iOS or Android for the visually impaired revisited: Jelly Bean or iOS?

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Back in March when I took a stab at comparing iOS and Android from the perspective of a blind user, Android 4.1 (a.k.a. Jelly Bean) was nonexistent and no one knew what access features it would offer. Having tested Google Nexus 7 for more than two weeks and having seen blind users' opinions of Android 4.1, I'm now in a better position to compare iOS and Android yet again. So tighten your belt as I briefly go through my original comparison points first to check what has changed and then move on to an uncharted territory.

Where's the battleground?

Jelly Bean might not be a major Android update, but it's a big step forward in terms of accessibility. It looks as if Google engineers got together and said "let's ditch our access model in ICS and go back to the drawing board to devise a new one." However, rather than listing the new features one after another, I decided to intersperse them throughout this article as I mention the original comparison points.

The screen curtain -- it's not there yet

This feature allows users to essentially turn off the display and use the handset without necessarily worrying about prying eyes or the so-called "quidnunc." Now someone might say Android can do the same with a third-party app. Though I’ve not heard of such an app, VoiceOver’s approach requires no extra installation or configuration -- just a gesture.

As before, Jelly Bean doesn't have a quasi-screen curtain feature. In fact, it's not known if third-party apps which can be used to turn off the display work with Android 4.1. However, I should admit that as much as I like this feature (mine gets active whenever VoiceOver starts), I know that it's not a dealbreaker for many users. Neither is it a dealbreaker for me nor do I lament its absence in Jelly Bean and TalkBack, but it's undoubtedly a very useful utility which complements all mobile screen readers.

Labeling unknown icons -- not yet

I’ve used it several times in various apps, and can’t imagine how a mobile screen reader can exist without it.

Interestingly, android is also very much in need of such a feature for its major screen reader. In an ideal world, you could contact all developers and they'd take care of their strange label names, thanking you for the time it took to bring the issue to their attention. Sadly, that's not going to happen anytime soon.

Flicking is the star of the show -- Android has a true star now

I’ve heard this from some Android fanboys: "flicking is unnecessary and time-consuming." ... Flicking makes a huge difference in using newly installed apps and discovering new controls. ...

this has frustrated some Android fanboys and many of them call it a chapter from Apple's book. However, flicking works well in Jelly Bean and, for the first time, Android has become a friendlier OS for the blind. Also, it now uses the double-tap approach like what iOS offers -- no split-tap yet.

Independent and functional touch and keyboard modes -- don't look for them in Android

... VoiceOver can be operated with or without a Bluetooth keyboard.

Nothing has changed here in Android 4.1. Simply put, your bluetooth keyboard in Jelly Bean moves the System focus as if TalkBack were disabled whereas flicking moves the Accessibility focus. This makes using bluetooth keyboards in Android all the more difficult as you can't, say, unlock the handset with the keyboard or use it to quickly move to certain areas of the screen the way flicking and exclusive touch gestures do.

Easy movement to the top and bottom of the screen -- Android lives without it

With iOS 5 one can perform a four-finger gesture on the top or bottom of the screen and move the focus to that area -- I mean to the very first or the very last item on the screen.

While Android doesn't have these gestures (and they're even more important for larger Android screens), it's worth mentioning that Jelly Bean now has dedicated gestures to move users to important areas of the OS like the Home screen. It also has a new gesture to simulate the presses of the Back button. I like Android's approach where you use the combination of two single gestures out of four, (up, down, left and right), to perform those tasks. For instance, you might move up and right to do what you want. Again, this is not the equivalent of moving to the first or last screen element; rather, I mentioned them here to demonstrate an important Android improvement.

Better language and voice support -- a mixed bag for Jelly Bean

... I don’t like the default Android voice for US and UK English. ... Admittedly, extra voices can be purchased in Android ...

Jelly Bean comes with an improved voice for US English and I like it a lot. However, as many Android TTS providers have been purchased by Nuance, they haven't been updated for Android 4.0 and 4.1, meaning one has even fewer TTS choices in Android now. Also, other than the new US English voice, nothing has changed with the rest of languages.

