This is my attempt to compare the latest versions of Android and iOS from the perspective of a totally blind user. This article will be split up into three sections. The first section is a general overview of my experience with Android and iOS. Since I am primarily an iOS user, the second section will be my general experience with Android. In order to get an idea of what Android is like from a blind perspective, I will not be making comparisons to iOS in this section. I will just describe my experiences using an Android phone for the last month. The final section will be a comparison of Android and iOS from an accessibility prospective. The section about my experiences with Android is fairly long and can be skipped for those who want a quick overview of my opinion on Android compared to iOS accessibility.
When choosing an Android device, use this article as a general guide to determine whether Android is something you would be interested in, not a recommendation for a specific device. Some Android phones have customizations which make them more accessible than the default Android experience you get on Google Play devices such as the Nexus 4. Some devices have issues which make them less accessible than the default you get with a Google Play device. Since I cannot test all devices, I am going to use the Nexus 4 for this review. If researching other devices, keep in mind that everything I write may not apply to your chosen device. During this review, where ever possible, I attempted to use the default software applications included with Android. While in some cases these meant things might be somewhat less accessible, my goal is to provide a comparison of default Android accessibility to iOS, not a comparison of heavily customized Android to iOS. For information on specific devices, look at the eyes-free google group at
It is a group of blind Android users who have been helpful to me when I have had questions in the past.
I am a software developer and have been using computers every day for the last 15 years with Jaws as my screen reader. My first smart phone was a Nokia E71X using Mobile Accessibility as the screen reader. While this phone would not be considered smart by today’s standards due to the lack of an app store, I was able to use it for basic internet browsing and email. In 2009 I bought the third generation iPod touch, which was the equivalent of an iPhone 3GS. Although I was skeptical that a totally blind person could use a touch screen device, I got the salesperson at the store to promise that they would waive the 10% restocking fee if I returned it within 14 days. Although I initially had trouble figuring out how to use the iPod touch, within a week I was comfortable with it and had decided to keep it. In 2011, I bought an iPhone 4 that I used until I recently upgraded to an iPhone 5s.
My experience with Android started in 2012 when I bought a $99 Chinese Android tablet running Android 4.0. I was not expecting a lot out of this tablet, but was hoping to get a basic idea of Android accessibility. While I was able to get it speaking with sighted help, accessibility never worked quite right and I gave up on it. In 2013 I bought a 2012 refurbished Nexus 7. My experience with this device was more positive since I was able to set it up without sighted assistance. Although it was usable if you were totally blind, I never got comfortable with it since if I had trouble figuring out how to do something, I would just go back to the iPhone. When I decided I wanted to realistically assess Android for accessibility, I realized I would need to use an Android phone as my primary phone in order to avoid picking up the iPhone whenever I ran into something I could not easily figure out how to do. In order to do this, I bought a Nexus 4 from one of my co-workers and swapped the SIM from my iPhone into it. At the time of this review, I have been using the Nexus 4 as my phone for about a month.
Setting up the Nexus 4 was completely accessible, although it required you to have headphones. From the initial setup screen I held two fingers on the screen slightly separated for several seconds. Performing this gesture enabled Talkback. Using Talkback, I was able to connect to a wireless network, log into my Google account, and choose my keyboard layout and everything else that was required to set up the phone. The only issue is that by default, Android does not speak the characters you enter into a password field unless you have headphones plugged in. While you can turn this off in settings, when in the setup wizard, there is no way to get to settings and disable this option. In order to type in my Gmail password, I had to use headphones. While this is not a big deal, it is something to be aware of.
Google provides an explore by touch tutorial that is somewhat useful. The tutorial walks you through finding and activating apps, scrolling through lists and pages, text selection, and typing. In Android when selecting text, changing the way Talkback reads text etc., you need to use specific gestures such as swiping up and right, then exploring the screen with your finger to find the specific option you want, such as read by word. While the tutorial teaches you how to do this, the gestures are tricky to always get right. It would have been more helpful if the tutorial had required you to complete these gestures several times before moving to the next step.
