Using Android Magnification Gestures.

I’ve been writing this blog for a couple of years now, and it occurred to me, I haven’t done a piece on what seems to be the most obvious low vision accessibility aid in Android – Magnification gestures. Note this refers to the ability to magnify what is on the screen on your device, rather than using your device’s camera to view small printed text or other items – I covered a few of the Android magnification apps in another post

Introduced in Android 4.2, Magnification gestures work similarly to the full screen magnifiers on other platforms, that is, you can enlarge what is on screen with the drawback that you can no longer see everything which was originally on screen. For instance at 2x magnification, you can see only what was originally in the top quarter of the screen, but it is now enlarged to take up the full screen.

[Image of Android Magnifier]

[Image of Android unmagnified (left) and with Magnifier running (right)]

The first thing you notice with the magnifier running is the blue box around the edge of the screen.

One limitation of the magnifier is that it won’t magnify the on-screen keyboard – if you have the magnifier running while the keyboard is shown, only the area above the keyboard will be magnified. Software navigation buttons (the ‘home’, ‘back’, ‘recent apps’ buttons which are physical on some devices, eg by Samsung, and software on others such as the Nexus) are also not magnified. I can’t help with the buttons, but my best advise for increasing the size of the keyboard, is to look at an alternate keyboard. I reviewed some of the popular Android on-screen Keyboards here and some do go fairly large.

One striking thing for lovers of options such as myself, is that there are no settings for the magnifier on Android. In “Magnification gestures” under Accessibility settings you can simply turn the gestures on or off.

With Magnification gestures enabled, the magnifier doesn’t necessarily come on straight away. You can turn the magnifier on or off by triple tapping the screen, anywhere, in any app, and turn it off with the same gesture. This is a nice convenient way to turn it on and off, and actually doesn’t change even with Talkback running – both work happily together.

As well as being able to triple tap to turn the magnifier on and off, one of the handiest features of the magnifier is that you can triple tap and hold the third tap to turn the magnifier on temporarily – then you can drag one finger around the screen to move the view, see what you want enlarged, and then let go and the view will return to normal.

The two issues I have found with triple tapping to turn magnifier on and off are:
1) for some users, triple tapping is tricky, particularly as it has to be done quite quickly (I’m not sure of the exact speed, but approximately you have to tap three times in under about a second), which is quite fast.

[Image of Rapitap]

[Image of Rapitap (left) and with magnifier (right)]

2) Conversely to the above point, if you are quite nimble and used to tapping quickly – I find in some games (eg if you are very quick at RapiTap!), or when typing (eg erasing multiple characters while typing), it can be easy in certain circumstances to inadvertently turn the magnifier on or off.

Once you have the magnifier running, it will keep working while you are in the current app (unless you turn it off manually). If you leave the app (by pressing the home key or if another app pops to the foreground, eg you receive a call), the magnifier will automatically turn itself off.

While the screen is magnified, you can pan around the screen with two fingers, as if you were “pulling” the screen into view – eg if you are viewing the top left corner of the screen, you can drag with two fingers from right to left to move right, or bottom to top to move down. Again, this works the same with Talkback running.

One thing I’ve found changes slightly from device to device is that on my Galaxy Note 2 (Rooted and running OmniRom), the zoom always starts at about 2x, but on my Galaxy Nexus, when you turn magnification on, it comes on at whatever you had it set to previously. In any case you can adjust using pinch zoom, just like you can in other places (like the web or viewing images in many apps). The zoom goes up to about 5x magnification (that’s just an estimate).

On my Galaxy Note 2 this means that text which is 10pt initially, goes to 20 point when I turn the magnifier on, and if I pinch zoom further I can bring it up to 48 point. To be honest, as someone who has worked with many clients with all levels of vision impairement, if you need text larger than that, you really are better off learning to rely more on speech (in the case of Android, that is Talkback). This is because even if you can read text at 72point, the amount of text you could fit on screen, and the amount of panning you would need to do mean that you would spend much more time finding your place and navigating, than you would relying on speech, even with the speech running relatively slowly.

The challenges I’ve found with panning and zooming the view, are again mostly things which are common to all screen magnifiers, and that is:

[Viewing the web with magnifier]

[Viewing the web with magnifier – do I pan or scroll down to view more content?]

