The quest for a high contrasting black mobile phone experience for low vision users

by Jeffrey Stark

April 6th, 2013

I am a perfect example of someone who needs a high contrasting color scheme to be able to effectively use an interface.

On the PC I use a combination of speech output, magnification and high contrasting colors. If I use a white background with black text I require 12x-14x magnification; however, if I use white text on a black background I only require 4x-6x magnification to read the same information. So, as you can see, that black interface is tremendously important to me. I am of course not the minority in this area, as one just needs to look at the most common features designed for low vision users built into CCTVs, Screen Magnification software and various Operating Systems and the majority of these features revolve around setting background/foreground colors and font sizes. I'm not as big of a fan of the "inverting" functions you find in screen magnification software, (such as Zoomtext), on some browsers like Chrome or on certain devices like the iPhone because colors invert but the setting doesn't deliver a true white on black color scheme. In addition to this, the inverting function creates an unusable color combination if a screen within an application or a webpage is gray or black. Finally, inverting also usually inverts pictures and photos, making friends and family look like aliens.

When I am using a mobile phone with a touch screen that black interface becomes significantly more important because I rely less on magnification (to be honest none at all) and rely on voice. However, I use my sight to speed up navigation and follow what's going on, on the screen itself. For example when I can see where buttons are, I can go to them directly with my finger, thus skipping over the linear top to bottom reading that is imposed by default with a screen reader and instead moving directly to the object I want.

This is how my quest for the perfect high contrast black setup for low vision users on android began. I am aware that android has certain firmware versions with high contrasting themes built in; however, I want to focus on features that are applicable across the majority of android devices without flashing a custom firmware. I am focusing on apps that work well with Talkback and that whenever possible provide a black background and not just inverting the screen. The emphasis is on devices that run the latest version of Android's operating system.

Below, you will find the collection of setting changes and apps that I have found. I know there are more, so in sharing this information with you, I am hoping you will share your experience and suggestions too.

Luckily, many of the base screens in android such as the settings screen and notification shade have a black background with bright text. Many apps have the ability to download additional black themes or have a black theme called "night" mode that can be enabled in the settings of the app.

The first thing I change on android is the background that the launcher uses. While you could just upload an all-black jpg image and point it to that black jpg image, I prefer to use Starfield live wallpaper; which has both the "cool" factor and meets the high contrast requirement. Once installed, you can enable this custom live wallpaper by going into settings, display, wallpaper, live wallpaper and enabling the starfield wallpaper. This will instantly change your lock screen and workspaces in your launcher to a dark background with itty bitty stars flying across the screen in the background.

Many of the 3rd party text messaging apps have black themes (i.e. handsend and go sms). I myself use Text Talk; which has a dark theme that can be enabled in the app's setting screen and also provides a great voice recognition option for sending text messages.

AquaMail is one of the most feature rich email clients for android. It supports multiple mailboxes, has a smart inbox for collating mail from all your different accounts. It also has the ability to not only theme the interface with a black background that can even extend into emails, but also adjust the font size on the fly.

Calendar++ Dark Is a simple calendar app that was designed to present your Google calendars in a high contrasting black theme

ExDialer & Contacts is a great contact manager that displays contacts in the same form as the "people app" but with a choice of themes, including a black background with high contrasting colors .

For Twitter & high contrast, I use Plume for twitter; which has a black theme available that can be enabled in the app's setting screen

In android 4.2's browser and the latest version of the chrome browser, launch the browser and go into settings, accessibility and turn on invert colors. Because it is simply inverting, this doesn't give you high contrasting black background with white text on every web page, but is the best solution I have found so far.

Don’t forget to check out The quest for a high contrasting black mobile phone experience for low vision users – Part 2

Now it is your turn, what apps do you use that have a high contrasting bright text and black background that work well with Talkback?

