The Tech Demon

A tech blog from a low vision user's perspective

My Month On Android

by David Nason, March 2016

Introduction

I've been an iOS user, and a very happy one, since 2009, and an iPhone user since January 2010. When Apple brought the VoiceOver screen-reader to iOS, giving me access to touchscreen phones which as a visually impaired person I had previously feared were a future I would be locked out of, I leaped on it and instantly loved it.

I am an intensely curious person though, and a bit of a tech nerd, so I have always been interested in keeping up to date with what is going on on other platforms too, including Android. I've always had the idea in the back of my mind to pick up an Android phone and give it a trial, but to date hadn’t got around to it. The closest I had come was to pick up a Nexus 7 tablet a few years ago, but I never really gave it a fair go, and in truth was arguably never likely to, given that a tablet is not necessarily the kind of device I would make myself use every day. For that reason it became clear to me that a phone would give me a much truer feel for the platform. I was very keen to be fair in how I judged it. One month on Android cannot compare to six years experience with iOS, but I felt and hoped that it would be enough to give me a good feel for the platform, and ultimately see whether I could make the switch full time if I ever needed or wanted to.

It's not an original idea I know, I read with interest Marco Zehe's 30 Days With Android experiment a few years ago for example, but hey, why should that stop me! Plus, Android and its accessibility features have very possibly come along way in the last few years.

I recently found myself in an Entertainment Exchange shop, selling a couple of old devices, when I thought this may be a good opportunity to pick up a second hand Android phone, instead of taking the cash on offer. I enquired and found they had a Nexus 5 in stock, a good and affordable device I am lead to believe, and decided to take the plunge. I'm impulsive like that when it comes to technology!

The Phone

As mentioned above, the phone I chose for this experiment is the Nexus 5, branded as a Google device, manufactured by LG. The Nexus line of phones run what you might call "pure Android", without any skins or additional apps that are often added by manufacturers and networks/carriers. When I bought it, it was running Android version 5, but I was quickly able to update it to the latest Android version, i.e. Android 6, known as Marshmallow. Quick access to OS updates it seems is an advantage of the Nexus line of devices, something we take for granted on the Apple side of the aisle.

The phone itself is similar in size to the iPhone 6S. It has a slightly larger screen, 4.95 inches versus the iPhone's 4.7 inches, but its marginally smaller bezel means it is almost exactly as tall and wide as the iPhone. It is a little thicker though, and sports a plastic back, white in my case, as opposed to the rounded edges and slick aluminium chassis of the iPhone. This is not necessarily a criticism though. It may not be quite as slick and fancy looking as the iPhone, but it is a nice phone, well balanced and comfortable to hold. The other notable physical differences to the iPhone are the lack of a physical home button and the fact that the headphone port is on the top of the device. There is a volume rocker on the left side of the device, and a power/sleep button on the right. The lack of a home button can make it a little trickier to know if you have the phone the right way up, but I quickly adjusted to this and on the whole have no issues with the physical design of the Nexus 5.

Getting Set Up

Step one of course was to find out if Talkback, Android's equivalent to the VoiceOver screen-reader, could be started with some kind of gesture or button press, allowing me to set up the device without sighted assistance. A quick Google search told me that as long as the device is running Android 4.0 or later, which I was reasonably confident this phone would be, that this could be achieved by powering on the device and simply placing two fingers on the screen for a few seconds. At this stage I had not yet transferred my own SIM card into the phone because the iPhone’s nano SIM is too small and an adaptor is needed, which I quickly ordered on Amazon. Instead I was to get started using a new prepaid SIM, and this initially caused problems. I powered up the device and placed two fingers on the screen… nothing happened. With my limited vision though, I saw what looked like a number pad on the screen and figured out that the new SIM card must require a PIN code. I removed the SIM card and started over. Huzzah it worked! I Restarted the phone and placed two fingers on the screen and after a few seconds Talkback started up. It initially took me through a quick tutorial on how to use Talkback, a nice touch for someone who is brand new to the software, before going through the usual phone setup screens and entering my Google credentials etc. Once I had eliminated the SIM PIN issue the process went smoothly and I was up and running fairly quickly. Now that Talkback was enabled, I was able to put the new SIM card back in and access the PIN code screen, though I did need to be able to read the PIN code from the SIM card packaging, which I managed with the help of my Ruby portable video magnifier. As my iPhone SIM doesn’t have a PIN code set, this was not an issue when I later transferred it into the Nexus.


