Reviews of Two Low-Cost Specialized Web Browsers with Speech Output
The World Wide Web continues to increase in importance as more of the applications that we use at home and at work become web based. Current examples of web-based applications include Microsoft's MSN Explorer, Napster, and the latest version of PeopleSoft's human resources suite. In the near future, many business applications from Microsoft will also be web based. We will be working on the web all day and using the web for recreation after work hours. So, it is essential to have a variety of assistive technology choices for using the web.
In this Product Evaluation, we review IBM Home Page Reader and Connect Outloud from Freedom Scientific, two low-cost programs that provide access to the web. 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.
Home Page Reader 3.0
IBM Home Page Reader (HPR) is a self-voicing web browser. In previous versions, HPR depended on Netscape Navigator to assist in connecting to web pages and in downloading files. HPR 3.0 instead uses some resources from Microsoft's Internet Explorer for Internet settings, communications, and security warnings. Internet Explorer 5.5 is included on the HPR CD.
The HPR window is divided into several sections, such as the address bar, status bar, and history list, as well as a graphics and text view of the page. These sections make it easy to locate information in a quick and timely manner. HPR can send text to refreshable braille displays. However, there are no HPR drivers for braille displays. So, it is necessary to have a screen reader running with speech turned off for your display to get the information it needs.
HPR was tested on a Pentium III 800 with 128 MB of memory under Windows 98. IBM's ViaVoice software synthesizer was used.
Getting Started and Getting Help: Rating 3
HPR's Help file is displayed in the form of a web page. Each topic in the table of contents is a link so you can easily move through the items. There is a step-by-step tutorial, which does a good job of acquainting beginners with HPR as well as certain Internet constructs, such as forms and controls. The online documentation is too fragmented and required us to hunt for some information. The first option for technical support is currently an electronic discussion group. This option will be difficult for beginners, even though there is an option on HPR's Help menu from which you can join the group.
HPR's command structure has been improved greatly. In the previous version, HPR commands used the PC numeric keypad and were not standard Windows commands. HPR 3.0 uses standard commands, such as Control-O to open the dialog box for entering a web address and Control-F for the search command. The arrow keys are also used extensively to navigate a web page. The left, down, and right arrow keys are used to read the previous, current, and next item on a page.
HPR's default Reading mode allows you to move from item to item. You can also read a page by moving by word, links, forms, headings, or tables; or you can simply read the page with the arrow keys, as you would in a word processor. There are commands to skip through blocks of links to the new text on a page. You can also skip to forms, controls, and tables. HPR now uses standard Windows menus to save files, cut and paste, add favorites, and change settings. Individuals who prefer using the numeric keypad layout from previous versions can continue using it if they so choose.
Browsing a Simple Web Page: Rating 4
Basic text pages such as those from the New York Times www.nytimes.com performed very well. HPR allows you to toggle among the address bar, status bar, and graphic and text layouts of the page. The graphics layout represents what the page would look like to a sighted person. HPR synchronizes the cursor so you can see the text as it is spoken. The text layout is HPR's r[[Endering of the page, which may include the graphics if the graphics setting is chosen. You can display a links list, which also identifies forms and controls. Typing the first letter of a link or item in this list box will allow you to jump directly to it. HPR indicates links, visited links, and document headings through voice changes, sound effects, colors, and font changes.
Browsing a Complex Web Page: Rating 4
Downloading Files: Rating 4
HPR 3.0 fully supports file downloads. It reads all the options in the dialog box that appears when you try to copy a file from a web page onto your hard drive or disk. It also will now speak in RealPlayer, Winamp, and throughout the downloading process. This ability allows you to view and change the details of the download. HPR was the first to give direct access to Adobe Acrobat's PDF files, which are often used for government documents and for magazine articles. HPR accesses the Internet-based PDF-to-HTML converter on Adobe's web site so you can view a PDF document the same way you would view text on a regular web page.
