Android Talkback - An Alternative to VoiceOver for the Blind?

Android can be an alternative to iOS. In this article I would like to give a little help to blind people who would like to switch.

My assessment of Android has not changed until autumn 2022. It's less the big picture than the many little things that make Talkback a bad screen reader: Big latencies in the speech output and too long pauses in speaking, little adaptability and bad standard voices in German.

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Poor accessibility on Android

I'm honestly shocked by Android's poor accessibility for the blind. Once the assistive technology is up and running, it's okay. But they really are miles away from Apple and even Windows that Google can confidently call itself the barrier maker of the decade. I recently had an Android 9 tablet on the table: I put two fingers on the display, talkback started and said goodbye after two seconds. After looking at the accessibility features of the operating system, I realize that the Accessibility Suite isn't preinstalled, as promised, so Talkback isn't installed at all. So there can be no talk of an independent setup of a device. I'm starting to think Google is trying to screw us over.

The problem with Android devices in general is that you can never tell whether the problem is with Android, with Talkback, with a provider's customized interface, or with the device. My Nokia 7+ talkback regularly fails, you have to turn the device off and on again for it to respond again. I have never had this problem with four different, very old Apple devices, with the exception of one first-generation iPad.

Overall, TalkBack feels more like an external screen reader, thrown together and not fully integrated into the operating system. Serious errors keep creeping in, making parts of the smartphone almost unusable. For example, there has long been a multi-second pause in talkback when scrolling down the built-in Chrome browser. This also happens in apps that use components of the Chrome browser. In alternative browsers such as Firefox, the "Read from next element" function does not work, instead it is read from the top. Another downside is that the screen's color inversion is turned off in power save mode, a pointless feature since the dimmer a screen is set, the less energy it uses. Furthermore, I am annoyed that linked headings, such as in the Google search, cannot be announced and navigated. What Google thought about it remains their secret. The Google TTS cannot correctly process standard information such as dots in abbreviations or dates: Often, a pause after a dot, like an abbreviation, lasts so long that you think the voice output is over. Last but not least, there is no intelligent color inversion in Android version 10 either: both colors and images are inverted so that image content is no longer recognizable. Intelligent color inversion has been around for a long time on iOS.

Unfortunately, I have to say that Google has not succeeded in systematically developing TalkBack. Google seems basically not to be interested in accessibility. I cannot recommend an Android device to any blind smartphone beginner. The advantages of an open system, such as the expandability of Talkback through extensions, are not used. One has to come to the conclusion that Google doesn't care about Talkback at all.

VoiceOver is implemented more cleanly and there are more accessible apps for the blind in the Apple universe. But what remains is the high purchase price, the problems of a closed system and the rather outrageous prices for the simplest accessories. VoiceOver has also been struggling with major bugs on both iOS and Mac for several years.

As a side note, VoiceOver also has its quirks that have dragged it along for years. This includes that the cursor often jumps back to the first element, although you have already focused on another element.

Recommended devices

If you're flirting with an Android device, you shouldn't go for the cheapest one. The performance of the device and the quality of the touchscreen - i.e. the touch sensitivity - make a relatively big difference, for the blind anyway. It makes no sense to compare a $100 Android to a $600 iPhone. It should definitely be a mid-range smartphone. Unfortunately, due to the update and app policy of the manufacturers, only the smartphones produced by Google itself can be recommended today. Android One has not lived up to its promises.

An advantage of Android is that the Talkback screen reader can be updated independently of the operating system. This means that even with an outdated Android, Talkback can still be updated for a while. On iOS, VoiceOver updates are tied to the operating system. My iPhone 6 is no longer receiving iOS updates, nor is VoiceOver.

Nevertheless, I strongly recommend a device that will receive at least two more years of updates at the time of purchase. Currently, the devices that are offered by Google itself promise this. In addition, Motorola promises updates for the Moto series. HDM has the trademark rights to Nokia's smartphone division and offers the Nokia 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8 devices, some of which are very inexpensive, and promises timely updates. Samsung has also improved its update policy. As I said, the more expensive devices with better displays are recommended here. Alternatively, you can look out for devices running Android One. These are Android versions with relatively minor adjustments. In addition, Android One promises fast updates for two years and security updates for three years.

There are different reports regarding the Samsung devices. Samsung's own screen reader seems to have some merits, but overall it's not being developed as dynamically as TalkBack. However, Samsung allows Talkback to be installed in parallel, so that both screen readers can be used independently on one device. In the meantime, the Samsung screen reader is no longer being developed.

