In my hand I hold a device. It is smooth, yet graspable. Flat, yet still a bit hefty. Instead of a round home button, it is rectangular and at an exact center on the device’s bottom. Those would be common analogies that I would easily use to describe the Galaxy S4 smartphone. Weighing about 130 grams, it is slightly heavier than the iPhone 5, with a 20% weight gain. Unlike that handset, however, it is very large in screen-size, though comparative in height. This makes the s4 thin enough that it could probably fit even in the skinniest of jeans, yet wide to a point where a woman’s pocket would barely be able to accommodate it.
For the past week, I have had the pleasure of using this phone, and found the experience quite possibly one of the best ones I have had with Android. When it comes to accessibility features, there exist many more options which Samsung have built into the device, including choices for those who are deaf and need audio adjustments. Low vision users are also not left out of the party, and in an iOS-stylized move, Samsung is also making it easier for motor disabilities to use the touch screen. Other niceties, such as the ability to swipe with two fingers to unlock the screen and a close all button in the app switcher truly enhance the Android experience.
Just as with any phone, there exist downsides. The bloatware is incredible, most of which cannot even be used by screen reader users properly. Features such as Smart scroll, Smart stay, which use eye-tracking technologies, can also only run while accessibility features are disabled. Despite these, I still value my S4 and do not regret the purchase. Let us dive into the galaxy and take the journey through accessibility together!
I received my Samsung Galaxy S4 from T-Mobile, a network I have wanted to switch to for quite some time now. Without going into many details, I can suffice to say that as far as data and a “non-contract” ownership of a phone, this was my best choice. It will run you $624 initially, however if you have good enough credit you can simply make a down payment and add $14-20 to your monthly bill. This does put you in a fake contract as until that phone is paid off you cannot discontinue your service.
My goal in writing this piece is not to give you an overview of how Android works, but rather to supplement any knowledge or articles which you may have read. I have written quite extensively on the differences between Android and iOS, which could be a good read if you simply wish to dive into the learning curves of each
Part one of those reviews is here.
I do want to break the phone’s experience down starting from the very beginning, the moment you take it out of the box and feel the slight vibration which signifies power up. This signal is always present, and should the phone have no battery, can be used as an indicator to whether it is functioning.
The Samsung Setup Wizard: making setup easier?
Once your phone is booted, you will be greeted with the setup wizard. Here, the standard gesture of putting two fingers slightly apart and holding the power key for a few seconds should enable the screen reader, called Talkback. I had no difficulties invoking this command even on my first try, which was a pleasant surprise. After completing the “Explore by touch tutorial”, the setup wizard will guide you through configuring the first steps of your phone. It is specific to Samsung devices, however if you have dealt with configuring other Android phones, you will no doubt be familiar with the layout. There are a few notable changes. Instead of you performing the accessibility gesture described above, Samsung opted to place an Accessibility button on the welcome screen. This opens up a host of options for all disabilities, though it requires that someone with sight use the phone.
The wizard also allows you to set up a Samsung account. This seems to be an answer to iCloud, as it creates full backups of your phone, and could be used as an extension of a Google account. Purchasing apps from the Play Store will still require one, so you cannot just get by with only establishing yourself with Samsung. Join the kingdom, as they say.
The return of Soft keys?
Unlike most Android phones, the Galaxy S-series (and by extension, the Note series as well) include a physical home button. This is a rectangular line centered exactly on the bottom of the device. To the right of it you will find a back button, while to the left there exists a menu key. This design is flipped when compared to other devices. They are capacitive keys, which mean that you do not have to double tap them to activate each. When you press one, there is a slight vibration that indicates feedback. Unfortunately, having these not be part of the software means that you can accidentally push one while exploring the screen with your finger. To avoid this, be sure to not always start from the bottom edge; Simply place your finger above the home button and explore from there. Think of that key not only as a place to go the main screen, but also as a ‘home” from where your fingers can begin locating information. It would still be nice to see a feature which allows for a double tap action rather than a single one to activate the soft keys.
The home screen enhanced.
