Thursday, April 6, 2017

Leaving the Laptop Behind: Accessories For iOS Devices

As iOS devices and apps have improved, the notion of leaving the laptop behind and using your iOS device plus portable accessories grows more tempting. I have now crossed over that line. My laptop is used only at home while my iPHONE7 and a small light bag of accessories comes along with me. Generally speaking, I don't miss the laptop at all. However, part of the reason for this is that I'm very familiar with how to do things on iOS. If you're just learning the basics, keep the laptop handy until you've grown comfortable with iOS and any accessories you choose. To achieve the same speed as when using a laptop, you need to know VoiceOver gestures as well as what your options are. This isn't a transition made overnight. You will initially take longer to do things until you become more proficient with the iOS environment.

There are an overwelming number of accessories and plenty of choices in all categories. These include different cases, external batteries [often called power banks], speakers, headsets, earbuds, keyboards, etc. Accessibility for blind people is not often a consideration when these are designed. However, there are devices which are more accessible than others by shere accident. Below, we'll look at some accessory choices I've made and how I approached them. Your travel kit will likely differ from mine depending on your specific needs, budget and priorities.

Adding to the difficulty of selecting the best possible gear, it's hard to try before you buy when it comes to accessories. Sometimes, you can go to a store and find demo units available. However, most often, there won't be that option as stores don't want to open items and then not be able to sell them. This is especially true for less expensive items. Much of the time, you'll be orderring accessories online and relying completely on reviews and descriptions found there. This is especially true if you include devices which are being crowd funded on Kickstarter or Indiegogo. You can come across some very innovative ideas there. For instance, the Power Cap, funded on Kickstarter. It's a hat outfitted with solar panels and small rechargable battery. A good thought in theory. Just because a large company hasn't thought of exactly what you might want, that doesn't mean someone with the skills and resources isn't trying to fund production and get started. Crowd funding has proved to be a very effective way of funding products aimed at niche markets including devices more accessible to blind users.

Thankfully, there are reviews and descriptions of pretty much everything on the web. Mine them for the info you need to make the most informed choices possible when selecting your gear. Written reviews, podcasts, and video reviews are all very useful tools. Even if you can't see the video, reviewers tend to describe important tactile aspects in passing. You might also hear any sounds made by accessories such as how keys or buttons sound when pressed or voice prompts spoken by accessories. Look beyond what the manufacturers say. Chances are good that someone has tried what you're interested in. Learn from their experience whenever possible.

Why not a Notetaker or Laptop:

Inevitably, people will ask why you'd go through all the bother of acquiring accessories to overcome shortcomings of your iOS device rather than just taking a laptop or notetaker. It all comes down to portability, ease of repair, and economics. If something goes wrong with your laptop, you're completely out of action digitally speaking. It's a single unit which will need repair. Meanwhile, your iOS device is already a powerful enough computer for most student or travel needs. The iPHONE further gives you a fully accessible smartphone plus GPS capability in a single pocket-sized device. Information is stored in the cloud so the risk of information loss is very minimal should disaster strike your iOS device. The accessories are individually far less expensive to replace if necessary. If you send a keyboard away for repair, you aren't missing the rest of the capabilities of your iOS device while it's being worked on. Also, there are utually inexpensive accessories, like the Amazon Basics bluetooth keyboard for instance, which you could purchase if desperate. Accessories such as batteries, speakers, and keyboards typically last a long time so need not be replaced when you upgrade to a new iOS device. When it's time to upgrade a laptop or notetaker, you're generally replacing the entire device paying a substantial amount of cash in order to do this. Having external accessories last potentially long enough to be used with several iOS devices maximizes economic efficiency so you can pick your moments when it comes to upgrading various components of your overall system. Very good for people on tight budgets. For example, I'm waiting for improvements promised by Bluetooth version 5 to make their way into the next generation of speakers. Once that happens, I'll think about replacing the speaker I currently cary.

The iOS ecosystem is far more economical than others. Apps are often far less expensive and take advantage of the work Apple has done adding accessibility features to the operating system. You can make use of many of the same apps everyone else does. They need not be specially produced for blind people. That lowers the cost of adding capabilities to your iOS device like you wouldn't believe. It also makes relating to sighted people who use the same iOS devices easier. Sharing information, communicating, and tapping into the same markets for digital goods like books, music, and apps as everyone else are huge advantages blind people simply haven't experienced before iOS devices became accessible.

