Putting Words to Windows: A Review of JAWS for Windows and Window-Eyes
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but for Windows screen readers, the challenge is to convey the meaning of computer graphics in far fewer words than that. In this Product Evaluation, we compare the ability of two leading screen readers to provide access to Windows and key applications. The programs were not compared directly with each other and were rated on a scale of 0 to 5 as follows:
0 No access; the equivalent of a sighted person with no mouse and the monitor turned off.
1 Little access; the program gives users an idea of what is going on but little opportunity to function well.
2 Less than adequate access, with much room for improvement.
3 Good access but a definite need for improvement.
4 Very good access, with minor improvements expected in the future.
5 Access as good as a sighted person has with a mouse and a monitor.
Each program was tested on a Pentium 500 with 128 MB of memory and a Pentium II with 64 MB of memory. We used two hardware synthesizers—Double Talk and DECtalk PC—and three software synthesizers—Eloquence from Eloquent Technologies, the Microsoft speech engine, and IBM's ViaVoice. Ratings were given for installation and documentation, basic performance in the word processing programs Microsoft Word 2000 and Corel WordPerfect 8.0, and for performance with the Web browser Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0. Advanced features were tested with several programs, including FileMaker Pro 4.1 from Apple, Microsoft Visual Basic 6.0, and others.
JAWS for Windows 3.31
JAWS for Windows (JFW) provides a set of basic speech commands enhanced by sophisticated, program-specific scripts. These scripts fine-tune JFW for particular Windows applications. Henter-Joyce provides well-written scripts for many popular applications, and JFW's performance excels in these applications.
JFW simplifies the reading of the screen by presenting it as a series of lines of text, even when the text is scattered and not actually linear. This feature provides a reliable way to read the current line in a word processor and also the highlighted item in a dialog box.
JFW supports numerous refreshable braille displays and several languages. Eloquence software speech is included, so casual computer users with sound cards can avoid spending the additional several hundred dollars to buy a high-quality hardware synthesizer.
Getting Started and Getting Help: Rating 3
JFW installed easily from Windows, except on some test machines with incompatible video cards. Video card problems were solved by installing drivers from the Windows CD-ROM. (It was necessary to use another screen reader or sighted assistance to perform this operation.) If a sound card is available, the installation uses Eloquence to provide speech. Each time JFW is updated, even if the merge utility that preserves user settings is run, the new version is installed to a new directory, giving multiple versions, which can cause confusion. JFW's copy-protection feature can also cause unexpected problems. For example, in one test case, we had to reinsert our authorization disk during the upgrade. In another instance, an overnight upgrade to our system erased the hidden file JFW uses as authorization, and the program became a demonstration copy until we "reauthorized" it. The manual is available in print and on disk. A cassette tutorial and a braille quick-reference guide are included. Extensive on-line help is provided for JFW commands and some application commands.
Word 2000 and WordPerfect 8.0: Rating 4
JFW read text and menus in both word processors tested. It identified and read the buttons in most dialog boxes but often did not read the messages in these and other programs. In WordPerfect, it sometimes made errors in identifying control buttons, such as misidentifying radio buttons, leaving us unaware that choosing that option would change another option.
JFW's performance in the Word spell checker was concise and effective; the misspelled word was announced, then spelled automatically, as was the first suggested word, or the message "No spelling suggestions" appeared. The WordPerfect spell checker worked well, but it was easy to exit the spell checker and not realize that keystrokes such as Tab were being placed in the document instead of affecting the spell checker. The JFW hot key Insert-C read the misspelled word in context. In WordPerfect, we encountered occasional off-screen model errors—such as JFW not reading words or letters that were actually on the screen—but these were always corrected by pressing JFW's "Refresh screen" key (Insert-Escape).
Internet Explorer 5.0: Rating 4
JFW automatically announced the number of links and frames on a page as it loaded, then read a large portion of the entire page. Web pages load quickly. Users can then navigate the page in logical order by pressing conventional arrow keys, as in a word processor—a feature especially useful for beginners. Newspaper-style columns are read one at a time instead of across two columns. Pressing the Tab key prompted JFW to find and read links.
JFW 3.31 has a special "Forms mode" exclusively for reading forms on the Web. Pressing Enter on part of the form, such as the place for entering text, begins the Forms mode. Field and form-element labels, except those of combo boxes, are generally read.