Touch wiz is the name of the game on all phones which belong to the S-series. You will find the same layout on all Samsung-branded phones, which makes it a pleasant experience. I can’t say a definite here, however I have used both the s III and the s4. Touch Wiz is simply an overlay which heavily customizes Android. For example, while most phones have the “apps” button in the center bottom of the screen, here it is located in the lower right corner. Just as with other launchers, you can drag apps from any of your pages onto any of the five home screens, though this is not announced by Talkback. I find this a bit frustrating, and in my experience you can use a diagonal motion to switch the app or widget to another page. Simply double tap and hold an icon, a universal gesture. The neat accessibility design comes in with the way in which apps can be removed from any of the screens. If you drag it up to the top of the screen, Talkback will continuously read “remove item”. If you lift your finger at this point, the icon will no longer be present on that page. Keep in mind that this does not uninstall the application, and for this you will have to go into your application manager. If you have used Android devices back in the day, you will no doubt know that hitting the menu key results in a pop up where you can access the settings application. The same applies with Touch Wiz. To open settings, you do not need to go into your application’s list, and the menu key works no matter which page or part of the home screen you are on.
The rise of pages: Touch Wiz’ Settings
Here lies another area in which Samsung completely modified Android, something I could either take or leave. On “normal” devices, the settings application simply contains a list of choices, ranging from sound, location services, to developer options and display settings. Instead of there being a clutter of 30 items, Touch Wiz breaks these up into several pages located across the top of the screen. These include Accounts, My Device, and More. Windows Mobile users can rejoice! Similar to that antiquated platform, each tab has its own choices. You will find Accessibility options on the My Device page. Under “More” are options for the application manager, Battery, security, and storage. (Why these aren’t device-related is beyond me.)
Accessibility Features explored.
Now we come to the meat of this review, how Samsung enhances your accessibility features. Let me present you with a list of the choices found in the Accessibility section, word for word:
“Auto rotate screen”. This allows for the disabling of screen rotation, a feature I use always because of how I orientate the phone ‘ speakers to face me.
“Screen time-out”: Allows for the screen’s lock behavior to be changed. When Talkback reads information, keep in mind that the screen is idling and thus can turn off while information is being announced. This is contrary to iOS, thus turning this setting up higher can improve the screen reading functionality.
“Speak passwords”. When explore by touch is turned on, characters entered into password fields are read out loud by the device.
“Answering ending calls”. This is interesting, as you can change not only how calls are ended, but also how they are answered. Normally, most Android devices allow you to end calls by hitting the power key. When you are using a phone with a physical home button, you can also enhance this by answering them with the home button. The choices presented after activating this option allow you to toggle either of these features.
“easy touch mode”. This is a feature useful for those who want to accomplish certain tasks on the touch screen without sliding or double tapping. You can accept or reject calls simply by touching the bottom of the screen once, and snooze alarms as well in this manner.
“show shortcut.” This places an accessibility options list in the power menu which you can access when you hold down the power key for about 2 seconds. You can decide whether to only show talkback or the entire list of accessibility options here.
“Manage Accessibility.” I wanted to go in greater depth about this feature, as it is the one which is the most intriguing. Here, you can export your settings onto your device’s storage card, or even use NFC (Near-field communications) to share it with another device. With NFC, you can tap your phone’s back with another Samsung-powered one and transfer content. Think of it as infra-red for the modern age. In theory, you could tap your phone with another one and be asked to import your accessibility choices from it. IF you’ve exported them to your storage, an XML setting with each option is written. When you reset your phone, you can easily reapply the same settings as before.
These allow you to have certain accessibility applications which provide the backbone to what can be done with the phone. Talkback, font size, magnification gestures, negative colors (a Samsung-specific feature), and color adjustment are listed under the vision category. You can also choose to have notification reminders, which will play a beep every interval of time reminding you that you have unchecked events. Under hearing, you have a sound balance choice, along with an ability to enable mono audio or mute all sounds. Hearing aid support is also shown here, and you can allow the camera light to blink when new notifications arrive. An assistive menu can be enabled which helps those who use a puff stick or other mobility device to activate certain buttons like the volume keys without pressing them on the physical device. “Interaction Control”, while not compatible during Talkback’s use, can allow anyone to restrict the screen and areas which can be activated in applications.