E-commerce: Rating 4
At www.amazon.com, we were able to search for, select, and purchase books and CDs. HPR's powerful search function lets you search both the current web page and the Internet using the search engine of your choice; the same dialog box also allows you to add a search engine from the same dialog box. When we became familiar with the layout of the page at www.cdnow.com, we were able to search for the Beginning of each CD's description and skip all the extraneous information above it.
Reading Tables: Rating 4
HPR has added functions to its powerful Table-reading feature. You can now use the table navigation mode to read through columns and rows by using the Control, Shift, and arrow keys. This feature makes it possible to read complex tables, such as airline schedules and sports statistics. On Delta Airline's web site www.delta.com and ESPN's web site www.espn.com, we were able to browse arrival and departure schedules and baseball statistics with little difficulty. In simple tables, you can use the Item-reading mode to navigate. On Amtrak's web site www.amtrak.com, you can use the Item-reading mode to browse train schedules with no difficulty. HPR has added a Table-jump command that allows you to skip tables while reading a web page. This command is useful when there is more than one table on a page.
Forms and Controls: Rating 4
Filling out forms was easy. To do so, press Enter before inputting text and then choose OK to exit HPR's Text entry mode. Then press the Submit button to complete the form. Although HPR has added a Forms-reading mode, you can either use the Tab key or the links list to navigate through list boxes and select menus, or press Control-down arrow to skip the form.
In addition to U.S. and British English, HPR supports French, Spanish, German, Italian, Finnish, and Brazilian Portuguese. If you set it to automatically recognize the language of each web page, HPR will change to the appropriate language on the fly. As with screen readers, HPR continues to read messages such as "links list" and "end of select menu" in its default language.
HPR 3.0 is a powerful tool for browsing the web. At the time of this evaluation, HPR was the leader in reading tables, searching the web, and reading in different languages. The inclusion of HPR Mailer and its ability to read NotePad, WordPad, Windows Media Player, RealPlayer, WinAmp, and most of the Windows control panel makes it a good, inexpensive choice for people who are mainly interested in surfing the web and e-mail. Because of how much it does automatically, it can also serve as a tool for companies and government agencies interested in testing the accessibility of their web sites.
Product: Home Page Reader 3.0
Manufacturer: IBM Accessibility Center; Building 901, Internal Zip 9171, 11400 Burnet Road, Austin, TX 78758; Phone: 800-426-4832 or 512-838-4598; E-mail: email@example.com; Web site: www-3.ibm.com/able/hpr. Price: CD-ROM $149; download $129. $50 rebate available through August 31, 2001.
Connect Outloud is a speech- and braille-based web access utility that provides access to web browsing, e-mail, and word processing. Although Connect Outloud is not being marketed as a screen reader in the traditional sense, it does have many features you would find on typical screen access products. However, it works only with Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, Windows Explorer, WordPad, NotePad, Calculator, and the Windows Control Panel. The package also lets you navigate through the Windows operating system, including the Start menu, Task Bar, and Desktop.
Since Connect Outloud is aimed at beginners, it does not include many of the customization features of its close relative JAWS for Windows. For example, there is no scripting language or configuration manager, so you can't tailor the product to work with unruly applications. The package also does not include a graphics labeler, so you can't add speech or braille labels to unlabeled icons. If you are familiar with the JAWS screen reader, you'll notice that many of the commands are exactly the same, making it a simple transition from one product to another.
Connect Outloud was tested on a 200 MHZ Pentium, and an 833 MHZ machine. Each of the systems had a minimum of 64 MB of memory, a Sound Blaster Live sound card, and Windows 2000 Professional. It was tested with Internet Explorer 5.5 and Outlook Express 5.0.
Getting Started and Getting Help: Rating 4
Connect Outloud comes bundled with braille and printed manuals and a single CD-ROM disk. The installation program starts the Eloquence speech engine, which walks you through the installation phase.
