Someone holding an android phone in their hand

A smartphone is a phone that is connected to the internet.

This means in addition to usual phone calls and text messages, it can also do a lot of the same things as a computer such as:

  • Use mobile data or Wi-Fi
  • Use Bluetooth
  • Send and receive emails
  • Search the internet (using Google for example)
  • Get directions
  • Download music, videos and other files
  • Download other programmes, for example apps

There are two main types of smartphones:

  1. Apple
  2. Android

Apple’s smartphones are called iPhones. Android phones are made by a lot of different manufactures, the most popular ones are Samsung, Sony, LG, Huawei and HTC.  Both Apple and Android phones can be purchased from any high street phone shop as a handset only option or as part of a contract with minutes, texts and data included.

Features and benefits

Both Apple and Android smartphones have built-in accessibility for larger, bolder text, magnification or speech. How you use the accessibility settings is different between Apple and Android and each have limitations. The accessibility settings are not usually turned on by default, so you may need help in adjusting the settings first.

The trend nowadays is that smartphones include a touch screen.  This means there are only a few physical buttons on the phone such as power, volume up and down and sometimes a home button that takes you back to the first screen. Therefore, to get the phone to do something, such as making a phone call, sending a text, or something more advanced such as looking up bus timetables from the internet, then you tap or flick across the touch screen. The screen will display information such as your phone book and you flick upwards to scroll through the phone book or you could tap on a person’s name to display their number.

Smartphones are available in various sizes described as a screen size, usually measured in inches diagonally corner to corner.  A small phone would be about four inches diagonally, a medium sized phone would be about five inches and a large phone would be around six inches. If you prefer larger text then a larger phone would be better, whereas if you are using speech, then maybe a smaller or medium size one would be useful. Usually the larger the screen size, then the more expensive the phone is. Another point to consider is comfort - a bigger phone might be too large for you to hold or put in your pocket or handbag.

An app (or application) is a programme on a smartphone that allows you to do a certain task. Smartphones come with certain apps already installed on them, such as a calendar to add appointments, reminders, notes and an email app. You can also easily download apps for other tasks, such as playing music, reading news or books, watching TV, or booking taxis. You download them from an app store which contains apps that work for your specific phone. For Apple phones, it’s called the “App Store” and for Android phones, it’s called the “Play Store”. Most apps are free, but some cost a small amount such as £2.99.

Another key element of a smartphone is how you type on them.  Since most smartphones have a large touch screen with few physical buttons, they display a keyboard on the screen when you type a text message. The keyboard shown is similar in layout to a QWERTY computer keyboard with the letters in similar positions.  Usually you can rotate the phone sideways to display a slightly larger version of the keyboard to make it easier to read or type.

Most smartphones also come with a “Virtual Assistant”.  This is a feature where you can talk to and ask questions or command your phone to do something.  On Apple phones, this is called “Siri” and on Android phones, this is called “Google Assistant”. You can usually ask your phone the time, weather, to make a call, or to send a text or email. These features are relatively new and so new commands or questions are constantly being developed. They are useful if used as a shortcut but you do not get all the features of the smartphone through this function.

Anything else?

There are some smartphones specifically designed for use by blind or partially sighted people. At the time of writing (August 2018) the two most popular versions are:

  • Synapptic phone
  • Blindshell

Both phones use a touch screen. The Synapptic is designed to be used by people who prefer larger text or who need speech or a combination of both. The Blindshell phone is designed for those who need speech only.

Whilst these phones are designed to be a little easier and simpler to use than standard smartphones, it is done so at a compromise of features. For example, both of these phones make it very easy to make phone calls, send and receive standard text messages and send and read emails. The Synapptic phone has more features than the Blindshell phone as you can make Skype calls, watch TV or play audiobooks. Neither phone can be used to download an app for booking flights or taxis or be used with Twitter.

You will need to decide if the simplicity of making calls and texts is what you want, or if the other features as described in these guides such as video calls, audio books, music etc is more important. If this is the case, then maybe a standard smartphone is for you.


Smartphones are available to apply for through the RNIB Technology Grant Scheme. Other items include video magnifiers, RNIB PenFriend 3, kitchen equipment, clocks and watches, accessibility software and DAISY players. Click here for more information about grants.