– Remembering that what you see magnified isn’t everything that is there.
– Knowing where you are on screen – with the view only magnifying to about 5x, that’s not as big an issue as on say a PC magnified to 12 or 16x.
– When you in an app, say a web page, which is larger than the screen to begin with, it can be challenging to know when you need to pan the view down versus when you need to scroll the web page. If I’m reading a long page like that, I tend pan to the bottom of screen (two fingers from the bottom up) and then scroll the page (one finger upwards from bottom) until it reaches the bottom.
– Similarly, it can be difficult to know whether you are pinch-zooming the web page or other app itself, or the magnifier. Generally, in a situation like this, the accessibility option takes precedence – so if you are using the magnifier on a web page, and you pinch zoom in, what is happening is that the magnification level will adjust. If you want to zoom in or out of the web page itself, you’ll need to triple tap to turn magnifier off, pinch in or out as desired, then triple tap again.

One thing I do find personally, is that I don’t feel I have much room to work when dragging two fingers around the screen of my phone to pan. It’s not such an issue on my 10” tablet, but the size of the phone screen really feels small when I’m trying to move the magnified view around with two fingers.

Overall the magnifier is quite responsive, and the magnification is very smooth. At the highest magnification if you have good sight or take a screenshot and zoom in, you can start to see a little bit of pixelisation (where individual pixels or squares of colour become visible), but you can tell that Android smooths it so it never becomes too obvious. On Windows for instance as you zoom in further and further you can see artifacts and pixelisation caused by zooming in.

Windows zoomed in

[Cutout of O in Windows zoomed in]

[Image of just part of the ‘O’ zoomed in on a PC with Windows Magnifier]

[Image of p zoomed in with Android magnifier]

[Image of p zoomed in with Android magnifier]

Compared to Zooms on the iPhone, the magnification level itself is similar (I couldn’t take a screenshot as while I do have an iPhone, when you take a screenshot with the magnifier running, it takes the screenshot of the unmagnified screen, which was no help for the comparison above), the smoothness also is much the same – again starting to pixelise by higher magnification but smoothed out. I personally find the controls easier on Android – on the iPhone it’s three fingers for everything, though I do like the way the magnifier persists as you open and close applications on the iPhone. Overall if choosing between Android or iOS for the magnifier alone they are quite similar (and Android of course has many more options such as altnerate launchers and more freedom to set other apps in high contrast and large print).

Generally I have tried to locate apps and solutions for many tasks which have a larger font option without using the magnifier, but it depends on how large you need your text and what you are doing. Even using those other options, there are definitely times as a low vision user, when the magnifier comes in quite handy, so it’s very useful to know how it works, whether for quick one-off magnification (triple tap and hold) or regular use (triple tap to turn on, two finger drag to pan and pinch zoom in and out).

How do you use the magnifier? Let us know in the comments!


Magnifier apps.

The quick recommendation: Magnify Reader is simplest but bare, Magnifier by Person has the best combination of features and App Town’s Magnifier is also good.


The longer answer:

Modern smart phones have excellent cameras and with the right app are a real, practical alternative to dedicated electronic magnifiers for enlarging printed text and making small items easier to see.  Here is a roundup of some of the best, free options I’ve come across.  The main features I was looking for were:

–          Ability to start in magnified view (otherwise you might as well use the default camera app).

–          Magnified view takes up as much of the screen as possible.

–          Easy ability to change zoom level, focus and toggle camera light on and off.

–          The ability to freeze an image was a desirable bonus.

–          The ability to invert colours was also a desirable bonus.


Firstly as a control, the Standard Camera App.  I used the camera app from the Galaxy Note 2.  Other device’s camera apps may be quite different.  The view takes up about 75% and starts unmagnified, you can pinch zoom in and touch to focus.  You can freeze (take a photo) and use effects to change the colour, however you can’t turn the light ‘on’ except as a flash when actually taking a photo.


Magnifier (Magnifying Glass) by Person

The view takes up virtually the whole screen; there is a small semi-opaque rectangle in the bottom right corner with the word “Menu” which brings up the options (Freeze, colour effects, light toggle).  View starts magnified and you can pinch zoom in and out, tap to re-focus and double tap to toggle light.  Pinch zoom can be slow to respond.


Magnifier by App Town

The view takes up about 90% of the screen.  There are three controls at the bottom of the screen: a button to toggle light, a slider for magnification level and a button to refocus.  View starts magnified and adjusting options (via controls – no gestures) is more responsive than previous app.  No colour options or image freeze.