Screenshot of mostly empty original home screen, with just 3 folders and the Play Store app at the bottom, plus the dock with 4 apps and the apps folder

General Navigation

On the face of it, Talkback on Android operates in much the same way as VoiceOver on iOS does. That is to say you move your finger around the screen and Talkback will report what is there, and you can double-tap the screen to select the item in focus. In other words, you can for example put focus on a piece of text such as a message, and Talkback reads it for you, or you put focus on a button or icon to identify it, and double-tap the screen if you wish to select that icon. For the most part, exploring the screen and selecting items in this way worked well for me. In addition, Talkback has an option called Single Tap Selection, which I switched on about half way through my experiment. This allows you to tap just once rather than twice to select an item, so long as you tap roughly where the icon or button is located. The double-tap still works too in this mode. I like this feature and found it did speed up my navigation once I got used to it, and wouldn't be opposed to Apple copying it!

In theory, Talkback also features the left and right swipe gestures that will be very familiar to any VoiceOver users reading this, allowing you to cycle through the items on the screen in order. Unfortunately I found this to be far less effective or consistent than on iOS. Very often the swipe gesture did nothing at all, or didn't do what I expected it to do. When it does work, you seem to have to be extremely deliberate, and so less natural, in carrying out the gesture. For these reasons, I found that explore by touch was very much my primary method of screen navigation, rather than being able to use whichever method felt more appropriate in a given situation, as I would do on iOS. This also negatively impacted my ability to navigate text, such as reading a news article, as a swipe right did not simply move me through the text paragraph by paragraph, certainly not reliably.

As I eluded to earlier, I fully recognise that different does not mean worse. One big difference versus VoiceOver is the lack of the rotor. This isn't necessarily a problem, but the rotor in iOS does provide some crucial functionality, so how does Android provide this functionality? Maybe it's that I'm a novice with Android, but in my opinion the answer is unfortunately not quite as well. Where VoiceOver provides a consistent method, Talkback requires a series of different gestures, including what you might term L-shaped gestures. If you swipe up then right in a swift movement without lifting your finger, you open what is called the Local Context Menu. Similarly, a down then right gesture will take you to the Global Context Menu. Other gestures such as up then down, or left then right, will carry out other functions like taking you to the first item on the screen or changing navigation granularity between characters and words. One issue with this is the range of gestures to be remembered, but I acknowledge this may become second nature with time. The other issue is, as mentioned above in relation to the basic left and right swipes, a lack of consistency in getting the gestures to actually work as expected. It's immensely frustrating when you are trying to achieve something fairly simple, but have to do it several times before it works.

On the plus side, there are a range of gestures available, and if you go into Talkback settings you can change the default actions, and choose what action you want for each of the available gestures. I for example changed the swipe up and the swipe down gestures to cycle between navigation granularity, i.e.. characters, words, lines etc. It's nice to be able to set this up the way you like it. I still feel though that the rotor system on iOS is ultimately simpler, more reliable and more flexible. With it, you can choose which options you want to appear in your rotor, and in which order. It's also allowed Apple to easily add features to VoiceOver over the years. One of the best features that Apple ever added to the rotor is undoubtedly the Actions menu. The lack of ability to carry out quick actions in this way was a huge loss for me when using Talkback.

