by Bill Holton
In previous issues of AccessWorld we reviewed three accessible feature phones, cell phones whose functions are limited to making calls and sending and receiving text messages. These phones, which include the Samsung Haven, Kyocera Kona, and Kyocera Verve, use physical buttons to access and control their features, instead of touch screens — which these days are nearly universal in smartphone design. Many individuals with visual impairments still prefer the simplicity and lower subscription costs of feature phones, however, and in this article I'll describe a fourth accessible feature phone, the Odin VI Talking Mobile Phone.
The Odin VI was designed from the ground up to be low- or no-vision accessible. It can be purchased either with an Odin Mobile service plan, starting at a cost of $10 per month, or unlocked for use with any GSM service provider, including AT&T or T-Mobile.
What You Get
The Odin VI package includes the phone itself, a charging stand, and a USB power cable and wall adapter. The user-accessible battery comes preinstalled, and is rated to provide up to five hours of talk time and 10 days of standby. Odin Mobile customers will receive their phones with the SIM card also preinstalled. The company offers phone and text services via T-Mobile. The company also provides customer service and tech support specifically tailored to users with visual impairments. Additionally, Odin Mobile customers can schedule a free telephone training session with a company accessibility specialist.
The Odin VI manual arrived via e-mail in Word file that was 100-percent accessible. There were no diagrams or pictures that all too commonly voice as, "To do this, press the 'IMAGE' button." Braille or recorded versions are not available, but technical support is free, and the Odin Mobile representatives I spoke with were without exception extremely knowledgeable about the phone's features.
A Touch Tour
Many feature phones use a "flip" design that unfolds to reveal the screen and keypad. The Odin VI uses a two-part design, with a single display that is always visible and a keypad that is accessed by sliding the screen section upward.
When in the closed and locked position, the Odin VI is a bit thicker than many flip phones, but it fit comfortably in my palm with the screen side up. Beneath the screen there are five color-coded buttons.
The square green Call button is located at the far left. The round red End/Cancel button is to the far right. Between these buttons is a narrow, horizontal blue OK button, and above and below this button, the black Up and Down navigation buttons.
Beneath these buttons, on the bottom edge of the phone, there are two square indentations in the phone's case, which connect the phone to the charger. It was a simple matter to position the phone for charging, and with the phone turned on you can be confident you have things right when the VI beeps and announces "Charger connected."
The battery compartment is on the rear of the phone. The battery comes preinstalled, but the compartment was easy to access, and the battery only fits one way so you know you have it in the proper position. The SIM tray is located beneath the battery, and it is thoughtfully designed and extremely easy to access. There is also a micro-SD slot that contains the text-to-speech voices and which the company does not recommend accessing or removing.
The left edge of the Odin VI includes two ports. Near the top is a headphone jack. Near the center is a USB port you can use to charge the phone by either connecting it to a computer with the included USB cable or connecting it directly to an outlet via the cable and power adapter. You must pop out a plastic flap before you can access the USB port, however, which may present problems for individuals with limited manual dexterity. Those users will appreciate the included charger, since you merely need to slide the phone onto that accessory to begin charging.
There are three buttons on the right edge. From top to bottom they are the Repeat Speech button, which we will discuss below, and the Volume Up and Volume Down buttons. When you are on a call, the volume buttons will adjust the call volume. Otherwise, they will adjust the volume of the phone's built-in speech.
Holding the phone with the screen up and the bottom toward you, there is a lip between the phone sections. This is where you slide the two halves apart to expose the phone's 12-key dial pad. The keys have excellent rise and separation. It is extremely easy to find the key you wish.
There is no sighted assistance required to set up the voice guide. In fact, there is no voice guide setup required at all. Simply press and hold the round, red End button until you hear an old-fashioned telephone ring. Release the button, and in about 15 seconds the phone will begin to speak. The unit I tested used the Daniel voice, but there is also a female voice, Serena, available from the settings menu. Both of these were among the clearest and easiest to understand text-to-speech voices I have encountered on a feature phone.
Hold down the End button again to turn off the phone. Odin VI will ask if you want to turn it off. Press the OK button to confirm.
With the voice guide enabled, when you slide the dial pad open, the phone sounds a click to let you know the phone is at the home screen and ready to use. If you press the Repeat Speech key on the right edge of the phone at this point, the phone will announce your carrier, signal strength, and battery level. You can obtain any single piece of this information by performing a dial pad combination, such as star + pound + zero + 1 + pound to get the battery level, but these combinations seem needlessly complex and take more time than listening to the complete status rundown.
When you start the phone, the keys are unlocked. To lock the keys, slide the dial pad out and then back in. Slide the dial pad back out to unlock the phone. You can also press first the Call button and then the End button to unlock the phone. This will come in handy if you wish to make a call, send or read a text message, or access the phone's settings and menus, all of which you can accomplish without sliding out the phone's dial pad.
The first time you start the Odin VI you are asked to set the time and date. This is a simple matter, except for one issue. If you make a mistake, it is not obvious what you need to do to backspace over the wrong character. The End/Cancel button does the trick, but the phone does not auto-announce either the deleted character or what is left. You must press the Repeat Speech button to figure things out. This can be awkward. For example, when I typed my name into a text message and spelled it with three Ls — B, i, l, l, l — the mistake was not obvious, since there is no spell check. Uncertain whether I had typed two, three, or even four Ls, I had to press End/Cancel repeatedly, each time pausing to press the Repeat Speech key, until I reached the "i," at which time I retyped the two Ls.