18 Comments

  1. Tad Skalski
    Posted April 8, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    Hello Jeff,

    I very much appreciated this blog.  I was able to follow instructions and download the “Starfield” wall paper and install it on My Samsung S3.  As a result I was able to see more clearly what was on my home screen and in turn was able to make some other minor adjustments to improve my S 3 experience.  This has given me an impetus to download some of the other apps that you have outlined in last December’s blog.  I will let you know how I fair as I progress.  Thanks to this blog I feel that I am starting to move forward on using my smart phone.

     

    Tad…

  2. Posted May 4, 2013 at 10:36 pm

    Keep at it, I think you will really like it once you get everything set up.  I just wish samsung would release 4.2 for the S3 soon.

     

     

  3. Jen Jesso
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    Thanks for this post! I just got an S3 (after using an iPhone for four years), and, like you, I use a combination of speech and large print on my devices and find that white on black makes a huge difference for me. I had already discovered AquaMail but downloaded a few of your suggestions. I’m too new to Android to have any suggested apps of my own, but will be glad to share them when I find them.

  4. Jaime A. Guerra
    Posted May 4, 2013 at 9:37 pm

    Jeff, I ran into your many posts on high contras on Android based devices;  I have low vision that makes it impossible to read my HTC LTE Android phone with stock settings.  Basically I have a dark background, but I am looking for a setting to allow me to change my android gmail to dark background with white text.  On a Windows PC the HIGH contrast settings work fine, allows IE, thunderbird to have black background and bright yellow text.  Unfortuneately I have had difficulty searching for a tool that could easily change my gmail app or play store app so I could easily read it.  I did find a workaround only when I am at a library or work location that has a reverse image camera with screen.  I place my android gmail screen and presto, I can read it on the monitor with black background and white text.  It would be nice if this feature was easily made available on android phones.

    I am going to try the AQUAMAIL app that you mentioned. 

    I find some PLay Store apps such as the Tunein radio have a car mode feature that allows easy reading.  They call the option the CAR MODE feaure under Tunein Radio Settings, it drawas less power from device since it keeps majority of screen black other then the text.

    I don’t want to have to change my device to a windows phone, which claims that have browser, email and etc, with high contrast ability.

     

    Jeff, thank you kindly for your posts, you gave me hope that android may have a solution for low vision users who require high contrast screens.

    bye,

    Jaime A. Guerra

    jaimeguerra123@gmail.com

  5. Posted May 4, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    I am really glad you found the article useful.

    I think you will really like aquamail.  It does exactly what you mentioned you were looking for gmail.

     

  6. Quentin
    Posted May 23, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    Great post Jeff.  The inconsistent nature of most Android interfaces in terms of having some features black on white and others white on black is annoying at best, and for many, even worse.

    A couple of apps I’ve come across:

    Tweetcaster is another option for twitter which allows larger text than Plum – in the pro version it goes up to 48pt equivalent on my Galaxy Note II!  It also has several dark themes, (I use Dark Bubbles because at larger font sizes it displays the timestamp properly, though Midnight is bettter contrast).

     

    Lemo Memo is a good notepad / checklist app which has a dark theme and 18pt text.

     

    Also another option for some things is replacing the launcher:

     

    Big Launcher has a great high contrast black theme which not only gives you big icons (2 x 4 big icons per screen rather than the default 4 x 5), but also the contacts / text messages / app list / dialer and settings are all large print and high contrast (if you use the black theme).

     

    Equal Eyes Beta is similar to Big Launcher, though more pre-setup and it comes by default in a green on black theme with the option of a high contrast white on black theme.

     

    Finally personally at the moment I’m using Lightning Launcher on the Galaxy Note.  It is extremely customisable but does take a lot more setting up.   One of the great things about it is that you can zoom in on the home screen.  I have it set to use 3 x 4 icons, and because of that zooming ability, I have a couple of home screens with widgets on them which can be zoomed in more so I have a high contrast list of appointments (Calendar Widget by +1 Labs), month calendar Widget (by Jose Gonzalez D’Amico), Today in history widget (by Domnik Bruhn), Today’s gospel widget (Taize Readings by Webimpress), and my local weather app widget.  You could also set it to use a twitter widget or news ticker or basically any other widget you wanted to use which was previously too small on the standard launcher.

