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Steven’s Top 5 Gadgets He Can’t Live Without

My love of technology knows no bounds, and I have to say that if I was as flirty with the public as I am with my tech, I would be in deep trouble in my married life.

I am always trying out new gadgets and gizmos as part of my weekly radio shows on RNIB’s Connect Radio and Canada’s AMI-Audio. However there is a small amount of tech that rarely leaves my side and has become my go-to kit to get stuff done, and I thought I’d share it with you.

5. Windows Laptop

As a well-known Apple fanboy, this tends to confuse people the most. A PC? Seriously? Not a shiny new MacBook or an iPad with a keyboard? No. I much prefer a PC for one simple reason – the screen reader. I started using JAWS over a year ago and I’ve never looked back. Voiceover on the Mac is great and all that but for getting stuff done, JAWS (or NVDA for that matter) is the choice for me. I mention NVDA because it is an extremely good screen reader and would probably be my main choice had it not been for my employer purchasing JAWS for me.

The type of laptop I choose to use is fairly irrelevant. I always tend to err towards laptops with Intel Core i3 processors or above as anything lesser than that just tends to stutter or struggle with the screen reader, as well as my audio editing software. I also go for more RAM (computer memory) than I need, 8gb is more than adequate but if you can get more, go for it. I also prefer a laptop to have a solid state drive built in as it runs considerably faster than the standard spinning hard drives you get mainly inside some desktop computers or even some cheaper laptops.

Top Tip: Changing your existing hard drive for an SSD (solid state drive) will honestly make even a 10-year-old computer feel like new.

As for the screen, I honestly don’t care. I actively avoid computers with touchscreens as I’ll no doubt pay more for the privilege but never use it. They do work with screen readers but I’ve never tried it. And as for screen size, again, to me it’s irrelevant.

It’s often thought that this approach to buying a laptop (in this case) means you can get away with buying a really small and light laptop without worry about seeing it – so therefore more portability. While this could be true for you, personally it doesn’t work that way for me. I bought a five-year-old Samsung laptop from a second-hand shop (pictured above) for three main reasons – it had all the specs I wanted, it was heavy enough so it wouldn’t move across the desk as I typed on it, and it had a full-size keyboard with a proper number pad. The keyboard was ultimately the dealbreaker for me as when using JAWS you really benefit from it.

It’s sad to say that as we move towards a more touch-based world of interfaces, the options that are available today will diminish and computers like mine won’t be very popular soon, if indeed they are today. However, I’ll hold on to this one for as long as I can because if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

4. Aftershokz Treks Titanium Headphones

I’ve had a bit of a love/hate affair with these headphones in the past and to be honest I’m still not 100% sure about them, but here’s why they appear in my list.
I use Voiceover on my iPhone and Apple Watch and I have always had issues when using the screen reader when I’m out and about. The main issue is that I don’t want to have anything in my ears when I’m walking around town incase I end up being hit by a bus while boogying to Beyoncé!

Perhaps the most obvious solution to this is not to boogie on down to Beyoncé and instead focus on where I’m going, but in all seriousness I am actually using my earphones to listen to messages from my phone, as well as directions and other notifications that come through, even phone calls!

And that’s where the Aftershokz headphones come in. These are bone conduction headphones meaning the speakers sit on your cheeks and the sound travels through your cheekbones rather than your ears which is much safer, not just for blind people but also cyclists and joggers.

My first experience of these was back in 2015 with a pair sent to me by the company to review. My first impressions were not great, as the headband wasn’t movable and my head seemed to be just too large to fit them round and make sure the speakers were in the right place. In the end they were in my ears more than on my cheekbones. This wasn’t great but when I could fit them into position (meaning I couldn’t move at all) they actually worked ok. The sound was ok, good for calls and listening to speech but awful for music. After a period of time they were given to a friend who seems to prefer them. Perhaps he has a small head – who knows!

So after that experience I didn’t think I’d go near them again until this year. While wandering around a Costco store I came across a whole pallet of new Aftershokz Treks Titanium headphones – the latest version. There was a demo pair lying on the box so I took the chance to try them out again. And this time they fitted! I didn’t even look at the price (a mistake I literally would pay for later) and I bought them.

