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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 January 2000 Issue  Volume 1  Number 1

Product Evaluation

Ai Squared's ZoomText Xtra for Windows 95, 98, and NT 4.0

Since 1988, Ai Squared has attempted to offer a screen magnifier with a large number of options and upgrades. ZoomText Xtra 7.0 was launched in 1999, and it offers support for Windows 95/98/NT 4.0, as well as a built-in screen reader. Already in 1999, there have been two upgrades, versions 7.01 and 7.02.

Did Ai Squared get it right or did the company get bogged down trying to make everyone happy? We decided to find out by evaluating ZoomText Xtra version 7.02. We also looked at version 7.01 to see what changes were made. We tested ZoomText Xtra's features—including its built-in screen reader and speech synthesizers—on Microsoft Word 97, WordPad 1.0, Excel 97, and Internet Explorer 5.0. Whenever possible, comparisons were made with MAGic 6.1 for NT by Henter-Joyce, which was evaluated in the Preview issue of AccessWorld.

Getting It Up and Running

ZoomText Xtra was easy to install on a new Dell PC with a built-in video card and sound card. Its quick reference guides are very clear and helpful, even for users who are not technically inclined. During installation, a special screen comes up listing all repairs ZoomText Xtra has made since its last version and potential problems that might occur. This screen has helpful information on tasks that can now be performed in Word 97 and Excel 97 and warns users of known problems.

How Magnification Measures Up

ZoomText Xtra provides magnification of up to 16x, which is 4x less than MAGic. However, unlike MAGic, ZoomText Xtra offers magnification "stretching," which is the ability to adjust magnification horizontally to make it wider or vertically to make it taller.

Screen Options

The primary window offers either the standard horizontal-vertical split-screen mode (in which one portion is magnified and the other is not) or the typical "lens" mode (in which a section of the screen is magnified in a movable and resizable frame). The unique secondary window display modes are designed to solve the problem of material going off the edges of the screen when the entire screen is magnified. Five secondary windows can be selected and used simultaneously. Two secondary display windows are for monitoring a fixed screen location, one is for magnifying a single Windows control, one is for magnifying a single line of text, and one acts as a second general purpose overlay window (a resizable magnification window).

Compared with MAGic 6.1 for NT, ZoomText Xtra offers more "locator" features that indicate the portion of the screen currently being magnified in the primary zoom window. We did encounter some problems with the caret locator option, which displays a blinking frame around the caret when it is stationary for better visibility. The blinking frame takes a few seconds to appear around the caret. In 7.01, when the computer was left on for a long time during one test, the cursor sometimes left imprints of the caret locator. The imprint was annoying because it covered up text. On the same test, the frame came up even after it was disabled on the control panel. This problem did not occur in version 7.02.

Tracking

Tracking allows users to jump to a location on the screen when a Windows event occurs. Tracking features in ZoomText Xtra include tracking the mouse pointer, menu bars, the text cursor, dialog boxes, and control buttons. As in MAGic 6.1 for NT, ZoomText Xtra handles screen shifting well. Since the magnified viewing area often does not fit on one screen, ZoomText Xtra can shift the screen to display the active Windows event. ZoomText Xtra's options for tracking boundaries are much easier to use than MAGic's because they do not require numeric input except for the track delay.

Panning

Panning enables users to scroll through lines of text in all directions using either hotkey buttons (ALT + arrow keys) or mouse movement. Direct manual control of scrolling allows full control of the speed, "jump settings" (amount of horizontal or vertical movement panning makes after it reaches the border of the viewing area and before it begins a new pass), and delay between passes. Users are required to hold down the left mouse button, which leaves only one hand left for other operations. The hotkeys tie up both hands because they require users to hold down the ALT key and an arrow key.

In the NT version, ZoomText Xtra left imprints of itself whenever it started to pan. The imprints cover text, as does the caret locator. However, unlike the imprints from the caret locator, which appeared to be a fluke in 7.01, this problem happens consistently in both versions.

