Editor's Note: This is the third in a three-part series of articles covering the state of electronic magnification options, and offering advice to readers who want to acquire one.

You encounter text everywhere during the day—on restaurant menus, on appliance labels, and in handwritten notes. If you have low vision and rely on magnification to work with text, photos, and objects, these situations can present a challenge. As these examples attest, the text you encounter in your environment can't necessarily be placed under a desktop magnifier's camera or scanned with OCR. If you do a lot of "spot" reading or simply need a solution that's always with you and easy to use, there are many ways to achieve a combination of magnification and portability. You can buy simple optical magnifiers, some designed with the needs of low vision users in mind, some aimed at users who need less magnification. Even your cell phone camera, assuming it's a good one and offers zoom and a flash, can meet many magnification needs. But as we discussed in our first article of this series, there are also a great many electronic devices designed specifically for the needs of people with low vision. In this article, we'll focus on electronic magnifier products with the goal of helping you identify the features you need, and answering the question: given so many options, who needs a standalone electronic magnifier, anyway?

The Overall Range of Handheld Magnifiers

In our first two articles, we described desktop and portable magnifiers with long lists of features, including high-quality cameras, large displays, connectivity to computers, and sturdy stands and tables for arranging documents or objects. Like these larger devices, handheld magnifiers address the needs of users with low vision by providing powerful zoom options, color and contrast adjustments, and easier-to-see controls. Handheld magnifiers are built and sold by many of the same companies that produce desktop models. Of course, handhelds are smaller, one-piece devices. They're easier to carry, with built-in displays. Though most are not cheap, they are typically less than half the price of a desktop unit.

Let's take a look at what constitutes a "handheld" magnifier. It first might be helpful to categorize the devices according to screen size. Handheld screens range in size from a diminutive 3 inches to a generous 7 inches, the largest screen size that can reasonably be held, and used, in your hand, for any period of time. For a bit of perspective, a 3-inch magnifier fits in most pockets, while a 7-inch magnifier matches up with the size of a small tablet computer, like Apple's iPad Mini or the Google Nexus 7. In the middle are 5-inch devices, still pocket-sized in some cases and most easily stored in almost any purse. A few devices don't fit into these three main size categories (some 4-inch units are still on the market, for example). One reason that product sizing is so consistent across manufacturers is that companies often source screens, along with cameras, and other components, from the same equipment manufacturers.

Larger magnifiers generally have higher-quality cameras. Almost all 7-inch devices, and most current 5-inch models, boast HD quality. Again, this has a lot to do with components available to assistive technology companies, but it's also true you will benefit more from a high-quality display when using a 7-inch magnifier than you will when working with a 3-inch model.

Finding the Right Size of Handheld Magnifier

Because portability is a key feature of all handheld magnifiers, choosing a size that meets your needs is especially important—perhaps more so than you might think. The difference between a palm-sized 3-inch device, and a tablet-sized 7-inch magnifier is particularly noticeable at high levels of magnification, since the smaller screen can't display as much of what you're looking at as the larger screen can. Conversely, a tiny magnifier fits easily into a purse, or even a front pocket (be careful) and will thus travel more easily, anywhere you go. The weight of the device is less of a concern, since handheld devices aren't particularly heavy (they range between 5 ounces and 1.5 pounds). Larger devices offer more flexible positioning options: they rest on stands or bases, which can free your hands as you read or work with crafts or objects. If you want to read your TV serial number, however, or that wall-mounted sign in the break room, you'll find it easier to maneuver a smaller device into position, or to hold it in one hand. Even with limited screen real estate, a 3-inch handheld could change your life. If you've been using a small optical magnifier and upgrade to a small handheld, you will gain greater magnification and better lighting (both on what you're viewing, and your magnified view of it).

As is so often the case, a middle-sized handheld magnifier offers the best of both worlds for anyone who values portability, affordability, and an extensive feature set. Many 5-inch models mirror or closely resemble their larger siblings, but with less bulk and lower cost. The size of your hands, and your need to use a magnifier one-handed, will also impact your choice. Mid-size devices, weighing in under 10 ounces, can easily be held in one hand by a person with typical strength and dexterity. One-handed operation is made easier if your chosen device provides a handle, as many small and mid-size units do. You can certainly use a 7-inch device one-handed, but it is likely that you will become fatigued relatively quickly.