No problems were encountered with the installation. The installer lets you customize options like selecting a braille display, setting speech rate and volume and start-up options, and adjusting the level of help. Connect Outloud also has a free demonstration version that you can download from the Freedom Scientific web site at www.freedomscientific.com.
Connect Outloud has a useful Tutorial mode. The software can recognize objects such as dialog boxes, buttons, and other controls and tell you how to manipulate them. Connect Outloud also tells you how to operate standard Windows control objects from the keyboard, such as how to use the spacebar to select an object. The Eloquence speech engine can be set to provide different voices when presenting tutorial or screen information.
Reading Simple and Complex Web Pages: Rating 4
Connect Outloud supports the standard Windows keyboard commands for browsing through web pages, as well as several commands that let you read web pages in several different units. For example, the Tab key and Shift-Tab keys move you forward and backward through all the links found on the page. You can also use the arrow keys to move up and down one line at a time or use the Page Up and Page Down keys to move in screen-sized segments. The Insert-down arrow command lets you read from the cursor to the end of the window or page, which is useful for reviewing larger chunks of information. As you would expect, Control-Home takes you to the top, and Control-End takes you to the bottom of the page.
Connect Outloud also lets you collect all the links found on a page into a list using the Insert-F7 keystroke. This option is faster than using the Tab key to move from link to link, and it allows you to quickly scan down a long series of links. In the same manner, Insert-F9 brings up a list of frames.
When browsing a page that has a long list of links followed by text, you can use the Insert-Enter command to move beyond the links list and go directly to the text you are looking for. This command tells Connect Outloud to search for any nonlink text that is over 25 characters. Although much needed, this command does not always work, but when it does, it's handy.
For simple pages, few problems were encountered, but glitches were found with web sites that failed to comply with the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Pages that were in compliance with the guidelines worked the best. Most screen readers and speech-enabled web browsers are able to deal with pages that follow the guidelines.
Filling Out Forms: Rating 4
Web pages with online forms are commonplace, and the ability to access them is critical. A handful of sites that use forms were tested: the amazon.com online storefront and the google.com and hotbot.com search engines. Connect Outloud includes a forms mode that helps you locate and navigate through elements in forms. Control-Insert-Home takes you to the first form element found on the current web page. This form element can be an edit box, list, or other object. You can then press the Enter key to activate Forms mode and lock onto the control object. When you press Enter, Connect Outloud says "Forms mode on." You can then use the Tab or Shift-Tab keystroke to move either forward or backward on the form. You can use the Insert-F1 command to find out more information about the current control and other controls that belong to the form and how to activate and manipulate them.
Connect Outloud's Forms mode is useful for locating and filling out form elements on the web. But its tendency to change the state of controls that you land on can be confusing until you get used to it. For example, if you land on an unchecked check box when you activate Forms mode, that check box automatically gets checked simply by landing on it in Forms mode. When you've finished filling out the form, you can deactivate Forms mode by hitting the Control- Insert-Plus keystroke. Clearly, the Forms mode is an important feature, but it didn't always work. When it failed, the page could be reloaded for another try, but that was no guarantee of success.
Reading Tables: Rating 4
Tables are a common feature of many web pages and applications, and the ability to deal with them effectively is mandatory. Connect Outloud has a set of commands that lets you navigate through tables encountered in a variety of applications on the web, HTML-based help systems, and HTML-formatted e-mail messages. The commands all use the Control-Alt keystroke in combination with one of the numeric keypad keys. Each of the commands moves the focus to the desired cell and verbalizes its contents. The commands include Say current cell, Say right cell, Say left cell, Say cell below, Say cell above, Say first cell, and Say last cell. These commands are useful for moving around small- to medium-sized blocks of information. Like the Forms mode, this is another mandatory feature, but it also didn't work all of the time. Some of this dysfunctionality is a result of pages that are not in compliance with the World Wide Web Consortium's Guidelines on Web Accessibility.
