Google’s Talkback for Android/First Impressions

At work, I was provided with a Nexus 9 tablet, which is sold by Google and I believe manufactured by HTC, running Google’s Android operating system. In the early days of Android accessibility, I was given the impression that using Android was a bit like going out to the wild West and sticking with Apple was the choice which offered more accessibility. Even as of a year ago, I recall reading a blog chronicling an iOS user trying to use Android exclusively to perform his daily tasks for 30 days and he was forced to quit and go back to using iOS before his 30-day testing period was over. However, so far I am finding the experience to be, on the whole, very positive.
At this point, I should say that I am a user of iOS and its interface feels very comfortable, natural and intuitive to me. I can navigate through my home screen, as well as the many apps that I use, without requiring much thought or effort. Up to this point, I have hardly had any experience using Android and most of what I know comes more from material I’ve read rather than from any real experience, except for a brief period of time when I used Talkback on a Motorola phone which belonged to my wife.
Upon doing some research, I discovered that placing two fingers on the screen after powering up an Android device would start Talkback, Google’s screen reader, similar to how tripple-clicking the home button normally activates VoiceOver on an iOS device. I tried this and, to my great delight, Talkback introduced itself to me and I had speech output with the unit, right out of the gate. Since some of Android’s gestures are similar to iOS, I was able to set up the device, both with my employer’s Wifi network as well as with my Google account, with Talkback voicing my input and output very nicely. Android has some similarities to iOS and, as you would expect, many differences. As to its similarities, swiping left or right with one finger moves to the next or previous item and double-tapping selects or opens the item. In fact, by default, you can also swipe up or down to move to the next or previous item, just like the left and right swipe or flick. Its onscreen keyboard is similar and uses what iOS calls touch typing mode, where you slide with one finger to locate the letter or symbol you want to enter and lifting up your finger enters that character. The voice, at least on the Nexus, uses Google’s
text-to-speech technology and the default female voice is exceptionally clear and pleasant to listen to. It is the same voice used with Google Now and Google Maps. The device has no physical home button but I don’t find this to be a problem. First, the home button is located on the touchscreen, in a similar location that you would expect to find it on an iOS device and it is easy to find it using explore by touch. In addition, there is a gesture which opens up the home screen. Android’s gestures often involve drawing odd l-shaped characters with your finger, which I could see being a problem for users who might have difficulty in drawing in a straight line. As an example, the gesture to open the home screen is moving your finger up and then to the left. To go back to the previous screen, you swipe down and to the left.
The name of Android’s screen reader, at least the one from Google, is called Talkback. Android handles screen reader software differently from iOS. With iOS, the screen reader, VoiceOver, is a core component of the operating system and not a separate program. Therefore, if any changes are made to VoiceOver you literally must wait for Apple to release an iOS update to get the changes. In iOS, VoiceOver, strictly speaking, is not a separate app and, as a sidenote, this is true for the Mac as well. With Android, the situation is a bit more like what you’re used to in Windows. With Windows, JAWS or NVDA are separate apps and so the developers are free to release as many updates as they want to, regardless of whether you’re running Windows 7, 8 or 10. With Android, Talkback, also made by Google, is a separate app and Google is therefore free to update and modify it independently. So, while the Nexus that I’m working with is now running the latest version of Android, it really doesn’t need to in order to run the latest version of Talkback. There are also at least two other screen readers available for Android, although I’ve not have an opportunity to use them and am just using Talkback for the time being.
Talkback includes what is called a local menu, similar in many ways to the context menu you get to with the applications key in Windows. The menu provides options which are relevant to the app or item you happen to be pointing to. It also has what is called a global menu, with options available in all apps.
Talkback includes the ability to change gestures for its various commands. It even includes its own interactive tutorial, which presents a few lessons, introducing you to some of the more common gestures and even has you writing, navigating and editing a small text file. I admit I’m still much more comfortable using iOS and it may likely continue to be my mobile operating system of choice. However, I have really come to like and respect the power of Android and I am now considering purchasing one of the low-end Kindle Fire tablets, which runs a modified version of Android and some users are reporting great success in using it.


One thought on “Google’s Talkback for Android/First Impressions

  1. Thanks for the writeup. These are always interesting to read. I’d highly recommend getting on the TalkBack beta program and installing 4.5. The web navigation and keyboard support are vastly improved. Also, while I appreciate the Kindle Fire for what it has done with accessibility, it is a different experience than TalkBack and is now updating its screen reader separately. So while the base system started with TalkBack commands, it is becoming more and more different so may not be an accurate reflection of Android and TalkBack going forward. So get a Fire if you want, but I wouldn’t call that a true Android experience.

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