Last week I got a new cell phone. I’ve wanted one for some time now because I want to be able to read text messages. Really I just want to be able to use all the features of my phone wherever I happen to be. For that I need a phone that talks.
I think there is a low-end talking cell phone provided by one of the other carriers but not by Sprint. It was a very low end phone if I remember. I need to be able to get text pages from work even if I can’t read them when I’m not at home, so that wasn’t an option. Right now, to get a fully speech enabled phone you need a “smart phone” running Symbian or Windows Mobile unless you go for the new iPhone. I’m curious about how well a blind user can work with a speech enabled touch screen like that of the iPhone and I have to give Apple credit for building it into every phone. However, it’s one of the most expensive options and I’d have to get out of my contract and change carriers. That’s a really expensive phone!
About a year ago when I smashed my phone in a fall I considered getting a speech capable model, but I didn’t want to spend the money and then find I hated the thing or just couldn’t really use it effectively. I opted for a cheap upgrade, and then discovered by accident that it had rudimentary speech capability. I understand several models now do this if you know how to dig it out of the menus. Mine was a Samsung M300. It can read caller’s names when they call and as you scroll through them. It reads menus and contact details. The voice is very crude, but it was much more than I thought I had. It does not read the web or text messages. It does not read what you enter in text fields.
Now that I’ve gotten into Facebook and to a much lesser degree Twitter, I’ve become envious of the people who send updates from everywhere. Sometimes I wonder at the wisdom of what they’re saying from where, but that’s another topic for another day. I wanted to do that too, and when my wife went swimming with her phone, my opportunity arose. We had the same model and she likes it. They don’t sell it anymore so I gave her mine and got a brand new HTC Snap.
I’d already been doing some preliminary research in hopes that I might be able to get a talking phone. I didn’t necessarily want one as powerful as the one I bought. Mainly I wanted text messaging that I could read. I was disappointed with the information available from Sprint. The phone they recommend on their web site (LG Rumor 2) may indeed do what they claim, but it sure doesn’t seem to say so in the manual. I say “seem to” because the PDF manual is not formatted for accessibility. Most of the words all run together when read by a screen reader. From what I have read and heard from others, every other carrier is doing a better job of providing the information blind customers need to determine what to buy. AT&T even sells Mobile Speak at a steep discount. Nevertheless, because of my contract and my wife wanting to keep the phone she likes, I bought a Sprint phone.
The HTC runs Windows Mobile 6.1, so I downloaded and installed Mobile Speak from Code Factory. Symbian users have another choice in a program called Talks, but as far as I know Mobile Speak is the only Windows Mobile option. The install routine sets the screen reader and magnifier up as a 30 day demo on your phone. I’m still running the demo, but since it’s the only option I have I will be paying up soon. I’ve had it for just over a week.
Installation was easy, but Code factory makes you jump through hoops to buy the license. It’s a transferable license, so it will be good on any phone, but you must go through one of their dealers and there is no fully automated way to buy from any of them. Come on folks! That’s ridiculous for such a high tech piece of software. I should modify that slightly. I didn’t check with AT&T, assuming I could only buy it there for an AT&T phone.
As with any screen reader, there’s a bit of a learning curve. It took me a while to remember the basic commands and I’m still not proficient at them. It reads most basic functions well, but there are some problem areas. Naturally, the first thing I did was go to Facebook’s mobile site. After struggling through my login on the tiny keyboard, I was delighted to hear it start reading through my friends’ updates. Moving around is easy enough, but if you’re used to all the tricks a modern screen reader on a PC uses to help you find what you want on a page a mobile phone browser is going to take some adjustment. The obvious solution seemed to be the dedicated Facebook app provided by Microsoft. That didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped. It is usable, but Mobile Speak doesn’t reliably read each item completely as you move to it. I think a cursor delay feature as found on PC screen readers could help but I don’t know that it would fix it. Using the program’s review cursor it is possible to find out what’s on the screen, but this is an impractical solution when not much fits on a mobile phone screen. In short, not every application is going to work with the screen reader, just like in Windows on a PC.
One of the first thoughts I had as I experienced my first crash was, “I can’t believe I just bought a phone running Windows!” Whether the occasional application crashes are attributable to Mobile Speak or something else I can’t say, since this is the only phone of this type I’ve ever had. It’s also slow. Again I don’t know if that’s just being a Windows Mobile phone or if Mobile Speak really puts a drag on it. I have found that just like a Windows PC, a Windows phone has to be rebooted from time to time.
You’d think from this review that I’m not happy with my purchase. I guess I am slightly disappointed, but since when has a first generation of any piece of software been free of bugs. Yes, actually Mobile Speak is up to 2.1 I think, but still the whole technology is pretty fresh. I expect it will get better. For now I am just thrilled to have a phone I can use to do everything I want to do. I know I’ll find some things easier as I learn both the phone and the screen reader.