Imagine for a moment a cell phone that combined the best features of a smartphone with the best features of a flip phone. You know, a dial pad you can actually feel, with widely spaced buttons, and, for those of us with low vision, bold, large print numbers. How about some serious large print on the display for text and menu items? And text-to-speech everywhere, without having to drill down through the settings to find it? While we’re creating this wish list, let’s add a user guide that’s built right in, so you don’t have to first complete a tutorial on using the Web to find and read the user guide on some remote website…now we’re really dreaming big here aren’t we?
Not at all! Such a phone arrived from Europe mid-November 2019. It's called BlindShell Classic, and currently works with GSM network providers like T-Mobile andAT&T.
One of the things you’ll notice very quickly about this phone is that it functions like it was built from the ground up with user accessibility in mind, not as a feature that was bolted on as an afterthought. When you unbox the phone, install the battery, and long press the Back button, the phone starts with text-to-speech and an interactive tutorial. The tutorial is quick and gives new users the opportunity to learn what each button on the phone does. While exploring the phone, you’ll discover that out of the box, the BlindShell offers 4 female voices and 3 male voices in the Settings > Sounds > Voice Output menus. In addition to 10 voices, there are 4 levels of speech intonation and 5 levels of voice rates, to make speech output very customizable.
Physical Dimensions and Orientation
The phone is 5.3 by 2.3 by 0.5 inches and is what some might call a “candy-bar style” phone, with the keypad beneath the 2.8 inch color screen. Centered above the screen you will find the speaker. The keyboard is a very standard layout of 4 rows of 3 numbers, with 5 keys above the number pad. In the center of these keysis a square directional pad that contains 5 button functions—center, left, right, up and down. To each side of the center directional square are two buttons, one above the other. On the left, the top button is Volume Down with a short press, and Voice Control and Dictation using a long press. Beneath that is the Confirm button, also used for answering a call. To the right, the top button is Volume Up with a short press, and Voice Control and Dictation with a long press. Below this is the Back button, which navigates back through menu levels, or deletes a text entry with a short press. If the phone is turned off, a long press on the Back button will turn the phone on. When the phone is on, a long press of the Back button will navigate right to the Call menu.
The back of the phone contains a 2-megapixel camera with a flashlight, a speaker grill and a tactile button that is a speed dial button, called Emergency/S.O.S., that can be associated with a contact for quick use in an emergency. At the top edge of the phone is a standard micro USB input for charging and file transfer and a headphone jack. On the bottom edge you'll find the microphone and charging port for use with the included charging cradle.
Calling Made Simple
Although the BlindShell offers a range of functions, at its most basic the device can quickly make calls using either the dial pad or voice control. At virtually anywhere on the menu, a long press on either the top left Volume Down button or the top right Volume Up button will get the Voice Control prompt, “I listen after a beep.” After the beep, you might say, “Call xxx-xxx-xxxx,” or “Call [a name listed in contacts].” A second or two later, the phone says “Dialing,” or requires a press of the Confirm button to start the call. It's that simple! Of course, pressing Confirm on the Call menu and dialing the number on the spacious dial pad is also an option.
With a list price of $349 from A T Guys or LS&S, it’s certainly good news to know that placing a call with the BlindShell Classic is easy enough, but what about other functions? The BlindShell includes features you might expect, like email, messaging, alarms, and a calendar, to name a few. It also has some really innovative features built in, like Internet radio and FM radio in the More Applications > Media menu, Weather in the More Applications > Tools menu, and GPS Localization, Object Tagging, and Color Indicator, all in the More Applications > Vision Aids menu.
The BlindShell Menu
Before digging deeper into a couple of these applications, let’s explore the navigation on the BlindShell. Using the Center Left and Center Right buttons will move you through the top level menu items:
- More Aplications
- Status Information
- Turn Off the Phone
Each menu item is numbered, and when it is read, you hear both its number and the number of menu items in that level. So, for example, the second item in the main menu is Messages. When we get to the Messages menu item we hear, “Messages, two of nine.” As a shortucut, to jump to any menu item,simply press its number. So, pressing 2 when you're on the main menu will open the Messages menu item.
You can also select a menu item by pressing the Confirm button or the Center button. Doing so will open the submenu for that item. Like the main menu, once in a submenu, the Left Center and Right Center buttons move through the menu items. Continuing to press either button will move through the menu again continuously. When in a submenu, the Back button will move back up a menu level. So, in the submenu for Messages, the Right Center and Left Center buttons will move through the six Messages submenu items, and pressing the Back button will return navigation to the main menu item, Messages.
While this menu structure is linear, it did take some practice to use, because many menu items had multiple submenus. Again, a long press of the Back button returns focus to Call in the main menu. A long press on either the Volume Up or Volume Down button will open the Voice Control where you can say, “Open…” followed by whatever menu item you'd like to open.
For new users, a great place to begin is with the Manual from the main menu. The Manual menu contains the Interactive Tutorial which the phone automatically begins the first time it is turned on, and other menu items including User Guide, Getting Started, Operating the Phone, Safety Information, and more. Navigating through these menu items and their submenus will give you plenty of practice with menu navigation along with comprehensive information about all the features of the phone and the many included applications. BlindShell Functions (menu item 4), provides detailed information about the many applications.
