Small portable devices

Mobile technology.

Revised by Kevin Brunton, B.D.A. New Technologies Committee.

1. Mobile phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), tablets and laptops.
2. Digital voice recorders and pens.
      2a. Note-taking software.
      2b. Digital Recording Pens.
3. Portable electronic dictionary and thesaurus.
4. Reading Pens.
5. GPS.
6. Storage and security.

Recent years have seen an explosion in the use of smartphones, tablets, e-book readers and hybrid devices which combine laptop and mobile functions. Whilst some of the small portable devices that have been recommended in the past are still available, it is often worth considering whether a smartphone or tablet can run an app or provide a function that achieves the same task more effectively. This page provides an outline of the main types of devices available as well as the most common operating systems that run on these devices. It also looks at what you should consider when deciding what is likely to work best for you or those that you are supporting.

1. Mobile phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), ebook readers and tablets/laptops

SamsungMany mobile devices today are powerful computers and even more versatile than a desk top PC of 10 years ago. In addition to standard phone functions they can run an increasingly broad range of apps that provide office type software, e-book readers, assistive technology, a calendar, e-mail, Web browser, GPS, camera, video and audio players and recorders and educational tools. Whilst PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) have become far less common, a few, such as Apple’s iPod Touch and arguably, Samsung’s Galaxy camera, still remain. These have many of the functions of smart phones, but without the phone.

With manufacturers providing an increasing number of devices, which do not sit neatly in any one category, it is becoming ever more important to think about what you will use a device for. The following features are key things to consider when choosing a mobile device:

  • The operating system. This will have a major impact on the number of apps available as well as the accessibility features that have been included as standard. Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android currently provide the widest range of apps and features but the recent release of Microsoft’s Windows 8 may provide other options. There are multiple versions of each system available at any one time and some apps may not run on older systems. If you want to use a specific app then you can check what version of an operating system is recommended by going to Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store.
  • Built in accessibility features. All of the main operating systems include an increasing number of accessibility features, which resemble cut down versions of the more expensive assistive technology. For users with SpLDs some functions are more useful than others.
  • Text-to-speech functionality can be limited, e.g. choice of voices, control over how the function works. This may be because this feature is aimed primarily at those used to working with programs for visual impairment. Amazon have now removed all text-to-speech functionality from their basic Kindle e-book readers.
  • Speech-to-text varies between each operating system. Windows 8 most closely resembles the commercial Dragon Naturally Speaking, i.e. it includes training and requires users to build up profiles of their voices. Android’s version works offline from version 4.0 onwards. This means that older devices tend to require an internet connection. Apple’s iPhone and iPad version requires an internet connection as it sends a recording of the user’s dictation for transcription. This means that users cannot see what they have said until they have finished, which could be quite a strain on working memory in terms of checking accuracy. You are also limited to about 150 words or 30 seconds, at which point what you have said is automatically sent for transcription.
  • For many dyslexic readers, the format of the text is a key part of their reading experience. It is therefore worth investigating what options an e-book reader has for changing the font style, the font size, the line spacing, the text colour and the page colour.
  • The screen resolution. If the clarity of the text is particularly important to you then you should consider devices with higher screen resolutions. An example of the differences that are currently available can be seen in the Apple Store. An iPad 2 has a resolution of 1024*768 pixels and the iPad 4 has a resolution of 2048*1536 pixels.
  • Memory. Some assistive apps can take up a lot of memory. This may mean that they cannot be installed on lower specification mobile phones. Low memory will also limit the amount of video and audio recordings that can be stored.
  • Kindle Fire

  • Front and back cameras. Some devices such as Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Google’s Nexus only have a front camera. This is useful for communication, e.g. Skype, but can limit the potential for using the device as a learning tool. In practical settings the back camera can be used to counter memory issues, e.g. taking a picture of the board if you are unable to take down notes quickly enough. It can also be used in conjunction with text-to-speech apps, which enable the conversion of a picture of text into audio. The quality of the camera is particularly important for the latter, as a poor quality photo will not scan into a high quality text document. This will mean that the resulting audio contains a high number of inaccuracies. Capturatalk recommends a minimum camera specification of 5 megapixels.
  • Connectivity. This is important if you want to connect external devices such as higher quality microphones, storage cards and cameras, e.g. Apple use their own ports and the various adaptors are very expensive.
  • Multi-tasking. Viewing multiple pages or programs at the same time reduces the risk that someone with a weak working memory will forget what they have just read when switching between screens e.g. when switching between a web browser and Microsoft Word. Apple mobile devices do not generally allow for viewing multiple apps. Some Android devices do, e.g. the Samsung Galaxy Note tablet allows some apps to be used on a split screen in the same way as a standard Mac or Windows computer. Windows 8 allows for two apps to be viewed alongside each other.


