Revisiting the “Switch to Android full-time” experiment

Just over a year ago, I conducted an experiment to see whether it would be possible for me to switch to an Android device full-time for my productive smartphone needs. The conclusion back then was that there were still too many things missing for me to productively switch to Android without losing key parts of my day to day usage.

However, there were several changes over the past 15 or so months that prompted me to revisit this topic. For one, Android itself has been updated to 4.4 Kitkat, and Android L is just around the corner. At least Google Nexus devices since the Nexus 7 2012 get 4.4, and the newer Nexus 7 and Nexus 5 models will most likely even get L.

Second, after an 8 month hiatus since the last release, TalkBack development continues, with the distribution for the beta versions being put on a much more professional level than previously. No more installing of an APK from a Google Code web site!

Also, through my regular work on testing Firefox for Android, I needed to stay current on a couple of Android devices anyway, and noticed that gesture recognition all over the place has improved dramatically in recent versions of Android and TalkBack 3.5.1.

So let’s revisit my points of criticism and see where these stand today! Note that since posting this originally on August 3, 2014, there have been some great tips and hints shared both on here as well as on the eyes-free mailing list, and I’ve now updated the post to reflect those findings.

The keyboard

Two points of criticism I had were problems with the keyboard. Since TalkBack users are more or less stuck on the Google Keyboard that comes with stock Android, there were a few issues that I could not resolve by simply using another keyboard. Both had to do with languages:

  1. When having multiple languages enabled, switching between them would not speak which language one would switch to.
  2. It was not possible to enter German umlauts or other non-English accented characters such as the French accented e (é).

Well what can I say? The Google Keyboard recently got an update, and that solves the bigger of the two problems, namely the ability to enter umlauts and accented characters. The button to switch languages does not say yet which language one would switch to, but after switching, it is clearly announced.

To enter accented characters, one touches and keeps the finger on the base character, for example the e, and waits for the TalkBack announcement that special characters are available. Now, lift your finger and touch slightly above where you just were. If you hit the field where the new characters popped up, you can explore around like on the normal keys, and lift to enter. If you move outside, however, the popup will go away, and you have to start over. This is also a bit of a point of criticism I have: The learning curve at the beginning is a bit high, and one can dismiss the popup by accident very easily. But hey, I can enter umlauts now! :)

Another point is that the umlaut characters are sometimes announced with funny labels. The German a umlaut (ä), for example, is said to have a label of “a with threema”. Same for o and u umlauts. But once one gets used to these, entering umlauts is not really slower than on iOS if you don’t use the much narrower keyboard with umlauts already present.

This new version of the keyboard also has some other nice additions: If Android will auto-correct what you typed, space, and many relevant punctuation characters will now say that your text will be changed to the auto-corrected text once you enter this particular symbol. This is really nice since you immediately can explore to the top of the keyboard and maybe find another auto-correct suggestion, or decide to keep your original instead.

The new version of the keyboard was not offered to me as a regular software update in the Play Store for some reason. Maybe because I had never installed a Play Store version before. I had to explicitly bring it up in Google Play and tell the device to update it. If you need it, you can browse to the link above on the desktop and tell Google Play to send it to your relevant devices. ;)

Two points gone!

Editing text

The next point of criticism I had was the lack of ability to control the cursor reliably, and to use text editing commands. Guess what? TalkBack improved this a lot. When on a text field, the local context menu (swipe up then right in one motion) now includes a menu for cursor control. That allows one to move the cursor to the beginning or the end, select all, and enter selection mode. Once in selection mode, swiping left and right will actually select and deselect text. TalkBack is very terse here, so you have to remember what you selected and what you deselected, but with a bit of practice, it is possible. Afterwards, once some text is selected, this context menu for cursor control not only contains an item to end selection mode, but also to copy or cut the text you selected. Once something is in the clipboard, a Paste option becomes available, too. Yay! That’s another point taken off the list of criticism!

Continuous reading of lists

TalkBack added the ability to read lists continuously by scrolling them one screen forward or back once you swiped to the last or first currently visible item. In fact, they did so not long after my original post. This is another point that can be taken off my list.

