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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 March 2002 Issue  Volume 3  Number 2

Product Evaluation

A First Look at Windows XP

If you take even a moderate interest in the world of computer technology, you may have noticed that Microsoft has rolled out yet another new version of the Windows operating system. Windows XP is the newest operating system from Microsoft, and it has many new features. On the whole, XP is an improvement over previous versions of Windows, but it may prove difficult for users of screen magnification products, as a result of a new technology that handles the drawing of text and graphics. If you're blind or visually impaired, probably the first questions that come to mind are these: Will XP work with my screen reader, magnification software, scanner, or other adaptive technology? And what about my current applications? Will they work with XP? Will I have to upgrade my computer, and how much horsepower memory and CPU power does XP require? If you're concerned about any of these issues, then read on. This article gives you an overview of Windows XP and its compatibility with the current crop of adaptive software employed by blind computer users.

Similarities and Differences

The good news is that if you know how to run Windows 95, 98, or Millennium (ME), then you know how to run XP. XP is not just an upgrade; it is a near-total revamping of the Windows operating system. XP is generally downwardly compatible with older windows software, but Microsoft warns that there could be some incompatibility with some applications. But on the whole, you should have little trouble running your current applications on XP.

But what about adaptive technology? If you're thinking of upgrading to XP, you will probably also have to upgrade your screen reader, screen magnifier, or other adaptive software to be compatible. (See the table at the end of this article for a list of some XP compatible screen readers, magnifiers, and other products.) All the major vendors of adaptive technology are working hard to produce XP versions of their products, and most of these versions should be available by the time this article appears. XP is now a fact of life, and the vendors of adaptive technology are wasting no time getting on the bandwagon. But XP is not without problems, especially for users of large print.

The Problem with Graphics

Windows XP uses a new mechanism for drawing graphics, which may have a negative impact on users of screen readers or screen magnifiers. This new technology, known as GDI+, permits applications to draw both text and graphics to the screen. The problem is that GDI+ renders text as a bit-mapped image, which cannot be accessed by screen readers. GDI+ also confuses screen magnification software.

GDI+ is used in Windows XP Home and Professional, as well as XP Office. Currently, GDI+ looks like it's a more significant problem for screen magnifiers than it is for screen readers. According to the screen reader developers I spoke with, they are working on the problem. GDI+ could become a serious problem for visually impaired computer users, as more software developers begin to rely on it to draw screens.

For users with visual impairments, probably the biggest difference between XP and the other versions of Windows is the user interface. The new look involves the Start Menu and Task Bar. XP shows you the Start Menu in a double column, with the most recently used programs in the left column and the rest of the Start Menu in the right column. This new arrangement talks just fine and does not seem to be a problem with the screen readers I've tested.

Keyboard Shortcuts

If you're a fan of keyboard shortcuts, then fear not. Another bit of good news is that XP still supports all the keyboard shortcuts found in previous versions of Windows. Control+Escape still takes you to the Start Menu, Tab cycles through Dialog Boxes and other controls, ALT+Tab cycles you through running applications, and so on. For a complete list of keyboard shortcuts, point your browser to <www.microsoft.com/enable>.

System Requirements

One of the most important questions you may have about XP is, "Does my PC have enough power to run it?" Microsoft recommends that you run XP on a computer with a 300 megahertz processor, 128 megabytes of memory, and 1.5 gigabytes of available hard disk space. A CD-ROM or DVD drive is also required, as is an 800 Ă— 600 super VGA video adapter and monitor.

The systems requirements do not take into consideration that users may be using adaptive equipment, which can increase the demands for memory and processor speed. Your performance will increase if you run XP on a system equipped with more memory and a faster processor than the one recommended by Microsoft.

The Two Flavors of XP

As you may have heard, Windows XP comes in two basic versions: XP Home and XP Professional. XP Home, as its name implies, is designed for household users. It is well suited for those who run a single stand-alone computer at home or a small peer-to-peer home network. On the other hand, XP Professional is intended for business applications and users with more demanding computing requirements; it allows you to log on to both peer-to-peer and client-server networks. It also has increased security and lets you encrypt your files and folders for added security. If you work from home and have to log on to a remote network, then you should go with XP Professional. Moreover, both XP Home and XP Professional will let you log on to the Internet to perform web browsing, e-mail, and other functions. But if you want to log on to a client server network remotely, XP Professional is what you need.

XP's Native Adaptive Technology

In terms of built-in adaptive technology, XP Home and XP Professional are exactly the same. Both versions include Microsoft's Narrator, Magnifier, On-Screen Keyboard, and Utility Manager. For users with disabilities, this makes the selection process a bit easier. You get the same accessibility features in both versions. Here's a basic rundown of the built-in XP adaptive technology:

  • Narrator is a basic screen reader that provides speech output for blind computer users. It is not intended to replace more powerful commercially available screen readers. Rather, it is intended to help you when your normal adaptive equipment is not available.
  • Magnifier is a screen-magnification program that provides up to nine times magnification for users with low vision. It also lets you adjust contrast settings and select normal or inverse video. As is the case with Narrator, Magnifier is not intended to replace more powerful software-magnification programs.
  • On-Screen keyboard is an application designed for users who have difficulty typing on the physical keyboard or using the mouse. The On-Screen keyboard shows you a picture of the keyboard on the screen. This keyboard can be programmed to highlight one key at a time, letting you select the highlighted key with an external switch mechanism.
  • Utility Manager lets you control all the internal accessibility applications found in the operating system and set the preferences for each utility.

Some New Features

In an article this size, it's impossible to cover all of XP's new features in detail. I will, however, try to describe several of them that may have a positive impact on users. If you use a network or the Internet, XP has a built-in network-repair feature that I'm sure will come in handy. If for any reason, you lose your connection to a local area network or to the Internet, you can click on the Repair Network icon to get back up and running. The Repair Network automatically rebuilds your connection to the Internet and reestablishes your IP address. For nontechnical users, this feature can be beneficial to say the least.

Since many users now burn their own CD-ROM disks at home, at school, or at the office, XP includes direct support for compact disk writers. You do not need to purchase third-party CD burner software, as with other versions of Windows. This is not a sophisticated program like Adaptec's Easy CD Creator, but it does let you send files to a CD writer.

XP also offers Remote Assistance, a powerful feature that allows another individual to take over control of your computer from a remote location to help you solve problems or to give you complex technical support. Remote Assistance works across a local area network or the Internet and can become active only with your permission and knowledge. You must grant permission to the remote individual before he or she can take control of your computer.

Once you grant permission, the individual can control your keyboard and mouse and can see everything displayed on your screen. According to the screen-reader developers I've talked with, the Remote Assistance and remote desktop features are unlikely to work with speech, at least for the time being. This is something that Microsoft needs to work on because it has tremendous potential benefits for users with disabilities.

Famous Last Words

It is generally believed throughout the computer industry that XP appears to be an improvement of the Windows operating system. For better or worse, XP is now a fact of life, and it's in your best interest to become familiar with it. Windows XP includes all the accessibility utilities and features found in previous versions. If you are considering upgrading and your computer is powerful enough, I recommend that you select XP Professional because it will give you greater flexibility and security than XP Home. In particular, XP Home will not let you log on to a client's server network, something that may be important to you if you work at home. Also, it does not support multiple monitors, a feature that may be attractive for users with low vision.

My biggest concern with XP is the new GDI+ technology that interferes with screen magnification software. Until Microsoft fixes this problem, XP could prove to be a significant challenge to persons with low vision.

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AccessWorld, Copyright (c) 2003 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved.

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