BARD website, there is a heading at the top of the screen labeled "BARD." To the right of this heading are "Back" and "Forward" buttons. On the left is a button that will return you to the Get Books screen. The main tabs are also still displayed at the bottom of the screen. The BARD Mobile website is almost identical to the standard BARD website, with one minor change. Instead of a "Download" option after a book's description, there is an "Add to Wish List" option. It's important to note that you can't leave the BARD website when browsing using the app. Therefore, those links that would leave the BARD website can't be activated.
It's possible to transfer books from your computer to the BARD Mobile app using iTunes. With your iOS device connected to your computer running iTunes, navigate to the "Apps" radio button on the iOS device's control screen. You can then tab to File Sharing Apps where you can select apps that can receive files. After selecting "BARD mobile" you can activate the "Add" button to add files to the app. To add talking books and BRF files to the app, you must add the ZIP file containing the book or it will not be processed. There is no indication that the book is being added to your bookshelf; once the book has been added, you will hear the chime that indicates a completed download and the book will be in the proper place. BRF files from sources other than BARD, such as Bookshare, can be added to the app.
The Bookshelf Tab
The Bookshelf tab organizes the books you have downloaded into 5 categories (left to right): Audio Books, Audio Magazines, Braille Books, Braille Magazines, and Help. These categories are arranged in a single column that stretches across the entire screen. Above the categories list is a heading labeled "Bookshelf. Select category" and to the right of this heading is an "Edit" button. The categories display the number of titles they contain. Activating the "Edit" button will allow you to reorder the categories; a "Done" button allows you to return to the default screen when you are finished adjusting the categories.
The help category has a single item that launches an HTML version of the User Guide. The only other item on the screen is a "Back" button to return to the categories screen.
Each category screen begins with a heading at the top of the screen with the label of the current category and the number of items it contains. To the left of the heading is a "Back" button to return to the categories screen and an "Edit" button on the right. Below the heading lies a search field that allows you to search for either a title or author within the category. Below this are tabs that allow you to sort the titles in your bookshelf category by (left to right) title, author, and latest. The selected tab will be announced as "Selected'" by VoiceOver. Below these tabs are the books in the category, arranged in a single column stretching almost the width of the screen. A "More Info" button lies to the right of each title. You can open a title by activating it or by activating the "More Info" button and navigating to the "Read" button. The More Info screen contains the same information as the Details screen when you are downloading the book, but the "Download" button is replaced by a "Read" button at the bottom of the screen. If you would like to delete a title, you can activate the "Edit" button, whereupon a "Delete" switch button will appear to the left of the titles listed in the current category. You must first activate the switch button for the book you would like to delete which causes a "Delete" button to appear to the right of the title. Activating this second button will delete the title. When you are finished deleting titles, you can activate the "Done" button that is in the same position as the "Edit" button to return to the default screen.
The Now Reading Tab: Audio Titles
Once you have chosen an audio title to read, you will be taken to the Now Reading screen. There is a heading at the top of the screen labeled with the name of the current title. To the left of this heading is a "Navigation" button. Below the heading is the name of the current section or chapter, stretching across the entire screen. Below this information, the elapsed time and the total time of the title are displayed, followed by a left/right slider that allows you to adjust the reading position by percentage. You can use a single finger flick upward to move the position forward and downward to move the position backward. When using this method, the position will be moved in increments of ten percent. You can also use a double tap and hold gesture followed by sliding your finger left and right to move the slider manually.
