Electronic Magnifiers and Magnifying Systems

By Bryan Gerritsen, M.A., CLVT
Edited by Maureen A. Duffy, M.S., CVRT

What Are Electronic Magnifying Systems?
Electronic Desktop Magnifiers
Portable Digital Magnifiers
Before You Purchase an Electronic Magnifier
Smartphones for Reading
More Information

What Are Electronic Magnifying Systems?

Electronic magnifying systems come in many different varieties and sizes, depending upon the task or activity you want, or need, to do:

  • Some have a camera system that displays a magnified image on a monitor, which can be helpful for reading books, magazines, and even doing some personal grooming tasks, such as applying makeup or doing a manicure.
  • Others are hand-held, portable, and have a broad range of magnification powers. They can be taken to restaurants for reading menus, or to the supermarket to read labels and coupons.
  • They can be very helpful in the workplace and, in some cases, can even help you continue in your current job.

All of these magnifying systems have their advantages and disadvantages, depending upon your eye condition and your specific everyday living needs.

Electronic Desktop Magnifiers

Doing a crossword puzzle with a CCTV

Doing a crossword
puzzle with a CCTV

An electronic desktop magnifier is equipment that can be helpful for reading, writing, and doing a variety of everyday living tasks.

It consists of a camera that is mounted on a frame or arm that displays a magnified image on a monitor. They are generally referred to as electronic video magnifiers or closed circuit television systems (CCTVs).

Some models now have optical character recognition (OCR), along with speech output, in addition to magnifying text or images and showing it on the monitor. This enables the person to hear the text being read aloud at the same time it is displayed on the monitor. This may be very helpful for a person with a serious vision loss, whether in terms of diminished visual acuity or a challenging visual field defect.

The primary benefits of a CCTV are that it can enlarge or magnify print, pictures, artwork, or whatever else is placed under the camera; in addition, it can also enhance the contrast and brighten the image on the monitor.

A CCTV can enable some individuals with low vision to read many different types of print and writing more easily:

A CCTV can also help with a variety of non-reading tasks:

Important Features of Electronic Desktop Magnifiers

There are many different manufacturers, brands, and helpful features that are available:

reading with a CCTV

Reading with a CCTV

  • Most models have a movable tray (called an XY table) to hold and support the reading or writing materials or your other work. The tray/table can move in almost any direction underneath the camera.
  • Some cameras can rotate 360 degrees or close to that, and can allow you to view items at a distance (such as a white board or PowerPoint presentation in a classroom), or watch yourself apply makeup or do other personal grooming tasks.
  • CCTVs also offer the option of viewing black letters on a white background or white letters on a black background, called reverse polarity.
  • Some cameras and monitors are high-definition (HD), while others have standard resolution.
  • Some units now provide optical character recognition (OCR) scanning and speech output, in addition to the magnification provided via the camera.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Some advantages of a desktop CCTV or video magnifier are:

Applying makeup with a CCTV

Applying makeup with
the help of a CCTV

  • It is one of the only ways to be able to use high magnification, yet sit at a comfortable working distance.
  • It is one of the only ways to be able to use both eyes, even with high magnification.
  • It can allow you to read faster and with less strain and fatigue. When you read faster, you often have better comprehension of what you have read.
  • It allows you to have a wide field of view—much wider than with a magnifier or other devices.
  • You may have better posture and ergonomics than when using a strong magnifier, which may require that you bend over and get very close to the lens.
  • For models with OCR and speech output, you can hear text and documents read out loud (with earbuds if desired for privacy), in addition to seeing the material on the monitor. This allows for greater speed and ease in reading when you have a serious vision loss.

Some disadvantages of a desktop CCTV or video magnifier are:

  • They are more expensive than most all other options for reading and writing.
  • They are not very portable.
  • They require that you remain in one place (such as sitting at a desk or table) to read, write, or to use this device.

Portable Digital Magnifiers

A portable digital magnifier is a device with a camera on the underside that captures the image of text, pictures, or other items, and a monitor on the top side that displays the image.