The Odin VI uses the standard dial pad method of entering characters — press the 2 button twice to enter a B, three times for C, etc. Speech does not always keep up with fast key entry, however, and too often I had to rely on the Repeat Speech button to figure out where I was. This problem could be fixed easily with the addition of some way to cursor left and right to review by character, word, or sentence.
The Voice Guide
As mentioned, the Odin VI Voice Guide does not need to be activated; it starts up automatically every time you turn on the phone. You can toggle the voice off and then back on, though, if you wish to let a sighted friend or relative use your phone. Do this by pressing and holding down the Repeat Speech button for several seconds to turn the Voice Guide off, then again to toggle it back on. There are a few other settings you can adjust, and they are found in the Settings Menu.
- Language: You can choose to have the VI speak and show menu options in U.S. English, British English, and several other major languages. The British English uses the male Nuance Daniel voice; the U.S. English uses the female Serena voice.
- Speed: You can adjust the Voice Guide by one percent increments from 85% of normal speed to 120%.
- Voice Guide: Male or female. The English version requires you to switch from British to U.S. English to change from male to female voices. Other language packs include both, and this option allows you to choose which you wish to use.
We will describe how to make these and other changes to the phone's settings below, but first, let's make and receive a call.
Using the Odin VI for Calls
Similar to most feature phones, you can make a call at any time by entering the number on the dial pad and then pressing the Call button. The End button disconnects the call. During any call, you can press the Call button to use the Odin VI as a speaker phone.
When you receive a phone call, the phone announces either the phone number or the name of the caller, depending on whether that number is in your contact list (see below). The Odin VI also announces when you have missed a call and when a text message or a voice mail is waiting. To listen to your voice mail, press and hold the 1 key, or call 123. The Odin VI also adds a voice mail entry to your contact list. Strangely, setting up and accessing voice mail is not covered in the product documentation.
If you receive a text message, press the up arrow button to open your inbox. Press the OK button to have the message text spoken. Press the OK button a second time if you wish to reply.
The up arrow key pressed repeatedly from the phone's home screen also calls up the text message outbox and the "Write a Message" control. The down arrow key summons your contact list. Press OK to make a phone call, or use the Add Contact control to create a new contact.
The Main Menu
The main menu is accessed by pressing the OK button from the home screen. The options include:
- Call Log: Here you can review your received, missed, and dialed calls. Easily add a number to your contact list by highlighting it with the up or down arrow key, then press the dial pad 0 (zero) key.
- Contacts: This will bring up your contact list, the same as if you had pressed the down arrow key from the phone's home screen.
- Messages: This will bring up your Messages list, the same as if you had pressed the up arrow key from the phone's home screen.
- Alarms: You can set 30 different alarms and give each a descriptive name. This feature allows the phone to act both as an alarm clock and a calendar.
- Help: The Help menu calls up a list of useful topics and briefly describes how to use the phone's various features. Context-sensitive help is not available.
The Settings Menu
The last option in the Odin VI main menu is Settings. Here you can reset the phone's time and date. You can choose the Voice Guide language and set the voice speed. You can set the default ring tone — there are three — and set the Vibrate mode to Never, Always, or Silent Mode, which turns off the ringer and vibrates without a ring when you receive a call or text message.
If you enable the Talking Watch option, whenever you slide open the Odin VI the time will be announced. You can also set up to three S.O.S. numbers. In case of emergency, simply press and hold down any key except the End/Cancel button and the VI will try calling each of them in turn and place the phone in speaker mode. If this feature is useful to you, consider two family members or friends for S.O.S. numbers one and two, and 911 for S.O.S. 3, in case the first two options can't be reached. The phone announces "Emergency call in progress. Press the red key to cancel," which is useful if you have dexterity issues.
The final two Settings options are aimed toward users with low vision. The Odin VI presents screen text in 24-point font, and message text in 12-point font. You can't change these defaults, but you can increase contrast by setting the screen to display using white text on a black background, and set screen brightness to one of five levels.
The Odin VI is without doubt the most accessible feature phone I have ever tested. With the exceptions of the backspace characters not being voiced and the lack of cursor review, this phone performed exceptionally well.
At $150 for the locked version and $199.99 for the unlocked version, the Odin VI is a bit on the pricey side. Most carriers offer multiple smartphones at this price point, or even lower. The Odin Mobile service plans do seem quite reasonable — ranging from $10 per month for 150 minutes of talk and unlimited text to $40 for unlimited talk and text.
Sprint and Verizon both offer accessible feature phones, but T-Mobile and AT&T do not. If you do wish to use a feature phone and you already have a contract with T-Mobile or AT&T, or perhaps the best coverage in your area is available from one of these carriers, the Odin VI is definitely the phone for you.
Texas residents with visual impairments may be eligible to receive a free Odin VI as part of the state's Specialized Telecommunications Assistance Program (STAP). Maryland residents with visual impairments may also receive a free Odin VI through the Maryland Accessible Telecommunications Program (MAT). California and Missouri are also currently evaluating the Odin VI for inclusion in their free phone programs.
Product: The Odin VI
Manufacturer: Odin Mobile
Price: $150 with an Odin subscription or pay as you go plan using the T-Mobile network; $199.99 with T-Mobile, AT&T, or other GSM mobile networks.