Once I was done with setup, the first thing I tried to do was answer a call. This turned out to be impossible to easily do by default. While I could swipe through options when someone called, there was no option I could tap to answer the call. A quick Google search of the eyes-free blind Android users group confirmed that you had to perform a specific gesture to answer a call and that it had to be performed on a specific portion of the screen. Rather than making a friend repeatedly call me so I could practice the gesture to answer the phone and hoping I was able to do it properly every time, I just downloaded “shaking call receive.” This app allows me to shake the phone to answer a call. While it is ridiculous that Google does not offer an easy way for a blind user to answer their phones, at least this can be quickly fixed by a free app.
The next thing I did was to import my contacts from my iPhone. Many people will not need to do this since any contact you have in Gmail will be automatically accessible. Since I did not have my iPhone set to sync all my contacts with Gmail, I had to export all my contacts as a .VCF file. Using my computer, I then transferred this file to the downloads folder on my Nexus 4. I was then able to use the app OI file manager to select the file. When I opened it, I was able to import all the contacts from the file to my phone. This entire process was easy and accessible.
After getting my contacts imported, I tried out text messaging. When I sent a message to a contact, my phone prompted me to switch from the default messaging app to Google Hangouts for text messaging. Since I do not use Google Plus or Hangouts, I decided to stick with the default messaging app. I was easily able to send and receive text messages. It was easy, although slow to type messages using the onscreen keyboard. I found myself using dictation by activating dictation rather than typing on the onscreen keyboard. The one annoyance of the messaging app is a lot of unlabeled buttons. When reading previous messages, there was an unlabeled button after every message. This made reviewing past messages slower than necessary, although had no other negative effects on accessibility. It is worth noting that Android allows you to install alternative messaging apps. I have not tried any of these, but saw info on the Eyes-free list about an app called Accessible SMS. If I were using an Android phone as my primary phone full time, I would probably give this app a try.
The next thing I set up on my phone was email. I’m not a big email user on my phone, but I do like the ability to glance at new messages. Since I had heard that the Gmail app has accessibility issues and I wanted to use other accounts besides Gmail, I installed K-9 Mail. This app was easy to set up my email accounts on and I had no problem reading and responding to email. Deleting multiple email messages without reading them first was less intuitive. I had to enable multiple checkboxes in the K-9 Mail settings. Once I did this, to select a message I would have to tap the checkbox immediately before the email subject, as well as the checkbox immediately after the email subject. While this allowed me to select multiple email messages at once and delete them, it was a slow process. Since I’m not a heavy email user, this application met all my needs. If I had a lot of email triage to perform though, I would have quickly grown frustrated with how long it took to select multiple messages. One note on using this application, by default it puts new messages in your notification center. Since I had my main Gmail account set up in K-9 Mail in order to avoid duplicate notifications, I disabled mail for my Google account in the device settings so the Gmail app would not pop up with a notification.
After setting up email, I installed Firefox for Android in order to have an accessible browser. Let me preface what follows with the fact that I do very little browsing on my smart phone. If I know I am going to have to read or type a lot when using the internet, I will grab my laptop. Given the fact that I generally only do quick Google searches or quickly read a Wikipedia article, Firefox works well enough. Opening a webpage and reading it was completely accessible. In order to move by link, form field, etc. you use a three finger swipe left and right to move element by element. A three finger swipe up and down cycles through the type of elements you want to move by. I had a very hard time performing these gestures until I realized that on my Nexus 4 I needed to have my three fingers oriented vertically on the screen not horizontally. Once I figured this out everything, worked fine. In addition to swiping with three fingers, you can use a Bluetooth keyboard to move by element K and Shift+K will move to the next and previous link, h moves by headings, etc. Since I always carry a small Bluetooth keyboard with me, I found this the easiest way to use Firefox. I should note that as of mid-June an accessible version of Google Chrome has been released. Since I don’t use an internet browser much though, I did not bother playing with this.
In general, I was able to find accessible applications on Android for everything I use frequently on iOS. For podcasts I used Pocket Casts. I was able to import my podcast subscriptions from an OPML file and the app was accessible. For music I use Spotify instead of storing files on my phone. The Android version of Spotify was generally accessible. One issue I had was the inability to pause playback from within the Spotify app since the playback controls are not labeled. In order to work around this, I would lock my phone then pause playback from the lock screen. For reading books I use Kindle. The Kindle app on Android has just recently become accessible and worked well for me. When attempting to install the official Twitter client, I saw it wanted access to my text messages. Since this made me uncomfortable, I bought Tweetings for Twitter. This app is accessible and my only complaint about it is, when reading through my timeline, there would be a button after each tweet. While this did not reduce the accessibility of the app, it did slow me down when I had a lot of timeline reading to do. Since I am not a heavy user of GPS apps, I did not play with any of these. Searching the eyes-free list should provide several options for GPS apps specifically designed for blind users.