High Definition Handheld Magnifiers: Check Camera Megapixels

As we mentioned in the second article of this series, HD quality isn't always expressed in terms of precise resolution. Indeed, handheld devices that claim HD resolution less often list their specs than do larger devices, and you won't see numbers like "1080p" that appear in monitor and TV fact sheets. More often, the best gauge you have of a handheld's display quality is the number of camera megapixels. Magnifiers don't use the high-end lenses of high-end digital cameras. Handheld magnifier cameras usually range from 2 to 8 megapixels, with larger devices usually, but not always, providing more. A better camera means crisper text, especially at high magnification levels, and more detail for crafts and near-distance viewing, too.

Handheld Magnifier Form Factor Considerations

The basic layout of a handheld magnifier is a metal or plastic rectangle, with the display and controls facing the user, and a camera and light on the opposite surface. Many manufacturers mix things up a bit, providing a folding handle, or a base that allows the magnifier's camera to slant down toward what you're viewing. Handles extend the reach of your magnifier, as well as make it easier to hold with one hand. A base that places the display and camera at an angle allows you to use the magnifier hands-free. If handle and stand options are important to the way you plan to use a magnifier, be sure to examine models you're considering before you make a purchase.

Zoom, Color, and Contrast Options in Handheld Magnifiers

Handheld magnifiers rely on digital zoom to magnify an image. Maximum zoom level for handhelds is usually around 20x, less than that of a typical desktop magnifier. That's partly because the smaller screen sizes make it impractical to zoom to, say, 50x or 60x. The greatest zoom we found was 24x, available in 7-inch models from Freedom Scientific and Optelec. Larger devices tend to offer greater zoom, but not by much.

Like larger magnifiers, most handhelds support readability by allowing you to freeze images, choose color schemes, and, in a few cases, add masks or orientation lines to help you follow text as you read. Any good quality magnifier will give you the ability to change the color and contrast settings of the display, providing options to reverse video, use grayscale, or alter the background and text colors. You can find as many as 20 color and contrast combinations on some devices, though most devices, even the smallest ones, offer 8 to 12. If you find a particular color combination easier to read, check to see that any handheld you are considering supports that combination.

Freeze frame is another near-universal feature in handheld magnifiers. Once you've zoomed in on something you want to see, select freeze frame and now you no longer need to continue to point the magnifier at the object. Zoom in on and freeze-frame a label on a can of food, for example, and then you can put the can down, adjust your grip on your magnifier and its position, and take a careful look at the label. Many magnifiers allow you to save a few images, or, if there's a USB port, copy what you've saved to a computer.

Masking or windowing allows you to hide a portion of the display, or place a horizontal line under a line of text. These features can make it easier to find a specific bit of writing, or to more easily maintain your place while reading. You won't find these features on all handhelds, and they're frankly not as important on a 3-inch device as they are when you're trying to read a lot of text on a 7-inch screen. It follows, then, that guides are most often found on higher quality magnifiers.

Controls, Connectivity, and Special Features to Consider when Selecting a Handheld Magnifier

An important challenge for manufacturers of handheld magnifiers is to ensure the buttons and dials that control zoom, color, and lighting are easy to identify and use. Controls should be clearly labeled with icons so a user with low vision can easily identify each one. Controls should contrast with the device bezel and the buttons and icons should be large enough for a person with low vision to either see or be able to differentiate tactilely. To save bezel space, some devices put controls on one side of the device, or on the underside. Like other aesthetic features, the variation in placement and type of controls is a good reason to hold and test a magnifier before you buy one. If you're getting a device for someone else, pay special attention to the size and tactile nature of the controls.