Bluetooth Keyboards:

Typing fast enough to take class notes on an iPHONE or iPAD is pretty much impossible for most of us. People with very good muscle memory might possibly manage. Feeling around making certain you have the right character slows me down considerably. Don't even think about trying to use Siri to dictate your notes in a classroom setting. Touchscreen keyboards are good for writing short emails, notes and contact info but for serious rapid sustained writing, a tactile keyboard is a must.

Step 1: Think about what your ideal keyboard would be like. Have a firm grasp on what you're after. You won't likely get exactly what you want but it gives you a starting point.

My ideal keyboard would be rigid enough to use on my lap when necessary. It wouldn't be too compact and would stick as closely as possible to a Qwerty design. Good tactile key travel and function buttons were important. I didn't want situations where I accidentally invoked a function like muting sound which was controlled by a flat pad I couldn't distinguish by touch.

Step 2: Pick one or two characteristics and start looking for keyboards which have them. Alternatively, think of what kind of person might want a keyboard like your ideal one. For me, that was authors. It had to be comfortable to do serious lengthy writing on. That comfort clearly trumped smaller size. It also had to be rugged so it would withstand bumping against things. If I go through the trouble of getting used to a keyboard, it had better last a long time. This thought exercise gives you plenty of good ideas for words to include in online searches. Google is very good at dishing out meaningful results from a few well-chosen keywords or phrases separated by commas.

Step 3: Go through reviews your initial criteria pointed you to and narrow down the prospects by what you read about them. Think long-term satisfaction here. It's worth paying a little extra if you plan on living with your decisions for as long as possible like I do most of the time. I would even go so far as waiting until I had the money to obtain a really critical part of your kit like a good comfortable keyboard.

Result: I chose a Microsoft Universal Mobile keyboard. I read reviews and descriptions of many different Bluetooth keyboards. However, the Microsoft one kept coming up as being the closest thing to what I wanted. Video reviews let me hear the sound of the keys in use and also described aspects like the power button on the side. It had a rigit magnetic cover which folded open like a book and could be removed to be used as a stand. It would also serve as a tray to put my iPHONE on while typing with it on my lap. Reviewers praised its comfortable size of 85% of a full keyboard and good tactile feedback. Battery life was excellent letting people go at least a week of average use without charging. Closing the cover turned the keyboard off automatically. It was still one of my more expensive investments but I found it on sale and pounced.

When the keyboard arrived, it turned out to be a bit too short for totally comfortable use on my lap. It was perfectly possible with my knees close together. The keys felt good and it was nice and sturdy. The function buttons have turned out to be an even more valueable addition now that I'm using AirPods which lack volume and playback controls. I've been very happy overall with this purchase. For increased comfort and efficiency, I later acquired a Grifiti lapdesk designed for tablets and small keyboards. This let me set my iPHONE in portrait mode beside the keyboard with both items being very stable and comfortable in my lap. A very nice combination which fits into a small shoulderbag along with other items.

Beware The Lag:

When it comes to speakrrs, earbuts and headsets, blind people have a major concern which superseeds all others. That is to minimize or completely avoid Bluetooth lag. Blind people require VoiceOver's responses to their actions to be as close to instant as possible. Even a split second delay can be very frustrating. If you're sighted, imagine having to wait a half-second before the character you typed appeared on screen. Sound delay doesn't matter as much for listenning to music. It's just ear candy. However, lag becomes bothersome when you rely exclusively on sound to function. To avoid lag, look for a highg Bluetooth version number. Don't get anything using Bluetooth 4. Bluetooth 4.1 is as low as you should be willing to go. Higher is better. Bluetooth 5 is ready and products that use it will shortly enter the market. This will give better speed, more reliable connectivity and range. Bluetooth 5 should make dealing with lag a thing of the past. Until then, look for 4.1 and 4.2. Apple uses its W1 chip to enhance Bluetooth connectivity solving many problems. My AirPods have no lag, are dirt simple to pair and have good battery life. For me, lack of volume and other control on the AirPods was a small price to pay for completely wireless operation and extreme portability. I don't mind using my iPHONE to perform these functions. Also, when I'm using my Bluetooth keyboard, it has those volume and playback functions built in. AirPods work wonderfully for me along with my hearing aids and combine unexpectedly good sound with extreme portability. However, I wouldn't use AirPods while walking outdoors. They are tiny and it would be too easy to lose them if they ever fell out of your ears. Also, earbuds block too much of your ability to hear your surroundings. Concern is growing even for sighted people about this constant quest for sound isolation. For blind people, it's vital to hear what's happening around us.