There are times though where the experience with Talkback on Android felt much more fluid than VoiceOver on iOS. An example of this is opening the notification centre. With Talkback, you simply swipe down from the top of the screen with two fingers, exactly as a sighted user would, albeit with one finger in their case. VoiceOver on iOS by comparison requires you to first put VoiceOver focus on the status bar, and then swipe down with three fingers. This might not sound like much, but the Talkback method more closely mimics the sighted experience and feels more natural. Where I found this fluidity fell down a little was in navigating lists. At first I liked the smooth scrolling it allowed, but in practice I came to find that the page by page navigation employed in iOS is in fact more efficient. Additionally Talkback is missing VoiceOver's very useful Table Index feature, which can really speed things up when navigating a long list such as contacts.

Out of the box, typing with Talkback on the on-screen keyboard works the same way as the touch typing method with VoiceOver on iOS. You slide your finger around the screen, locate the character you wish to type, then lift your finger to type it. Accessing punctuation and emoji characters is similarly accessible. Somehow though, the experience wasn't quite as good for me as on iOS. It worked, sure, but not as smoothly. I made far more mistakes, where for example I'd lift my finger only to find it had typed the character beside the one I wanted. It felt a little sluggish and ultimately took me far longer to type than it does on iOS. It is possible that this could be attributed to the fact that this was an older device, but I don't believe this to be the case as the OS didn't generally feel sluggish. For example it was perfectly snappy when moving around the home screen and opening and closing apps.

One bugbear I want to address is volume control. On iOS you can change the volume of the speech simply by pressing the volume buttons while VoiceOver is speaking, or by adjusting the volume in the rotor. On Android it seems it's not so simple. Talkback volume is directly linked to media volume. In Talkback settings, you choose whether you want it to be 100%, 75%, 50% or 25% of media volume. If there is no media playing, then the volume buttons will only change the ringtone volume, and not the volume of your speech. On several occasions I found myself in a situation where Talkback volume was not where I wanted it. I got in to one precarious situation where the volume had accidentally got so low that I could barely hear it at all. The only solution appears to be to start playing some music or other media, adjust the volume, and then stop the music... not very convenient.

Home Screens & Widgets

At first glance the home screen setup on iOS and Android can look virtually identical, i.e.. a grid of app icons, but there are some differences and on balance I think I prefer the Android approach. On iOS your apps essentially live on your home screens, with every app required to appear on a home screen or in a folder on a home screen. Android by contrast, more closely resembles a Windows desktop it might be argued. Apps live in the Apps folder, and it is up to you whether or not you want an icon on the home screen. You can even have multiple instances of an app icon, if for some reason you want to. The approach I took was to set up my first home screen very much like that on my iPhone, featuring all the apps I want quick access to on a day to day basis, and a second screen with just a handful of apps and a widget. Outside of this, I could quickly and easily find any app I wanted by opening the Apps folder which I kept in the dock, where all my apps were listed in alphabetical order. This approach feels cleaner to me.


Screenshot of home screen one with 16 apps, plus 4 apps and the apps folder in the dock Screenshot of home screen two with 4 apps at the top, 4 folders at the bottom, and a widget in the middle, plus 4 apps and the apps folder in the dock

On the subject of widgets though, honestly I only found one, Forza Football, which I found useful enough to keep around. This gives a nice glance of your favourite team's last/current match score and their next fixture, without having to open up the full app. Others I tried such as news apps and email apps simply didn't feel useful to me, as they didn't offer any real advantage over just opening the app.

Bringing the conversation back around to accessibility, the process of creating your home screens, changing the app layout and creating folders etc. works much the same as with VoiceOver on iOS, and is at least as easy to carry out if not easier.

Apps & Activities

Ultimately judging whether or not a permanent switch to Android would be possible or desirable comes down to whether I could do everything I want to do with my smart phone on a day to day basis, as well or better than I can with my iPhone. I quickly set about searching for all of my favourite apps, or failing that, acceptable alternatives.

