Back to the Future with the BlindShell Classic 2 Jamie Pauls

In the February 2020 issue of AccessWorld, author Steve Kelly reviewed the BlindShell Classic, a fully accessible candy bar-style cell phone developed especially for those who are blind or vision impaired. You can read that review here. In recent months, the BlindShell Classic 2 has been released. In the following paragraphs, we will take a look at what has changed, what has been added, and I will give some personal observations along the way.

Getting a Feel for the BlindShell Classic 2

The BlindShell Classic 2 feels like a cross between an old-style Nokia cell phone from the early 2000s and a TV remote. I am told that it is visually pleasing to those who have sight, something you might care about even if you have none.

The dimensions of the phone are roughly 5 inches by 2 inches by 0.6 inches, and it weighs less than half a pound. The actual dimensions are 135.2 x 54.6 x 16.7 mm and the weight is 100G. It has 16Gb of internal storage. You can also use up to a 128Gb Micro SD card as well.

Along with the phone, you will receive a USBc cable and a cradle for charging the phone. You can also charge the device using a standard wall charger or your computer should you wish to do so. BlindShell says the unit has up to 96 hours of battery life. I never even came close to running the battery down in my testing. The phone has a 13 megapixel camera, Wi-fi, and Bluetooth connectivity in addition to the cell service you will get with T-Mobile once you sign up and install a SIM card.

At the time of this writing, T-Mobile is the only carrier in the U.S. that will work with this phone. You will need to install the battery when you first get the phone, as well as the SIM card from your cell provider. You will get some earbuds which will be needed if you use the built-in FM radio, since the wire from the earbuds will act as an antenna to pull in radio stations from your local area.

It is possible to attach adhesive labels to items of your choosing and record a label that can be played from your phone when you point it at the label, and you get three of these to get you started. The process of labeling items and reading them with the phone was quite intuitive, and the BlindShell YouTube channel features a video on how to do this. I was also sent a beeper, a device that you can attach to an object such as a briefcase and then use the phone to set off the beep so you can locate the device. You may need to purchase that separately. Again, I had no issues with making this feature work, and a tutorial is also available on this topic when you visit the YouTube channel.

Getting Up and Running with the BlindShell Classic 2

As you hold the phone in your hand with the face of the unit pointing toward you, you will find the following controls on the front of the unit.

At the top left is a button that feels like a dot. It is the Notifications button, and this is where you can find out if you have waiting text messages, etc. On the right side of the phone face is another dot-style button which repeats the most recent utterance of the phone. You can long press this button to have the spoken content spelled.

Between these two buttons are two long buttons that extend horizontally across the face of the phone. These are up and down buttons, with the Up button being at the top as you would expect. To the left of the Down button is a green circular Confirm button that moves you into menu items and selects choices. To the right of the Down button is a red Back button that is slanted at an angle. The placement and angle of this button makes it easy to locate, although I had no trouble finding any of the buttons on the phone as they all had a very distinct feel under my fingers.

Below the controls already mentioned is a standard phone keypad with the number five key displaying a very prominent dot to aid in its location.

Pressing and holding the Star key locks and unlocks the phone, something I would highly suggest when carrying the device around, because the buttons can easily be activated in a pocket. The left side of the phone contains a long volume button. One feature of the BlindShell Classic 2 is its very loud speaker, and this may be a real selling point for anyone with hearing loss who needs a phone they can hear with no difficulty.

The right side of the phone contains a button that acts as a favorites button for easy access to favorite applications. Long pressing this button invokes the ability to control the BlindShell Classic 2 with your voice, including dictation in text messages if you prefer not to use the keypad to enter text. More about that later. A 3.5 millimeter headphone jack and a flashlight are on the top of the phone, and the camera is on the back of the unit The back of the phone also contains an SOS button that allows you to program an emergency contact of your choosing should you need it. The phone also comes with a lanyard that you can use to carry the phone around your neck should you wish to do so. To power on the phone, press and hold the Back button until the unit  vibrates. It will take over half a minute for the phone to boot up, but eventually you will hear a short melody followed by the time and you can start moving through menu items with the up and down buttons. This is where the fun really begins!

Using the BlindShell Classic 2

One of the first things you will want to do after the phone starts up is to take a look at the user manual. If your phone has sat long enough to automatically lock, simply press the star key and the phone will vibrate along with announcing the time to let you know that it has been unlocked. Press the down button, and you will hear “Call, 1 of 7.” Keep pressing the Down button until you hear “manual, 6 of 7.” At that point, press the circular Confirm button to open the manual.

Everything about the BlindShell Classic 2 is menu driven, and there are numbers that follow each item to let you know where you are. Press the Down button to hear “Getting started, 2 of 8” and press Confirm. You then hear “Package contents, 1 of 6.” It is possible to read the comprehensive manual in small chunks as shown above, and this works extremely well.

Now, press the back button twice until you hear “manual, 6 of 7.” You could have also pressed and held the Back button to get to the main screen, except that you will hear the time instead of the first menu item. Simply press the Down button to hear “Call, 1 of 7.”

