Samsung S6 removes important screen reader launch shortcut

1. June 2015

Author: Detlev Fischer, @wcagtest

For blind users as well and low vision users who turn on the screen reader at times when content is too small or too cumbersome to read, the iPhone's easy activation mechanism has been one important advantage over the Android competion. Once the shortcut for a triple press on the home button is enabled, users can easily activate and deactivate VoiceOver. Samsung emulated that (somewhat), but has now abandoned this shortcut on the new S6 and S6 edge.

Confusing instructions

Before discussing the shortcut itself, it is worth remembering why it was such a useful addition. Without it, screen reader users have to follow a somewhat obscure set of instructions to turn on Android's built-in screenreader TalkBack. You are told to press and hold the start button until you feel a vibration, then put two fingers on the display until you get a spoken instruction to put two fingers on the display (where they already are if you did it right). If you now think you should lift off your fingers to put them down again, activation of TalkBack is aborted so you have to do it again. Even if you get round that corner, the device may choose to reboot if your fingers happened to be above the centrally placed Power off control in the pop-up that appears after pressing the start button. Even if the device now starts with TalkBack on, this accidental reboot is at the very least annoying.

Disabling Talkback? Delve into settings

A real drawback is that there is no way to disable Talkback other than delving into settings, scrolling way down to Accessibility, selecting Talkback, then switching it off. Far too cumbersome for anyone who wants to turn on TalkBack occasionally, but quickly.

Samsung's variant of the triple press shortcut

Samsung has implemented a variant of Apple's triple press shortcut on the Galaxy Note 3 and other smartphone. here, you got a pop-up with options to open Accessibily Settings, launch Talkback, or lauch Inverted Colours. This allows a simpler activation and importantly, also de-activation of TalkBack. Mind you that this pop-up is not voiced, so it is of little use to blind users (unless they correctly memorise the central position of the Talkback option and manage to place their finger at the right position). Still, for low vision users, Samsung has made things considerably easier than on Vanilla Android.

Triple press gone on Samsung's S6 and S6 edge

With its latest models S6 and S6 edge which run a skinned version of Android Lollipop (5.0.1) called TouchWiz Nature UX 5.0, Samsung has removed the triple press shortcut. The command is now consumed by a double press which opens the camera. Even if Samsung's variant of TalkBack may be superior to what's on offer in Vanilla Android (we haven't tested that yet) this is a serious step back for accessibility.

The cumbersome Android shortcut described above is also offered on the S6 ans S6 edge, but the default instruction is not correct (in my testing) - there was no vibration or sound to indicate when the two fingers should be put on the display.

A footnote on Blackberry screen reader activation

As a footnote, Blackberry has also emulated Apple's triple press mechanism for activating and de-activating its screen reader, at least on the Blackberry Classic. It has failed to implement it on the Blackberry Passport, but that bug (which we have reported to Blackberry) may by now be fixed (tell us if it has). The problem is that the Blackberry screenreader, which is still in BETA, seems still too immature to offer a workable alternative.

Footnote on accuracy, invitation to provide feedback

If you think there a factual errors in this article, please let me know – I am happy to correct and update it. Things may change with any future upgrade of Android or TouchWiz, so this is as always a moving target.