The bottom section of the Navigation screen contains controls found on the physical digital talking book player from the NLS. The controls are arranged similarly to their positions on the physical player. Below the slider and at the far right of the screen is a "Bookmark" button. Activating this button inserts a bookmark at the current reading position. You can remove a bookmark by activating the "Bookmark" button within 5 seconds of the bookmark position when reading, and by activating the "Bookmark" button when the reading position is exactly at the same position of the bookmark when the title is stopped. If you use a double-tap gesture, VoiceOver will simply say "Bookmark" without alerting you that you have added or removed a bookmark. If you use a double-tap-and-hold gesture, then release, VoiceOver will announce either "Bookmark added" or "Bookmark Deleted." On the row below the "Bookmark" button are (left to right) the "Previous," "Menu," and "Next" buttons. The menu button cycles through the various navigation levels when activated and it is labeled with the currently selected navigation level. "Previous" and "Next" move you backward and forward by the selected navigation level. For most titles, you can move by Chapter, Phrase, and Bookmark. Triple tapping on "Previous" or "Next" will move by two of the selected element. Double tapping and holding on either "Previous" or "Next" will begin moving either forward or backward by the selected level with an announcement every five elements (e.g., "Five chapters" then a moment later, "Ten chapters.")
Below this row is another row of three buttons: "Rewind," "Play/Stop," and "Fast Forward." If you double tap on either "Rewind" or "Fast Forward" you will be moved five seconds either direction. Triple tapping will move you by ten seconds and double tapping and holding on one of these buttons will begin to move you by increasingly larger increments forward or backward. The increments are as follows: twenty seconds, one minute, five minutes, fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, and one hour. Once you reach one hour, you will steadily move forward at this increment. When you pass a marked section such as the beginning of a chapter, you will hear an additional tone to alert you to this. The "Play/Stop" button will play a tone before either beginning playback or stopping playback. You can use a two-finger double-tap to stop and play the current title. If you use another app that uses this gesture, you must close and reopen BARD Mobile to associate the gesture with BARD Mobile's playback. The final row on the Now Reading screen consists of a "Speed/Tone" button with an adjustment slider. You can select which will be changed with the slider by activating the "Speed/Tone" button. The currently selected element will appear as the label of the button. You can use a single finger flick upward or downward to adjust speed by 25 percent. To adjust the speed slider manually, you can use a double-tap-and-hold gesture followed by sliding your finger left or right. Tone can be adjusted in the same manner; however, the increment is single numbers from −4 to +6. Single finger flicks upward and downward adjust the increment by one element, e.g., if the Tone is set at −4 and you flicked your finger upward, it would move to −3. Adjusting the tone or speed using this control will only adjust the speed or tone for the current title.
The Navigation Screen
The navigation screen allows you to move directly to a specific section in the currently active title. At the top of the screen is a heading labeled "Navigation" with a "Back" button on the left and a button labeled "Skippable" on the right. Activating the "Skippable" button will move you to a screen where you can choose to play or skip skippable items. These include page numbers and footnotes; these items are not always marked in NLS titles. Adjusting this option will only affect the current title. Below the "Navigation" heading are three tabs that determine what level of navigation will be displayed: Contents, Page, and Bookmark. The Contents tab will display the marked sections in the current title, such as chapters. If an item is not valid for the current title it will be dimmed. Below the tabs are listed the marked sections associated with the currently selected tab in a single column extending across most of the screen. A table index that allows you to cycle quickly through the displayed sections is on the far right of the screen. Some sections will have subsections and these will be marked as "1+." You can double-tap and hold on one of these sections to expand the section. Double tapping on the section will simply move your reading position to that position. Once you have expanded a section, it will be labeled "1-." The section in which the reading position resides will be marked as "Selected." When you view navigation elements under the "Contents" tab, they will either be prefixed by "1" or "1+" followed by the section name. A bookmark will have the Bookmark number, the time where it is located, and the title of the section in which it resides.