The use of headings throughout the whole OS and in many apps -- Android still lacks it

When I first read about this I thought it wasn’t a big deal, but it sure is. ...

Needless to say, Jelly Bean doesn't have such a feature. It now provides a way to navigate around text by character, word and paragraph which is nice, but it's different from the exclusive use of headings to navigate around the OS.

Guaranteed future iOS updates -- JB powers less than 1 percent of Android devices

Even many Apple 3GS users have now upgraded to iOS 5.1 and are happily using their two-year-old handsets. Apart from the issue of largely inaccessible skins, Google doesn’t determine the fate of more than 99 percent of Android handsets ...

Nothing has changed in this regard, JB is on 0.8 percent of Android devices and ICS (Android 4.0) powers about 16 percent of them -- check here.

Superior Braille support -- playing catchup has started

I’ve heard that Braille is coming to Android ...

Code Factory's commercial screen reader now supports Braille though it doesn't work well with Jelly Bean. However, JB itself supports Grade I Braille via Google's new app -- BrailleBack. Apart from the missing Grade II support, Braille isn't supported in web views. Good move on Google's part, but a lot needs to be done here.

Now what? Does JB disappoint?

The nice point about Android 4.1 is that Google, for the first time, has displayed a higher degree of commitment to accessibility. However, as groundbreaking as many of these enhancements sound, Jelly Bean and TalkBack still lack important features which seriously hamper the usability of the OS.

Re-enabling access and TalkBack

With Android 4 Google introduced drawing a rectangle to start access services and speech in the setup screen. Now Jelly Bean takes a step further and allows users to keep two fingers on the screen for four seconds to enable access upon setting up the device. However, Google hasn't yet addressed the nagging issue of re-enabling access after a crash or whatever disables TalkBack. Simply put, you should go get sighted assistance to enable it once TalkBack stops speaking. That needs to be addressed ASAP.

Access to the Status Bar is a pain in the neck

The Status Bar in Android allows users to get important information about the battery status, network/signal status, and so forth. However, in Jelly Bean TalkBack reads all of the items in the Status Bar at once and doesn't allow users to, say, check their battery status even if they know where it's exactly located.

Other shortcomings

When I saw the Nexus 7, I was expecting a more consistent approach toward accessibility in TalkBack especially after seeing its consistent approach toward typing and navigation -- the Eyes-Free keyboard is no longer necessary to take advantage of Android. As this is not a full TalkBack/JB review, I'll summarize the problems below.

  • No gesture to start continuous reading,
  • No dedicated gesture to stop reading,
  • No mechanism to turn off/mute speech and later turn it on,
  • No way to know if loading a page in the browser has finished,
  • No way to adjust and disable verbose descriptions,
  • Very frequent speech crashes especially in web views,
  • Redundancy in some gestures -- when one wants to move around, say, character by character or word by word, moving to the next/previous UI control via left/Right swiping gets disabled unless character/word navigation is exited,
  • Lacking Landmark support in the browser, and
  • Inability to use the new offline Voice Dictation feature with TalkBack as it keeps repeating whatever appears on the screen, effectively jumbling the speech recognition.

So, should I make the switch?

It's definitely up to you. Currently the Galaxy Nexus handset and the Nexus 7 tablet are the only Android devices which have access to Jelly Bean. However, if you're looking for a polished, consistent experience and want to spend your hard-earned money in a better way, don't think of Android at the moment. Maybe getting the cheaper Nexus 7 tablet is justifiable, but I'd rather use the same amount of money to get the upcoming iPad Mini. Finally, the reasons for sticking to iOS go beyond this post and I'll dedicate another article to them. With iOS 6 just around the corner, the status of accessibility in Apple's products will be further solidified.

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A few things I wanted to mention. The newest beta of talkback now has a continuous read function. Regarding the google TTS, I don't like the U.S. english voice much either, I think the British English voice is much better. By far, Ivona is the best voice on Android in my view. Of course, speech is a very subjective thing. This doesn't relate to accessibility directly, but,, the lack of mass storage support on IOS for me is a deal breaker. If I want to copy music or other content to my android devices, I connect them and they show up as drives, and I can just copy everything. No need to mess with itunes or dropbox or anything else. Also, I want a qwerty keyboard for typing. I know you can use a bluetooth keyboard with IOS, but that's another device to carry. Typing on a hardware keyboard will always be faster than a touch screen there's just no way around it. I know Phleksy speeds up typing on IOS, but you can't use it every place where you need to enter text. I hope they develop this for android as well, since you could set it as your default input. For a great web browsing experience on Android, install the nightly build of firefox, what they've done with accessibility is awesome.