2. Digital voice recorders and pens.

Digital Voice Recorders are useful for a range of tasks including:

  • taking personal reminder notes,
  • noting homework and other things to do,
  • recording meetings, lectures and seminars,
  • playing back audio files e.g. those created with text-to-speech software,
  • learning lines.

This can be useful if you:

  • have a slow handwriting speed,
  • find it difficult to write neatly,
  • get distracted when trying to think about a spelling,
  • have problems writing, copying or taking notes whilst listening,
  • struggle with recall when revising.

Whilst tablets and phones can potentially be used for these purposes, the quality of the microphone and the rapid draining of the battery make them impractical to use for extended recordings. There are some options for trying to address this, e.g. a microphone adaptor for the iPad from Conversor Pro.

2a. Note-taking software.

Many users have reported that they make numerous recordings but then fail to take any meaningful notes from them. This has led to the creation of various apps and software programs that aim to join up the audio and the text, e.g. AudioNote for most operating systems including mobile ones, Audio Notetaker (Mac and Windows). These enable typed notes to be synchronised with the original audio file. Notes can be typed up live during the session or added at a later time. Some programs are more powerful e.g. Audio Notetaker includes the option to split the notes into more manageable chunks using track marks from the audio files. Track marking functions only tend to be available on more expensive voice recorders, e.g. Olympus DM450 or DM670.

2b. Digital Recording Pens.

Live-scribeA smart pen like the Livescribe writes on special paper, records your writing and can record the sound at the same time. You can record lectures and meetings and tapping your handwritten notes will instantly take you to the part of the audio recording when you made your note. If your handwriting is legible, you can download your notes to the computer and turn them into text with a handwriting recognition program (MyScript). Livescribe videos may be helpful.

Some users report finding the noise of the pen scratches as being quite distracting. Using the optional microphone headset can prevent this.


3. Portable electronic dictionary and thesaurus.

Using a traditional paper dictionary and thesaurus can be extremely difficult. Words appear in between numerous similar looking words and explanations are provided in a very small font size. When reading paper materials, a portable electronic device can alleviate these difficulties. Whilst devices such as those made by Franklin provide comprehensive solutions, many readers will already have access to potential resources via their smartphone. This means that considering what functions an app or device provides is important before deciding what to use.

  • What dictionary and thesaurus? Does the device or app use a UK or US English dictionary?
  • Speech based search. Some apps allow for speech based search which addresses spelling concerns.
  • Predictive text and/or autocorrection. Some devices and apps provide options if you are not sure how to spell a word.
  • Text-to-speech. Some devices and apps provide the pronunciation of a word and in some cases the definition. While many use computer generated voices, some, such as WordWeb, use UK English actors.
  • Hyperlinks. Some devices and apps provide links to similar words and definitions of explanatory words.
  • The Literacy Word Bank contains the entire Oxford primary dictionary and is aimed at the National Curriculum and the National Literacy Strategy.


4. Reading Pens.

Reading PenWizzComTech reading pens enable the user to scan in a word by running the pen over it. Depending on the pen, the user can then listen to the word and possibly the definition. Using a device like this again reduces the strain on working memory when compared to using a paper dictionary.


5. GPS.

Dyslexic people often have difficulty in finding their way about, in map reading and navigating from place to place.

Most smart phones now have GPS (Global Positioning System) and Satellite Navigation (SatNav) built in.

Or you can get purpose built SatNav for your car.

6. Storage and security.

Whilst USB memory sticks have long been used to back up work, the more recent advent of cloud storage could reduce the risk that work will be lost. An internet connection is essential as files need to be synchronised to the web. Popular services include DropBox, Google Drive, Microsoft’s Onedrive and Apple’s iCloud. Most services are free for the first 2 to 15GB and then charge for higher volumes. Saving files in these services also avoids issues with sharing files that are too large to be e-mailed.

© B.D.A. New Technologies Committee. July 2015.
Copies of this page may be made providing it is unchanged and the source is acknowledged.

1 Response to Small portable devices

  1. Evelyn Lohmann says:

    I have made a Support Dictionary for print or cd, down load. It unmuddles words with simaler spelling or sounds with pictures as explnations. It has taken me over ten years to compile. Sail and sale have a little drawing to help you choose. Do feel free to contact me, It can also help those learning English! Evelyn Lohmann

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