Editor's Note: This is the second in a three-part AccessWorld series covering the state of electronic magnification options, and offering advice to readers who want to acquire one.
You're ready. You've saved enough money, or gotten approval from an employer or rehab agency to purchase a video magnifier. But before you can experience enhanced productivity, have more fun with crafts and reading, or get the most from your time in the classroom, you must choose an electronic magnification system that meets your visual needs, and also fits your budget and lifestyle. Last month, we described the broad range of video magnification options available, focusing on the kinds of users that best match them. In this second installment, we'll take a deeper dive into the world of desktop and transportable magnifiers, explaining how their components work together, and guiding you through the most important specs and features.
Larger Magnifiers and How to Sort Them
A few years ago, electronic magnifiers came in two simple categories: desktop and handheld. With the advent of flat-screen LCD displays and small digital cameras, there are now many portable options and a variety of new choices. You can still buy a full-sized desktop magnifier with an arm-mounted camera and x-y table, but you'll also find a number of foldable desktop units with different camera-mounting strategies and slimmer lines. Users looking for ultra-portability can choose from several devices that employ an Android tablet as both display and camera, making them easy to tuck into a laptop bag or backpack. Though the many products in these categories use a variety of components, provide different levels of magnification, and are certainly different in size and weight, they all aim to do what users with low-vision want most: make text or objects easier to see, and display magnified images on a large, bright display.
The two most important components of an electronic magnification system are the camera and the display. As it happens, these pieces are the ones that most affect whether a device is portable or not, and whether it is likely to serve your specific needs.
The makers of electronic magnifiers choose cameras for their products based on several factors: optics quality, resolution, cost, and the ability to zoom to a magnification level that supports users with low vision. The choice of camera is also dictated by the form factor the vendor wants to offer: some cameras are contained in boxes that are mounted on arms above the viewing area, while other cameras are mounted in a stationary location, often below the display.
Most new desktop video magnifier models boast that they offer high-definition (HD) quality. This can refer to the resolution of either the camera or the display, but both elements must support HD for this feature to be beneficial to a viewer. HD itself is an elusive term. HD specs are expressed in several ways, and there is no hard and fast rule for what constitutes HD. You will most often see HD resolution expressed in terms of video mode, as in 720p, 1080p, or higher. Full HD usually translates to 1080p. There are multiple ultra-HD video modes, too, with even greater video resolution. Vendors often adopt terminology that differentiates their own HD products from the competition, or even from other models in their own lineup. Low Vision International (LVI), for example, sells its MagniLink Zip magnifiers with either a 720p (HD) or 1080p (full HD) camera. All HD modes put more pixels on screen than does standard definition, allowing the camera to capture a sharper image, and the monitor to display one, too. This comes in handy at high magnification levels, when text or small objects under your camera could otherwise look fuzzy. Crisp text is also very important when you use custom color modes to enhance the contrast of the screen image. We'll have more to say about color modes later.
The best rule of thumb for determining how much screen resolution you need is to buy the device with the best camera you can afford. Most magnifier vendors pair a specific camera with their desktop offerings. Reinecker USA gives buyers a choice, when purchasing its VEO desktop product. You can choose either the Focus camera, with 1-20x digital zoom in full color mode, or the higher-end Vario camera, with 8-18× optical zoom, with up to 100x digital zoom available. Both are HD cameras. As is the case with photographic cameras, optical zoom is superior to digital zoom in quality, but doesn't provide the highest level of magnification available. At higher digital zoom levels, text won't appear as crisp as it does even at a lower digital level. If you have the chance to compare magnifiers with optical, versus digital-only magnification before you buy, do so, and be sure to place the kind of text or objects/images you most often work with under each camera, to determine how well each is likely to meet your needs, not only for magnification, but for representation of detail.
Whether you choose a camera based on its resolution, or the kind of zoom it offers, you will need to have a good idea what level of magnification you need. If you want to replace an existing magnifier, or have access to one, use it with the text or objects you typically want to magnify, and note the zoom level that works best for you. If you want to be able to read extremely small text, like that found on a prescription bottle or a food label, be sure to note the magnification level you need to read those types of items comfortably. Same goes for close-work tasks, like sewing or soldering. If you need to zoom to 50x to do even a portion of the things you want to do with the device, be sure the magnifier you choose includes a camera that can zoom to that level. If you are experiencing changes in your vision, either because of age or an evolving eye condition, consider a magnifier with a wider zoom range, so that it will continue to serve you as your need for magnification increases.
