Why I Chose The S III

As it became clear that my trusty speech-enabled Nokia E71 was becoming both unreliable and outdated, I began seriously thinking about switching to a modern Android device. My wife, remembering all too well my previous disastrous experience with the HTC Dream and Android 1.5, urged me to consider getting an iPhone, which I indeed was, though half-heartedly, as I am not too fond of some of Apple's design philosophies. I then entered upon what would turn out to be a four-month analysis of the smartphone market as well as Android accessibility, trying to decide which platform and device could best serve me.

Jelly Bean

The first thing which became clear after questioning but a few people was that it would be far more preferable to own a device running Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), as many improvements to accessibility features were made in that version. This requirement immediately put several otherwise likely devices out of the race, as their manufacturers did not seem to have any clearly scheduled upgrade plans beyond vague promises. The only devices to have such an upgrade on the way were the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and Galaxy S III.

The Need For Future-proofness

In Canada, we live with a strange reality called the 3-year contract, which means that, by the time you can upgrade your device, it is about six generations behind. This makes it extremely important to consider how up-to-date the technology is inside a handset and what kind of connectivity it offers. It also means that such things as the ability to expand the memory and replace the battery become crucial features. This need for adaptability and future-proofness once again gave the Galaxy S III an edge, as it boasts most of the connectivity options of the day, with NFC, LTE, Bluetooth 4.0 and so forth, while also being one of the few devices out there which allows one to both expand the memory and replace the battery.

Another aspect of future-proofness is long-term support. There too, the Samsung Galaxy S III seemed to come on top, as it was the first non-Nexus device to be issued with an upgrade to Android 4.1, when much more recent devices, such as the LG Optimus G or Sony Xperia T, still await theirs. In fact, Samsung's commitment to keeping its Flagship devices up-to-date seems to be deep enough that it is currently in the process of rolling out a 4.1 upgrade to its older Galaxy S II devices, leading one to hope that they might do the same for the S III a year from now. Beyond manufacturer support, the fact that the S III is such a popular device ensures that community efforts, such as the Cyanogen Mod ROM, will provide it with fresh updates for several years.

Accessibility

But all this would be of little use with suboptimal accessibility. Android, unlike the other mobile operating systems of the day, allows manufacturers to customise the user-experience with what is commonly known as overlays or skins in an effort to provide a value-added product and strengthen their branding; each manufacturer has a name for its interface overlay, such as Sense UI for HTC, Timescape UI for Sony, TouchWiz for Samsung, and so on. Unfortunately, these skins all too often fail to make use of or, worse yet, break the accessibility stack built into the Android operating system. It is therefore well known among blind users that a phone running an unmodified version of Android, such as Google's Nexus models, is by far the safest choice. However, it is also widely known that, out of all the manufacturer overlays, Samsung's TouchWiz is one of the most accessible. Being an inexperienced convert, I was naturally looking for the most accessible solution out of the box and did not fancy having to extensively customise my phone just in order to be able to begin learning how to use it. The first and most obvious choice would have been one of the Nexus devices, either the older Samsung-manufactured Galaxy Nexus or the freshly released Nexus 4, made for Google by LG; unfortunately, neither of those devices met my other requirements, and my next best option was without a doubt the Galaxy S III.

Conclusion

The Samsung Galaxy S III is not the best device out there; careful study shows that it is out-matched in one respect or another by various devices. I was sorely tempted by the Motorola Razr HD, because of its great build quality and outstanding battery life, or the LG Optimus G, for its amazing hardware and cool design, or even the Nexus 4, for its promise of prompt updates and best possible accessibility; yet I kept returning to the S III as the best possible compromise, and so I chose it.

One month later, I do not regret this decision in the least. The S III was easy enough to upgrade from 4.0 to 4.1 on my own, once my wife switched on the accessibility services, surprisingly easy, in fact, for someone who had hitherto had little to no experience with all-touch devices. Almost every aspect of the device was accessible out of the box and could be further improved with some slight tweaks. It isn't perfect, of course, but close enough, and many of the glitches are wrinkles in the Android accessibility stack itself rather than relating specifically to the S III.