Great Progress

I'm glad to know that Jellybean has definitely improved as far as accessibility. I'm thinking about getting a tablet and the Nexus 7 is a possible choice. However, as mentioned, the iPad is still a better option. I'm keeping tabs on android though.

Re: Comments

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hi Mike:

The newest beta of talkback now has a continuous read function.
Yes -- it was released some two days ago. However, it's prone to speech and audio crashes especially on the S III and on JB selecting the Accept button via sighted assistance under some circumstances isn't something I can live with. Sure it needs to be done once, but that mentality isn't what I can stand.
This doesn't relate to accessibility directly, but,, the lack of mass storage support on IOS for me is a deal breaker. If I want to copy music or other content to my android devices, I connect them and they show up as drives, and I can just copy everything. ...

Well, this is an age-old argument, isn't it? Personally, to me enhanced accessibility and device usability are far more important factors when it comes to using a device. So I wish Android didn't offer that storage option but offered a more consistent, less crash-free experience. JB is a couple of months old now but its frequent speech crashes and other user-reported issues haven't yet been addressed -- in fact, the latest beta has introduced more Android stability problems. Honestly I don't get a handset or tablet to become the beta-tester of its major screen reader when the official release of that doesn't offer a better experience. Beta-testing something which hasn't been released to the public is something and beta-testing an app for a platform after that platform itself has been available to everyone is something else. That never-ending beta-testing mentality is something which bugs me about Android.

For a great web browsing experience on Android, install the nightly build of firefox, what they've done with accessibility is awesome.

Accessible Firefox on Android still needs a relatively long way to go -- in fact if it were an iOS app, it would be rated as poorly accessible on AppleVis. On the other hand, when it comes to web-browsing (like many other tasks), you have more accessible choices on iOS other than the default browser -- Atomic Web Browser and Google's own Chrome are just two of them.

re: firefox

I'm really confused as to why you'd give it a pourly accessible rating. Maybe you didn't get the nightly builds, but just now they fixed 4.1 support, and if your phone has a keyboard you can use first letter navigation.. Even if it doesn't you still can use it with the eyes-free keyboard. I do appreciate what Apple's doing and that their accessibility is very much polished, but as much as I'd like to buy an iPhone I just can't afford the $700 for it... and if I buy it from an operator I'd needt to pay a lot for a plan which I probably wouldn't even use fully since i'm on wifi 90% of the time. Also a lot of things are custom for the iPhone. The first thing being the docking cable which was about $30. My current Android just uses a standard micro USB, which is way more compatible and cheeper. Secondly because I travel to Sweden a lot I can just get a cheep prepaid for the time i'm there... I don't know any prepaid provider that gives MicroSims, let alone Nanosim's which the iPhone 5 is rumored to be using. I paid $300 for my phone unlocked, and it has a qwerty keyboard and hardware comparable to an iPhone 4, can record in stereo with built-in Mics, and doesn't run as slowly as iOS5. All that having been said I do acknowledge it doesn't work as well as Voice over, but it's slowly getting there and I can very much use it on a daily basis.

Re: Firefox

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hello Peter,

I'm really confused as to why you'd give it a pourly accessible rating. Maybe you didn't get the nightly builds, but just now they fixed 4.1 support, ...

The latest nightly built was released about 24 hours ago so I haven't had the chance to play with it -- I hope other than the so-called explorability issue on 4.1 it gets some more fixes. Of course, frequent speech crashes in web views apparently have nothing to do with the browser used and that should be fixed by Google.

Also a lot of things are custom for the iPhone. The first thing being the docking cable which was about $30. My current Android just uses a standard micro USB, which is way more compatible and cheeper. ...

I've never felt the need to use a docking cable but I do understand where you come from in that regard.