The Mouse

There were not many options for customizing the mouse compared to MAGic 6.1 for NT. ZoomText Xtra offers three mouse sizes and 17 colors. The mouse wheel (located between the left and right buttons on some mice) can be used while CTRL is held down to zoom in and out on the cursor position. This feature allows the user to have direct control of magnification without compromising the mouse wheel's other scrolling functions.

Colors and Smoothing

ZoomText Xtra offers the ability to invert foreground and background colors and adjust gray scale, brightness, and contrast. Compared to MAGic 6.1 NT, it also has a simpler and more effective smoothing feature that reduces the jagged appearance of magnified text and graphics.

The Built-in Screen Reader

"DocReader" is the ZoomText Xtra reading environment that reformats, magnifies, and speaks text from any Windows application. It can be used with any of ZoomText Xtra's display modes; it also offers its own display mode. Speech can be activated in any of 10 user-defined locations on the screen. Voice type, volume, pitch of voice, and rate of speech can be varied, as can its verbosity level (the amount of spoken detail). DocReader will read the current word, cell, next line, previous line, entire document, or clipboard contents.

In DocReader, the prompter option allows the display to be set to wrap lines of magnified text so they do not exceed the width of the display screen. The ticker option allows the display to show a single continuous magnified line. DocReader also offers a Truetype text setting, in which only text is displayed; and a bitmapped text option, in which all text and graphics in the document appear. During testing of continuous scrolling in the ticker mode with bitmapped text activated, the computer crashed in version 7.01. This problem did not occur in version 7.02.

DocReader worked fine in Word 97 for both versions 7.01 and 7.02 in Windows 98 and NT. A few problems occurred with Excel 97. In version 7.01 DocReader would not read the first number that was typed, but it did read all subsequent numbers. In version 7.02 the problem occurs only if the user types in data too quickly. An improvement in version 7.02 is that it will automatically speak the contents of a cell when the cursor is moved to the cell. DocReader also did not read the toolbar in both versions. It was very hard to keep track of information because the cell, row, and data numbers were read as if they were right next to each other in DocReader display mode.

Unlike a dedicated screen reader, ZoomText Xtra's DocReader does not provide specific support for applications, such as Word 97 and Excel 97, in which the settings for tracking the caret, the mouse, or echoing what a user types are different for each program. In DocReader the user can specially configure files but must constantly change the settings for each application. As a result, the settings are too general, since what is applied to Word 97 may not be applicable to Excel 97.

Summing Up

ZoomText Xtra is a first-rate screen magnifier and screen reader for people with low vision. It has the edge over MAGic 6.1 for Windows NT because of its secondary window display mode options and its user-friendly controls for tracking, panning, using colors, and smoothing. As a screen magnifier, the only weakness was panning in Windows NT. ZoomText Xtra's DocReader performed as intended, with the exception of a few bugs that appeared when it was tested in Excel 97.

ZoomText Xtra is reasonably priced at $595 for level 2 (with speech synthesizers). Level 1 (screen magnification only) is priced at $395, the same price as MAGic 6.1.

Manufacturer's Comments

"We feel that the ZoomText product line is unique for a number of reasons. Our products support all Windows environments in one package, including Windows 95/98, Windows NT, and Windows 2000. We provide a reading environment (DocReader) specifically designed for low vision document reading. We also feel that our level of hardware-software compatibility and technical support is unparalleled in the industry."

Product Information

Product: ZoomText Xtra 7.02

Manufacturer: Ai Squared; P.O. Box 669, Manchester Center, VT 05255; phone: 802-362-3612; fax: 802-362-1670; e-mail: <sales@aisquared.com>; web site: <www.aisquared.com>. Price: Level 1 (screen magnification only): $395. Level 2 (screen magnification and screen reader): $595. Level 1 Plus (includes ZoomText for DOS): $595. Level 2 Plus (includes ZoomText for DOS): $795.

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AccessWorld, Copyright © 2002 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved.

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