Magnify Reader by Mlinell

The view takes up the entire screen with no controls.  The app starts at minimal (~1.25x magnification and you can swipe to the top of the phone zoom in and to the bottom zoom out.  Tap to focus and double tap to toggle the light.


Old Person App by Third Layer

While I find the name a bit insulting, the app is relatively straight forward.  It has three big buttons at the bottom “Magnifier”, “Light” and “Notepad” and they toggle those three things.  The view takes up about 75% of the screen but the app starts with instructions and you then press the magnifier to go into that mode.  There are no adjustment options but it is at maximum zoom and automatically refocuses as needed.


Other apps looked at:

Andreader Magnifier / Reader by Peter Glen (Uses 100% of the screen, pinch zoom and tap to focus however view is sideways and skewed and there is no way of turning the light off).

Digital Magnifier by Appsnack – (Starts unmagnified; view is distorted and only takes up 80% of screen).

GrandMa’s Magnifier (App name in Chinese text, icon is pink magnifier) by JEJun – (No focus or magnification options, view is about 1.25x).

Handy Magnifying Glass by Darkstar – (Trial version is unusable with the view covered in writing.  Even full version appears to be an image of a magnifying glass with only the circle of the magnifying glass showing a magnified view).

Hugo’s Lupe Magnifier by Bend Schwarzmann – (No focus ability and zoom adjusted in small steps by volume keys).

Magnifier and Mirror by Dong – (View only takes up about 60% of screen, is easy to rotate and starts unmagnified.  Does have a mirror).

Magnifying Glass by David Parry – (View only takes up about 50% of the view and the buttons to control magnification and focus are quite small).



As with many types of apps, there are a lot of options available, many of which contain ads or other intrusive software, and even of the dozen I looked at, only a third really stood out.  Person’s app has the most features, Old Person app is the simplest, Magnify Reader has the cleanest screen and App Town’s magnifier has a balance of visible on screen controls which don’t take up too much room.

Choosing an Android phone for low vision – Part 3: Brand and Android version.

The quick recommendation:

Android 4.2 has a great magnifier but isn’t available on many phones yet, otherwise version / brand don’t make much difference for large print.

The longer answer:

Android 4.2

Android version 4.2 – JellyBean (Android 4.1 was also called JellyBean), the newest version at the time of writing, includes a full screen magnifier (it enlarges everything but you only see a part of the screen at once)  After activating it in the accessibility settings, you can turn it on and off by triple tapping anywhere on the screen.  This is extremely helpful as there are many apps you may really want to use where there just isn’t a larger font alternative.  If you are a quick typist, it can be easy to accidentally turn on or off.

I use a full screen magnifier on my PC at around 3x on a 24” screen, however I find it harder to get used to using one regularly on my phone.  While on the computer, I am already using the mouse / keyboard, and the view follows that, on the phone, it’s a much smaller screen and you need to specifically get your fingers in the way to swipe with two fingers to move the view.  I think the best solution is if you can have the whole phone setup in large print, with the magnifier as a backup – Other large print apps will be the subject of future posts here.

 settings with magnifier on galaxy nexus

Settings screen unmagnified (left) and with the magnifier enabled at around 2.5x (right).

Android 4.1

If you use Talkback (screen reader), you really need Android 4.1 or later.

Android 4.0+

Android 4.0+ (Ice Cream Sandwich) has an accessibility setting called “Text Size” which offers a range from ‘Tiny’ to ‘Huge’.  Very disappointingly ‘Huge’ is actually only about 2pt larger than the standard size was previously, and Tiny is much smaller.  It makes a slight improvement in some stock apps like the play store, but no third party apps that I’ve noticed.

At the time of writing this, Android 4.2 is only on 4% of devices but more new devices will start to come with it and some older ones will receive the update.  I hear my current favourite phone, the Galaxy Note II, will get 4.2 (it now has 4.1.2) but when buying a phone, don’t count on it getting any upgrades – if you really want the magnifier, make sure you buy a phone with 4.2.

Phone brand.

Most manufacturers (HTC, Samsung, Motorola etc) modify the launcher (interface) and not all of them work well with Talkback.  I haven’t come across any with any real large print options.

You can replace the launcher with one which has large print and works with Talkback, I’ll cover this in my next post.


If you can get a phone with 4.2, the full screen magnifier is very handy.  If you need Talkback, you need at least 4.1, otherwise Android version & phone brand doesn’t have much impact on large print accessibility.