It was striking to me how many apps not just exist on both platforms, but are identical, or very close to identical. This made it much easier to get to grips with Android quickly, and achieve what I wanted to. Apps such as Dublin Bus, TV Guide Ireland, The Journal.ie, Hailo, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp were nicely familiar to me from iOS. It should be said though that some strangely weren't quite as polished from a screen-reader point of view, for example the Favourites button in Dublin Bus not being labelled, and the lack of the Read Full Article button in The Journal.ie.

Let's dig a little deeper into some key tasks and apps though. Messaging by default appeared to work through the Hangouts app. However the option, which I took, was there to download Google's Messenger app. My concerns about typing aside, this app worked perfectly well and in a very similar way to the Messages app in iOS. Facebook Messenger too worked fine for me. WhatsApp is very familiar too, with just some minor differences in how you navigate the different sections. The one key element missing from a screen-reader perspective was that Talkback did not report my messages as either Sent, Delivered or Read, as VoiceOver does on iOS. Not a show stopper but a miss for sure. The phone app offered no major issues either, so no complaints on the basics really.

On the iPhone I use the stock Mail app to manage my email, so that of course required an alternative on Android. I initially set up the built in Gmail app, but later switched to Outlook, and then an app called AquaMail, which came strongly recommended on the website Inclusive Android. While all three of these apps are technically accessible, and AquaMail was probably my favourite of the three, I regularly found my email inbox getting out of hand during this month on Android. I ended up doing most of my email management on my laptop, as doing it on the phone just wasn't quick or efficient enough. This is in stark contrast to my regular habits, as I generally do 90% of this on the iPhone, where the above mentioned Actions menu in the rotor, easier text navigation and the more efficient typing, mean I am very comfortable managing large volumes of email on the iPhone.

Something else I do quite a lot on my phone is web browsing. This is another area where the VoiceOver rotor on iOS plays an important role, allowing quick navigation by web elements such as headings. The lack of this type of feature, alongside the earlier mentioned general navigation issues on the platform, made web browsing close to impossible for me. Imagine my delight when I discovered this article on browsing with Firefox on Android, followed by the crushing disappointment of the 2016 update at the end of the article, outlining how Firefox had mysteriously removed the Talkback friendly features. Crushing disappointment is of course an exaggeration, but aside from the occasional quick browse, whether it be with Firefox or Chrome, I found myself again falling back on my laptop and iPad for browsing. If you're ok with this then that's fine, but I like the convenience of browsing on my phone and really missed it when it wasn't so easy. On a related note, the less effective approach to text navigation, meant that otherwise mostly accessible apps such as Sky News and The Journal.ie were not quite as easy or nice to use on the Android side, meaning I checked these news apps and opened articles slightly less often than I do on iOS. These issues also affected my use of Twitter, though it is possible that I just didn't manage to track down the right app.

As a long time user and fan of Downcast on iOS, I was disappointed to discover it did not exist on Android. However I wasn't going to let that deter me from listening to podcasts, a daily activity for me, on my Nexus phone. My calls for help on Twitter yielded nothing, so I pretty much searched randomly, at first settling on an app called Podcast Republic. This initially appeared to be accessible, however I quickly ran into problems with extreme Talkback sluggishness and abandoned the app. I then remembered hearing of an app called Dogcatcher, which, once I adapted to the interface, did the job just fine despite a few unlabelled buttons and became my pod-catcher of choice for the remainder of the month. Unfortunately an update to the app about half way through the month slightly worsened Talkback accessibility, but not so badly as to make me seek a new app. Downcast it is not, but with Dogcatcher I could get by on Android where podcasts are concerned.

I'm a big audio book reader, so the Audible app is also very important to me. I'm glad to report it worked great for me on Android. I was able to sign in to my account no problem, access my library and had no real issues with player controls. Adding to the positive experience, and giving it an advantage over iOS, is the ability to search the store and purchase books directly in the app. It's a simpler and more fluid experience than having to go out of the app and into a browser to do this, and is something I'd love to see in apps of this type on iOS too.

