In 2013, Sprint and Virgin Mobile announced an ongoing commitment to make products and services more accessible to the sight impaired community. We took a look at two of these companies' premier accessible devices in the November 2013 AccessWorld article Cell Phone Accessibility: Reviewing the LG Optimus F3 and the Kyocera Kona. Both came with built-in enhanced voice accessibility. More recently, Sprint has released a third phone with a built-in screen reader, the Kyocera Verve, a value-priced feature phone with a slide out QWERTY keyboard aimed at users who want to call and message frequently without the expense and learning curve of a touch screen smartphone.
A Brief Tour
My sample Kyocera Verve arrived in a braille-labeled box that contained the Verve itself, the battery, a USB power adapter, and the print manual. An accessible copy of the manual is also available online. Most electronics manuals are at least partly inaccessible because the graphics are not labeled, resulting in any number of sentences that basically say, "To do this, press the (blank space) button." In this case, however, the company has taken the trouble to give each of the images an alt tag.
The Verve is a candy-bar styled phone, which is to say it is the approximate shape and size of two Hershey bars stacked one atop the other: 4.53 inches by 2.13 inches by 0.59 inches. The phone features a 2.4-inch QVGA display, a 2-megapixel camera, and a battery rating of over six hours talk time and over 260 hours of standby.
The front of the phone resembles a permanently open flip phone, with a 2- by 3-inch screen at the top and a 1.5- by 2-inch keypad at the bottom. The dial pad contains the standard 12 keys: 1 through 0, with * and # to either side of the 0. The last row of keys sits extremely close to the phone's bottom edge, but the 5 key does have a raised dot, making it easy enough to orient yourself to make an entry.
Centered above the keypad is the Menu/OK button, which is surrounded by a cursor ring for moving up, down, left, and right through menus. These buttons act as features shortcuts when pressed from the main idle screen: Calendar (left), Contacts (right), Send message (up), and My Stuff (down). You can change any or all of these by accessing the Settings / Other Navigation Keys menu.
The Call and End buttons are positioned to the far left and right of the Menu/OK button, respectively. Between them, stretching between the Home button and cursor ring, are two larger, square buttons on the left and two on the right. The upper of these are the left and right soft keys. The bottom two buttons are the Speaker button on the left, and the Back key on the right. These buttons are fairly small, and the lower pair sits extremely close to the 1, 2, and 3 keys. Nonetheless it only took a short while for me to become oriented and accustomed to the configuration.
The Speaker key toggles the speaker phone off and on. The Back key will back you out of any menu, and if you hold it down for two seconds the phone will lock—handy for avoiding accidentally dialing one of your contacts while you're carrying the phone in your pocket. Unfortunately, when locked, the Verve announced the instructions to unlock it whenever I pressed one of the command buttons, so if you want the Verve to be absolutely silent you'll have to lower the volume before you lock the phone—there is no mute switch. Press the Menu/OK button, followed by the Back key, to unlock the phone. Sound cues let you know when you have successfully locked or unlocked the phone.
There are two additional buttons on the front surface of the Verve, located at the far left edge of the screen. These are the secondary left and right soft keys, and they only work when the built-in keyboard is extended.
The left side of the Verve contains the USB charging port, toward the bottom, and the volume rocker and Vibrate button near the top. There is an obvious seam that runs along this edge, and the others, that allows you to slide out the built-in QWERTY keyboard.
Also on the left edge, toward the top but nearest the phone's back, is a tiny thumbnail lip used to pry off the phone's plastic backing for battery installation. There is a headset jack on the top edge of the Verve (a headset was not included with the phone). The Camera button is located on the right edge, toward the bottom.
Turning on Speech Accessibility
Unfortunately, the Verve is not configured with an easy way to turn on speech access, such as Apple's triple-tap gesture on the Home screen or Android's two-finger hold during startup. You will need sighted assistance to get up and running with speech. Or you can follow this list of commands step by step:
- Turn on your charged Verve by pressing the End button and holding it for a few seconds.
- Wait a few seconds after you hear the start fanfare, and then press the Menu/OK button once.
- Press the down button (the south edge of the ring surrounding the Menu/OK button) twice. This will take you to the Settings menu. You should hear a beep with each movement down.
- Press the Menu/OK button to open the Settings Menu.