The German railway navigator app

This app has become accessible. They came out with a new version late last year that unified the travel planning and ticketting apps, and one can now find connections, book the tickets and use the Android smartphone to legitimize oneself on the train from start to finish on Android like it is possible on iOS. Another point off my list!

eBooks

While the Google Play Books situation hasn’t changed much, the Amazon Kindle app became fully accessible on Android, closely following the lead on iOS. This is not really a surprise, since FireOS, Amazon’s fork of Android, became much mure accessible in its 3.0 release in late 2013, and that included the eBook reader.

Calendaring

This was originally one of the problematic points left, however comments here and in the eyes-free list lead to a solution that is more than satisfactory. I originally wrote:

The stock Calendar app is still confusing as hell. While it talks better somewhat, I still can’t make hells of tales out of what this app wants to tell me. I see dates and appointments intermixed in a fashion that is not intuitive to me. Oh yes, it talks much better than it used to, but the way this app is laid out is confusing the hell out of me. I’m open to suggestions for a real accessible calendar app that integrates nicely with the system calendars coming from my google account.

As Ana points out in a reply on eyes-free, the solution here is to switch the Calendar to Agenda View. One has to find the drop down list at the top left of the screen, which irritatingly says “August 2014″ (or whatever month and year one is in), and which lead me to believe this would open a date picker of some sort. But indeed it opens a small menu, and the bottom-most item is the Agenda View. Once switched to it, appointments are nicely sorted by day, their lengths are given and all other relevant info is there, too. Very nice! And actually quite consistent with the way Google Calendar works on the web, where Agenda View is also the preferred view.

And if one’s calendaring needs aren’t covered by the Google Calendar app, I was recommended Business Calendar as an alternative.

Currency recognition

Originally, I wrote:

The Ideal Currency Identifier still only recognizes U.S. currency, and I believe that’ll stay this way, since it hasn’t seen an update since September 2012. Any hints for any app that recognizes Canadian or British currencies would be appreciated!

I received three suggestions: Darwin Wallet, Blind-Droid Wallet, and Goggles. All three work absolutely great for my purposes!

Navigation and travel

I wrote originally:

Maps are still not as accessible as on iOS, but the Maps app got better over time. I dearly miss an app like BlindSquare that allows me to identify junctions ahead and other marks in my surroundings to properly get oriented. I’m open to suggestions for apps that work internationally and offer a similar feature set on Android!

I received several suggestions, among them DotWalker and OsmAnd. Haven’t yet had  a chance to test either, but will do so over the course of the next couple of days. The feature sets definitely sound promising!

One thing I am definitely missing, when comparing Google Maps to Apple Maps accessibility, is the ability to explore the map with my finger. iOS has had this feature since version 6, which was released in 2012, where you can explore the map on the touch screen and get not only spoken feedback, but can trace streets and junctions with your finger, too, getting an exact picture of whichever area you’re looking at. I haven’t found anything on Android yet that matches this functionality, so I’ll probably keep an iPad around and tether it if I need to look at maps in case my next main phone is indeed an Android one.

Ana also recommended The vOICe for Android as an additional aid. However, this thing is so much more powerful in other senses, too, that it probably deserves an article of its own. I will definitely have a look (or listen) at this one as well!

Other improvements not covered in the original post

Android has seen some other improvements that I didn not specifically cover in my original post, but which are worth mentioning. For example, the newer WebViews became more accessible in some apps, one being the German railway company app I mentioned above. Some apps like Gmail even incorporate something that sounds a lot like ChromeVox. The trick is to swipe to that container, not touch it, then ChromeVox gets invoked properly. With that, the Gmail app is as usable on Android now as the iOS version has been since a major update earlier this year. It is also no longer necessary to enable script improvements to web views in the Accessibility settings. This is being done transparently now.

Other apps like Google+ actually work better on Android even than on iOS. ;)

Other third-party apps like Facebook and Twitter have also seen major improvements to their Android accessibility stories over the past year, in large parts due to the official formation of dedicated accessibility teams in those companies that train the engineers to deliver good accessible experience in new features they introduce.

And one thing should also be positively mentioned: Chrome is following the fox’s lead and now supports proper Explore By Touch and other real native Android accessibility integration. This is available in Chrome 35 and later.

