Kindle Fire HDX: Usable By the Blind At Last?
By Buddy Brannan
Anyone who has been following the Serotek blog, SeroTalk, or even just me, will know that Amazon has taken a fair bit of heat over the Kindle and its halfhearted, lackluster, token efforts toward making Kindle content usable by people who are blind or visually impaired. It’s probably fair to say that many of us thought that Amazon wouldn’t ever make its content available to us in any meaningful way; its seeming unwillingness to do so in the face of complaints, demonstrations, and lawsuits against some of its institutions using its Kindle readers in pilot programs bolstered our belief that some miracle would have to happen before we were able to use Amazon Kindle content in any meaningful way. Sure, there was some rudimentary text-to-speech capabilities in some Kindle models. However, it wasn’t possible to independently activate it, some content didn’t read with it, and even if a book you wanted to read did work, access to many of the platform’s other options were unavailable. Moreover, enough detail, such as word or single letter navigation, was unavailable, making use for more than pleasure reading impossible.
Enter the Kindle app for iOS. I used to joke that it was 99% accessible. The only thing that didn’t work was the actual book reading, but everything else worked perfectly. All of that changed just a few months ago when, one fine day, we all received a pleasant surprise: a Kindle reading app that would read Kindle content and gave blind people the ability to use most if not all Kindle functions. The community was ecstatic! Finally, we would have access to the couple million titles available to everyone else. This, we said, was our Gutenberg. We hoped that this newly realized access to ebooks heralded Amazon’s turning the corner, and we would at last see even better access to Kindle hardware next.
Imagine our delight when we read the announcement that the Kindle Fire HDX would be coming, with new features, a higher res display, and by the way, it would have features for people with print impairments. Anticipation, excitement, and yes, still some skepticism. After all, a leopard can’t change its spots, right? What would we really get? Would it be more of the same, or would we see something like what we got with the iOS app? Being one who was very critical of Amazon’s efforts (or lack thereof) in this arena, not to mention being a gadget freak, I picked up a Kindle Fire HDX myself just a couple weeks after its release. So how does it stack up? Are we going to be pleased or sorely disappointed? To be fair, I haven’t explored everything about the device. There is plenty I don’t know about it. Even so, it leaves a decent first impression. It’s a good solid start, understanding that there’s plenty of room for improvement. Bottom line: I don’t hate it, which is, let’s be honest, about as close to a ringing endorsement as one can expect. And it’s a lot better than we’ve gotten in past years.
The Kindle Fire HDX is about the size of a paperback book, though of course, a lot thinner. Officially, it’s 7.3″ X 5.0″ X 0.35″ (186 X 128 X 9.0mm) and weighs 10.7 ounces, or masses 303 grams. (The cellular capable version is slightly heavier.) I don’t know about any of you, but official specs don’t usually mean a lot to me. If you’ve seen an iPad Mini, The Kindle Fire HDX is slightly smaller and slightly thicker than the Mini. The back edges are beveled. With the tablet in landscape mode (sideways), you’ll find stereo speakers at either end of the top back beveled edge. On the left edge, near the corner where the speaker is, you will find a single button, which locks the unit or powers it on and off. Directly opposite, on the right edge, again near the speaker, are two buttons, one above the other. These are the volume up and down buttons. Having control buttons on the edges, in the back panel around the beveled edges, seems a little strange at first glance, but it really does work out all right. It does seem a bit strange to have the on off button at the bottom of the tablet while in portrait, and the volume up button to the left of volume down, again in portrait mode, but with the tablet held in landscape mode with the speakers toward the top, the arrangement makes sense. Again with the tablet in landscape mode with the speakers facing away from you, the left edge has a micro USB port for charging or plugging into a computer, while the right edge has a stereo headphone jack. The front of the Kindle is all touch screen, with no physical buttons at all.
The first question in my mind was whether or not I could set up the Kindle Fire HDX without sighted assistance. This is indeed possible. Once the tablet powers on, hold the power button until you hear three piano notes. This is the power off screen. Simply hold two fingers on the screen, spread slightly apart. If you’ve done it correctly, you’ll be advised to hold your fingers a bit longer on the screen, and then Talkback will start. The first thing you get is a tutorial on the basic gestures used to navigate the interface. This is pretty much straight up Talkback, so if you’re an Android user,, it is likely you’ll feel right at home. It is possible to turn on the screen reader at any time, not just on initial startup. This is done as mentioned above, from the power off screen. One thing though, if you temporarily disable the screen reader as documented, you can’t easily turn it back on. So if you’re going to hand it to a friend who doesn’t need a talking tablet, go through the accessibility settings and disabled the screen reader completely. You’ll then be able to turn it back on much more easily than you would if you just disabled it.
Typing took a bit of getting used to. It seems you have to lift your finger pretty well dead center on a key, or it won’t register, giving you a high-pitched beep. This beep lets you know that doing a swipe up will bring up some other interface element, but to me it just said “I didn’t get that letter”.
The Home Screen
The home screen is divided into five parts:
The status bar has the time and battery percentage if you turn that on. You can do a three finger swipe down from this to bring up notifications and change settings. * A row of buttons to select different kinds of content, such as apps, books, audiobooks, music, and so forth. All the buttons don’t fit, so this area scrolls left and right as you swipe through it. * The carousel is a big area that rotates through all of the available books, apps, music, and documents. The most recently accessed ones are first. Swipe to the left or right to change to different items. * The home screen: This is a grid of applications or other content that you always want to be available. You can add to or subtract from this grid with a tap and hold on any item. This brings up a context menu to allow you to add or remove or delete entirely. If you want this to take up your screen and make the carousel disappear, you can do so by scrolling up from the home screen grid. * The menu bar usually has buttons on it for search, menu, and back.