Getting Acquainted

With The Hardware

The Samsung Galaxy S III follows the modern "slate" design common in today's smartphones. At the bottom of the screen, in the middle, is a large physical "Home" button and, on either side of it, are two capacitive buttons. Capacitive buttons are touch controls which are activated like buttons; they are not part of the on-screen interface and therefore their position and function will remain consistent throughout. It is also important to note that, not being part of the Android interface, they are not subject to the change of behaviour introduced by Explore-By-Touch (EBT): they activate on a single tap. The capacitive button to the right of the "Home" button activates the "Back" function, meaning it will bring you back to the previous screen, while the one to the left will activate the contextual menu, provided one is defined for the current application. This particular configuration on the S III is in fact ideal for blind users because the physical "Home" button provides a tactile reference point from which to locate and tap the capacitive buttons, allowing for very quick operation. The only other notable physical controls are the volume-rocker control on the left edge and the power/lock key on the opposite side.

With The Software

(It is assumed that the reader has already completed the accessibility tutorial on the device and has read the documentation on gestures. I have personally found it worthwhile to practice the various movements and gestures until I became sufficiently confident and could repeat them without thinking. Approaching your device with a relaxed mind and hand is key to success.)

Once your S III is up and running, you should find yourself on the home screen, identified by the speech synthesiser (TTS) as "TouchWiz Home" (hit the "Home" key, if you want to make sure). Your screen is now divided into three areas. At the bottom of the screen is a small rectangular area commonly referred to as "the dock", which is where you will find shortcuts to key functions, such as Contacts, Messaging, Internet and the App drawer. At the very top of the screen is what people call the status or notification bar; there you will find key information about your device as well as notifications for certain events, such as missed calls and incoming text messages (try touching the upper-left corner of the screen to hear this information). In between those two areas is your homescreen real-estate, where you will find shortcuts to applications and functions, and can of course add your own. The TouchWiz home screen offers seven different screens to use and customise; you can switch between them by swiping left of right with two fingers (try it and notice how the content on each screen changes while the dock remains the same).

The notification bar is always at the top of the screen, no matter what application is in the foreground and can be expanded at any time to quickly modify certain settings and read notifications. To do so, quickly flick right and down, or double-tap and pull gently down from the top of the screen using two fingers. Once you hear the message "shade open" spoken, you should be able to explore the newly revealed area where you can toggle such functions as Wifi and GPS on and off as well as read or clear notifications.

Your other constant ally on your S III will be the "Recent apps" list, which can be summoned by holding down the "Home" button for a second or so. From there, you can easily skip to any running application. Of particular importance are two buttons at the bottom of the screen, one, to the right, allowing to remove all applications from memory and the other, to the left, giving access to the task manager, where one can see all running applications and their statistics as well as force them to terminate, should the need arise.

Finally, absolutely the most important area of the S III, or any other Android device, is the configuration manager, known simply as "Settings". To access it from your home screen, hit the "Menu" capacitive button and choose "Settings" at the bottom of the list. Not only would you and your S III benefit from an extensive exploration and adjustment of the various options, but "Settings" is also a great interface to cut one's Android teeth on, as its fairly simple list display is uncluttered and offers the array of submenus, buttons, checkboxes, radio buttons and sliders one is likely to encounter throughout the Android user-experience.

Smoothing The Ride

Get Updated

It is fairly important to ensure that the software on your device is up-to-date, as accessibility tends to improve with each release. To that end, the first place to head to in "Settings" is the "About" submenu right at the bottom of the list, where you can hit the "Check for updates" button and make sure you are not lagging behind. The next important step is to open up the "Play store" application and ensure that you do not need to manually update certain applications, especially TalkBack, your screen-reader. To do so, hit "Menu" in the play store and choose "My apps". Make sure TalkBack is not among the applications requiring a manual update and update any other critical-looking application while you are at it.