Important Features of Portable Digital Magnifiers

Like electronic desktop magnifiers, there are many different manufacturers, brands, and helpful features that are available:

a digital magnifier

A portable digital magnifier

  • Monitor sizes can range from 3.5 inches to 13 inches. Other available monitor sizes are 4.3 inches, 5 inches, and 7 inches.
  • Many models are now available with a high-definition (HD) camera and monitor, while others still come with standard resolution.
  • They are portable, can be used anywhere in the home, and can also be taken out to a restaurant, store, church, or symphony.
  • Most models come with a protective carrying case.
  • They are rechargeable, with an average battery life of about three hours before needing to be recharged. Recharging usually takes about three hours.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Some advantages of portable digital magnifiers are:

reading a magazine with a digital magnifier

Reading a magazine with
a portable digital magnifier

  • They can be used or taken anywhere—such as to a restaurant, store, or church. You can sit in your easy chair, couch, or bed to use it, as opposed to sitting at a table or desk for a CCTV.
  • They provide helpful magnification, enhanced contrast, and improved brightness, which is important for many persons with low vision.
  • They are much less expensive than a CCTV.
  • They can still be used at a comfortable working distance, as opposed to most strong magnifiers.
  • You can use both eyes, even with high magnification.
  • They provide a fairly wide field of view, as compared with many strong magnifiers.

Some disadvantages of portable digital magnifiers are:

  • They are more expensive than most optical devices, including magnifiers, strong magnifying reading glasses, and loupes.
  • Although they have a larger field of view than most magnifiers, they have a smaller field of view than a CCTV, which can still be frustrating for some persons.
  • If you purchase a brand that is hand-held, rather than one that can rest flat on the page, it can be tiring to hold. Some brands have a handle that swings out when you want to hold it, and a stand that swings out when you want it to rest on the page. Sometimes, swing-out stands can be somewhat flimsy, however.
  • Some brands may show some distortion on the edges, or the image may fade out in the "false color" mode.

Before You Purchase an Electronic Magnifier

Before you purchase a desktop CCTV or digital magnifier, it's usually recommended that you have a low vision examination with either an optometrist or ophthalmologist who has had additional training in low vision and discuss various options for reading and writing, as well as your desire to use electronic magnification.

Try to find an agency or a location in which you can have hands-on experience with a variety of magnification systems before purchasing one. It can take a little while to learn how to use an electronic desktop magnifier successfully, especially if you purchase one with several buttons or controls. Some units may be easier to use than others.

Take your time and check the particular features that work best for you. Some low vision clinics, doctors, agencies, and online resources offer loaner programs and/or resale of older but very usable CCTVs, which can reduce the purchase price substantially.

It's also possible to use your current desktop or laptop computer, even if the font has become too small for you to see. Low-Cost Computing for People Who are Blind or Visually Impaired has a number of helpful hints and tips specifically for users who have low vision, including using built-in keyboard commands to enlarge the font and increase the contrast on the screen.

You can use the AFB Directory of Services to locate agencies in your state and local area that provide low vision and vision rehabilitation services and training.

Smartphones for Reading

woman using an iPhone

Smartphones have many
uses, including reading

Smartphones are becoming increasingly helpful as an alternative to a CCTV or a portable digital magnifier. The cameras on smartphones and some tablets have developed much better resolution than previously.

You can use them to take a picture of text or an object (a prescription bottle, package, or can, for example) and then enlarge image for easier reading.

Many users state that a portable digital magnifier still has better resolution, features, and benefits, partly because they were specifically designed for people with low vision; however, smartphones have become increasingly helpful for reading. There are many helpful apps and features that can offer reading assistance, along with online tutoring for the use of these apps and the optimal use of the smartphone itself.

For more information on smartphone technology, including using smartphones for some types of distance viewing, see Cell Phones, Tablets, and Other Mobile Technology for Users with Visual Impairments, Introducing the AFB Accessible Computer and Phone Primers, and Using Cell Phones.

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