An assistive technology device paired with a smartphone

Software reviews: a 'visibly' better smartphone

Need your reading specs to read your phone screen? We have hints, tips and apps to make smartphones a bit friendlier to those with less-than-sharp eyes and fingers.

2BIG s.r.o.

BIG Launcher

Free demo version or £8 on Android

This replacement launcher has just six large shortcuts, making it easy to find the primary functions of phone, text messaging and the camera and gallery. There is also a programmable SOS button, which can for example be set up so pressing it automatically sends a text message including GPS location to a predefined number.

Other options include using the speech synthesiser built into Android to read out an icon's name when you long-press it, and the ability to make BIG Launcher full screen, overwriting the standard notification bar, although activating this means you will no longer see things such as the voicemail notification. Also included are a large-text dialler and text message program, the latter making it particularly simply to read and respond, whether by texting a reply or phoning.

You can also add more screens of large shortcuts. One caveat is that because this is really just a launcher with its own dialler and SMS reader, any other Android app – the big camera and gallery icons simply link to the existing apps on the phone, for instance – will appear as normal, with no enlarged text or whatever.

The paid-for version adds some useful features such as password protection for the settings menu to avoid unwanted or accidental changes – useful if you are supporting an elderly relative, say. You can also hide unwanted apps, for much the same reason, and download new themes and icon sets. Lastly, BIG Launcher can be used with a hardware keyboard or wheelchair interface.

Code Factory

Mobile Accessibility

Free trial, then around £60 on Android

Designed for those who are blind or have low vision, not merely poor sight, this replacement launcher and app suite is a full-screen reader and makes use of spoken feedback – it even kicks off by reading a tutorial out to you. It includes 10 simplified and voice-enabled apps: phone, contacts, SMS, alarms, calendar, email, Web browser, setting, an app drawer, and a location finder called Where am I? settings

Mobile Accessibility makes considerable use of single, double and triple taps – single to select an icon, double to activate it (like an Enter key), and triple to summon the menu. As you might expect, you can't simply double-tap on an icon to activate that app, as that would be too random. You have to select it first, and hear its name (and location in the menu) read out. Text can be entered on-screen or using speech recognition.

You can also use a trackball or trackpad for navigation, with sound and vibration feedback, and use it to drive a Braille display if you have one, as an alternative to the built-in Nuance Vocalizer speech technology. Lastly, while the full version is pretty expensive, there is a 30-day fully functional free trial to get a flavour of how it works.

Chicago Logic Inc.

Big Buttons

Free on Android without predictive text, or £1.93 with

While large icons and fonts make it easier to see what's on the screen and activate apps, they do not help when it comes to entering text. You can of course use the phone's built-in voice recognition, but often you simply want to type – and if the standard apps are too hard to see, then the on-screen keyboard will be the same.

On any smartphone with an on-screen Qwerty keyboard, the fundamental constraint is the width of the screen. Larger screens help, as does turning the phone to landscape mode, but for those who want a portrait mode solution that is still pocket-sized, the Big Buttons keyboard could be the answer.

It is an innovative remapping of the Qwerty layout that turns the normal three alphabet rows into six, allowing each key to be approximately three times larger. As well as improving visibility – Big Buttons also offers several keyboard themes or styles, including three specifically designed to be easy to read – its designers claim it makes typing easier and more reliable for anyone. In our evaluation it certainly did well on both counts.

A0soft/Sam Lu

Big Font

Free on Android

If all you need is to increase the visibility of the standard apps, try adjusting the system font size in the phone's settings. If this still doesn't make it big enough to read without your specs, try an app such as Big Font.

This simple utility for Android lets you scale the system font from 50 per cent to 300 per cent in as many steps as you care to define, with previews to give an idea of what it will look like once applied. Of course, some apps have their own font and size settings, but the system font governs most of the built-in ones such as the standard browser, calendar and text messaging program, plus the launcher.

One caveat is that while Big Font works on any Android version from 2.3 Gingerbread to 4.1 Jelly Bean, from 4.2 Jelly Bean on it requires root access (i.e. a rooted phone) because Android has blocked third-party apps from changing the system user interface.

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