Camera mounting choices can also affect comfort and even your viewing options. As mentioned earlier, some vendors mount the camera on a movable arm, above the display. The camera and its light source look down, between you and the display, to capture the object you're viewing. Enhanced Vision's DaVinci products are examples of this type of set-up.
A number of magnifiers with arm-mounted cameras also give you the ability to switch between reading view (with the camera pointed down at text or objects) and distance view (with the camera pointed away from you) or self-view (with the camera pointed toward you). If your magnifier includes a distance view option, rotate the camera head so that the lens faces away from you. Focus on objects across the room: a white board, a television, or a person, and zoom to a level that allows you to comfortably follow the action. By turning the camera toward you, you can view your own face, using the magnifier like a mirror for self-care tasks such as makeup and hairstyling. Not all magnifiers offer these views, so be sure yours does if you intend to use these features. Some magnifiers, including HumanWare's Prodigi Connect 12, accomplish distance and self-viewing not with the integrated camera, but with an optional secondary camera, connected to the unit via USB.
Not all magnifiers feature multiple views, or top-mounted cameras. Units with cameras located beneath the monitor make it easier for the viewer to view the screen close-up, a benefit for some users with low vision, even at high magnification levels. The Topaz line of magnifiers from Freedom Scientific employ this design, as do many others.
Flat-screen displays have made it possible for magnifier vendors to produce lighter, more portable products than was possible in the days of CRT displays. Even some desktop models are often foldable, and mounting lightweight monitors on flexible stands or arms provides more viewing options for users to raise, lower, and tilt a display. Desktop units range from 16 to 24 inches, and a few of the more portable units have 10- to 15-inch screens. A number of vendors allow you to choose the monitor size that's right for you.
Picking the screen size that's right for you involves several factors. Your work space and your need for portability will certainly play a role, as will the amount of magnification you need. If you want to view multiple columns on a newspaper page, while magnifying the text enough to read it, a large screen will be helpful. A massive screen won't seem as necessary if you intend to read small amounts of text, or zoom in on objects at relatively low levels of magnification.
Another consideration when choosing a display is whether and how often you want to connect your magnifier to a computer or mobile device. Many devices include an HDMI port, allowing you to display your computing device's screen on the magnifier monitor. What size computer monitor do you use or like? Does it match up with the magnifier display?
There's one other approach to displaying magnified images: to choose a device that doesn't include a monitor. Not only does this approach save you money, it can potentially save space on your desk and allow you to travel more easily with the device. Several vendors offer magnifiers that don't come with their own monitors, but that can be connected to your laptop or tablet, or to a monitor you already own. Connected magnifiers include the HIMS E-bot line, and the Optelec ClearNote HD. Before you choose one of these models, you'll need to decide whether the magnifier will be an extension of your existing computer, or will simply connect to an existing monitor. Magnifier makers take different approaches to connectivity.
In addition to full color, video magnifiers offer a range of high-contrast and alternate color themes that provide easier viewing for many users with low vision. On almost all devices, you can invert your view, turning a white page containing black text into a dark page with white text. Many magnifiers give you 10 or 15 additional color combinations to choose from. You might find yellow text on a blue background easier to read, for example, or perhaps green on black. Or you can switch your view to black and white. You'll often find macro features that allow you to create presets that match the way you want to view the screen. It's likely that you won't use most of the contrast options, but that you will settle on a few that complement your visual needs. If you're purchasing a magnifier for a shared environment, though, abundant contrast options make it easy for anyone to choose settings for themselves.
Line markers and windowing provide a way to focus on just the text you're reading: add a horizontal rule above or below what you're reading, or both. Windowing masks off most of the content of the screen, so that you can track the content you're reading without distraction. Many, but not all magnifiers offer both of these features. Check to see that the unit you're considering provides them, if needed.
The competitive nature of the magnifier business has yielded at least one notable benefit for users: OCR is a feature or an option on most magnifiers, with many offering full-page scanning. You can zoom in to read text you've scanned, or have the text spoken to you immediately, if the device supports audio. If the magnifier has an SD card slot or connectivity via USB, you can also save scanned text to a file. Magnifier vendors usually add OCR to their products by licensing and integrating scanning software and voices into their devices. ABBYY and Nuance are the primary providers of OCR software. A few support OCR via a separate camera that connects to the device via USB. This is usually an option, not a standard feature.
You will either be able to initiate a scan from within the software that manages the magnifier, or by opening a separate application, in some cases. Better implementations will not only speak scanned text back to you, but highlight words, lines, or sentences as they are read. Some OCR software also offers speech for its own menus and controls.