Two Cents About Text Size
One observation here about the large print text on the display. In Settings > Display > Text Size > there are only two settings, Normal Text Size and Huge Text Size. With Huge Text Size selected, the text on menu items was approximately the size of newsprint headlines. When opening a screen full of text in the manual, the text size remained bold, but smaller. Of course, all the text on the screen was read as soon as it opened, but there was no way to magnify the text. As far as the option of Huge Text Size, I wondered, “Huge” compared to what? “Larger Text,” or “Largest Text,” might be a more accurate label here.
For many users, having a tactile number pad and navigational buttons will make this phone easier to use than a conventional touchscreen smartphone, with perhaps one notable exception: the need to type in text using the number pad, a skill many of us have forgotten or never learned in the first place. This issue aside, BlindShell offers a great deal of functionality. In the More Applications menu, you'll find a range of applications that make the BlindShell every bit as useful as a touchscreen smartphone. In addition to common applications like Email, Messaging, Calendar, Alarms, Timer, Stopwatch, Voice Recorder, Calculator, Weather, and Dictionary, there are several applications in the More Applications > Vision Aids menu that are worth mentioning. The Color Indicator is a handy color identifier. Hold the camera over an item and press the Confirm button to hear the color described. It seemed the accuracy of the Color Indicator was about 50%, probably due to the limitations of the 2-megapixel camera. For the casual user, having this application built into the phone is a convenient feature, but if you need more accurate results, a separate, stand-alone color identifier is a better choice.
The Localization application is a very simple GPS application that will give you the nearest address. Select Localization from the menu and the phone responds, “Loading.” A moment later the nearest address is provided. Using the Localization application indoors yielded poor results beginning with the notice, “Warning the obtained results may be inaccurate. For better results try again in an open outdoor area.” Once outside, the results were indeed more accurate and useful.
The last Vision Aid item is Object Tagging. This application works with QR codes printed on adhesive sheets available for purchase from the BlindShell retailer. Peel off one of the codes, which is about a half-inch square, stick it on the object to be labeled, and record an associated voice label. The voice label will be read each time you open the application, select Read Tags, and scan the code. This is a really handy application to have installed on the phone, and very simple to use. Tags can be edited and reused for different items.
Kudos on Voice Control Dictation
One of the really outstanding features of the BlindShell Classic is the accuracy and performance of the dictation function, both on WiFi and cellular data at 4G. With nearly 100-percent accuracy, the correct menu items were opened by using a long press of the left or right Voice Control buttons and speaking the selection. Anywhere an edit field was available—for contacts, in a calendar entry, for dialing the phone—voice dictation worked very well. In addition, in the Note application, using WiFi, dictation was very accurate, responded to commands such as, “new paragraph,” and accepted relatively long dictations.
Another function worth highlighting is the Internet Radio, found in the More Applications > Media menu. Internet Radio submenus included Popular Stations, Categories, Search, Favorites, and more. Although the Categories menu contained a total of 96 categories, including all types of music genres, sports radio, talk radio, etc., it was a bit disappointing not to find a category and listing for radio reading services.
Also in the More Applications > Media submenu are Book Reader and Camera. The Book Reader application is somewhat limited because it doesn’t support Bookshare directly. Text files may be transferred using a USB cable quite easily. It was easy to download a title from Project Gutenberg then transfer and play it using the Book Reader. The Book Reader will set bookmarks and resume reading from where you left off. Also, any book or podcast available as an MP3 file can be transferred to the Music Player directory, and played with the Music Player located in the More Applications > Media submenu.
The camera on the BlindShell Classic is simply not one of its strong points. It is a 2 megapixel camera, and images may be saved, viewed, and transferred using a USB cable. There is no way to use the camera as a magnifier or to zoom in on pictures.
The BlindShell Classic comes with 4 GB of internal storage so there is plenty of room for music, podcasts, and books. The micro SD slot will hold up to an additional 32GBof storage if you need more.
As mentioned earlier, text-to-speech is activated at start-up and can be controlled using the Volume Up or Down buttons. If you have some usable vision, there are several settings in the Settings > Display submenu that can enhance the display, including: Brightness; Color Scheme; and Main Menu Style, in addition to the Text Size mentioned earlier. The menu style offers the options of Only Text, Icons Only, or Icons and Text. If you have opted for huge text, these menu items are bold and fill the screen. Alternative color schemes include: White on Black; Black on White; White on Blue; and Black on Yellow, with bold text and good contrast. The Screen Brightness menu contains 6 levels of brightness and the ability to fully dim the screen so it shows nothing.
The BlindShell Classic has been available in Europe for several years and is only now coming to the US The phone is a great option for those looking for a completely accessible phone with tactile number pad and buttons and a consistent, easy to use menu system. Overall accessibility and usability are excellent on the BlindShell Classic. If you're looking for an excellent feature phone without a touchscreen, the BlindShell is a great option.
Product: BlindShell Classic
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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