Contributed by Steve Kelley CVRT, CRC

Is It Better to Get an iPad or a Computer?

ipad with hand indicating apps on screen

There was a time, not so very long ago, when accessible choices for computing were much more limited. Now, it is not uncommon for consumers to say they are a bit overwhelmed by the choices they have for email, Web browsing, and reading. For example, a common question is, “Is it better to get an iPad or a computer?”

General Description of Accessibility

Before comparing available options a general description of accessibility for computer users who are blind or visually impaired may be helpful. Computer accessibility for users with a vision loss will generally be some form of screen magnification, text-to-speech, or both. Screen magnification accessibility software enables the user to magnify what is seen on the screen and often includes additional features such as changing the color scheme or the size of the mouse pointer, among others. Text-to-speech software (often called a screen reader) enables the computer to read text when it appears on the computer screen in menus, documents, email, Web pages, etc. Very often a combination of screen magnification and text-to-speech is most beneficial for computer users with a vision impairment.

Built-in accessibility on computers and electronics is a relatively recent development. Depending on the quality and extent of accessibility needed by a user, it was often the case, and many times still is, that in addition to purchasing the computer or device, a user with a vision loss, also had to invest in software to make it accessible. Which technology is right for you? Let’s talk about the groups of options available to consumers that are most popular:

  • Tablet computers (not made by Apple)
  • iOS devices (made by Apple) which include the iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad Mini, and iPad (iOS is the name of the software operating system Apple uses on these devices)
  • Windows computers (made by a variety of manufacturers like HP, Toshiba, Dell, etc.) that run Windows 7 or Windows 8 as an operating system
  • Mac computers (made by Apple) that run the Macintosh operating system

Tablets Not Made by Apple

There are a wide variety of Tablet Computers such as the Kindle Fire, Google Nexus, and Samsung Galaxy. These tablets use an operating system called Android. The latest version of the Android operating system is called KitKat. Most Android tablet computers will allow users to read email, browse the Web using the Internet, read electronic books, etc.

Although the Android devices have been making great strides in accessibility, it was not until the most recent operating system that users had fully functioning screen reading and screen magnification, comparable to what is found on the Apple iOS devices.However, as a general rule, the Android tablets may cost less, but they also lack the full range of accessibility options found on the iOS devices.

iOS Devices made by Apple

iOS is the name of the software operating system Apple uses in the iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad and iPad Mini. Because they all use a version of the same iOS operating system, once you learn how to use one of these devices, you can quickly learn any of the others.

All of these Apple devices are very accessible out-of-the-box. Users may quickly turn on the Zoom setting for screen magnification, or VoiceOver for screen reading. There is no additional software to download or purchase for these features, just turn them on from the Settings menu. All of the iOS devices will connect to the Internet for email and Web browsing. Users may do a wide variety of productivity tasks like maintaining a calendar, address book, recording notes, and reading ebooks.

Both the Android and iOS tablets make great productivity and leisure devices that may cost less than a laptop, and are smaller, weighing less than a pound and a half. Users may find, however, that for employment or business settings, with notable exceptions, these devices still lack all the features and power that are available in a PC or Mac computer. You might want to think of the Mac or PC as a full-size sedan or SUV and the tablet as a sub-compact.

Mac Computers

Mac computers are manufactured by Apple, and like the iOS devices described earlier have the accessibility features of VoiceOver and Zoom built in. Both have been a part of the operating system in Mac computers since the release of the Mac operating system called Tiger, in 2005. VoiceOver permits Mac users nearly complete text-to-speech access to Apple software such as Safari for Web browsing, and Pages for document editing. This is not always the case with software developed by a third-party. So, for example, a Mac user may purchase Microsoft Office for the Mac, only to discover it is not fully accessible using VoiceOver. Although the Mac computer is steadily showing up in more employment environments, outside education and the creative sphere, the Windows-based PC is more widespread. Practically, this simply means that if the computer or computer skills are to be used in the workplace, the Windows-based PC is still the predominant computer tool in most work environments.

Windows Computers

Both the latest version of Windows, Windows 8, and its predecessor, Windows 7, include a screen magnifier, and some text-to-speech called Narrator, included as part of the operating system. The screen magnifier offers a full screen mode and is crisp up to about 6X. As magnification is increased above 6X, the screen image pixelates and appears grainy. Text-to-speech functionality in Narrator improved significantly from Windows 7 to Windows 8, but is still JAWS or even the free open source screen reader, NVDA.

Many Windows users with low vision may find that using the built-in screen magnifier and contrast enhancements will make the computer accessible. Many others will find that additional third party screen magnification software such as ZoomText or Magic will still be required for their wider range of accessibility features such as text-to-speech when needed, sharper screen images at higher magnification, etc. Users who require a screen reader will almost certainly find Narrator too limited, except for basic computing tasks.

So, what should you get? Ignore for a moment the bells and whistles each device promises and the hoopla surrounding the latest gadget. What will you be using the computer for? If it is personal use, pick the one that best suits the tasks you most want to do. If, on the other hand this is a business tool or doing double duty, personal and business, do your homework to find out what will be compatible in the specific business environment you plan to be working in. Get the tool and training to get the job done first, then treat yourself to one of the other devices “everyone is talking about.”