JFW has some advanced Web-reading features. There are hot keys to bring up a list of links on a Web page, to skip the navigation links and go to the start of the text, and to find the first edit box of a form. This last hot key, however, often failed to find input fields and should not be relied on to indicate the absence of forms on a page. The Find feature is a powerful tool for jumping directly to text of interest.
Tricks of the Trade
JFW has a number of advanced features that helped make some aspects of the database FileMaker Pro usable. JFW's frames, user-configurable rectangular regions of the screen, could be set up to read designated areas, such as the record number. For data entry screens in which the field and data area were on the same line, we created a script to move to the next field and read the line. Because FileMaker Pro and many other programs use nonstandard controls in some dialog boxes, JFW's feature allowing the reclassing of these controls was extremely useful. Although not a concept that beginners would be familiar with, advanced users can press a key combination to bring up a dialog box containing the name of the current control and a list of conventional controls. Selecting the most similar conventional control caused JFW to read the nonstandard control in an appropriate manner most of the time.
JFW has a number of powerful features that improve the usability of the computer overall. These include the ability to access the system tray (the group of icons displayed under the task bar for which Windows provides no keyboard access); automatically label graphics with tool tips when available; read mixed-case words as two or more words—a feature that is useful for programmers who use languages in which it is common practice to use two words joined into one command; switch the order of the reading of control types and control names (from "OK button" to "Button OK," for example); and read the status line, even in applications for which no JFW scripts exist.
How To Make It Better
Although JFW's script language, which resembles a programming language, can be used to customize new programs for which prewritten scripts are not provided, writing scripts is beyond the ability of the average user. Performance can also be improved by temporarily setting the Screen Echo function to "All,"so all changes on the screen will be spoken, which can help users learn unfamiliar programs. Eliminating the creation of multiple JFW directories during installation, copy protection, and video card conflicts would enhance JFW's usability.
Window-Eyes was designed to work out of the box with a wide variety of applications. A large number of commands and options are available to fine-tune its function. It is possible to open the Window-Eyes menu at any time and easily make changes by navigating through menus and dialog boxes. Some basic settings—such as speech rate, pitch, and volume—can be adjusted without entering the menus. Window-Eyes includes Microsoft's speech engine, so casual users can avoid spending the additional several hundred dollars to buy a high-quality hardware synthesizer. Window-Eyes does not allow accented vowels and other language-specific characters to go to the synthesizer, making many foreign languages unusable.
Getting Started and Getting Help: Rating 4
Window-Eyes installed smoothly from Windows. The installation speaks by installing a temporary version of Window-Eyes and using the Microsoft speech engine and the sound card. The Window-Eyes manual is available in print, on cassette, on disk, and on-line. A command reference and a cassette tutorial are included. More extensive on-line help would be useful.
Word 2000 and WordPerfect 8.0: Rating 4
Window-Eyes read text, menus, and dialog boxes well in both Word and WordPerfect. Its read-to-end feature—which reads from the cursor position to the end of the document—worked well. It handled both spell checkers, although selecting some desktop themes (a computer's desktop, wallpaper, sound scheme, and mouse pointer can all follow such themes as Underwater, Jungle, or Baseball) in Windows 98 caused the spell checker in WordPerfect to fail. Switching to another desktop theme solved the problem. The mouse pointer was automatically moved to the word in context in the spell checker, allowing us to make corrections quickly and easily.
Selecting text in WordPerfect was problematic. Window-Eyes sometimes announced that we were "unselecting" text that we were actually selecting, and vice versa.
Internet Explorer 5.0: Rating 4
Window-Eyes read 25 lines of text automatically when Web pages loaded and when Page-Down was pressed. Links were spoken as Internet Explorer's Tab key was used to move from link to link. When reading pages, Window-Eyes gives beginners user-friendly access through the use of its MSAA (Microsoft Active Accessibility) mode. This mode allows the use of arrow keys to move by line, word, sentence, and or other grouping. It also removes the column formatting from Web pages and reads the text in logical order, rather than reading across columns of a newspaper article or mixing navigation links with unrelated text. With MSAA mode turned on, the read-to-end command reads the entire Web page. MSAA mode is turned off by pressing Enter when a form is being completed. After MSAA mode was turned off, it was often necessary to hit Tab or Shift-Tab to locate combo boxes and radio buttons again before filling out forms. Some of the advanced features of Window-Eyes include hot keys to bring up a list of links, jump to the next control in a form, find specific text on a page, and skip a series of links.