- Press the 0 key on the dial pad to move to the second screen of options. You will now be on the Accessibility menu.
- Press the Menu/OK button once to enter Voice Services
- Press the Menu/OK button a second time to reach the Voice Guide option.
- Press the Menu/OK button a third time to reach the Speech Output option.
- Press the Menu/OK button again to Toggle speech on.
- Use the Back key to return to the previous menu, or the End key to return to the phone idle screen.
There are three voice speed settings, but no pitch controls. For the most part I found the voice clear and understandable. Unfortunately, when it is not, there is no hotkey to repeat the last utterance or review it word-by-word or letter-by-letter.
Also in the Accessibility menu you will find options to change the font size from regular to large. (Note: This setting does not affect all screens.) The phone includes a high-contrast black and white setting, and settings to enable TTY and to improve audio quality using a hearing aid. You can also set different vibration patterns for incoming calls, text messages, voicemail alerts, and calendar alarms.
Using Voice Commands
One of the easiest ways to use the Verve is via voice command. Press and hold down the Call key until you hear "Say a command." After the tone you can issue a number of different commands. I was successful trying "Call Bill" from my new contact list. I could also speak the entire number, including area code, and the Verve would autodial the number. "Check time," "Check battery," and "Check network" also returned the appropriate responses.
"Go to Calendar" and "Go to Contacts" also worked, as did "Go to Voice Memo," a phone app that allows you to record and playback brief spoken notes.
I found the Voice Recognition features useful, to a point. There is an option to train the voice for better recognition, but these screens did not read—even if I plugged in a pair of ear buds. You also cannot dictate text into message fields.
Making and Taking Calls
The Verve is a standard feature phone with the standard command structure. To make a call, enter the numbers on the dial pad, and then press the Call button. You can also press the right soft key to summon a list of your contacts. Cursor up or down using the ring, and when you reach the desired contact, press Call. You can also press the Menu/OK button if you want to get your contact's details, alternate phone numbers, ring tone and vibrate pattern selection and picture ID.
Users of feature phones like to keep it simple, and the Verve offers three ways to make a call quickly and easily. First, pressing the Call button without pre-entering a number summons your recent history list. From here you can return a call, send a text message, and add a caller to your contact list.
As mentioned previously, you can also hold down the Call button until you are prompted to enter a command, at which time you can say "Call" followed by a phone number or the name of one of your contacts, and the Verve will dial the number for you.
One other way to dial a number quickly and easily is by using speed dial. By default, the Verve comes with the number 1 set up to access your voicemail, and the asterisk key at the bottom left to dial your ICE (In Case of Emergency) number. You can change the ICE number by editing the contact. You can set other speed dials by entering the appropriate settings into contact entries and choosing a speed dial number there.
With Speech Output enabled, the Verve will announce the Caller ID, speaking the contact name or the phone number at the end of each ring. Press the Call button to answer the call, the End button to send the call directly to voicemail, or to hang up after a completed call.
If you miss a call, the Verve will announce a waiting voicemail, and prompt you to press the left soft key to listen or the right soft key to dismiss the prompt. Press and hold the number 1 key to access your voicemail. You can also press the right soft key at any time to call up a list of your voicemails, or to send or read text messages.
Text Messaging with the Verve
The Verve announces incoming text messages and voices the contact name/phone number and message text. You can also press the left soft key at any time to review the current or previous message. Unfortunately, when the message is read, voicing begins with the time and date, then the sender's info. This results in several seconds of extra verbiage. The more messages I listened to, the more I wished there were a way to change the reading order, but there is not.
The Verve also sends and receives e-mails. The "Sent from" address is [your device's phone number]@messaging.sprintpcs.com
You can reply to a message from the reading screen, or press the left soft key at any time to create and send a new text message or e-mail, select a contact, or enter a phone number.
The Verve offers the standard dial pad text entry, pressing each key once, twice, or three times to enter the appropriate character. Press the Back key to delete the previous character. The phone only announces your final press, however, so if you press the 2 key 3 times, the only letter you will hear will be "C." Personally, I prefer this method because it produces less extraneous verbiage. There is no way to change this setting.
The right soft key offers several options. You can use it to change the dial pad from letters to numbers. You can also add symbols, emoticons, and punctuation, or use a preset message, such as "Can't talk right now" or "I love you."