A surprising number of devices offer some kind of connectivity to other devices. Most handhelds have an HDMI out port, which allows you to display what the magnifier camera sees on a separate monitor. This vastly increases the size of the display, though text or photos may look quite different when "blown up" to TV size. Be aware, too, that not all HDMI out ports are created equal. You might not be able to connect your magnifier to a computer monitor, for example. You'll also find USB ports on many handhelds. If the magnifier supports saving images you capture with the camera, you can connect the device to a computer and copy them over. Most magnifiers don't store a large number of images, though a few do. If you plan to save magnifier images, be sure you choose a device that can save and copy them in a way that suits your needs.

After You've Selected a Handheld Magnifier

Magnifier packages are not typically chock-full of accessories, though there are a few you should look for. A carrying case protects your screen and camera. Lots of magnifiers offer a strap, which is great if you're moving around a store, reading prices or labels. Many packages also provide a cleaning cloth. If yours doesn't, it might be worth getting one and tucking it into the carrying case.

In most cases, you won't spend a lot of time reading magnifier documentation. As we pointed out earlier, controls and settings should be easy to see and understand. Documentation is, however, a quick window into the care a vendor has taken during product development. Is documentation laid out in an easy-to-understand and visually accessible way? Do English language instructions appear to have been written by a native speaker? Is there a troubleshooting guide and information about how long the built-in battery should last? Is it easy to find the tech support phone number, e-mail, and social media links? Is it clear that you can contact support staff in your own country and language? The answers to these questions will identify those companies that are committed to quality service and support and those that may simply be offering a good deal.

Cost of Handheld Magnifiers

Handheld magnifiers, like a lot of assistive technology products, come at a high cost. As we discussed in the earlier articles in this series, cost has a lot to do with the special features required to support users with low vision, and the small number of units sold. Assuming you want and need a magnifier, though, it's helpful to have a realistic understanding of what you can expect to pay. The three size ranges are a good starting point for comparison. And as we've discussed throughout this article, keep in mind that feature sets, like prices, tend to correlate to display sizes, so bigger devices will have more features and be more expensive. Another important pricing caveat is that devices that use older technology will be less expensive than the newest HD magnifier. Unlike computers or phones that need the latest hardware to continue working as software improves, a magnifier using older technology will still magnify effectively, and vendors will continue to sell older devices until they run out of them. This isn't a bad thing. Each product's specs are (or should be) available on the company website, allowing you to compare features and technology for yourself. If a vendor does offer older devices, chances are they also have a shiny new one with more features and a correspondingly higher price. The choice is yours.

Determining the Necessity of a Dedicated Handheld Magnifier

We began this article by pointing out that you have many options when it comes to handheld magnification. A dedicated handheld magnifier isn't right for everyone, and, after reading about them, you might wonder if your phone camera or an optical magnifier would work just as well. A smart phone with a camera is probably the greatest existential threat to the makers of handheld electronic magnifiers. Because today's phones are generally accessible and have great cameras, many people with low vision choose to use the device that's already in their pocket when they need to enlarge text or objects. Apps that specialize in magnification are plentiful for iOS and Android phones and tablets. The Magnifier feature in Apple's upcoming iOS 10 even offers color filters and freeze-frame, two marquee features of dedicated handhelds. So far, this is a unique phone feature, and it still won't provide masking or reading guides. Two reasons your phone isn't an ideal magnifier replacement are its lack of a stand and the drain that using the camera places on the battery. These issues may not matter if you only need magnification occasionally, but if you rely on your handheld magnifier throughout the day, especially for reading, a phone won't cut it.

Optical magnification is a budget-conscious and flexible alternative to the electronic kind. Many devices with high-quality optics include a stand and even a light, and even those designed specifically for people with low vision can be had for under $100. Optical magnification tops out at 10x in most cases, and these devices are often quite small, especially at higher power levels. They're a good fit if you don't need digital zoom or contrast adjustment features.

The Choice is Yours

No two people with low vision have exactly the same magnification needs. Even if two people have the same eye condition, they each live different kinds of lives and interact differently with the world. You should approach selecting a magnification option, whether it's your cell phone, a pair of reading glasses, an optical device, or an electronic handheld magnifier, as a very personal decision. Remember, too, that these devices last a long time, so it's smart to buy the best made device with the most features and greatest flexibility that you can afford.

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Shelly Brisbin
Lee Huffman
Article Topic
Low Vision Access Technology