Archive for August, 2011

Can tablets replace traditional notetakers?

August 25, 2011

Thanks to my employer, I recently began using an iPad 2 for testing. Although I have been using the iPhone for over an year, I should admit that I am not entirely comfortable entering large amounts of text on a touchscreen. while it can certainly be accomplished, it does require a significantly higher level of effort for a blind person using VoiceOver. I am sure some of you will disagree.

So, I invested in a 69 pounds keyboard case for iPad2 manufactured by Kensington. This is a leather folio style keyboard case that turns the iPad 2 into a netbook like device and makes entering text much easier. Although there are downsides to this combination, I am extremely happy with the solution. Further, I also think this combination has the potential to be a replacement for very expensive dedicated notetakers for blind people.

Why not a Netbook instead of this combination?

A very valid question raised by some. Firstly, iOS with its built-in accessibility features is a far more superior experience on a small device like this. It doesn’t take me more than 4-5 seconds to wake up the device and start using it. Pressing any key on the keyboard brings the iPad out of standby. Contrast this with boot time for Windows 7. Even if Windows is set to standby instead of shutdown, I find that assistive technology, particularly Jaws does not function efficiently after Windows resumes from standby. Often, I have to shutdown Jaws and launch it again for it to work properly. I believe screen readers without mirror drivers like NVDA may be immune to this.

Secondly, the battery on iPad lasts for about 10-11 hours of continuous use. I did not notice any significant reduction in spite of using the keyboard which connects to the iPad via bluetooth. This is significantly longer than most net books although there are some netbooks which claim to offer similar battery backup times.

Thirdly, I get access to all the apps and content on iOS that made iPhone and iPad such popular devices.

Finally, there is something to be said for using a mainstream device with built-in accessibility features!

About the keyboard case

As I said earlier, the case is manufactured by Kensington and is called the 2nd Generation leather folio keyboard case for iPad 2. It is like a hardcover book and when opened like a book, the keyboard is on the left and the slot for sliding in the iPad is on the right. There are velcro straps to hold the iPad securely. When using with the keyboard, the iPad is invariably in landscape mode. The keyboard is not full-sized but is more like what you will find on any netbook. But the keys are widely spaced and the key travel is quite good. There is a rubber membrane on the keyboard making it spill proof. there is a physical on/off toggle switch. Since the keyboard connects via Bluetooth, there is a tactilely discernible paring button. Holding this button down for a few seconds puts the keyboard in pairing mode. The iPad recognises the keyboard and when connecting, asks you to enter a 4 digit pin. the process is all very simple.

The keyboard has a rechargeable battery which lasts for a long time. There is a mini USB port for charging it. I have had the keyboard for close to a month now and it is still running on the initial charge.

However, There is one downside to this case. The base of the iPad rests above the keyboard in a roughly 45 degree angle and other than a few bumpy lines, there is no real support to hold the side with the iPad in that position. It always feels as if the iPad will slide on to the keyboard especially when travelling in a car. But so far it seems to hold up fine. Undoubtedly, there are other keyboard cases without this minor inconvenience. But this sounded like a good deal for the price.

A number of users also prefer to use the Apple Wireless keyboard with iPads and iPhones. But the Apple keyboard is a bit too big for my liking. Also, I prefer to keep the keyboard and iPad combination together in one piece.

Do I still use the touch screen?

Certainly! Most times, it is faster to activate certain items on the touch screen especially in those apps I regularly use. Navigating via the keyboard is just another alternative.

So can this combination b an alternative to notetakers?

Hard to say at the moment. But an iPad with a keyboard or a keyboard case combo certainly has the potential to replace dedicated notetakers for blind users.

Firstly, this combination is much cheaper. A dedicated notetaker even without a braille display can cost upwards of 2000 pounds. Where as the cheapest iPad with 16GB memory and wifi costs 379 pounds. Add another 60-70 pounds for keyboard or keyboard case. The entire solution costs less than 500 pounds.

Further, iPad does have the latest in terms of technology, a good quality web browser, WiFi and/or 3G connectivity, access to email and social networking apps and so on. There are even apps to read DAISY books. Additionally, iBooks provides access to a large number of eBooks as well.

Of course there are limitations. One of the main advantages of dedicated notetakers is the fact that the software on those devices has been optimised for blind users. One of the drawbacks of iPad right now is the lack of fully accessible word processing and spreadsheet apps. Both Pages and Numbers (both from Apple) are not fully accessible. Although there are other apps such as plain text and evernote, they do not provide access to text formatting information among other things. So, while I can take notes and write long documents, I cannot format them properly. Of course, even if these apps did provide this information, the iOS Accessibility API and VoiceOver in particular need to be enhanced to be able to parse the information and provide it to users. further, there are inherent limitations in iOS such as lack of native support for zip archives and the fact that I cannot save my email attachments drives me crazy. I have to rely heavily on cloud storage services such as Dropbox.

However, I am very optimistic that at least some of the accessibility limitations of iOS will be addressed in the future. If indeed this happens, the need for dedicated notetaker devices may decrease. Perhaps, this is already happening to some extent. Do remember that FreedomScientific hasn’t updated Pacmate Omni for a really long time.

I look forward to the day when blind people can make the best use of mainstream technology on par with their sighted counterparts.

What about braille?

I have a Braille Connect 40 bluetooth portable braille display which I mainly use with my computer. However, I can connect this to my iPhone or iPad and operate them completely from the braille display. I can’t think of any cheaper solution. Refreshable braille sadly continues to be expensive technology.

P.S: Most of this blog post has been created on the iPad using a free WordPress app.

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