Smartphone for the blind - iOS or Android?

Date of publication

The question of which mobile operating system is better has certainly been discussed a million times. However, the group of blind and visually impaired users is never considered. This article is intended to change that.

General conditions of this comparison

As a blind user, I have used both Android and iOS for several years, so I am a savvy user, not a beginner. I use the available screen readers (VoiceOver on iOS and TalkBack on Android) for operation. In the test, Apple's iPhone 7 with iOS 11.1 and Google's Pixel 2 with Android 8.0 were used as the sole smartphone in my everyday life for several weeks. Hardware and operating system are compared in interaction, without claiming completeness and without detailed knowledge of whether functions are attributable to the operating system or the hardware manufacturer. The apps that were already included in the box were tested.

Hardware: the first impression

Whether the device should look fancy may be up to individual preference. Either way, the hardware design plays a big role for us.

For example, there is unfortunately a trend away from the headphone jack. Headphones give us privacy, because otherwise everyone around us will at least hear that we are just starting the Bluetooth connection with the device, or we have turned the speaker down so low that sighted people might think we are operating the device with our ears. Well, that's not entirely wrong. At least hardware volume buttons are helpful for this, which fortunately are not yet on the hit list.

Pixel 2

The Google Pixel 2 does not feel quite as cold and smooth compared to the iPhone. The controls are found on the right edge of the smartphone and can be operated with a quite pleasant pressure point. The back is split in two, which is quite noticeable. The fingerprint sensor and a slightly protruding camera lens are also found on the back. The Google Pixel 2 feels comfortable in the hand and I never had the feeling that it could slip out of my hand.

iPhone 7

The iPhone only has the power button on the right side of the device. Volume buttons and the switch to mute the device are on the left side. The home button, which is also the fingerprint sensor, is located on the front, centrally under the display. With its smooth surface, the iPhone often slips out of my hand. However, the problem can be solved with a cover.

Setup and adaptation to the needs of the blind

Google Pixel 2

After switching on, you place two fingers on the display until you hear a beep, followed by a message in English that you are about to switch on the accessibility mode and should leave your fingers there if you want to. A tutorial opens directly after that, where you can learn how to navigate with TalkBack. The tutorial itself is really well structured, but still in English.

Afterwards you can set the language. However, it is important to note that the setup with TalkBack can only be done in English. If you change the language to German, you are promptly punished with silence.

The rest of the setup, including setting up a fingerprint to unlock the device (if you want to), goes smoothly. After that, you can finally set the language to German. The required language data for the voice output is then downloaded.

By the way, Android 7.0 eliminates the bug that prevented blind users from setting up the smartphone independently. This criticism of the previous Android versions is often found on the web. To put it bluntly: Such statements are no longer valid.

iPhone

On the iPhone, you press the home button three times after starting the device. You are then welcomed by VoiceOver in all languages and can set the language. Thus, the iPhone can be set up in German directly. The rest of the setup process is now very similar to that of Android, so we will not go into more detail here. A tutorial is available, but it has to be accessed specifically after the setup.

Apps in everyday use

Both smartphones are very fast in everyday use. The differences are especially for screen reader users in the different apps. I would like to present a few usage situations with the different operation as examples.

Web browsing

iOS: Safari

On the iPhone, a quick swipe to the right on the display navigates to the next element of the web page. This works extremely reliably. If you want to navigate more precisely, you have the option to navigate between headlines, links, words and even characters. Thus, you should be able to move quickly even on unknown pages to grasp their content.

Swiping from the bottom to the top of the screen with three fingers scrolls down one screen page, and the position in the content is announced, in the form of "Page 2 of 33". If you are familiar with this and know frequently used pages well, you can jump to the desired content incredibly quickly.

It is also very useful that Safari offers content blockers, so that advertisements are not displayed at all, which you might not be able to click away.

Android: Chrome

Browsing works similarly on Android. Here, too, there are several structure levels through which you can navigate. However, the handling is a bit different. You have to try out what you like better. Scrolling here works with two fingers, which you place on the display and slowly move up or down. It should be noted that scrolling works the same way as with sighted people. So you have to remember at which level of the page you are. The acoustic equivalent of the scroll bar (which is discreetly visible when scrolling) is in the form of short tones, the pitch of which increases towards the end of the page.

What is incomprehensible to me is that you really have to tap exactly on a line of text to have the content read out. If you happen to tap on a space in between, Talkback plays back the title of the page. Continuous reading also works rather poorly than well, which is why I very quickly switched to manually jumping from paragraph to paragraph. However, even that is no guarantee that you won't suddenly hang in the status bar and wonder what actually broke.