Accessibility Settings

Now, back in "Settings", it is time to go into the "Accessibility" submenu and ensure that each option suits your needs. Here are some key options you might consider changing.

Screen auto-rotation and time out are fairly key to the user experience. A longer timeout will almost certainly be necessary, as the screen is considered idle while the TTS is speaking. Since we tend not to always hold the device in the way expected of a sighted person, I have also found it desirable to disable screen auto-rotation to avoid suddenly being confronted by a screen in landscape mode while holding the device flat in my hand or on my leg.

You will probably want to enable the "Speak passwords" option in order to make logging into your accounts a little easier. However, you should know that this only changes Android's behaviour when a headset is in use and passwords will still remain unspoken under regular conditions, which can be a nuisance.

You will also definitely want to pay a visit to the "Answering/ending calls" submenu, since you will find there the option to make your home and power buttons answer and end or reject calls respectively, hence sparing you the need for fumbling with the screen when in a hurry to pick up or silence a call.

Further down the list, you will find an "Enhanced web accessibility" option which you should make sure and switch to "Allowed" as this will fetch scripts to make webviews a little more usable.

Other options should be fairly self-explanatory, but you should definitely make sure and explore the various options under "TalkBackSettings" and "Text-To-Speech output" to make sure they match your needs.

Other than the "Accessibility" submenu, you probably should pay particular attention to the "Sound" and "Motion" submenus, as some of the features there could possibly improve or hinder your experience, depending on your particular use and requirements.

Apps That Help

The Jelly Bean Keyboard

One customisation Samsung makes which needs to be dealt with is the bundling of its own keyboard in place of the one available on stock Android devices. This keyboard is usable in a pinch, but it requires triple-tapping each key in turn, which is far too slow and hinders muscle memory. Since Android 4.1, the stock Android keyboard integrates the touch-and-lift technique developed by the eyes-free project, which, though not entirely perfect, still works far better. Thankfully, some developers have taken the keyboard source code and repackaged it as a standalone application available from the play store. After trying several, I can unequivocally recommend the Jelly Bean 4.2 Keyboard which seems to be the most reliable and stable option. After you install it, be sure and adjust its settings to fit your needs, but, most importantly, you should ensure that gesture typing is disabled, or the keyboard may be inaccessible. Finally, don't forget to set it as your preferred keyboard under "Language and input", so that it comes up every time typing is needed.

Who's Calling?

One area where the accessible user-experience can be a little subpar on the S III and Android in general at the moment is that of volume control; the TTS volume is controlled by the media volume and is not adjusted according to circumstances. This can be especially problematic when the phone is ringing, often causing the caller ID information and other cues to be inaudible. Thankfully, there is a little free application named Who's Calling? which solves that particular problem. Not only will it announce the caller's name at a configurable interval and volume, but it also gives the user the ability to silence the ringtone by hitting the volume key. I personally could not do without!

UpSoundDown

Another area of the experience which currently is in need of a little improvement is interaction with the phone during a call; the TTS is piped through the earpiece, but activating the proximity sensor (located at the top right of the screen) disables the touch-screen (you could change this behaviour, but then the phone could easily become erratic when holding it close to the face). UpSoundDown is another little free application which can act in the background to help mitigate this problem; in short, it can switch back and forth between speakerphone and handset mode simply based on the devices position. Once activated and configured, interacting with the phone during a call is as simple as placing it flat on a desk or table to switch to speakerphone mode and picking it up again to resume the conversation when done. I find this application absolutely vital, especially when interacting with automated systems, such as voicemails.

Firefox

Though the built-in Android browser and Google Chrome are both usable, Firefox currently provides the most reliable and accessible experience on Android. There are three options available: the stable release, the beta release, and the nightly snapshot. The latter is the most accessible, even including special accessibility gestures to choose a navigation level and move according to it (vertical and horizontal three-finger swipes, respectively); however, its nature makes it highly unstable and prone to bugs. I have personally opted to install both the beta and nightly versions, as they can coexist and I can always fall back to one if the other fails, or, if neither should work, use the built-in browser as last resort.