After a while, you will intuitively know that the user manual is the sixth item on the screen. Simply press the number 6 on the keypad to move to that option, and press the Confirm key to enter the manual. Also, pressing and holding the Up button takes you to the top of a menu, and doing the same with the Down button takes you to the bottom. The seventh menu item allows you to turn off the phone, and in fact this is the only way to accomplish this task. You can adjust many aspects of how the phone behaves, including what voice to use, how fast you want the speech to be, what you want the screen to look like visually, and how loud the phone should be over-all. The one thing you cannot do is to completely turn off speech, something that a low vision person might or might not wish they could do. I find the default female voice on the phone to be clear and easy to understand. All key presses are responsive, and clear instructions are given for every task as you use the BlindShell Classic 2 in everyday life. It is possible to type text into the phone using the multi-tap entry method that users of older cell phones will remember. For example, to type the word “love,” you would press the 5 key three times for L, the 6 key three times for o, the 8 key three times for v, and the 3 key two times for e. It is possible to advance to the next character more quickly than the default amount of time by pressing the down button. The phone clicks to let you know that a character has been entered, and that character is spoken. I did not feel rushed when typing on this phone, even when I used the 1 key to enter symbols. The one thing I miss about this phone is the ability to use predictive text input. In my example above, I could simply type the numbers 5, 6, 8, and 3 to enter the word “love” and the phone would be smart enough to interpret the word correctly. Perhaps this feature might come to the BlindShell in a future release, but even if it doesn’t that would not be a deal breaker for me.

If I don’t want to type a text message to someone, I could always use voice input. It is possible to use your voice for pretty much anything you can think of while using this phone.

Anything you can imagine doing with this phone is possible with regard to adding, deleting, and managing contacts. You can call a number directly, call a contact in your address book, message multiple people at once, and set up quick dial numbers so that pressing and holding a number on the keypad calls someone whom you  have assigned to that number.

Voice quality on the phone is loud and clear when talking to someone. I had to turn the volume down and even hold the phone slightly away from my ear at times when talking with people. It is also possible to use the speaker on the phone so you don’t have to always hold it up to your ear. In addition to calls and messages, you can browse the Web and email with this phone as well. This makes the BlindShell Classic 2 a really great phone for any blind person who, for whatever reason, does not want to use a touch screen device such as an iPhone or Android phone.

The developers of the BlindShell Classic 2 have included an app catalog for the device, and all programs found in that catalog have been written for the BlindShell Classic 2. This ensures that anything you download will work on your phone, and all the apps are free.

Before we talk about the app store, let’s take a quick look at notifications on the BlindShell Classic 2. Press the small dot-like button at the top left of the controls on the face of your phone. At the time of this writing, I hear “No notifications, 1 of 6.” Pressing the down button gives me the time. Subsequent presses of Down give me  Wi-fi state, signal strength and the carrier I am on, and finally the state of my battery. Because I know this is the sixth item in the list, I can Simply press the notifications button, and then the number 6 to jump straight to that information. Pressing the Back button gets me to the main screen again.

Applications on the BlindShell Classic 2

Menu item 4 is the Applications area of the BlindShell Classic 2. After pressing the Confirm button, I find the following items:

  1. Internet browser
  2. Tools
  3. Communications
  4. Media
  5. Books
  6. Games
  7. Vision aids
  8. Hobbies
  9. App catalog.

Many of these menus have submenus. So for example, under media you will find the camera, Fm radio, images, Internet radio, music player, and YouTube. At the time of this writing, there are currently 42 items in the BlindShell Classic 2 app catalog. It is possible to search by various categories, or look at everything that is available. Possible apps include Amazon Shopping, Be My Eyes, BlindShell Podcast Player, a Telegram client, a book reader, and Facebook Messenger. There are too many to discuss here, but hopefully you get the sense that there is a lot to choose from in the BlindShell app catalog. As you browse through the listings, you are made aware if you already have an app installed, and if there is an update available. As a musician, I was especially pleased to find a metronome and guitar tuner among the available apps. Installing and running apps is as intuitive as everything else on the BlindShell Classic 2, but I found that sometimes it wasn’t always intuitive to learn how to use an app. As an example, I heard sounds when tuning my guitar with the BlindShell app, but it wasn’t clear to me exactly what the sounds were telling me. The description of the app told me basically what the app’s purpose was, but not how to actually use it. Perhaps a bit more work could be done  on the help topics for specific apps.

The Bottom Line

Today, I am entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, and I can’t see myself giving that up for any other phone, but for many who do not wish to use a smartphone with a touch screen, the BlindShell Classic 2 is a robust and easy-to-use solution. The phone and all of its related apps are updated frequently, and the app catalog continues to expand.

At $489, the BlindShell Classic 2 is not an insignificant expenditure, but many will find it worth the money. I found myself trying to justify reasons for owning one myself. Having a physical keypad to guide me through those annoying menus encounter when calling tech support or paying a bill over the phone might just be all the justification I need to add an extra phone line and purchase a BlindShell Classic 2 of my own. Add in the free apps from the catalog, and the deal continues to get sweeter. For those who don’t need to jump through hoops to justify the purchase of a phone of this type, the decision may be a no-brainer. After I returned my review unit, BlindShell added to the phone, an enhancement that is sure to improve an already great product.

BlindShell has a YouTube channel that will give you many real-time demonstrations of how to use the product.

Also, David Woodbridge recently did a very comprehensive demonstration of the BlindShell Classic 2 for Vision Australia. You can find David Woodbridge’s demo of the BlindShell Classic 2 here.

Product Information

Product: BlindShell Classic 2 in Red or Black Manufacturer: BlindShell USA Price: $489

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

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Jamie Pauls
Article Topic
Product Reviews and Guides