For the longest time, Talkback has been the only good and useful screen reader on Android — though this was not always the case. Senior Android users might fondly recall Spiel, which was alive around 2011 last, a screen reader that even surpassed Talkback in functionality and speed. Google then suddenly changed the entire framework for how accessibility is done on their platform, and Spiel was no more. Although current compiled releases of it can be run successfully even under Android 5.1, the code is not often maintained and needs a lot of work to be a daily driver.
And then, without warning, a new contender came on to the scene. The 1 megabyte screen reader, which is technically called Shine Plus is developed by a Korean company called ATLab. As a result, the English text of the program and manual is not constructed well, though this does not take away from its functionality if you are willing to learn and be patient with the interface. The manual can be found here in a text file form.
You might be wondering, is it better than Talkback?
Before we dive into some of the unique features of Shine plus, we must note that it is a very special screen reader as it also includes a screen magnifier and other tools for people who have high-partial vision. This means that it not only is a screen reader, but also a magnifier at the same time. In the Android world, that’s definitely a first, and this reason alone could make it useful for many people, since changing the mode it operates in is very simple.
When you first install the Shine Plus application (it does not call itself “Another Talkback screen reader”), you need to launch the application from your home screen to configure it. Here you will set your desired mode depending on the level of vision you have. First, the app will actually check whether you have Google TTS or the keyboard installed, and then will proceed to allow you the option to set your mode of preference. Once you press the back button, it will place you into the Accessibility settings of Android, where you will be given a list of available services.
The three options are “based on voice support”, “based on letter expansion”, and “sight protection.” No, it will not protect you from the horrors of the sighted world — that latter choice is for those who need to have parts of the screen spoken outloud from time to time. It allows you to use a “candy bar” which you can pan around the screen and use to read parts of it accordingly.
Voice support is what those who are completely blind will use, while the other one (letter expansion) is for those who need letters zoomed bigger as they use their device. Once you have set your choice, enabling the screen reader is the next challenge.
We have found that in most cases, it is impossible to press “OK” after the confirmation dialog appears which asks you to turn on Shine Plus. This is easy enough to resolve, though requires some agility. When you have reached the alert prompt to enable it, Pause Talkback either through the global context menu or the new volume up+ volume down key combination. Once paused, press near the bottom right corner of the screen, right above the home/back/recents button bar of your device. This will activate Shine plus, though you are not yet done. Lock the screen to have Talkback return. Next, go back and disable Talkback to have Shine Plus function properly.
Some people have reported success with the “tripple click home” function of Shine Plus. Here, you would disable talkback and press your home button three times in quick succession to enable the service. This for us was a hit or miss on devices that do not have a physical home button– sometimes it works, other times not so. If you are using a Galaxy device however, simply disable talkback in Accessibility settings and press the home button three times.
The screen reader offers some functionality not present in Talkback. For example, you can copy the screen to the clipboard, or parts of text. The “command panel” (similar to Talkback’s global menu) is feature packed with other functions. There are two interesting ones called Ear Talk and whisper. With Ear Talk, you can choose a specific detail of your phone (battery status, last message) to be spoken through your phone’s earpiece when it is held to your head. Ear Talk will redirect all speech to this speaker entirely, so (in theory) it could be used in situations where you are looking for privacy but do not have headphones. In practice, it is a bit tricky to use as a touch screen element can easily be activated.
To access the command pannel, swipe right than left in quick succession. You will hear two high-pitched tones and the announcement, “command panel.” Here are the options, from top to bottom, exploring the screen in a line left to right:
- Top two lines: Includes speech and volume increments (2 stage speed on first line, / 70% volume, on second, for example.)
- third line: Key echo. Notification method (Block or output all notifications), wi-fi (toggle on/off), Bluetooth (toggle on/off), cover mode (toggle on/off), speak call info, Whisper auto mode, and ear talk.
- Third line: Short key, label (for graphics), marking (seems to auto label graphics?), version information, screen auto read, screen character string (spells out item in last focus), app delete, translation.
- Fourth line – granularities: character, word, line, paragraph, default, copy, additional copy, paste.
- Fifth line: Web list, web editbox, web phone number, Web search, Youtube search, app search, voice search. These open corresponding apps on your device, such as Youtube or the Voice Search app.
- sixth line: Short key list, Shine setting, device (opens up your settings app), execute app list (opens up overview or recent apps list), sound (sound settings), Keyboard (language and input), accessibility (same as in settings.)
No doubt this list is a bit overwhelming, and for this reason Shine Plus might be useful for more advanced users or those who just want a higher degree of customization. Talkback still wins for some, because it is simple to configure, is not cluttered, and thus less complicated.
Similar to Talkback, it will tell you when you plug or unplug a power source. Scrolling is a bit problematic, because there is no proper earcon for knowing how far you are in a list — it uses the Browse Mode exit sound from the popular NVDA screen reader to indicate scrolling. This was by far the largest problem with Shine Plus, and the manual is not very clear on what each setting is about.
For users of devices that have capacitive buttons such as the Galaxy series, Shine Plus also allows you to double tap these (similar to how it would be on a nexus or soft-button based device), rather than using them with one tap. This feature, curiously, is also present in the latest Galaxy S6 as an accessibility setting. Other interesting features to note include the ability for seek controls to be raised or lowered with the volume keys (this is also now in Talkback 4.2), options to configure how the phone keypad works (and whether a swipe up on the screen will answer/end calls), configuring what notifications are read outloud, an option that unlocks your device automatically when power button is pressed (if there is no pin), and even a feature that will launch a specific application after your screen is turned on.
Could this make a good daily screen reader? That’s your call. For now, this is a project worth keeping tabs on, as it could give Google’s efforts a serious run if it improves right over time. If you’re patient and advanced enough, go ahead, give it a try. Just be sure to re-enable talkback if you uninstall it, because without a screen reader turned on, your phone will definitely not shine.
Correction: The original article stated that the company is Chinese, when in reality they are from Korea.