If you're a music fan you shouldn't have any major problems either. I didn't transfer any music directly to the phone, so can't speak to this, but I'm an Apple Music subscriber and had no major issues accessing my music, playing radio stations or adding new music to my library. The issues with list navigation and the lack of the Actions rotor menu were mildly inconvenient and I spotted a handful of missing tracks and some missing artwork but this can probably be put down to the teething problems with the Apple Music service itself. Aside from this the experience with Apple Music on Android was good overall. I'm not a Spotify subscriber, but I did download and try the app. Again I can report what appears to be an accessible and useable app. TuneIn Radio, my radio app of choice too worked just fine for me on Android, very similar in design to it's iOS sibling.

I was pleased too to see some blind specific apps making it to Android. TapTapSee for example, a very good object recognition app that I use on iOS is also available on Android and worked well for me. KNFB Reader too has made it across to Android. I didn't download it but can certainly speak to it's quality on iOS.

It would be remiss of me not to mention text to speech (TTS) voices, and the choice available on Android. While by default you simply have the Google TTS, a perfectly serviceable voice in my opinion, the Play Store offers many more options. iOS, which primarily uses Vocaliser voices, has slowly but surely given us more options, but on Android you can download apps from both Vocaliser and Acapela, and if you're willing to spend a few Euro, usually around €3, download whichever voices you desire. And... hold on to your hats kids, you can also get Eloquence, though it will cost you a cool €20. On iOS you get a reasonable selection of voices to choose from free out of the box. On Android you get a wider selection, but it'll cost you. Make your own mind up which is better. The only investment I made was in the Acapela voice Rachel, a UK female voice. While I like the voice, I found it to be less stable, and ended up reverting back to the Google voice.

One irritation I found with TTS was when using Google Voice or Google Now. When I asked a question, my Talkback TTS would often speak over and cut off the response from the virtual assistant. I found myself having to suspend Talkback first any time I wanted to use this feature, which was a little annoying.

The Low Vision Angle

Although I am screen-reader dependant, I do have some useable and useful vision, so would like to take a look at Android from this point of view too, where I think the platform does well. Things arguably don't look as vibrant as on iOS, but the contrast levels are good, making it easy to distinguish elements on the screen, an issue some low vision users have struggled with on iOS. Android also has a zoom feature, called Magnification, and the implementation is very good. A triple tap will zoom in the screen. You can then use pinch gestures to change the magnification level, and move around the screen with two fingers. A nice additional feature is the ability to triple-tap and hold, this zooms in to that point on the screen, and automatically zooms out again when you lift your finger. It's great when you simply want to glance at an object. Android also has settings for extra contrast and large text, though I didn't play around with these features much.


Screenshot of iPhone lock screen Screenshot of Android lock screen

Conclusion

It's perhaps telling that, although I did enjoy this Android experiment, I was by the end looking forward to getting my iPhone back. Leaving accessibility aside, I'd still lean towards the iPhone, but there really isn't a huge amount of difference between the two platforms at this stage. As a screen-reader user though, I would still have to put VoiceOver on iOS well ahead of Talkback on Android. There is a lot right with Android, and I do at least know I could manage the permanent switch if I had to, but it isn't as polished as VoiceOver on iOS. I could manage many of the tasks I need to, but navigation issues and difficulties with some key tasks like email management and browsing became frustrating and left me more reliant on other devices to fill the gaps. For many I'm sure Android is perfectly adequate, but for my needs iOS is still a step ahead.

Podcast

I was delighted to be asked to speak about my Android experiment on the April 2016 edition of the NCBI Technology podcast. You can find the podcast catalogue on the NCBI's website, subscribe to the RSS feed, or download theApril episode directly.Many thanks to Stuart for inviting me onto the show.

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