Tricks of the Trade
Window-Eyes has features that helped make some aspects of the database FileMaker Pro usable. "User windows" could be set up to read designated areas of the screen, such as the record number. Because FileMaker used nonstandard controls in some dialog boxes, Window-Eyes' Reclass feature was extremely useful. Advanced users can press a key combination to bring up a dialog box containing the name of the current control and a list of conventional controls. Selecting the most similar conventional control caused Window-Eyes to read the nonstandard control in an appropriate manner most of the time. On data entry screens, Window-Eyes was not able to recognize the blinking caret, so we were not able to identify the current field. To work around this problem, we used Window-Eyes' mouse movement commands to find the field and activate it.
Many dialog box items in FileMaker Pro and other programs lack text labels. For this reason, the Window-Eyes "Label field name" feature is useful to name controls or give them more descriptive messages. For example, an edit box with no visible label could be named "filename" if desired. Likewise, information not necessarily included in a label, but displayed elsewhere on the screen for sighted users could be incorporated in the spoken label. For example, the Help message "A for Adult, J for Juvenile," would say what codes were valid in a field when the user entered the field.
Window-Eyes has a number of other powerful features. For example, when users attempt to get out of trouble by pressing Control-Alt-Delete in Windows 95 or 98, Window-Eyes reads the resulting and subsequent dialog boxes. Likewise, when an application has caused an "illegal operation," Window-Eyes reads the dialog and allows users to shut down the computer gracefully. Other powerful features include the ability to access the system tray (the group of icons displayed under the task bar for which Windows provides no keyboard access); automatically label graphics with tool tips if they are available; review the entire screen, regardless of the active application; find text or graphics anywhere on the screen and place the mouse pointer on the desired item; rename characters so that an asterisk can be called "selected item" if that is preferable in one application; switch the order of the reading of control types and control names (for example, change "OK button" to "Button OK"); and read the status line in most applications, even those for which no Window-Eyes set files exist.
How To Make It Better
Window-Eyes has an extensive list of hot keys and other features that can be set up as needed in various applications. "User windows," for reading specific areas of the screen, are relatively easy to define and use. Key-combination access to lists of links on Web pages, the system tray, and other problem areas allow knowledgeable users to make Windows more efficient. The addition of foreign language support, braille support, and improved on-line help would enhance Window-Eyes' versatility and usability.
The Bottom Line
JFW offers uncomplicated, highly focused access to Word, WordPerfect, and Internet Explorer. The speed and responsiveness are impressive. Configuring a less mainstream application is time consuming and beyond the capability of most users, but the tools JFW provides, in the right hands, are effective and comprehensive. Henter-Joyce's approach has made JFW the most widely used Windows screen reader.
Window-Eyes is a versatile, powerful tool for accessing Windows. It provides very good access to Internet Explorer, WordPerfect, and Word. Window-Eyes provides a variety of ways of improving its performance that do not require knowledge of computer programming. In addition, Window-Eyes reads system messages during crashes or when the Control-Alt-Delete reset key combination is used. This feature is especially useful to advanced users or those with no sighted assistance available.
Henter-Joyce: "JFW 3.31 was a free upgrade in October 1999. It was shipped to all registered JFW 3.3 users. In January 2000, Henter-Joyce released JFW 3.5. Please visit the Henter-Joyce home page at <www.hj.com> for more information regarding our current software or to download a free demo of the latest release of JAWS for Windows in English."
GW Micro: "Of course we are always working on improving Window-Eyes. The next release will be no exception. Many items have been addressed, including braille display support and even better performance for the Web. A version for Windows 2000 is close to being finalized, and support for foreign languages is being added. We have also been watching the release of Windows Millennium, and we will be ready when it hits the public."
Product: JAWS for Windows 3.31.
Manufacturer: Henter-Joyce, Inc.; 11800 31st Court North; St. Petersburg, FL 33716; phone: 800-336-5658; 727-803-8000; fax: 727-803-8001; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; web site: <www.hj.com>. Price: $795.
Product: Window-Eyes 3.1.
Manufacturer: GW Micro, Inc.; 725 Airport North Office Park; Fort Wayne, IN 46825; phone: 219-489-3671; fax: 219-489-2608; e-mail: <email@example.com>; web site: <www.gwmicro.com>. Price: $595.
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