I was able to read books, play music, watch movies, and install and use apps. I was also able to browse the web, though the built-in browser isn’t nearly as easy to use as Mozilla Firefox is. You’ll have to get Firefox from a third party app site though, more on that in a minute. You are supposed to be able to read a book continuously, or you can review it in any amount of detail. Reading continuously with the latest update was a bit hit and miss, and the most I was able to get the Kindle to read nonstop was a chapter. Reviewing is done by dragging your finger around the screen. In one way, this is great, since you can really get a good idea of how a page, or a book, or an app, is visually laid out. Getting the exact information you want, such as a specific word, will take some practice, maybe even a lot of practice. Also, note that, unlike with Voiceover, if other audio is playing (such as music or a movie), screen reader output does not cause your other audio to duck. This may make some things difficult to do while listening to audio content. Some gestures are a little difficult to get used to. For instance, some actions require you to draw a circle in order to select a specific action, or a level of navigation granularity. Fortunately, it’s not picky about how perfect your circle is. Also, of course, with auto rotate turned on (the default behavior), the gestures are relative to the tablet orientation. I also found that some gestures, such as the home or back gesture, or the swipe down to get the status display, had to be quite exaggerated in order to properly register. One thing that made using the Kindle Fire HDX easier for me was to turn the autorotate feature off and lock the orientation into portrait mode. It really is OK to do this, as apps such as Netflix or Amazon Instant Video, which require a landscape orientation, will automatically rotate to accommodate. In all other cases though, the screen stays the way you lock it. I’ve been asked about how usable the Netflix app was. I’m pleased to say that one can select content and watch movies and TV shows. Unfortunately, I was unable to do anything more than start a show and watch all the way through. Part of this was because of the absence of audio ducking, and part was due to not being able to find the player controls. I also started an Amazon Prime video, but truthfully, I didn’t play with it much more than to determine that I could start and play and pause a movie. For the record, it was “Contact”. I do have to say that audio was quite good, considering the Kindle Fire HDX’s compact size. I was also able to navigate my Amazon music library, select tracks, and play them. This could be a great little music player for those of you with a lot of music purchased from Amazon. Again, all content is available from the carousel. It is also available from the category buttons at the top of the home screen.
Speaking of categories, There was one thing that was unclear to me when I first started with the Kindle Fire HDX. That was determining what was displayed and what was not when viewing content by category. For instance, I couldn’t figure out why some third party apps I installed were shown as installed but weren’t showing in my list of apps. It turns out you can display content that is either locally installed or available from the cloud. Some stuff available from the cloud also happens to be on your local device, but the reverse isn’t always true, especially when you’re talking about third party stuff. And speaking of third party apps
Amazon has an Android marketplace, it’s true. However, apps there may not be the same version available from other places. I saw, for instance, a later version of ES File Explorer than was available on the Amazon app store. For this, you may want to install a third party app store. Google Play is not supported, although there is at least one article that tells one how to at least get some Google services. This is an exercise left to the reader. I installed another app store called 1Mobile, from which I was able to find lots of free apps. These installed fine on the Kindle Fire HDX, although you have to be sure to set your security settings to allow this. Again, exercise for the reader. I definitely recommend Mozilla’s Firefox browser. Browsing with the built in browsers possible, though I admit to not spending a lot of time with it. I admit to a certain bias against Web browsers that reside on tablets and phones, but I’ll use them if I don’t have a desktop or notebook computer easily at hand.
Things To Improve
As I’ve said before, Amazon has a good start on providing an accessible reading experience on their hardware. I have not tried pairing with a braille display, nor have I tried pairing with a bluetooth keyboard,but I understand both are possible. Anyway, as with all things in their first run, there is still room for improvement. For the screen reader, a greater speed range would be something I’d like to see, and I think others would agree. I have mine set to the fastest speed, and it’s comfortable for me, though I wouldn’t mind a bit more. I know others would like more than a bit more. The Ivona voices are quite nice. I don’t know if other voices, like Espeak, or Acapella, or Realspeak, are available or not, but I’m sure that everyone has preferences in this regard.
The voice for reading books now seems to agree with the voice for the screen reader, which is to say, they’re the same. While this is true, it’s possible to make the book reading voice go a lot faster than the screen reader voice. The fact that the voice itself is the same for both book reading and screen reading is good. The speed choices need to likewise agree. I’d like to see the previous granularity gesture introduced again, or allow a choice. Selecting the menu,then drawing a circle to find the right granularity, seems overly complicated to me, especially for something that may well need to be done often.
Duck other audio when it’s playing and the screen reader is talking. Maybe this is a wanna have rather than a gotta have, but sometimes audiobooks or music really do compete in volume with the voice, and it isn’t possible to adjust them individually.
Things I haven’t Done
I haven’t used the Amazon app to buy anything, nor have I purchased from the Kindle store on the Kindle Fire HDX. I have purchased Kindle content from the computer, and it shows up beautifully on the tablet. This is true both of Audible books and Kindle books. I haven’t done a lot of Web browsing, certainly no more than necessary. See my above bias against tablet browsing.
I haven’t completed a kindle book, though I have lots of them to work on.
I don’t hate it. I don’t love it yet either, but I could, given a bit more time and a bit more polish. The audio from the speakers is quite good, not to mention pretty punchy. I could easily see watching movies on this, or listening to audiobooks. Once automatic continuous read works reliably, I could even see reading Kindle books with it. With a bit of practice, I think I could get to where I was looking up words, highlighting, making notes, and the rest. I’m not nearly as comfortable editing or typing on it, but I expect that would come with more time as well. I’m not sure I’d recommend it for a new computer user, or for someone who needed to use it as a serious productivity tool, at least, not yet. I still believe that it has potential though, and I will be watching updates and improvements eagerly.