Of course, the main reason for purchasing the Verve over standard feature phones is that it comes with a slide out keyboard. Let's have a look.
The Slide Out Keyboard
The slide out keyboard contains three rows of 10 keys each and a fourth row of 9 at the bottom. The Spacebar is the width of two keys. In the default mode, the first row, from left to right, contains the Q through P keys. The second row contains the A through L keys, with a slight indentation on the F and J keys instead of a raised dot to accommodate the tight fit of the slide.
To the right of the L key is the Delete key. Pressing the Delete key removes the last entered character, and announces "Cleared."
The third keyboard row has the Z through M keys, the question mark key, the Up Arrow key, and, to the far right, the Enter key.
The bottom keyboard row begins with the Shift key at the left. Press it once to capitalize the next letter, twice to toggle caps lock on or off. Unfortunately, there is no audible feedback for the toggling or capitalization—the key does not speak when pressed, and character voicing does not change when a capital letter is encountered. A higher pitched voice, or an audible click before a word is spoken, would have been very helpful here.
To the right of the Shift key is the Function key, labeled FN. Pressing this key toggles you to function mode, which allows you to enter numbers, punctuation, and symbols similar to using a standard keyboard's top number/punctuation row. For example, pressing the Function key followed by the Q key enters the number 1, pressing Function followed by the H key enters a colon.
A second press of the Function key locks you in function mode, so you can type several numbers or symbols. A third press unlocks function mode and returns you to typing letters. Here, there is a bit of extra verbiage that can be confusing. With each press of the function key, the Verve announces the mode, followed by "ABC." So "Function Lock ABC" actually enables you to type symbols, not letters.
Continuing to the right, you next encounter the Comma key, the Spacebar, and then the Period key. The final three keys are the Left, Down and Right Arrow keys. Now, with the keyboard extended, if you reach up to the main phone unit, you will find smaller, alternate Left and Right Soft keys, which are more convenient for use with the keyboard.
This was my first experience with a slide out QWERTY keyboard, and at first it felt a little tight, which is to be expected. I quickly learned, though, that if I used just three fingers on each hand instead of the usual four my typing speed increased significantly. Unfortunately, I found the voice response to be a bit sluggish. In addition, since interrupt ability is always enabled, quickly typing T-H-E caused the phone to only voice the final E, and there was no way to review my typing or audibly cursor back to make sure I had typed the word correctly. An option to have the Verve announce both letters and words, or just words for the confident typist is sorely needed here.
Calendar and Web Browsing Accessibility
The Verve's calendar is completely accessible with speech. You can set appointments, reminders and to-do lists and view your schedule by day or week. About the only complaint I had regarding the calendar was in setting a time appointment. As with the messages, the voice announcement speaks month, date, year, then, finally, time. This caused a lot of extra verbiage when I set an appointment time to, say, 11:45 am.
Browsing the Web was surprisingly improved over previous feature phones I have tried. The Verve does not read out those super-long URL names for each link and image, and the right soft key menu offers the option to turn off image downloading. There are preset bookmarks for CNN, the BBC, ESPN, Google, Yahoo!, and Facebook.
Web navigation is still painfully slow, but on the plus side, Web surfing with the Verve is done through SprintWeb, which gives you online access without extra charges for a data plan.
The Verve voice guide does not include hotkeys to navigate by links, headings, or lists. You have to use the Down Arrow key to make your way through the entire page, and whenever I tried to read a Web page, after every few lines the phone would re-announce: "left key navigation, right key options." If there is one accessibility improvement this phone desperately needs, it is the addition of a "Read All" command.
The Kyocera Verve is an excellent, value-priced feature phone available both on and off contract. The built-in screen reader is among the best I've experienced on a feature phone, and in my opinion it represents a solid step forward in Sprint's commitment to accessibility. In fact, the company was eager to receive my feedback, and stated that they are already planning to address most of the few accessibility quirks I did discover.
If you want to use a phone for frequent Web browsing, or as a GPS device, the Verve is probably not for you, but if you are looking for a basic feature phone you can use to make and receive calls and send text messages—even a lot of text messages—the Verve will get the job done.
Price: $19.95 with a 2-year contract
Color: Grey or Pink.
Company: Boost Mobile
Price: $49.99 without contract
Color: Navy Blue