Things that are still bummer points

There is really only one item from the blockquoted items of my original post that is still problematic, and that is the Gallery. The built-in Camera on my Nexus 5 talks much better indeed than it used to, I can now find out whether I’m taking a picture, shooting a video etc. The problematic part is if I want to go back and share the media I took later. The Gallery doesn’t give me any info on the different items I have there. This also includes apps like ABBYY TextGrabber, where if I wanted to choose a photo from the gallery, I’d be just as lost.

However, as Piotr comments below (on the original post content), other device manufacturers use different skins or apps for the same purpose, and it seems that the Camera and Gallery on the Samsung Galaxy S5 are much more powerful in the accessibility sense than the stock Google-provided ones on the Nexus 5.

In conclusion

Over the past year, Android has become a much more viable alternative for me and possibly other users. The gap is closing, and that is a good thing for user choice and market diversity! Show stoppers? No, there aren’t really any any more. The stuff with the Camera or rather the Gallery is an annoyance, but taking pictures is something I do occasionally, not regularly. So yes, I can now see myself using an Android device, be it a Nexus 5 or maybe a modern Samsung device, as my primary phone.

Welcoming your comments!

23 comments:

  1. An excellent post as always. One slightly annoying thing about android is the diversity of the devices and their skins. However, some OEM’s seem to now be making accessibility efforts of their own. Google’s gallery, which you mention is completely unusable with Talkback is a contrast to the Gallery app on newer Samsung devices. Samsung’s camera app also seems to give more feedback while taking photos (IE if face detection picks up a face, just like VoiceOver on iOS). Their launcher also provides a lot more feedback when moving icons around, which is something else that works better on iOS. The S5 also introduced a couple of features that the iPhone had since day 1, mainly the ability to toggle Talkback by pressing the home button 3 times, the option to force keyboard keys to be double-tapped (Standard vs touch typing), and a screen curtain. LG is also doing some of this, they also provide a tripple-click home feature.
    I generally like my Galaxy S4 and probably wouldn’t switch to an iPhone due to the sandboxing apple enforces. That having been said the 2 things I really wish I could do in Talkback is switch languages of the TTS on the fly and use only brailleback without speech, both of which are currently not possible.

    Nice work on Firefox for Android, by the way.

  2. Awesome article, just like the previous on the subject.

    I haven’t yet switched to Android, but opinions like the one mentioned by @Piotr Machacz are encouraging me more and more toward S5. I worry that I wouldn’t be able to update my S5 device at all two years from now, but oh well.

  3. Piotr, interesting that the Galaxy S5 seems to get quite some nice extra accessibility features! My last experience with a Samsung Galaxy S3 was rather unpleasant, so I never took a look at the S4 or S5. Good to hear that they care more nowadays!

    One thing that also kept me from exploring that option is the update policy. Like Android versions not being rolled out to devices of other vendors as they are to Nexus devices. How has that been going with the S5?

    Parham, Google itself is not offering any updates to many of its older devices any more. The Galaxy Nexus, which is the predecessor tho the Nexus 4, for example, got the Android 4.2.2 update last year in March, and hasn’t had an update ever since. Not even the 4.3 version was offered to it. I suspect that Kitkat is the last version the 2012 edition of the Nexus 7 tablet will see, since that is two years old now.

  4. Check out inclusiveandroid.tk a site we are launching in September for app directory, guides and reviews…
    There are many articles on my blog about android and android apps http://blog.blackspheretech.com

    In terms of your search for apps… here are my recommendations:

    – I use Business calendar for my calendaring. Set it to default to agenda view.
    – Darwin wallet recognises other currencies (I use Canadian currency with it) – I’m also told google goggles will to, although I haven’t tried

  5. The stock Galaxy Nexus has been updated to 4.3, although I have seen vodafone editions that got no further than 4.2.2.

  6. for yoursearch of apps for GPS I use Nearby Explorer. the app is a one time $99 paymenr and free map updates. it works in the US and Canada only at this time. this has blind square type functionality, plus turn by turn directions. for antivirus I use avest mobile security. this is one hundred percent accessibl witth TalkBack and free. I also use iBlink Radio, which is awesome for podcasts and SAMNETTTTTT.