Nova Launcher

This application is not quite as necessary as those mentioned above, but is is definitely one to consider. Although TouchWiz Home is nearly completely accessible, certain of its functions, such as deleting a shortcut from a home screen (by dropping it in the rubbish bin at the top right or the app drawer at the bottom right of the screen) can be a little tricky. Furthermore, some people have reported a bug whereby The current home screen is not announced, leading to possible confusion. Nova launcher is an alternative home screen application which can be installed for free and offers a relatively smoother and more customisable user-experience, which some prefer. Although I am currently using Nova myself, I have not yet made up my mind that it is sufficiently better than TouchWiz that a new user should need to install it right away; nevertheless, it remains a very worthwhile alternative to TouchWiz and its accessibility is excellent.

Quick Tips

(This section may be expanded as new tips occur to me: so stay tuned.)

S-Voice

The Samsung Galaxy S III comes bundled with a personal assistant application called S-voice. Though many claim that it is far from perfect and nothing like the much-praised Siri voice assistant, I have found it to be very reliable when performing simple tasks, such as looking up contacts and setting alarms or reminders. The most wonderful thing about S-voice is that it can be invoked simply by depressing the home button twice in rapid succession and loads reasonably quickly. Give it a try and see whether it works for you.

Make Google Maps More Useful

By default, Google Maps won't be very talkative unless it is specifically asked to give directions; matters can be improved by enabling the "Intersection explorer" feature. To do so, open the Google Maps application, tap the menu button, then tap "Settings", locate and enter the "Labs" submenu: once there, locate and check the "Intersection Explorer" option. From now on, tapping the screen in Google Maps will described the current location and sliding a finger on the screen will allow exploration of the surrounding area in the manner described in this blog post.

Disabling Screenshot-capture Gesture

The TouchWiz overlay allows the user to quickly take a screenshot by swiping a palm across the screen; unfortunately, this seems to interfere with some of the three-finger accessibility gestures in Firefox. To avoid confusion, I have found it best to disable the screenshot gesture in the "Motion" submenu of the phone's settings.

Alarm Clock

Using the Alarm Clock application can be a little confusing the first time around. To set an alarm, open the application and select the "Alarm" tab: now, hit "Create alarm". The first steps should be fairly obvious, but you should be aware that hitting the "More" button at the first screen will expand the options available to you. Once that is done, the screen looks almost the same, but it is now possible to scroll down to choose a different alarm tones and configure the snoozing options, among other things. When done setting the alarm, simply hitting the "Save" button does the trick.

When the alarm goes off, it is possible to silence it by either hitting the power or home key, but it is not possible to choose between snoozing or dismissing an alarm (it snoozes the alarm the number of times allowed in settings and then dismisses it). To control that behaviour, one must use the touch-screen. If both the snooze and dismiss options are present, the "Dismiss" button will appear in the bottom left corner of the screen and "Snooze" to the right: to activate it, double-tap and hold the desired button before sliding your finger to the opposite side of the screen. If only dismissing the alarm is possible, the button will appear at the centre, near the bottom of the screen.

Wrap-up

The Samsung Galaxy S III offers more or less the same level of accessibility as a stock Android device and its ready availability and widespread adoption make it one of the best mainstream solutions out there as of this writing. The Android operating system itself offers a great level of accessibility and many of its shortcomings can be mitigated by using third-party applications. Since this is meant as an introductory article, it was impossible to delve in depth into the wealth of applications available on the platform and their level of accessibility (which can vary greatly from one application to another), nor in the many ways in which a smartphone like the S III can help in certain tasks. It is my intention to tackle these topics in a series of articles and reviews which I hope will come shortly.

If you have any questions or comments regarding this article, please feel free to contact me at smassy AT wolfdream DOT ca or via Twitter @SMassy1. For any general questions, please consider joining the eyes-free group where the discussion is always lively and people are most happy to answer questions.