    Otherwise a couple other good high contrast games (these ones mostly don’t work with talkback, but are hopefully easy to see) are:

    – TriXOR – a “set” style brain game.

    – Numbers Attack.   a tap on the numbers from 1 – 25 quickly game – the setup is quite small but the game itself isn’t too bad (depending on what options you set).

    – Hashi by Ivo Blochliger

    – Juggle by Jakyl, a single player pong style game (Pong is another game which is by default high contrast)

    – Throttle Copter and some of the helicopter games are good (I like Copter It),

    There are quite a few variations on the above – such as numbers games or pong games.  In terms of ‘action’ games it’s often harder, and these two don’t fit the high contrast bill as such, but I’ve found “Boost 2” by Jonathan Landis and TurboFly HD by Osaris Games to both be fairly easy to see, or at least not have many small things in the way.  Tron HD 3D LightBike isn’t perfectly contrasted but it’s not too bad.

     

    Regards

     

    Quentin.

  7. Posted May 23, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    Thanks for all these apps and suggestions.  I know, I fully intend to try a few of them this weekend!

     

     

  8. quentin
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 12:27 am

    Evaluating games particularly is tricky as it’s not just a matter of what font size you can see, but size of images and how quickly they move and so on.  I haven’t found anything else exciting over the weekend though I did realise it was “GL Tron” I was thinking which I preferred slightly over 3d Tron though actually playing it again on the weekend, neither is quite as easy as I was hoping.  Actually one I have been playing with, is “Sand! Premium” (and the free version “Sand!”) which is one of a number of ‘falling sand’ physics games where you can “draw” with things like water, fire, sand and wood, and let them interact with each other.  Because you can freeze the timer, you can take your time to set it up and the elements are bigger than in some other similar games.  Sandroid Pro (and it’s free version, “Sandroid”) is another one which uses a menu type interface rather than coloured squares.  Actually one game I did find on the weekend was one of the Pong variants, “Ping Pong Multiplayer” by Douwe Wermer – the bats are blue and red which isn’t great (though since yours is under your finger, you don’t look at it so much anyway) but the ball is a nice large yellow ball which I at least find easy to see.  Note also with my suggestions, I try to stay away from apps which have ads in them (if there is no paid, ad free version) and apps without analytics.  There may be better apps than my suggestions if you are happy to have ads and / or analytics.  Regards  Quentin.

  9. Posted May 27, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    IM+ works really well on android for connecting to skype, msn, yahoo, facebook, googlechat etc & has a high contrast theme available.  The only unlabelled button I’ve found is the “send button” to the right of the edit field for messages.  However, since it’s the only unlabelled button on the screen and it works fine when you click it, I’d say the whole app is pretty usable.   I have it connected to my msn, skype, googlechat and facebook account.

     

     

  10. Michael
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    Rock On Jeffery!!

    I too share your technology quest for the low vision user.  Your suggestions are a tremendous help.  Thanks for doing all the leg work, a job well done!

  11. Lee Western
    Posted August 28, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    Hi Jeffrey & fellow high contrast black browser hunters.

    Ive just taken the plunge and got my 1st smartphone and with the help of the above hints & tips managed to get everything working just how I like it appart from any of the browsers on offer, im frankly gobsmacked that none of the standard browsers offer a high contrast in their settings ! so ive tinkered with a browser called Opera, its free from the app store, heres the one im going to try and share my tip for modifying.

    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.opera.browser&hl=en

    This thread is old but if anyone is still looking for a solution to the original question about “white on black” browsing here is my solution:

    1. Install Opera on your Android device.
    2. Create a .css file containing the following , I just used windows notepad, cut/paste it somewhere easy to find on your phone. I just put it in the main android directory.

