Please see Choosing a Device for more information on devices to host assistive technology.
Smartphones are not a specific type of assistive technology themselves, but a means by which technologies can be used. Because of this, they are evaluated the same way as laptops, comparing price to what the hardware offers, and offereing a general discussion of what matters in a smartphone for education purposes. Smartphones are becoming seen as an “effective alternative educational method” (D. G. Kim & Kim, 2013). Smartphones have been demonstrated as a comparable and sometimes superior means of presenting educational information in a variety of fields. For example, in 2014 smartphones were shown to be a more effective method of presenting information and management skills to children with diabetes, and in 2017, smartphones were shown to be a superior presentation tool for teaching children emergency procedures in schools (Bains, 2014; Kim & Cho, 2017). Smartphones have also been used in some types of therapies (Ly et al, 2012). For education purposes, the general features of smartphones have been demonstrated to be helpful in education, for example the camera app has been used to encourage more cooperation and environmental awareness between students working at an undergraduate level (Uzunboylu et al., 2009). Additionally, the video app has been shown to be beneficial to English Second Language users .
The three most competitive brands of tablets are iPhones, Google Android Phones (including Samsung), and Microsoft Lumia phones. While Blackberries are still in circulation, support for the Blackberry operating system is being phased out and will be discontinued in 2019, and Blackberry will be making phones for the Android operating system. This is a recurring pattern in smartphones; the Android operating system is “open” to 3rd party developers, unlike Windows and Apple software. As such, there is generally more variability, both good and bad, whereas Windows and Apple offer stability and reliability. The Android phones are also the only operating systems for smartphones that support multiple users; both iPhones and Microsoft phones only allow one user per phone. The most important assistive technology features for these phones are text to speech software (link), speech to text software (link), optical character recognition scanners (link), and the flexibility of the visual display for electronic work.
Dictation software (speech to text) is now a common feature on smartphones. Apple Dictation, which comes and free on all iphones (more commonly known as Siri) is functional for short (30 second) windows of typing, but not ideal for writing long essays. Microsoft has a similar free built in dictation (Cortana) which is similarly effective, as does Android’s Google Now. There are free dictation software for smartphones that can be installed such as GBoard (available for IOS and Android, not Microsoft) that are better for longer volumes of unbroken text. It should be also noted Cortana has significantly less languages (8) than Google now (43) and Apple Dictation (20). When considering performance and specifications, the most demanding and top of the line dictation software (Dragon) requires relatively update operating systems. Dragon Anywhere, the mobile app version is unavailable for Microsoft phones, can only be run on iPhones with at least iOS 8.1 or better, and can only be run on Android 4.4 (Android Kitkat) or better. The iOS 8.1 is available on iPhone 4s and all later models, and Android 4 is available on Samsung Galaxy Note 2 and Samsung Galaxy 3 or better models. In a general sense, this means smartphones purchased in 2013 and 2014 will have the ability to run modern elite text to speech software. However it also means these phones are on the verge of being obsolete, as they are no longer receiving system updates, and therefore will become incompatible as new versions of Dragon are launched. One could extrapolate that a modern new release phone, such as the iPhone X, would therefore be supported and have an operating system that can run new-release high performance apps for approximately 5 to 6 years. Also note there is disagreement over how low is sufficient, for example some sources say Dragon requires iOS 9, whereas others state iOS 8 is good enough.
Reading software (text to speech) is similarly available for all three major smartphone brands. The performance of the built in text to speech software on smartphones is not meaningfully different, and there are many free text to speech apps available online. For specific apps and compatibility, see text to speech here (link).
Scanners and optical character recognition are particularly interesting as these softwares allow students to use their portable phones to scan pictures, convert them to text form, and can then have them read using text to speech. Many phones advertise having scanners; scanners will not recognize characters and do not produce a document of editable text like true OCR (see more on OCR here). This is one area where paying for high quality has a direct tradeoff for higher performance, as OCR technology still makes numerous mistakes. For modern smartphone cameras, the highest performance are the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 (and Galaxy S8 and S8+ have the same camera), the Google Pixel 2 (and Pixel 2XL), the HTC U11, and the iPhone X. The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is the fastest at focusing, but the Google Pixel 2 XL produces the crispest, clearest pictures. The iPhone X is close behind, with the second best image quality and second best speed. The UTC U11 does the least computational adjustment of the image (it removes less noise), making it the best at night or with poor lighting, but not as clear in ideal conditions. Only the Galaxy Note 8 has the option to adjust image blur; the Pixel and iPhone both can toggle background blur on or off, which. All three of these major models of phones have built in OCR. There is no research comparing them, but lots of individuals on the web have done non-scientific comparisons. Generally speaking, the Google Lens, which comes with the Google Pixel 2 XL, is the most effective OCR. Older phones lack these features, and have free scanners are just scanners and cannot recognize text.
System performance is a common area of concern; modern technology is more powerful and new innovations are constantly being made. For the purposes of assistive technology on the market, right now hardware specifications are generally overkill. Features like RAM (how much stuff a smartphone can do at one time, how fast it can process) and the CPU are not worth investing in. Both the expensive options and cheap options presented below are sufficient. This does not hold true if the user intends to run multiple apps simultaneously or use the phone for much more than assistive technology.
Take Home Message: When considering particular applications and using smartphones, the research shows smartphones are an engaging tool. Individual brands have different specifications, but there are not major differences between them. As with tablets, the iPhone is generally the most popular smartphone on the market, but for elite models, the advantage in features is marginal.
Research Rating: While there are many studies that use smartphones, a large number are pseudo-experimental, and very few relate directly to comparing the features of smartphones. For comparing quality of modern, new smartphones, there is no peer reviewed research and the findings above are composited from individual opinions, tests, and user manual specifications.
*A standard practice in smartphones is offering alternate versions of the phone that are identical save for increased memory. Most modern phones will have a 128 GB option or a 256 GB option if the user plans to take a lot of photos or videos. For reference, a typical high-quality phone photo is 20-30 megabytes, or 2% of a single gigabyte, which translates to approximately 3000 high quality photos on a 64 GB phone.
**Megapixels are not the only measure of camera quality (though they are often pitched as one); the software, lens, and shutters all factor into picture quality. Megapixels are provided as an overall estimator. For example, the iPhone 6 has an 8 MP camera that generally takes pictures as good as the 12MP camera of other budget phones.
Special Consideration: Workflow
Exact prices change frequently, which is why only approximate ranges are listed.
$ - Under $5
$$ - Between $6 and $50
$$$ - Between $51 and $250
$$$$ - Over $250
Bain, T. M., Jones, L., O’Brian, C. A., & Lipman, R. (2015). Feasibility of smartphone-delivered diabetes self-management education and training in an underserved urban population of adults. Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare, 21, 58–60. doi: 10.1177/1357633X14545426
Kim, D. G., & Kim, C. W. (2013). Analysis of the educational utilization of smartphones on elementary children. Journal of the Korean Association of Information Education, 17, 367–373. doi:10.14352/jkaie.2013.17.3.367
Ly, K. H., Dahl, J., Carlbring, P., & Andersson, G. (2012). Development and initial evaluation of a smartphone application based on acceptance and commitment therapy. SpringerPlus, 1(1), 1-11. doi:http://dx.doi.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/10.1186/2193-1801-1-11
Uzunboylu, H., Cavus, N., & Ercag, E. (2009). Using mobile learning to increase environmental awareness. Computers & Education, 52(2), 381–389.
Gromik, N.A. Educ Inf Technol (2017) 22: 2087. https://doiorg.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/10.1007/s10639-016-9533-6
Written by Francis Wall, Last Revision May 2018