I paid $300 for my phone unlocked, and it has a qwerty keyboard and hardware comparable to an iPhone 4, can record in stereo with built-in Mics, and doesn't run as slowly as iOS5.

Interesting. I've never seen an Android handset which functions faster than iPhone 4S. Even the S III lags behind in that regard especially when TalkBack is used. Also, VoiceOver crashes are rare and if you use the HQ voice, you'll get 0 crashes whereas one has to come to terms with frequent TalkBack crashes. It's getting more and more difficult to find Android handsets with physical keyboards

re: Great Progress

I would like to say that having the Nexus 7 since September has given me the opportunity to really do side-by-side comparisons. Since then, Google really has improved on the usability of TalkBack. Now, I am able to read continuously and not experience crashes. Firefox with a keyboard is fantastic. Also, certain apps have worked better for me on Android like Zello and Viber. I can't wait to experience Keylime Pie and improved accessibility when the update is released.

Thankfully JB 4.2 is much improved, but still lags behind IOS in

I am happy that android is improving in accessibility. IN my perfect world both platforms would be as accessible as we could want. I am not into the platform wars. I wish both could happily exist and wish the fanboys didn't constantly feel the need to declare war on the other. The wall between the two should never have been erected. Now to my comments. I purchased a nexus 4 a few months ago with the hope I would enjoy using it very productively and could feel like I could pick it up as a replacement to IOS if ever the need or the desire or just happily enjoy both platforms with each being able to be used exclusively for my needs and wishes. Android is almost there. In the annoying but can live with it catagory we have: they still appear to be using the model of pushing to the accessibility API instead of pulling the information on demand. I don't know if they will ever change this or if patents keep them from doing so. YOu can tell though because if you touch something on the screen, it will not speak again if you touch it and sometimes things around it are equally unable to be spoken until you satisfy the system requirement to cause it to again be pushed to the API. You have to touch or often more conveniently swipe to something else and then go back to what you are trying to get to speak. Then it seems it again can push the information to the API. Yes that is a guess about the reasoning for this behavior, but I think it is highly likely the answer. One can certainly live with it and it is not a deal breaker in any situation I have come across yet. I think it is a less robust and more limiting accessibility model. In most cases just being aware of it eliminates much of the frustration I can imagine otherwise having with that behavior though. Not being able tl label things yourself is frustrating, but I hardly ever use that functionality in IOS and it was broken in IOS for a long time anyway. The way apple often reuses broken code and reserects bugs that had gone away, it is likely to be broken again. I find the two finger scrolling in JB to be unreliable and will often activate things in the process of trying to scroll. I find this very frustrating and have been trying to find where I am at fault and get rid of the problem. I am not sure if I am at fault or if this functionality is buggy. One thing I find more than annoying and truely a problem is that with the newest version of talkback and the newest version of Chrome in the latest version of Android, some pages will lock up the browser with talkback running and eventually you will get the dialog that the browser has stopped responding and you can either report the issue or quit the browser. is one of these pages. I have seen one web view do the same, interestingly enough it was in the weather channel app. I don't know where the problem lies, but it concerns me that it may have a root cause that could have the same impact on other things. I don't know if web views in applications always have to use chrome and therefore be subject to this problem. Firefox on the same pages has not problem. Loading the page with talkback disabled in chrome the page works fine. I do like the android voices, including the default english voice, better than vocalizer in IOS. I did hear a podcast showing the default english android voice to be unstable though when trying to read larger blocks of text that it will crash and will never read it. Loading a different text to speech gets around the problem. If the same problem existed in IOS you would not have a way necessarily around it unless you went to a different and compact voice if that resulted in getting around the problem. Vocalizer is a terrible text to speech in my opinion. Pronounciation ranges from normal to horrable. It often runs words together and puts artifacts in the speech that should not be there. From a company like Nuance, the vocalizer series is unacceptable in how poorly it is designed. I strongly disagree with the fanboys that take issue with swiping being an option in Android. This is nothing short of rediculous since if they don't like it they never have to use it. To advocate for it to not exist because they just don't like IOS and it reminds them of IOS is truely selfish, inconsiderate and I can not see how it could be a respectable stance to take.