    * { background: black ! important; color: white !important } 
    :link, :link * { color: #00ffff !important } 
    :visited, :visited * { color: #ff00ff !important }

    3. Open Opera and type “opera:config” into the url field.
    4. Click “Quick find” and type “css” to filter the options.
    5. Tick the “User CSS” tick box
    6. In the “Local CSS File” choose the css file you made earlier.
    7. Save your changes to the config screen.
    8. Restart Opera

    I then navigated to google and saved a link to the home screen to so it goes straight to google rather than Opera, obviously you can set it to any homepage you like.

    Now I know this is long winded and you may need the help of a sighted person to do the bit within Opera as I did (thank you Fiona) the wife 😉

    If any of that was as clear as mud i`ll try and clarify for you on reply.

    Hope this helps someone out there.

    Lee

     

     

     

     

  12. Posted September 2, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    Fantastic, that’s great!  Thanks for the tip.

    The latest browser from google (not chrome); seems to have a high contrast color choice too.  However, I think you have to be running 4.2 or later.

     

  13. Posted March 27, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    I found this late as I was searching for high contrast browser options. I had an S3 where the option existed in Accessibility as you mentioned. I just upgraded to a Note 3 running Android 4.3 and the option is gone. Upgraded to 4.4 and it is still gone. Have read that it’s been done away with. I will try Chrome.

     

    As for what I use. I install a basic black wallpaper – either Null Wapper or No Wallpaper.  These are entirely black and makes everything easy to read.
    I use GO SMS Pro’s black theme. It’s pretty good but the menus all stay whiite which is difficult.
    Twitter: I use Socizlize for Twitter Black. Black backgrounds and adjustable font sizes. The developer has stopped updating it.  It still works well but now and then some links won’t open. I’ll try your alternative but this isn’t bad.

    Facebook: Friendcaster is what I use. It has a few different colour shemes and black bacround is one of them. It’s pretty good.  I also occasionally use Black 4 Facebook. It’s entirely black but the font is very small and there’s no way to adjust it.

    E-mail: Kaiten Mail.  It’s a basic e-mail client with adjust font sizes and a black theme. it works very well. 

    Also if you are looking for a music streaming service, Songza is what I use.  The free version has limits on how many times you can skip and things like that, but it is mostly dark backgrounds. 

     

    Thanks for posting this blog. It’s helped me out and given me some ideas.

    Matt:

    @IAmRobinson_ for any other suggestions.

  14. Karl
    Posted April 16, 2014 at 10:29 pm

    High-contrast web browsing on android that preserves images:

    Download Firefox mobile for android

    Install the Stylish extension for Firefox

    Install a Stylish global theme.  My favorites are Dark Global Brown and Matrix – Global Style. There are others as well.  Better yet, make your own!

    The Stylish extension can also be used with Chrome in Chrome OS.

  15. Diana
    Posted June 5, 2014 at 1:12 am

    You guys are about the most helpful people on the web!  

    I am still looking for a “microsoft word” app i can use in dark theme for tablet.  This would be a lifesaver.  Anything that can run .doc or .docx with a dark background.  This is the only thing i have never been able to find and im almost thinking about writing developers.

    Or a dark calender that is free.

    All your guys comments have helped me so much i only wish i found this earlier

  16. Posted June 5, 2014 at 5:37 am

    try out PDF to Speech pro, it can read out doc and other formats and can be set to a dark theme.
    Closest I’ve come is opening word docts in firefox through google docs… but it’s a bit complex.
    Also, I hear that accessible editor pro is supposed to get word support shortly… so there may be another solution soon.

     

  17. Diana
    Posted June 6, 2014 at 10:06 pm

    Thanks Jeffrey,  

    I am thinking about writing some app developers.  A dark word with night mode is something i would be willing to pay for as im sure many others.  I cant believe there is nothing like this out there… perplexed…

  18. Posted June 7, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    let me know of the ones you write to and maybe we can get a few people to contact the same company/author.

    p.s. check out inclusiveandroid.tk – we will be listing high contrast apps there among other things … soon.

     

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