  7. As far as Samsung’s update policy, it’s good. The Galaxy S3 and Note 2 have booth been updated to Android 4.4, and the updates don’t usually take very long (the 4.3 and 4.4 rollouts on S4 took only 2 weeks or so and early test builds could be downloaded and flash even before then… at least with unbranded firmware, which is another thing. The new accessibility features I brought up earlier weren’t at first a part of the S4, they were introduced in a minor software update later. I bought my S4 from a shop, not on contract so I’m getting updates directly from Samsung. However, a friend of mine Got the S4 in the UK from… either orange or EEE, and although he is on kitkat he still hasn’t received those features. If you’re in Europe you can get away with flashing the unbranded firmware no problem, however, in the US every carier has a slightly different device variant, even the GSM editions of the S4 and S5 have a different model number for AT&T and T-mobile so you won’t be able to do that so easily. And that’s not even bringing up CDMA.

  8. Another thing I forgot to bring up is that even if the OEM stops updating a device, the more popular flagships usually have a very active rom development community so chances are you will still be able to run the very latest version of android, and maybe even get some extra features in the process. M previous phone, the Sony Xperia pro, which came out in mid 2011 came with Gingerbread and Sony never upgraded it passed ice-cream Sandwich. That phone is now used by a friend and is still going strong, running the very latest build of Kitkat, 4.4.4, which is even newer than what the Galaxy S4 has.

  9. Just read the updated version of this post, very well done. One thing you can do to get around the gallery issues, use a file manager and browse to the folder where your photos are saved. From there, you can read the file names of all of the photos, and if you double tap and hold on a file, most file managers will give you a menu of options, including to share the file. I realize this is not a perfect solution, but it does work, and there are lots of file manager apps to choose from. Also, if you got a samsung phone and they decided to no longer update it, you could install a rom such as cyanogen. Of course, this is more like a stock android, so you would lose any extra accessibility features that Samsung has made, but in many cases, these phones are capable of running versions of android much newer than what the official updates provide.

  10. Mike, any file manager you would recommend specifically? The “lots of file managers to choose from” part is a bit…umm…daunting.

  11. I would try es file explorer, I think there is one called total commander that the developer has made accessible as well. I also wish blind square would be available on android, you may want to contact the developer and express your interest. Currently, he doesn’t feel that there would be enough users to justify the work to develop the app for android, but I think there would be more users than he realizes. There certainly are not any accessibility limitations in the platform that would prevent this app from working.

  12. Just a few more comments on this one. I do like IOS, but there are several advantages that Android provides that are not available in IOS. Of course, this may or may not matter, and slowly, Apple is allowing developers to do more and more things, such as allowing other default keyboards in IOS 8. Most of what Apple is starting to allow has been possible with android for quite a while. First, android devices do not use nonstandard USB connectors. Apple insists on doing this, even though there is no benefit to consumers. In the case of the lightning connector, in order for the interface to work, it must have a chip in the connector that Apple provides. This allows Apple to control what accessories are made for their devices, if Apple decides they don’t like what a company is doing, they can simply refuse to provide the chips and that accessory will not work. Micro or mini USB is an open standard, so Apple would not have this kind of control if they used that. Second, unless you jail break, you can only install applications that Apple approves. So, you basically have a company deciding what applications you can and cannot use. In the case of Android, as long as the app does not contain malware, developers are free to do what they wish with their applications. Of course, this means that users must be more careful about what they install, but I still think google’s approach is better. Next, you can install other applications for built in functions if you don’t like the default. If you don’t like Android’s default phone or text messaging apps, there are plenty of others to choose from, same with home screens. With IOS, you must use the applications Apple provides. I’m not saying these applications are bad, they’re not, but it’s the principal I’m talking about. Related to this, on Android, you can choose default applications for different tasks. Because firefox works so well with accessibility, it’s my default browser. While you can install other browsers on IOS, you cannot change the default application. Another difference relates to voices. Starting with IOS 7, Apple finally allowed developers to access the built in TTS, that was long overdue, however, you still cannot install other voices and use them system wide. On Android, you can install other voices such as Acapela, Eloquence, Ivona, etc. and they work with talkback, and any other application that uses text to speech. The last major difference I want to mention is file management. With IOS, there is no way to just copy files to and from your device the way you can on Android, also, as Marco mentioned in a previous comment, there are lots of file manager applications to choose from and allow you to browse and access files on your device. IOS is the only platform I have seen that does not provide this. So in summary, Android offers much more flexibility