These conserns lead me to seek a good outdoor alternative. Aftershokz offers wired and Bluetooth bone conduction headsets. Basically, transducers positionned in front of your ears send sound through your bones leaving ears free to hear what's around you. These have tactile controls, voice guidance, and don't block your ears leaving them free to hear your surroundings. They also are very unlikely to fall off. You lose some sound quality compared to other headsets or Airpods but it's worth the trade when outdoors or while your ears are wet after swimming or taking a shower.

The shopping procedure is the same for audio accessories as with the keyboard. Think about what you want and then look for options which give you as much of what you're after as possible. Think long-term. Many accessories can get firmware updated. This allows manufacturers to make improvements after products are in the field. AirPods can receive such updates so Apple can improve them taking customer feedback into consideration. I expect my AirPods to last years and made my choice with long-term satisfaction in mind.

Be mindful of power required by these accessories. Apple AirPods last around 5 hours but have a charging case which contains enough for multiple charges. I likely won't have to use an external battery to recharge them between opportunities to plug in most of the time. You can use and charge them separately charging one while using the other. That won't be an option with headsets. While they're charging up, you're out of action unless you have a backup plan like using Lightning earpods which come with iOS devices or a spair Bluetooth headset or earbuds.

Sometimes, you can find devices with nice extra features. For instance, there are Bluetooth speakers with built-in FM radio capability. The USB charging cable which comes with the device serves as an antenna allowing good FM reception. Read reviews carefully to help determine how easy to operate and how tactile the controls on devices are. If devices use buttons that are hard to feel or touchscreen controls, you may not be able to use them. Also, there are companies who are more aware of accessibility issues. Aftershokz are a good example as they equip their headsets with voice prompts and have tactile controls.

Extra Power:

Blind people can put heavy demands on the batteries in iOS devices. Setting the screen brightness to 0 helps conserve power so blind people should do this. The VoiceOver screen curtain feature doesn't actually turn off the screen. It merely obscures the contents. Setting screen brightness to 0 saves a nice bit of power. However, GPS, cellular and Wifi connectivity, Bluetooth and constantly producing audio drains power. You can turn off things like Wifi if you're not using it. Airplane mode shuts down all transmition of any kind from your iOS device and is helpful when you want to recharge your device rapidly. However, if you turn off Bluetooth, AirPods and other Bluetooth audio accessories won't work. You'll likely need Bluetooth on all the time. The more connectivity you turn off, the less potentially useful your iOS device is. You can't receive a phone call or text message while in airplane mode unless you specifically turn on the needed capabilities. Same goes for handy apps like Identifi which need Internet connectivity. These devices are so helpful that we want them to be ready whenever we need them. Extra portable power doesn't cost a fortune and just makes sense.

Apple sells cases which contain additional battery power for their products. For people likely to forget extra gear like external batteries, this can be a very good idea. They offer an additional advantage of communicating their level of charge to your iOS device so you can know how much you have remaining. However, cases built for your current iOS device might not be useable on future ones. Changes in size and the position of ports can easily render a case useless once you trade in your old iPHOnE for a nice new one.

Going with external batteries, you will almost certainly be able to use them on future iOS devices for as long as the batteries can keep recharging. All rechargeable batteries will eventually ware out. However, they are relatively inexpensive to replace when that's necessary. I have yet to hear of a talking external battery or one which communicates it charge level to your iOS device. Short of asking a sighted person with you or using an app like Be My Eyes, there's no way to know how much charge your external battery has. Therefore, you need to get into the habit of charging them up regularly. Get more power than you need so that if you forget to charge the battery or are away from power sources for longer than expected, you'll be ready to cope.

Another thing to remember is that most of these batteries can serve as relatively powerful flashlights. This usually involves pressing a button located on the battery. A handy feature for sighted people but a liability for blind people who can't tell when they've accidentally activated the flashlight. One way for blind people to deal with this independently is to have a light detector app and use your iOS device's camera moving it near where the flashlight in the battery is. This is usually on the top near the power ports.

Batteries have a capacity measured in MA. An iPHONE7 has an internal battery which holds roughly 2000 MA when fully charged. An iPHONE7 holds 2900 MA. An iPAD Air2 holds around 8000 MA. An iPAD Pro has a 10300 MA battery. The general premise is that these batteries should last a day of typical use. In practice, this pretty much never happens. Talk of people running out of charge during their day is constant. Accessories are also prone to this need for additional power. My Aftershokz Trekz Titanium headset has around 830 MA and lasts around 6 hours of continuous use. Were I to use that for a full day, I'd have to recharge the headset at least once. The iPHONE would need at least a full charge and possibly more presuming heavy constant use. If you're using it as a laptop replacement, reading audio books, navigating with GPS and actually <gasp> talking on the phone, that qualifies as heavy use. You would easily burn through around 3500 to 4000 Ma or thereabouts over a long busy day.