Downloading Files: Rating 4
If you need to download a file from the Internet, you can use the File Transfer Protocol (FTP) command from within Internet Explorer. The syntax is ftp//ftp.site-name.com. Internet Explorer was used to FTP to a directory on an Internet service provider. After typing in the user name and password, the directory listing came up in Internet Explorer. The arrow keys move you through the file list to select a file for downloading. The Copy to directory command from Internet Explorer's Edit menu lets you download a file to a folder on a hard drive or disk.
Reading and Writing E-mail: Rating 4
In the e-mail program Outlook Express, you can use the arrow keys to move up or down one line at a time within mail messages and the Tab and Shift-Tab keys to move forward and back through embedded links. If you receive an e-mail message with a series of web links, you can display those links in a list using the Insert-F7 keystroke. Because managing attachments is so important, Connect Outloud provides a hotkey that lets you move directly to the attachments list. No problems using OutLook Express with Connect Outloud in general were encountered.
Supported and Nonsupported Applications
Although Connect Outloud is not being marketed as a screen reader in the traditional sense, it does have many of the features you would find in such products. The way Connect Outloud differs from more traditional general-use screen readers is that it only works with a limited number of applications, and you can't customize it to work with nonsupported applications.
Connect Outloud works only with Internet Explorer, OutLook Express, Windows Explorer, Notepad, WordPad, Calculator, Control Panel, and basic Windows navigation.
If you try to run a nonsupported application, Connect Outloud issues a descending musical tone, and speech and braille output is terminated while that application has the focus. You can get out of the nonsupported application by hitting the Alt-F4 keystroke to shut down the application and return to the desktop. You can also use the Insert-Spacebar command to bring up a list of supported applications currently running. You can use the arrow keys to select one of the supported applications, and press Enter to bring that application to the focus with speech or braille output restored.
Word Processing: Rating 4
Connect Outloud comes bundled with a simple word processor, FS Editor. It includes a spell checker, which is missing in Windows NotePad and WordPad. FS Editor is not as extensive as Word or WordPerfect, but it does let you create documents and save them in a variety of formats, including text, MS-DOS text, Rich Text, and Word 6.0. The spell checker worked well, which is no surprise, as this application was written specifically with speech and braille users in mind. FS Editor can read Word 2000 files, but it cannot save them back to their original format. You can only save files as Word 6 documents.
All in all, Connect Outloud was robust and responsive. It is priced lower than full-blown screen readers, and its price will appeal to many consumers. When you consider that most full-blown screen readers sell for between $500 and $1,000, Connect Outloud may be much more attainable for many consumers. Connect Outloud would make a good introductory product for someone starting off with a new computer, who might later upgrade to a more powerful product. But, alas, Freedom Scientific does not yet have a policy to allow customers to upgrade to the full-blown JAWS screen reader. Perhaps Freedom Scientific will institute an upgrade policy at a later date if customer feedback is forthcoming. The ability to upgrade may be necessary for those who grow beyond Connect Outloud's capabilities after using the product for some time.
Connect Outloud is not a full-featured screen reader, but one concern is that some organizations might provide Connect Outloud in place of a more powerful product merely to save money, convinced that it is just as powerful and flexible as a general-purpose screen reader. Before you purchase any adaptive product, it is important to obtain a thorough evaluation from a qualified assistive technology specialist to determine if the product will meet your needs fully.
Connect Outloud remains a useful product for consumers who don't need all the bells and whistles found on the most powerful screen readers. For users who are mainly interested in web browsing, electronic mail, and word processing, the product speaks well for itself.
Product: Connect Outloud
Manufacturer: Freedom Scientific, Blindness and Low Vision Group; 11800 31st Court North; St. Petersburg, FL 33716; phone: 800-444-4443 or 727-803-8000; fax: 727-803-8001; e-mail: Sales@hj.com; Web site: www.freedomscientific.com. Price: $249.00.
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