Those of you who have followed me for quite some time know that every so often, I decide to give Android a try, to see if I can use it as my primary mobile operating system. I confess, the geek in me loves the openness of Android, the idea that I can customize just about everything on the platform and make it my own. Alas, my particular use case is such that I depend on my mobile device quite heavily in a professional setting and so efficiency for me matters a great deal. In the past, my experience with Android has been that while I could accomplish *most* of the tasks I need to accomplish,I was unable to do so with enough efficiency to make a switch possible. Still, I keep being drawn back to Android for many reasons, one of the main being the multitude of device and price options available.
I want to stop right here for a moment and realize that everyone’s use case is different. It’s important to recognize that there are many folks who have been using Android, with little to no complaint, for years and can’t imagine using anything else. When it comes to Android versus iOS, I think the “better” operating system is the one that works best for each individual. Sure, one could compare the number of accessible apps, the level of standards-based accessibility support, or any one of a number of factors, but the real measure, in my opinion, is: does it do for me what I need it to do?
For this time around, I chose to go with the Essential phone because it runs the latest version of Android, Pie, doesn’t contain a bunch of apps and other stuff I don’t care about, is available at a decent price point for the specs, and probably most important, was available on Amazon PrimeNow which meant I could have the device in-hand in under an hour; yeah, I’m not the most patient person, especially when it comes to tech. I decided that I wouldn’t immediately blog about my experience as I wanted to see first if this really would be a viable option for me. After over a month in, I’m able to report that I’m extremely impressed with the accessibility changes that have come to Android and its apps.
Initial struggles and frustrations
I think it’s fair to say that whenever switching to a new operating system or hardware device, there are bound to be some initial user frustrations. In this case, I switched both things and found that I needed to remind myself of this quite a bit especially during the first week.
Initial setup wizard accessibility
Right out of the box, I encountered some initial accessibility challenges with the Android getting started wizard whereby TalkBack, the Android screen reader, wouldn’t let me activate certain options. These issues have since been fixed, however, my phone did not come with the latest updates installed. I needed to explore by touch until I found the correct options, disable TalkBack, touch where I thought I had found the option on the screen, re-enable TalkBack, and hope that I had done everything correctly. Eventually, I was able to successfully get through initial setup and was then able to install the latest updates ensuring that this problem will go away if I should ever need to reset my phone in the future.
Personal preference alert here, but I am not a huge fan of Google’s text to speech which is the only option available during initial setup. Additional voices can later be purchased from the Google Play store, Google’s marketplace for apps, music, books and other things, but new users might not be aware of this. There are actually quite a number of voices available including Eloquence and eSpeak which are likely familiar to Windows screen reader users. Purchasing additional voices via the Play store makes perfect sense, but because this is very different than what I’ve gotten used to with iOS, it was an initial frustration for me.
No native braille screen input,
Lack of native braille screen input is definitely my largest frustration to date. When this feature was first introduced to iOS, I wasn’t sure if I would ever get used to it, however in time, the ability to use my screen to enter braille characters enabled me to type with incredible efficiency. This functionality is missing from Android and I dearly miss it. Third party options are available, but i have yet to find one that works as fluidly as the solution on iOS. For one thing, TalkBack must be disabled in order to use any of the third party solutions and while the solutions are mainly self-voicing, this is definitely a frustrating step. I’ve found one Android-based braille screen input solution that works extremely well, Soft Braille Keyboard. Unfortunately, while Soft Braille Keyboard can still be installed, it cannot be obtained from the Google Play store. I also have no idea if updates for Soft Braille are forthcoming which is a real shame. Braille screen input has the potential to make a real difference in how a blind person enters text on a mobile device and I sincerely hope we see additional innovation in this area on Android.
Same apps are not necessarily the same.
One of the first things I did on Android was to search for and install the apps I’ve been using on iOS. I was pleased to find that in most cases so far, the android counterparts to my iOS apps have been very accessible. That said, the design and layout of these apps is often very different leading to some initial confusion for me. On iOS for example, my banking app has tabs across the bottom that allow for quick navigation between sections of the app. On Android, however, that same banking app has a hamburger-style menu that contains similar options, similar, but just different enough to make for some initial confusion, at least for me. It’s These differences are certainly to be expected, but if you’re switching from iOS, they may be a source of initial frustration.
Helpful resources and the awesome community
As I’ve tried to get up-to-speed, there are a few resources that have proven invaluable. First, the really awesome Eyes-Free community is full of people who have been very patient with me, and with others new to Android. I’ve gotten tons of fantastic resources through this mailing list-based community and am extremely grateful to all those who have been willing to share their knowledge and tolerate my frequent questions. Inclusive Android is another fantastic community resource with a wealth of information. In time, I would like to create a page dedicated to Android resources that would be helpful to new users, or to developers wishing to build more accessible applications. If you know of a resource that should be included, let me know.
I haven’t actually sold my iOS device yet, but I’m very impressed with just how far Android has come. While it’s certainly not free of frustrations, but what operating system is? Android has gone from an operating system that was challenging for me to use in my daily life to one that I can use almost as effectively as iOS. And I say “almost as effectively” in part because I’m still getting up-to-speed and the natural learning curve of any new operating system is bound to cause a temporary drag on productivity. I’m really excited with what I’ve seen thus far though and hope you will continue to join me as I blog about this new adventure.