A briefer on Samsung Application Accessibility:
This phone comes with a lot of bloatware. In fact, if I had to write about every single program included, I would create an entire novel here. There are features ranging from Watch On – a program that lets you control your television using the built-in infrared sensor on the top of the device – to a Samsung hub where you can buy apps made for this phone only. That’s Samsung’s solution to the Play store. The good news here is that most of this can be disabled, and I had to turn off over 95 different applications in the manager just to have my app drawer reduced to 3 pages from 5. Most of these things to me were not useful, though I also notice some accessibility changes in stock applications.
Here’s one area where Samsung created their own applications. In addition of all buttons being graphically labeled, there are some other features that make Samsung an outstanding contender with texting easily. In stock Android, the SMS app includes an unlabeled button after each conversation or message that opens up the contacts app. Instead of this annoying element, “Tap to hear caller information read out loud” is shown to Talkback. You can also tell if a thread is unread, and easily lock or delete a thread from the menu bar. I never thought i would enjoy texting on Android as much as I do with this phone.
Something’s delayed: The Samsung keyboard’s downfall
Unfortunately, here is an area where I find this phone frustrating. Similar to iOS 7, the keyboard allows you to hover over a key for a brief second and be shown alternative characters underneath it. The timeout it takes for this pop-up to appear is significantly less than on the iPhone, and this makes the ability to slid your finger around to another key quickly enough become a challenge. The bright side to the keyboard is the presence of a number row above the letters, which means that entering in digits (such as in an e-mail field0 is much easier. I still had the inclination to switch to the symbols keyboard for this at times, so it is a learning curve that needs getting used to <.p>
Aside the pop-up symbols issue, talkback seems to have a hard time keeping up with sliding fingers. I often hear a letter announced twice whilst exploring the screen, and there is a lag when I move quickly among the keys where Talkback falls behind on which letter it has read. To resolve my problems, I simply opted to install the Google Keyboard, which is thankfully now in the play store.
You will still find the same Samsung keyboard in the phone app, which means that when you dial a number, you must do so quickly or else the speed dial demons will come after you.
The Visual Voicemail app: All unlabeled.
This is another area where you will have to do some work, at least with T-Mobile. The voicemail access on this phone is done virtually, meaning you don’t have to call a number to listen to your messages. They download automatically and can be listened to for free. This is a disaster, since none of the buttons have text labels on them. “Button 57, unlabeled” is not gratifying enough to know that it is a play button. Worse yet, when you try to label any of the unlabeled buttons on the main screen, all of them become labeled with the same tag. And you thought cloning wasn’t possible? Think again!
Many people are turned away from phones where updates are not guaranteed right away, or where the standard experience has been substantially modified. i don’t blame them, because for those who use accessibility features, getting updates is more important than to any other person. This is because Google enhances the framework each time a new Android version comes out. With the S4, I am sacrificing the ability to get updates like this on a timely fashion. Furthermore, rooting the device to install custom-created software is not ideal, as there is a protection mechanism which sets a warranty flag to 0 when you do so. Once this this is active, your manufacturer warranty is void, and unless you have insurance for your device from your carrier, you are no longer protected. Rooting is very easy, however, and requires no sighted help.
Thankfully, all of the bloatware can be easily turned off, besides an OCR app and a Samsung app store. This leaves you with a very fast experience, and there are designs on this phone which make it a very good choice for me. When I receive a notification, it is displayed directly on my lock screen. I can also unlock by swiping just two fingers anywhere on the screen. Rather than having quick settings and notifications in different panels, Samsung places them on one screen – so you don’t have to pay attention to which side you swipe down from when accessing your alerts. I feel as though for iOS users, this phone can provide for a better transition process to android, and you can pick up the Galaxy S3 or s3 mini from $300 and up on some carriers without contracts. There is a 13 megapixel camera, and with the recent release of Text Detective along with other possible OCR choices, scanning seems to be easier. I use Google Goggles a lot for identification of objects and materials. There is also a stereo microphone here if you use the right program, with a very good quality recording sample. The touch screen can indeed be used with gloves without having to buy something special, and I find battery life stellar with my screen brightness set to 0.
While I might not get updates right away or have some luxuries Nexus devices come with, I do have something top quality in design and feature sets for my needs. This phone, while not for everyone, does set a certain standard in Android accessibility which can hopefully be followed by other manufacturers in the near future. It is the first phone with a customized interface that shows a company’s dedication to still putting in an effort on the accessibility aspects of their design. As always, there is still a long way to go, but the days of me picking up a phone and finding it unusable with Android are over.