I would advise against the Amazon Fire tablet. I was using the 7-inch device from 2016 with an outdated Android 5.1.1, a miserable screen reader and poor performance. At best, the device is suitable for using Amazon services. but this also works with any other tablet.

Turn on Talkback

Unfortunately, there isn't a consistent way to enable talkback on Android for the first time. The most common is to place two fingers on the screen and wait for talkback to start.

It can happen that Talkback talks in English but the interface is German. That was the case with my Motorola G2. Because of issues like this, I recommend setting up talkback using a sighted person until everything is set up and the device is chattering in German. Once the device is set up, TalkBack should automatically speak German, otherwise go to the voice settings.

TalkBack has a gesture tutorial. You can do this at the beginning, but you can also do it later.

Just like on the iPhone, exploring the screen is done by simply swiping across the screen. The structure corresponds to the iPhone: at the top the status line, below the apps, below the dock with the apps that are displayed on each site, below the buttons for back, home and the app switcher.With a swipe from left to right you switch between individual apps, buttons and other elements.

With a swipe from top to bottom or from bottom to top you change the reading unit, similar to the rotor on the iPhone.

The fastest way to reach the talkback settings is via the global context menu with the L gesture, drag your finger from top to bottom and to the right. There you will also find important commands such as read from the top or read from the next element. As a side note, I find this more beginner-friendly than iOS, where there are hardly any visual menus like this. However, experienced users will prefer a gesture for such frequently used actions. This can be configured in TalkBack in the settings itself.

The mainstream apps like Google Maps, WhatsApp and Facebook can be used in a similar way to iOS. There are always minor problems: For example, WhatsApp does not announce in group chats who a certain message is from. With longer chats, you can quickly get confused.

In general, unnamed elements are more common in Android apps that should actually be accessible. I can't say whether this is due to Android or the carelessness of the developers. Blind-specific apps such as Blindsquare or SeeingAI are also more likely to be found on iOS. Nevertheless, the selection of auxiliary apps is not bad even with Android: There is Via opta NAV, color recognition apps or the DZB app of the audio library for borrowing audio books. An alternative to Microsoft's SeeingAI app is Envision AI. Anyone who relies on special apps should check whether there are viable alternatives that can be used with Talkback on Android. Or use both systems in parallel.

Buttons can be labeled with the free app Audex. These captions can be made available online so that they are also available to other blind Android users. Maybe this is also a quick way for developers to make their app accessible in the short term. TalkBack itself offers the option of labeling unlabeled elements via the local context menu.

An advantage of Android is that external devices such as usual keyboards can be connected easily . With a suitable adapter, you can therefore connect a normal USB keyboard.

Advantages of talkback over voiceover

Roughly speaking, VoiceOver is ahead of Talkback by at least four years, and Google has no discernible interest in catching up. To determine that, you only need to look at the setting options of the two screen readers. I haven't seen a great new feature on Talkback in about the last year. For example, VoiceOver got a function for reading text from images.

But Talkback has some interesting features: These include the vibration function, which can be used when entering characters, for example, in parallel with or independently of the output of sound feedback. This is an advantage for those who are hard of hearing or in noisy environments where sound feedback is not clearly discernible. On Android, you can set the status of an item to be spoken before its name, a benefit for people who need to fill out forms more often.

Text input

The biggest shortcoming of Android for the blind is the text editing. I am absolutely dissatisfied here. With the standard GBoard keyboard, you touch and release a letter to write it. This is extremely error-prone, often a neighboring letter is written instead of the chosen one. Many text entry fields do not announce where the cursor is and how to move it.

An advantage is that the row of numbers is also displayed by default. So you have to switch between the keyboards less often when entering passwords than with iOS.

Google's dictation function, which is also integrated into the keyboard, received a lot of praise. But here, too, I could not find any advantages over iOS.

Advantages of Android - Update 1011.2022

A small update is allowed, since Android can indeed have some advantages for the blind, which I have not fully grasped in my western-centric perception. First of all, let's mention the price: the majority of disabled people live in a situation in which they can't afford Apple devices. Android devices are not necessarily cheap either, but they are more affordable. The same applies to the accessories. An Android can be used more as a computer replacement because you can connect a mouse, keyboard or even an external screen.

Another advantage of Android is its open source structure. This also allows more exotic text-to-speech engines to be used. The major speech-to-text providers do not support languages with few speakers or low income. In India, for example, there are languages or dialects that are spoken by tens of millions of people. Providers like Nuance or Vocalizer don't care. eSpeak, on the other hand, supports some of these languages.

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