The Now Reading Tab: Braille Titles
BARD Mobile can also display BRF files. You will need a braille display to accurately read these files and search for keywords in a BRF file. When you are reading a braille title, the Now Reading screen is topped by a heading labeled with the name of the currently active title. A navigation button lies to the right of the heading. Just below this heading is a search field where you can search the body of the title for text. Upon searching you will be taken to the first instance of your search term. If you set the navigation level to Search Keyword, you can move to further instances of your search term by using the "Previous" and "Next" buttons at the bottom of the screen. Just below the search field is a display where the braille text is displayed a single line at a time. Each line is considered a separate element, therefore, you can flick through the contents of the BRF file one line at a time. If you flick right with one finger from the search field, you will be placed at the top of the text even if you were previously at a line further along in the file. Below the display is the current volume you are reading followed by the page and line number on a line below the volume number. BRF files from NLS are marked with the amount of volumes they would be if they were printed in physical braille volumes. If you flick left with one finger from the current volume, you will be placed at the end of the BRF file. At the very bottom of the screen are "Previous," "Menu," and "Next" buttons. The "Menu" button cycles through various navigation elements and is labeled with the currently selected element. The elements available are somewhat different from those available when you are listening to an audio title: page, line, volume, bookmark, and search keyword. The Navigation screen is identical to the Navigation screen when reading an audio title, with different tabs (Volume, Page, and Bookmark) and neither a "Skippable" button nor a table index.
The Settings Tab
You can customize various settings in BARD Mobile under the Settings tab. A "Settings" heading is at the very top of the screen, followed by a column of settings categories: Audio, Visual, and User Account. Below the settings categories you'll find the BARD Mobile version number.
The Audio Settings menu allows you to adjust various settings that concern audio playback. The settings are arranged in a single column with an "Audio Settings" heading at the top of the screen. The first setting is Speed. The current speed is listed in plain text above the adjustment slider. Below this is a slider that adjusts the global speed of audio playback. The default speed is 100 percent, the minimum is 50 percent, and the maximum is 300 percent. The next setting is Tone. There is a text label listing the current tone above an adjustment slider. Tone can range from −4 to +6. The normal tone is simply marked "Normal." Below the tone control is Background Playback. This option allows you to determine if BARD will continue playback if the device is locked or if you leave the application. Next is the Auto Lock During Playback setting. This setting determines if your device will auto lock after a certain amount of time while BARD is playing a title. The next setting is the Skippable setting. This setting determines if certain elements such as footnotes and page numbers will play during audio playback. The next setting is the Verbosity setting. This setting determines if BARD will play audio announcements when you activate controls with VoiceOver deactivated. For example, if Verbosity is activated, BARD may say "Bookmark Inserted" when inserting a bookmark with VoiceOver disabled. The final setting on the Audio settings screen resets all of the settings to their factory default.
This settings screen has two options below the "Visual Settings" heading. The first is Font Size. This option launches a screen where you can select the font size. The options are small, medium, large, and extra-large. The next option is the Contrast setting. This option opens a screen where you can set the foreground and background colors. The options are: black and white, white and black, black and yellow, and yellow and black. The first color is the foreground color and the second the background color. Below the contrast setting is a Restore Defaults setting that will restore the factory default visual settings.
User Account Settings
The User Accounts settings screen contains two options. The first is labeled "BARD Account" and will launch a screen with your user name and password in two text fields. To change accounts, change this information. The next option is an item labeled "Download over Mobile Network." When this setting is activated, you can use your mobile data connection to download titles. A "Restore Defaults" button resides below this option and will restore the account settings to their factory defaults.
The Bottom Line
BARD Mobile is a fantastic app that performs extremely well. I encountered only one bug throughout my testing of the app (when browsing the BARD website from the Get Books tab, the VoiceOver cursor moved from the page content to the Get Books tab at random intervals). The tone and speed adjustments are well implemented and do not degrade the audio quality when raised or lowered from their default positions; loss of audio quality when adjusting speed and tone can be a major issue for apps that play audio books. The layout of the tabs, particularly the Now Reading screen for audio titles, is clear and logical. Because the Now Reading screen is similar to the physical player, learning where functions are located is intuitive and easily grasped. Reading braille titles using BARD Mobile is simple and easy to understand. The app remembers your place accurately when you leave a braille title and return to it. It could be somewhat easy to lose your place in the braille document because flicking into the braille reading area from either the volume number or the search field places you at the bottom and top of the document respectively. The search field can be used to quickly return to your previous position if this does occur and being mindful of the danger would make losing your place easy to avoid. Overall, BARD Mobile is a wonder and the developers at NLS should be applauded for developing such a well-executed app.
Product: BARD Mobile
Developer: National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped; Library of Congress