Side note: Google recently announced that it will block annoying ads in the Chrome browser in the future . Since popovers & co regularly become operating traps for screen reader users, this is a desirable feature (especially since advertisers usually do not consider us visually impaired people as a target group anyway). Alternatively, there is also the Brave Browser, for example, which already offers this functionality and is easy to use.

Twitter

The Twitter app works similarly well on both devices. This is also true for notifications, private messages, and so on.

iOS

On iOS, a tweet and its options are summarized in one element. A swipe to the right or left navigates back and forth between the individual tweets. This way, you can quickly check what is new in the timeline. If you want to interact with the tweets, you can either open the tweet with a double tap and then reply or retweet it, or you can double tap the screen with two fingers to directly open a list of interaction options.

Android

Here, you can also access the content by swiping gestures. However, at least one more is needed per tweet. It is also not possible to selectively call up hashtags or click on links within a tweet. At most, there is a detour for word-by-word navigation, but that also requires several swipes.

However, there is one plus point: The app starts three times faster than on iOS.

Facebook

iOS

The Facebook app basically behaves exactly like the Twitter app.

Responses to a post can be unfolded, resulting in a tree structure - which makes navigating very easy. However, it is annoying that prompts for reviews (e. g. of places, concerts) are simply not accessible. The same applies to polls. Moreover, the app developers also manage to break something more or less serious for VoiceOver users with the most beautiful regularity.

Android

Here, too, it is similar to the Twitter app. However, I like the fact that the various interaction elements can be accessed individually and are not grouped together. Polls as well as prompts to rate a place or something else also work smoothly here. What is unattractive is navigating through the comment history. Responses to comments open in an overlay. After closing the overlay, it likes to happen that the entire comment thread is reloaded, causing the current position to be lost.

The app's extreme hunger for energy also had a negative impact.

E-Mail

Many sighted people don't like to read emails on the smartphone because they lack clarity on the small display. We blind users do not have this problem, so e-mails on the smartphone have a higher priority for us.

There are no significant differences between the mail apps. Mails can be edited relatively comfortably on both iOS and Android.

Hardware: What else should be said

While I only gave a first impression of the devices at the beginning, a few decisive components should be discussed at the end.

Loudspeaker

The speakers of the two devices only differ marginally. The alignment of the speakers in the Pixel 2 results in a more pleasant sound image. Speech seems a bit more intelligible. However, both are not really built for listening to music.

Bluetooth

Both devices were tested with three different Bluetooth headsets. In general, it is noticeable that the iPhone cuts a better figure here: On the one hand, the sound is clearly better, on the other hand, controlling the volume is easier.

While iOS has one volume setting that adjusts the media volume as well as the screen reader volume, Android has four independent controls. There is no option to simply combine them, so it can happen that you want to change the media volume because the music is blaring in your ear, while you simply cannot understand the screen reader because it is too quiet.

Also negatively noticeable in Android is that audio ducking, that is, lowering the volume of other audio sources when the screen reader is outputting something, works extremely unreliably. This function is not useful anyway, since the volume controls are not adjusted to each other. Those who generally want the screen reader's volume to be stronger than the media's may find what they are looking for here. Personally, I found it very irritating in everyday use that the volume change is a multi-step process and the settings are reset after disconnecting the headsets.

Admittedly, the different concepts of volume control make it difficult to offer optimal options for individual preferences. Those who like to tinker might just be better served with the granular setting options in Android. In this point, an objective evaluation is impossible.

Conclusion

Which smartphone or operating system is the better one is, as so often, not answered by a product comparison. The individual ideas are always decisive.

If you get something from Apple that works smoothly out of the box, but limits you a lot, you get a system from Google that offers relatively many possibilities, but does not feel completely rounded. For every one specialized app on iOS, there are five on Android that need to be tried out first to find what fits best.

As far as the functionality of both systems is concerned, however, there is nothing to complain about. Both get you through the tasks you do with a smartphone on a daily basis.

Personally, though, I'll go back to preferring the iPhone because it makes for a more cohesive whole overall and I get to desired results much faster. Still, I like Android's more open architecture and longer battery life better, and I will also keep comparing to stay up to date. The real strength of Android I see in the possibility to customize the device very much to the individual needs.

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DeepL is a deep learning company that develops AI systems for languages. The company, based in Cologne, Germany, was founded in 2009 as Linguee, and introduced the first internet search engine for translations. Linguee has answered over 10 billion queries from more than 1 billion users.

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Dennis Westphal

Dennis is an IT consultant at the Company for the Development of Things. His field is accessibility. Helpfully, Dennis has been blind since birth. He creates his screencasts with open source software.