Review: BARD on the iPhone is Stable, Needs Updates

16 Oct
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Briley O'Connor

Briley O'Connor

Briley O'Connor is a regular contributor to the Mac-cessibility Network and panelist of the fortnightly podcast "The Maccessibility Round Table."

Editor’s Note: The following post is not meant as a tutorial or step-by-step guide. Rather, it explores the benefits and pitfalls of the iPhone app from a user’s perspective.

Hoards of expectant readers have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the BARD (Braille and Audio Reading Download) mobile app. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped released the app on Sep. 19th with little fanfare. There has been discussion surrounding the long wait for BARD Mobile, but it was hoped that the delays would produce a solid, bug-free 1.0 version.

It has been nearly a month since launch day, and some might wonder why I would wait so long to complete a review. The easy answer is I’ve been spending too many hours reading to sit down and write it out, but the truth is I wanted to see if the app would hold up under frequent use. Sometimes, an app comes out and we think the relationship surely will last forever, only to discover it is infrequently updated, crashes often, or just isn’t what it was cracked up to be. I wanted to wait and see if my enjoyment of BARD Mobile was a fling or long lasting romance. Ok, so maybe not the best analogy, but give me a break. It’s my first review!

The Upsides to BARD Mobile

The layout of BARD Mobile will be familiar to experienced iOS users. There are four tabs along the bottom of the screen that take the user to different components of the app, and there is no need to drill down through several screens to get to desired functions. Additionally, the names of the tabs (bookshelf, get books, settings, and now reading) are concise and require little explanation.

The bookshelf itself is divided into categories which helps users keep books organized: audio books, audio magazines, braille books, and braille magazines. There is an edit function that allows users to arrange these categories in a customized order. Once inside the “shelf,” users can access or remove downloaded materials from BARD. All of these functions are simple to access and explain…a bonus for new iOS users or those instructing blind children or adults in the use of this app.

The “now playing” section has the added bonus of visually appearing as the face of the NLS digital book player. If a person is familiar with the placement and functionality of the buttons on this player, the iOS app will be simple to understand. The playback itself is easy on the ears, even when the speed is dramatically increased. Other similar applications are unable to stand up to this feature, which will please power listeners. An additional navigation button is available which allows users to quickly access bookmarks or sections of the current book. This is especially useful for textbooks, though the applications are as varied as those using BARD. This portion of the app is very stable, and it seems to remember without fail where I left off in a book, even if I switch between books frequently.

Braille support is an area which I have not explored to it’s full potential. Upon initial examination, it is simple and stable. The formatting is excellent (as with any web braille book) and is by a mile (so far at least) the most pleasant braille reading experience I’ve had on the iOS platform. There are features in this part of the app which I will further explore and provide feedback as I have it.

The Downsides: BARD Isn’t so Mobile

When I first downloaded the app, I noticed that playback would cease every time I locked my screen. This seemed odd to me, for if someone is using a portable device to listen to a book, they will most likely want to be performing other tasks while reading. It seemed a large oversight initially that playback wasn’t available when the screen was locked.

Thanks to my motivated Twitter followers, though, I soon discovered that (in a way) the error was mine. By default, in the settings portion of the app, the “background playback” is switched off. I’m not certain as to the logic of this, and I can say with certainty that this will be confusing and frustrating for less experienced iOS users. This setting isn’t exactly difficult to locate, but that is not the first place a new user is going to go when encountering issues. I am not arguing that the setting should be completely removed. However, the default is not intuitive and the BARD team of developers should consider changing it.

Getting books is another area of some puzzlement. In most cases, in order to be able to download a book onto the device, the book must be on your BARD wish list. Then, the “wish list” area must be accessed under the “get books” tab, which is from where desired books can be downloaded. Once downloaded, the books will automatically be placed in the appropriate area of the bookshelf. In other words, there is no direct access to the complete BARD catalog within the app. This in itself is odd since the service is approved subscriber’s only, so no payment is being offered for the books. To add to the muddle, under the “get books” tab, the 50 most recent titles are displayed in each category. Acquiring these books is simple enough: double tap on the title, or double tap on the “more info” button to get a synopsis or additional book information. These are the only books that are available for immediate download, but there is no way to add them to your wish list within the app, which seems to defeat the purpose of having a wish list feature in the first place.

This system for acquiring books for the device is multilayered and will be confusing for many users. It is possible to view the BARD website in Safari, but it is still a step that is erroneous given the fact that access to the catalog directly from in the app would not violate Apple’s terms. NLS has not commented on this issue, but I hope it will be corrected shortly.

While the settings are easily accessible (with one notable exception highlighted later in this review). There are visual settings which allow low vision users to choose the type of contrast that works best for them, as well as font size. As someone who is primarily a VoiceOver user, my experience with these features is limited. It did seem that when I changed the contrast (to white or yellow text on a black background), only the background and text color of the buttons changed, while the overall background remained the same. Before using this app with low vision, be aware that issues may exist with this functionality.

In the end

Overall, BARD Mobile is proving to be a promising partnership. It is intuitive, extremely stable, and enjoyable to use. The pros far outweigh the cons, though the few flaws I did encounter might pose significant barriers to certain users. I am extremely pleased by this 1.0 release, and look forward to added functionality in future updates. Besides, you can’t beat the price tag.

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Briley O'Connor

Briley O'Connor

Briley O'Connor is a regular contributor to the Mac-cessibility Network and panelist of the fortnightly podcast "The Maccessibility Round Table."

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