Now that most of the hype and hoo-ha following the launch of two new iPhones has died down, Ian Macrae takes a considered look at the 6 Plus model from the disability perspective.
It was the advent of the iPhone 3GS which finally brought something like full access for people with a range of impairments to Apple’s popular line of handheld devices which were so much more than just phones. Prior to that, the smooth flat touch screens were, despite the name, accessible by sight only. But it was the introduction of VoiceOver which signalled not only a revolution in mobile technology for blind users, but also a commitment by the market leader in the field to embedding access options and solutions right across its product range. Now devices could be made to talk right out of the box.
Later came Siri, allowing for operation and control of the device by the user’s voice . Meanwhile FaceTime enabled visual communication meaning BSL users were able to communicate with each other independently or with hearing people using interpreters.
As a disabled person I welcomed this open approach to product accessibility and inclusiveness not just because I was able to use them, but because it represented exemplary behaviour by Apple which other manufacturers would still do well to emulate.
But enough of history and politics. How does this good practise show itself in the newest Apple products?
We have to start, as most other reviewers have, with the size of the 6 Plus. With a 5.5 inch screen, this is by far the largest handset they’ve produced so far, but it does follow the example set by manufacturers of Android devices. And first impressions when it comes out of the box are that it is big, particularly if you are coming to it from a 5 or 5S. But my experience has been that this is an aspect which with use becomes less extraordinary with familiarity.
In access terms, the size of the screen means – obviously – more screen to look at. And that in itself is generally a good and useful thing. But more important is the fact that the screen is high-definition.
This not only aids viewing of TV and other visual content on the go, it also means good sharp images produced by magnification apps such as Big Magnify, the one I use.
In addition to HD, the 6 Plus also boasts image stabilisation with the camera. For non-disabled users, this means higher quality video and photo shooting. For those like me who use OCR apps to scan text and turn it into speech, it means higher performance producing better results. Apps such as Prizmo or the recently released KNFB Reader benefit from this aspect of the technology. And that means that I, as a user of them, benefit too with more accurate scans meaning better results.
There are plenty of options when it comes to inputting text into the 6 Plus. The other night I totted up that, in fact, I had six alternative ways of creating texts, tweets, emails and text in other apps. In addition to the regular onscreen keyboard, the 6 Plus, like its predecessors, can be connected via bluetooth to a separate actual qwerty keyboard; thats’ two if you’re counting. Then on the onscreen keyboard there’s the button which allows you to dictate text into the handset. This feature on the 6 Plus has been enhanced meaning that, given a strong wi-fi or 3G or 4G signal, text is entered live pretty much as its spoken meaning that text is produced more or less instantaneously; we’re up to three.
Next come the choices available to those of us who want to input text in Braille. The 6 Plus retains the option of being able to connect an electronic Braille device via bluetooth. In fact the connection seems to me to be made more readily than with previous versions of the Apple iOS. In this later version (now iOS 8.1) connection is stable and reliable.
But perhaps most exciting of all is input option 5. When working with VoiceOver turned on, one twist of the rotor to the right immediately opens up a virtual Braille input keyboard on the 6 Plus’s screen. A third-party app has previously allowed this type of Braille input but only with a limited number of apps. The native Braille input means you can enter text in Braille in any of the onboard apps which allow text input. You can also use the keyboard on the home screen to enter the Braille name of any app you want to open. While it’s true that entering Braille on a flat screen with no actual keys does not at first seem like the most intuitive thing you’ll ever do, once again familiarity and practise bring better and speedier results.
And in case you’r wondering, the sixth method of text input and control for me comes from using the mini RiVO keyboard.
An enhanced version of Siri, the voice controlled means of using the iPhone, brings a new feature. Called ‘Hey Siri’, this allows you to issue commands on the fly and without having to press and hold the home button. Instead you wake Siri up by saying ‘ey Siri’. The advice is to only use this with the handset plugged up to the mains as connecting to the Siri server is very demanding on the battery.
And that brings us back to where we started with the question of size. Many of the apps and add-ons we as disabled people use tend to be quite hungry when it comes to battery usage. The larger size of the 6 Plus means a bigger battery, which in turn means a bigger battery with longer life between charges. So while in some cases it may be true that good things come in little packages, in this instance the iPhone 6 Plus is in many senses a BIG deal.