So all should be good then? Well, yes and no. The headphones fit great and sound amazing when walking about. Again they are not for music necessarily but for a podcast, voiceover, audiobook or similar they are good. Bit heavy on the bass but it is ok after a while.
The downside? Well quite a major one actually. The microphone in the headphones used for calls or Siri searches is almost useless. It doesn’t pick up well at all and callers tell me they can barely hear a word I say.

So why keep these, and even go so far to include them in my top 5 must-have gadgets?
The truth is that while the microphone is awful, the bass on the ears is a little heavy and overall while they fit fine they are a little uncomfortable after a while, they are still the best option for travelling around safely and nothing beats them in that regard. I do hope they will continue to improve and I’ve seen the evidence for myself that it is going in that direction.

3. Olympus DM-7 Dictaphone

This is one of the saddest pieces of technology that I own. It is sadly becoming irrelevant in today’s society as everyone seems to be using their smartphones for everything. I still like some of my gadgets to perform independent functions so I can be sure they are working as I hope. I rely on my memos and notes especially in meetings and events where the information is passing by quickly and typing up notes is just not possible at that speed. As a visually impaired guy, I use Voiceover on my iPhone and while many suggest I use the Voice Memos app I am still unsure of it in a high pressure environment. Perhaps it’ll come in time but for now I need something that can perform instantly and the same way each time, something that will not ask me to join a Wifi network or remind me of appointments or text messages. I just want to take a bloody note!

So that’s where my Olympus DM-7 comes in. This model has Voice Guidance built in which means that the menu system is spoken back to you so I don’t need to be able to read the screen. It’s fairly slow and cumbersome at times but as the menus don’t change you get used to (fairly quickly) how to navigate around to where you need to be. The recordings on this device are very clear and high quality.

Unfortunately it’s not on sale anymore but you can still get the Olympus DM-770, LS-12 and LS-14 in the UK. The DM-770 is available from the RNIB Shop for £199.

2. Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo Dot

This has to be the best purchase I’ve made yet in my life. It’s a smart speaker that lets me ask basic questions such as “what’s the time?”, “what’s the weather today” and “set timer for 20 minutes”. You simply use your voice to ask the device questions. You have to say the name of the device first before you ask a question. The usual name is “Alexa”. As well as the basic functions, you can ask the device to play your audiobooks, listen to podcasts and enjoy internet radio. You can even play games which you can interact with.

Once you’ve gotten into the world of smart tech, you can add smart gadgets to make your whole home smarter. I use a TP-Link smart plug which is connected through the Amazon Echo so I can her to turn it on and off. Attached to the smart plug is a fan and since I’ve called it Fan, I can simply say “Alexa, turn the fan on”, and on comes the fan! Simple.

Setup is really simple by downloading the Alexa app and then signing in to your Amazon account. The device is connected easily through the app and within a few minutes you can begin asking questions.

You can get the Amazon Echo is various sizes and shapes. The Echo Dot is the cheapest device starting at $49/£49. Watch out for Black Friday deals. There’s the Echo which is slightly larger and costs around $80/£80. The larger Echo Plus has a slightly better speaker and has a built in smart hub to make it even easier to set up additional smart gadgets. It comes in around $139/£139.

Listen to the sound quality of the Echo devices

1. Apple iPhone

To many blind people, this is perhaps the most obvious choice when it comes to smart phones. While Android phones have come a long way in terms of accessibility, the iPhone is still on top when it comes to accessibility features and its usefulness.

The iPhone has many features for blind and partially sighted people such as Voiceover (a screen reader), Zoom (magnification), Large Text, High Contrast and more. There’s more features available for those who have hearing difficulties and dexterity problems.

My current iPhone is a XS with 512GB which is way more of a phone than I’ll ever need. The reason I chose it is because I really struggle with the LCD displays on phones and iPads so I thought the OLED screen would be a better choice and it was. Despite only using the screen for a few minutes a day when I really need to I find it a massive improvement. However the majority of the time I use Voiceover and I benefit from the phone’s excellent speakers and sound quality. However there are plenty of other good options and for blind people I would recommend the iPhone 8 as it equally has excellent sound and a decent battery life. It also still has the Home Button which may appeal to some. The new XR phone is also a good option as it gives you the Face ID feature (while removing the home button) but that’s really about it. Try them out at an Apple store and you’ll know what is right for you.

Have you got a view about Steven’s Top 5 Gadgets List? Leave a comment below or email feedback@ami.ca

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