The gold standard is full-page OCR, made possible by a camera can zoom out to capture the full page and enough memory to support capturing and saving the text.
You will only be able to save the text you scan to a file if the magnifier has enough memory to keep some scanned documents, and if there's a way to copy the documents to a computer or a thumb drive, via USB. A magnifier based on a tablet computer can store scanned documents within the tablet's file system.
Because magnifiers are designed for people with low vision, most vendors create easy-to-see controls for zooming in, changing color scheme, and setting options. Look for large, well-marked buttons and knobs, and be sure that you are able to read and interpret each setting easily. Many vendors offer a wired control pad (in some units it's standard, in others it's an option) that duplicates controls on the unit, and/or provides larger, higher-contrast buttons. You might choose not to use a control pad if you're tight on space, but the option can be especially helpful for those with dexterity issues that make using a magnifier's on-device controls a challenge. Control pads usually include buttons for the most frequently used features
The Whole Package
Because electronic magnifiers are so costly, it is likely that you will keep the one you buy now longer than you keep your current phone, tablet, or computer. So it's important to choose a product that has enough power and features to do everything you need it to do, that is comfortable to use, and that is easy to move from place to place (if you choose a portable unit). As we noted earlier, many people with low vision experience changes in eyesight over time, meaning that your need for magnification and high-contrast support will change and probably grow. In other words, buy the most powerful product you can afford.
In terms of how to understand the range of features a video magnifier offers, we think you should approach the task in roughly the order we've outlined in this article. Be sure that the camera and display match your needs, and that features like multiple viewing options and OCR are included, or are available as options if you need them. Sit in front of multiple units, if you can, and use the controls to magnify text and control the device. Check out the weight and dimensions of the magnifiers you like best, making sure they're compatible with your living or working space and lifestyle.
There are a number of ways to purchase a magnifier. You can often get the device you want directly from the manufacturer, or you may have access to distributors, who sell assistive technology products direct to users or the agencies that support them. However you buy, be sure that you have access to the support you need when getting the unit set up, and later if you run into difficulty. Many sellers offer setup assistance: a representative may even come to your home or office, or walk you through the setup on the phone. Ask about these options before you buy, and take advantage of them, if offered. If you're an experienced tech user, or simply feel confident in your own ability to get everything set up correctly, keep in mind that documentation options differ widely. Try to find out if accessible setup instructions are available, either in the box or online. These will be invaluable until you have the magnifier up and running and can use it to read the rest of the provided documentation. Keep in mind that magnifiers often consist of two or more components, the magnifier and an optional OCR camera or distance camera. The vendor's own documentation may very well be accessible (large, easy to read print, for example) while the accompanying third-party product may have its own instructions. Again, your best bet is to communicate with the seller to address any difficulty you have setting up the complete magnifier package.
Support after the sale is a crucial tool. Know about the warranty your product offers. Two+ years on parts and labor warranties are common. Ask whether the seller (not always the manufacturer of your product) will provide service and support, or whether you will be dealing with the magnifier maker. If your magnifier is sold by a company outside the US, be sure to find out whether they offer support in the US, and how to find it.
Dollar for Dollar
As we discussed in the first article in this series, electronic magnification devices are expensive, especially if you evaluate prices based solely on the hardware components that make them up. It's worth pointing out again that these products' hardware and software have been customized for users with low vision, including accessible hardware and software controls, speech and voices, fast OCR, and, in some cases, integration with tablet devices. Having said all that, you will pay between $2,000 and $3,500 for a large electronic magnifier, depending on the options you choose. You can control the price to some extent by choosing a manufacturer that offers choices of monitor size and/or camera quality. If you don't need a distance camera or speech capability (options on some products), you can purchase a device that offers these features optionally. Same goes for x-y tables and carrying bags, which are optional purchases in most instances. Finally, you might choose to buy a used magnifier to save money. Several websites feature classified ads for assistive technology products. The disadvantage is that you are unlikely to have access to the latest technology when you purchase a used system, and you probably won't get a warranty with your purchase.
The next article in this series will cover handheld magnifier options. These lightweight portable devices can't replace a desktop device, but they're a lot more portable.
- Choose the Right Electronic Magnifier, Part 1: Identify Your Priorities by Shelly Brisbin and Lee Huffman
- HumanWare Prodigi Connect 12 Unites Magnification and Mobile Computing by Shelly Brisbin
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