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I want to buy a computer/laptop/tablet/whatever-computing-device for a blind user who’ll operate it while lying in bed. It will primarily be used for plain text notes, emails, browsing the Web, and listening to podcasts and videos, so the hardware specs shouldn’t matter much.

It will be operated by using a physical keyboard and by listening to a screen reader.

Features:

  • It should have no screen; or at least a screen that can be turned off permanently (so that it takes no power).
  • It must support WLAN.
  • It should support Bluetooth.
  • If built-in, the speakers should be good; so that listening to the screen reader and podcasts won’t be unbearable (like it’s the case with many speakers in monitors).
  • If built-in, the keyboard should be good: not tiny, not these very flat keys, each key must be easily distinguishable, the marks on the F and J keys should be prominent.

I don’t know which category of computer would be the most suitable; I guess any could work:

  • It could be a device standing on a table in the same room as the bed (like a desktop PC, laptop/netbook/etc., tablet, smartphone, etc.) that gets operated via Bluetooh keyboard (and possibly Bluetooth speakers) … if that’s even feasible?
  • It could be a notebook (or netbook etc.), used on the lap. But I guess the (switched off) screen would be hindering (tipping over because the screen is heavier) and heat generation might become a problem if used for a long time in bed.
  • It could be a specialized device for blind people (I know there’s one where the computer and speakers are built into the keyboard, so to say; but it doesn’t allow you to install a full-featured operating system).

If it’s a device that allows installation of a PC operating system, I’ll install a GNU/Linux distribution (Debian or ADRIANE). If it’s a mobile device, the OS must have a screen reader.

Budget: < 600 EUR.
It will be used in Germany.

  • 2
    Hi unor, fantastic question. Is there a weight preference involved at all? – Adam Oct 7 '15 at 5:45
  • @Adam: If the device itself (instead of just the keyboard) would be used on the lap (in the current situation, an overbed table can’t be used), I think the device weight should be low enough that you can use it comfortably for several hours. Unfortunately I have no idea to which max weight this would typically correspond. – unor Oct 7 '15 at 14:46
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Its more of a general class of systems but chances are you'll want to add your own keyboard, speakers and mic but a "nuc" class system and/or a mini PC of some sort would work well. There's a few considerations here but I'll go through them.

Before I talk about hardware, there's a few additional considerations I have. A Bluetooth dongle is cheap and tiny, and many systems have Bluetooth 4.0 but not older standards. Spend the 5 dollars or less on a Bluetooth dongle if needed if the system is otherwise perfect.

I have the older bay trail "brix" - which is one variant of a nuc class machine. The current equivalents run Brasswell I believe. They're passively cooled, run Linux fine and have 3 USB ports.

A NUC is essentially a small, super compact PC built off of laptop grade processors. They take laptop ram and are pretty tiny, but you'd need to add your own keyboard, mouse, speakers and such. Mine has Bluetooth 4.0, but you'd need a Bluetooth adapter for older standards I suspect. These have fairly low power use, as is, and you can tailor your system to your needs to an extent.

If you want something even smaller (and cheaper), there's various Chinese mini PCs that might work - the x86 versions are just over a hundred dollars. I have not actually used one, but if I was building a system for uses like this (or had another excuse to), I'd just pick up one to try. This ainol model was what I was looking at, but there's probably a ton of options

In either case I'd be able to (if needed) add a Bluetooth dongle.

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If you want something really basic and cheap, I'll recommend a Raspberry Pi 3, which was recently released. It has built-in support for WLAN and Bluetooth 4.1, which is great for such a cheap device. You'll want to attach some external storage HD or get a pretty decent MicroSD card, depending on your storage needs. Western Digital just released a great 314 GB external hard drive that is made for the Raspberry Pi, but others will do just fine.

You could attach bluetooth speakers, like the Bose SoundLink Mini, which in my personal experience has amazing sound quality - and since you'll have plenty of left-over budget it might be a nice option as you probably want a high quality audio experience more than anything else.

You can install the default Raspbian (based on Debian) or other Linux variants on there.

It's not an x86 architecture, but uses an ARM processor (1.2 GHz quad-core). So, have a look around if that's something you are ok with. In my experience it'll work really well for all the tasks specified.

It's also really small and can be hidden out of the way in the corner really easily.

Links

https://www.raspberrypi.org/blog/raspberry-pi-3-on-sale/

http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2016/03/western-digital-makes-a-46-314gb-hard-drive-just-for-the-raspberry-pi/

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Note: I saw you specified a Linux operating system and you can do that with my suggestion, but it'll give you greater flexibility.

I recommend to try out an Apple Mac mini & your Bluetooth Keyboard of choice. I am using a Mac mini myself, but have no experience with the features for blind people. I have repeatedly used some screen-guidance (VoiceOver) and know Apple does pay attention to these features, but apart from that I can only refer you to their specifications: http://www.apple.com/au/accessibility/osx/#vision

  1. It's within your specified budget (although on the higher end).
  2. They have decent built-in audio speakers (but no microphone, which is ok, but not ideal, maybe).
  3. You can easily run them without a monitor (I do).

I think one advantage is that you could try out Mac OS X to see if it fits your needs. They also have a pretty good return policy, so if you don't like it, just return it.

You can also install any operating system you want - it's a bit more work for Linux, but it's manageable.

As I mentioned before it'll also allow you to switch between operating systems, if you ever see the need. Hope this helps.

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