After using Android for a couple of weeks, I looked into customizing my home screen layout and using widgets. I experimented with different launchers but was never able to find one which would allow me to delete home screens. Since I was unable to find a launcher that would let me reduce the number of home screens from 5, I just stuck with the default launcher. Using the default launcher, I was able to add an app to a home screen by accessing the app drawer and long pressing the application. After the app was on the home screen, I could long press it and swipe left and right to move it from home screen to home screen. I could never control where the app would wind up on a home screen though, so I was unable to create folders of apps. I was also able to add a widget to the home screen by selecting the widget type I wanted from the list of available widgets accessed through the app drawer. Given these constraints, I laid out my home screens as followed:
Home screen one consisted of nothing but widgets to direct dial important contacts. The second home screen consisted of a weather widget and other widgets to access quick settings such as mobile hotspot and cellular data. My third home screen contained my most important apps such as Kindle, Tweettings, Pocket Casts, etc. My fourth and fifth home screens contained all the stuff that I dragged off the first three home screens when I was arranging them. This is due to the fact that I could not figure out how to delete an icon from a home screen, only move it to another home screen where it would be out of the way.
From an out of the box experience, I feel Android is close to iOS from an accessibility standpoint. Android, however, felt much less polished to me. While all the major functions of a smart phone can be accessed on both iOS and Android, Android requires more customization. The two examples of this that stood out to me were having to install the Shake to Answer app and Shades. As soon as Voiceover is activated on an iPhone, you can easily answer the phone. In order to answer the phone on Android without sighted assistance, you need to get comfortable enough with Android to launch the Android market and install Shake to Answer. The second major out of the box advantage of iOS over Android is a built in screen curtain in iOS. With Android, I had to install the Shades app to reduce the screen brightness to a level that someone could not read by glancing at my phone. Unfortunately Shades does not directly integrate with Talkback. On iOS if voiceover is deactivated, the screen automatically becomes visible. With Shades this is not the case, making it a two-step process to allow a sighted person to borrow your phone. Rather than just disabling your screen reader, you have to disable Shades then disable your screen reader. When the sighted person is done with your phone, you have to remember to enable Shades, since it does not automatically activate when Talkback does.
In general usage I found Android to be slower than iOS. I realize there is no good way to make this comparison since the hardware is not identical but there is one specific issue that I assume is not specific to the Nexus 4, since I also saw it on my Nexus 7. When scrolling through long lists, Talkback would pause as it was switching pages and sometimes repeat the last item on the prior page, before continuing to read items on the new page. This was particularly annoying in apps consisting of long lists with few items per page, such as Tweetings. In general, I found swiping from item to item to be slightly less responsive on the Nexus 4 than on the iPhone. I do not believe these are issues specific to the Nexus 4 since my 2012 Nexus 7 with half the ram and a duel core processor, instead of the Nexus 4′s quad core processor, had similar performance in daily use to the Nexus 4.
General screen reader usage is easier for me on iOS than on Android. While I understand some of this is due to more experience with iOS, the gestures on iOS are more intuitive than on Android. With iOS you can use the rotor to access all major options. On Android, there are multiple two part gestures, for example, swiping up and right or right then down. In some cases, performing these gestures on Android will immediately perform an action such as opening the notification center or activating the back button. In other cases, the gesture will bring up a menu of options. While in theory a menu of options is nice, you have to drag your finger around the screen without lifting it to find the specific option you want. I found this difficult and, after a month of use, still have some trouble quickly finding options such as reading by word or pausing Talkback after I’ve activated the menu. I also find the two part gestures difficult to perform. After a month, I’d say I only get them right about 90% of the time. With iOS I had a 100% success rate with any gesture I needed to perform after two weeks. iOS has two system wide gestures that I miss on Android. The first is a two finger double tap to pause and resume music playback. Since Android did not have this gesture, I often found myself having to search an application for a play/pause button or locking then unlocking the phone to pause playback from the lock screen. The second gesture is a double tap within a text field to start dictation. In Android you have to find the dictation button next to the space bar. This makes starting dictation slower. On the pro side for Android, I found text dictation on Android to be quite a bit more accurate and more reliable than iOS.