  13. Nice follow up post. What still really annoys me on Android is webviews. The CHrome improvements are nice, but for standard Android webviews embedded in other apps, you still have to coop with the slugishness of Chromevox. This makes some apps that are just a wrapped webview hard to use and also causes problems when you don’t expect them, e.g. when an app has a webview to show ads.

    1. As I hinted in my post, at least Kitkat improved the situation already, and from what I read in the API overview for Android L preview, is that they’re going to bring the WebView component up to Chromium 36 standard, which means they’ll get all the TalkBack support Chrome has had since version 35. So there is definitely improvement ahead! Not for those who won’t get L, I realize that, but for those who do, things are definitely progressing. And oh yes, Mozilla is working on an alternative View component that allows to use the Gecko engine, including accessibility, instead. If I remember correctly, this is close to being finished. So developers will soon not be glued to one WebView provider alone any more.

  14. Well I somehow missed all the new improvements that were made available during recent few months because I started to become a real consumer instead hunting for the news trying new apps, combining stuff etc. So I am running unsupport not yet fully updated version of android on an ancient phone. To be precise I’m running omnirom Android 4.4 on a samsung Galaxy S II GTI9100. Now finally a part which relates to this post. I am unable to install google keyboard on this configuration to try and enjoy writing down texts including accented characters. Google play says this is not available in your region when I browse to the link to google keyboard however all the description regarding google keyboard is already translated to slovak. It for sure can support slovak input because even android AOSP keyboard can. So in a spirit of customization I do need to go out to hunt for the latest google keyboard build so I will be able to install it bypassing playstore and / or my configuration weirdness.

  15. I appreciate this follow up. Many times a person will write a critique of a product or service and not provide a personal follow up. It sounds like the Google team took your original post and used that to generate a road map of issues to solve. This has benefited all users.

  16. I have still serious probelms with Android Talkback and Brailleback.

    If you are using languages not supported e.g. by Google where is no easy way to switch from one tts language to another, unlike on an iDevice.
    The solution for me at least may be to buy Eloquence since this works for me both with English and Danish.

    I have not found a good mail app, they work but not that well.

    The gestures are hard to perform, and the idea of options but in one or two cyrcles is a good way to ensure the user does not find all options.
    When I started out with Android I had problems getting the gestures to work. I asked if others on the eyesfree list had the same issues, and many did, even long time Talkback users.
    About braille, more grade II tables for other languages would be good, I cannot remember if English grade II actually is supported.
    The ability to run Brailleback without speech output.
    Finally one lack that Brailleback shares with Voiceover, the ability to assign commands to function keys on the different braille displays.

  17. Great post! My experience, however, with Android, has been anything but pleasant. I bought a Nexus 7 a year ago in June. It’s the 2012 edition, I believe. I am disappointed to learn here that my tablet, that I had only for just over a year, will forever be stuck with Android 4.4.4. With an Apple product, this is not the case. Had I purchased an iPad last June, I would now be anticipating the release of IOS 8. Mind you, the update to IOS 7 on my iPhone wasn’t all that pleasant either. I find navigating the Android system to be anything but intuitive. Yes, one can certainly get around, but, the gestures seem a bit too convoluted to me. IOS is so easy to use. Want to read an email or web page from top to bottom… just swipe down with two fingers. On Android, swipe down and to the right, then, touch the screen and navigate in a circular motion to find the “Read from top” choice, lift your finger, and your email message will begin reading from the top, reading all the header information. I find that the swipe down and to the right gesture usually doesn’t work on the first attempt either. To be fair, I’ve been using IOS on a daily basis for 5 years now, and have only been using Android for just over a year, and, certainly not on a daily basis… I find it too frustrating to use that often. After reading this post, however, I am inspired to give Android a little more of my time and see where it takes me. So, thanks again for a great post.

What are your thoughts?