The tradeoff is normally power available versus weight and size of a given external battery. You can get batteries holding around 27000 MA which weigh a couple of pounds and easily fit in a purse or bag. However, they're too large to fit easily into a pocket. At the other end of the spectrum, you can get batteries the size of credit cards which offer around 2000 MA of charge. Most of the time, you'll have opportunities to charge daily. Given that, I recommend a 10000 MA battery. These can easily fit in a pocket along with your iPHONE and AirPods. Anker makes good reliable light and portable batteries. They also produce other charging equipment like durable Apple-certified lightning cables. Most external batteries don't automatically come with a Lightning cable included so keep that in mind. Use the one which came with your device plugging the USB end into the battery and the lightning end into your device. Spare cables are quite inexpensive. I recommend you obtain one to be kept with your external battery at all times.


It's generally a good idea to get a case to protect your iOS device. You will eventually drop it, knock it off a desk, or worse. Considering how much you'll come to rely on your device, investing in a case is a no-brainer. Picking the right one requires some care. Shape matters. The battery case for iPHONES has a hump on the bottom where the battery is. The extra power is certainly handy. However, the hump protruding from the bottom might destabilize the phone when it's on a flat surface. Some cases are thicker than others. There are cases designed to be extra rugged for adventure travel. Others offer built-in collapsable Bluetooth keyboards. Many offer extra battery capacity. Some offer extra data storage operating like flash drives for computers.

Keep in mind that unlike other accessories, cases are likely not going to be useable when you eventually upgrade to a new iOS device. The thicknesss, port positions, size and shape of iPHONES and iPADS has changed enough to render many cases totally useless on more current iOS devices. That makes me stick with rugged simplicity. I use cases for protection only and find other accessories which I can continue to use after upgrading. I chose an Otterbox Defender case. It's thin, flat and offers reasonable protection. Lifeproof makes cases which are waterproof and offer even better protection. However, they had a reputation for muffling the sound coming from the speakers of your device. This might be an issue when not using headsets or other audio accessories. Some cases have slots for Lightning cables which are less forgiving of cable ends with thicker material surrounding the lightning end of the cable. That might prevent you from using some lightning-connected accesssories or docks. Most good cases these days have built-in screen protectors. If the case you're looking at doesn't have that, don't even consider it. Sticking on screen protectors is annoying and utterly unnecessary given the affordable protective cases available.


There are plenty of choices in your approach to accessorizing your iOS device. For starters though, don't forget the basics. You should obtain a spare Lightning cable and power brick from Apple so you're never without the ability to charge your device. A spare set of EarPods is also a good idea. These are very inexpensive items and are widely available. You can put together a travel bag which is easily slung over a shoulder and weighs far less than ten pounds. This weight could even include an external battery which could keep your system fully chared for a week's activity. This kind of easy portability and reliability is incredibly liberating. Particularly since most of the actual core capability can fit in a pocket presuming you use an iPHONE or iPOD as your computing power. iPADs are larger but are very light and thin devices. Their larger screen size can be tremendously helpful to people with useable vision.

Going beyond these basics, have a clear idea of what capabilities you want. If you're planning on doing a lot of adventure travel, you may want to look into ways of keeping your devices powered while off the grid. There are external batteries capable of handcrank or solar recharging. If you attend parties, you may want a Bluetooth speaker capable of allowing multiple users to easily pair and play songs. Such speakers absolutely exist. Most Braille displays can pair with your iOS device over Bluetooth and work with VoiceOver. Should you live with other disabilities, there are all sorts of switch controls and other accessories which may be helpful. There are even game controllers for hardcore players. New and better accessories appear all the time.

Manufacturers of accessories are quick to advertise if they work with iOS devices. As long as you take the time to read descriptions carefully, you won't end up with something that is completely incompatible. For blind people, it's very important to pay attention to details of interface. How easy is it to operate a given accessory strictly by touch and hearing? That's where it can really pay off to check out reviews from people who have used the devices you're considering. A good place to start is:

They have a growing number of accessory reviews in addition to their extensive information about apps. Often, there are even podcasts available where people discuss various accessories. In addition to Applevis, check out:


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