Navigation on Android and iOS was comparable, although different. On iOS it is easy to get home by pressing the home button or to switch apps by double tapping the home button. Generally back buttons in applications are in the upper left corner of the screen and are relatively easy to find. On the Nexus 4, there is not a physical home button. Instead, there is a home button, back button, and recent apps button at the bottom of the screen. While I was worried about the lack of a physical home button, within a couple days, I could find all these buttons easily so I would call this a draw. One advantage the iPhone has over the Nexus 4 is the availability of tactile screen protectors. While it is easy to find items such as the back button and status bar on the Nexus 4, a tactile screen protector would have made typing easier.
Following are some general comparison notes that do not fit anywhere else. The status bar is easier to read in iOS than in Android. In iOS if you touch the status bar, you can swipe left and right to hear individual pieces of information. In Android, you cannot read individual pieces of information. Tapping the status bar reads all the information. In Android it is impossible to tell whether your phone is charging. When you tap the status bar, it will announce your battery percent but does not announce whether the phone is charging, unlike iOS. In Android using Talkback, it is impossible to see if there is network activity. According to a Google search in the Wi-Fi indicator, a blinking up arrow represents upload activity and a blinking down arrow represents download activity. Talkback does not announce this. Talkback also does not announce that location services are active when reading the status bar, even though this information is available. Finally, I found Bluetooth keyboards to be much more reliable for entering text on Android than iOS. Before Fleksy (an alternative touch typing application I find to be much more efficient than the standard iOS keyboard) was released for iOS, I bought a $20 mini Bluetooth keyboard. I would often have issues with keystrokes not being picked up or repeated multiple times. I assumed this was due to it being a keyboard, but when I used the same keyboard on Android, I had none of these issues. I found using a mini Bluetooth keyboard on Android to be just as efficient as Fleksy on iOS when I was in a situation where I did not want to dictate text messages, such as texting at work.
In summary I was pleasantly surprised with Android accessibility. Both Android and iOS are viable smartphone platforms if you are a totally blind individual. Both allow you to perform main smartphone functions such as calling, texting, checking email, browsing the internet and using apps. The learning curve for Android is steeper than for iOS, due to the requirement of finding alternative apps such as an email client and way to answer calls. Android gestures are also harder to learn than iOS. While quite usable, Android performance is not as good as iOS. At any instant this is not a big deal, but having used the Nexus 4 for a month, I did notice that things did take slightly longer to do on the Nexus than on the iPhone.
Based on this, there are three different budgets I will consider. The first budget is money is not an issue. I could not recommend buying a high end Android phone that costs the equivalent of an iPhone. If you’re going to pay the same for iOS or Android, it makes more sense to go with iOS since it is generally easier to use and performs better. The second situation is if your budget is around $350. With having read multiple reviews, but not having a chance to play with a Moto G, I would either suggest trying to spend extra on a used iPhone or save $150 and buy a Moto G. Since I did not see a performance difference between my Nexus 4 phone and Nexus 7 tablet in daily use, I would assume there would not be a big performance difference to a blind user between a Nexus 5 and a Moto G. If you are blind you do not care about the screen quality, as long as the touch screen is good enough to register taps. Since a camera is not a big deal, I do not see the point in spending extra for the Nexus 5. If your budget is $200 or below, I would suggest getting an Android phone such as the Moto G or possibly the Moto E instead of buying an out of date used iPhone, or struggling to save enough money to buy a newer iPhone.
When I went to college, Smart phones were not really an option if you were blind. With everything I know now, if I were 18 and starting college, I would buy a $149 Moto G with the $25 per month republic wireless plan to save money, rather than spending $650 on a new iPhone and paying $50 for cell service. If money matters a lot, Android is good enough as a blind user. Even if you are giving up some usability and performance, you can still accomplish everything with it that you could with an iPhone. If money is not a major concern, the better usability of the iPhone is worth the extra cost.