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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 November 2001 Issue  Volume 2  Number 6

Product Evaluation

Choosing a Screen Magnifier

If you are looking for a full-featured screen-magnification program, you need to know the major players and how they compare. At present, there are three products to choose from: ZoomText Xtra (version 7.06) from Ai Squared, MAGic (version 8.0) from Freedom Scientific, and Lunar Plus (version 4.5) from Dolphin Computer Access. All three products have screen reader capability. In this evaluation, we review ZoomText Xtra 7.06 and MAGic 8.0.

Before we start, there are some things that everyone should be aware of, especially those who are new to the screen-magnifier marketplace. First, screen-magnifier terminology can drive you nuts. In an attempt to reduce frustration, we have compiled a short glossary of terms. When those terms are used in this article, they are put in quotes.

(See the sidebar for more details.)

Second, you should be aware of the companies behind the products. Ai Squared specializes in screen-magnification products and is the "granddaddy" in the field. ZoomText Xtra was the first screen- magnification program on the market in 1988. The company also makes Big Shot, a simple screen magnifier, and VisualScan, low vision reading software that uses a scanner. Freedom Scientific produces a wide variety of assistive technology for people who are blind or visually impaired. Its Blind/Low Vision Group is the result of a recent merger with three major players in the field: Blazie Engineering, Henter-Joyce, and Arkenstone. Freedom Scientific makes JAWS for Windows, a popular screen reader.

Who Uses These Products?

To get users' perspectives on these products, we contacted 4 ZoomText Xtra users, 4 MAGic users, and 3 people who use both. We asked these 11 people questions about how and why they use a screen magnifier and how they made the decision to purchase the products. Four of the users work in various aspects of assistive technology training. One person is a web designer, and another is a scientist. Others work in higher education, real estate, radio, and disability advocacy. They all load the screen magnifier onto the computer and leave it on all day. They use the screen magnifier for reading and writing e-mail and writing documents. Some also use it for specialized tasks, such as application (software) development, composing music, and designing web sites. Basically, they need the screen magnifier to do their jobs. One respondent said: "I spend 90% of my day checking e-mail from students in my university. Without my screen magnifier, I would not be able to get any work done."

Most reported using only a few simple features, setting the screen magnifier at between 2x and 6x magnification in the "full screen view" mode, where the entire screen is magnified. Most also use the built-in screen reader. Some reported using mouse-enhancement features and the "smoothing" feature to enhance difficult-to-see images.

The users cited a variety of reasons for purchasing the product they did:

  1. They were familiar with an earlier version of the product, and since they were comfortable with it, they saw no reason to change.
  2. They went with the company they knew and had confidence in.
  3. They received demonstration versions of both products, tried them out, and decided which one they liked the best.

One user said that she didn't even know that these types of products existed until her eye doctor recommended one to her a few years ago. She has stayed with the product ever since.

What You Get for the Money

ZoomText Xtra 7.06 costs $395 without the screen reader and $595 with it built in. MAGic costs $295 without the screen reader and $545 with it built in. However, while both products support Windows 95, 98, and ME, ZoomText Xtra also supports Windows 2000 and Windows NT.

Firing Them Up and Trying Them Out

Both screen magnifiers were installed on a laptop PC and a desktop PC. The laptop was running Windows 98, and the desktop was running Windows 98 and Windows 2000 with NT. All the features were tested in the Microsoft Office Suite and Internet Explorer 5.0. We compared the utility of 10 features and functions offered, how well each feature and function worked, and how easy they were to use. We also noted any instances of problems, such as bugs and crashing.

Documentation

Both manuals are well organized, in font size 18, and come with a quick reference guide. Installation was equally easy for both screen magnifiers. One additional source of help that ZoomText Xtra offers is a tutorial that runs on the computer. It is easier to follow and learn from than the manual because of speech output, large text, and animated graphics.

Magnification

Both products offer magnification up to 16 times and have four different types of "primary magnification windows" that can be repositioned and resized. ZoomText Xtra also offers magnification in five "secondary magnification windows" that can be placed over the "primary magnification window." In MAGic, the borders of the "primary magnification window" can be adjusted in thickness and color. MAGic offers vertical "stretching" of the screen. ZoomText Xtra offers both vertical and horizontal "stretching" of the screen.

Finding Your Place

Both ZoomText Xtra and MAGic have "locator" features to help you see where you are in the document. ZoomText Xtra has four types of "locators" that can be set to blink, but these "locators" do not function in "full screen view." MAGic has three "locators" that do not blink, but they do function in "full screen view."

Panning

In ZoomText Xtra, you can use "panning" to move the magnified view in any direction automatically. The default "hot keys" for "panning" are the Alt key followed by the arrow key. While "panning," you must hold the Alt key down; once you release it, "panning" stops. Hitting the arrow key in the current direction increases the speed.

In MAGic, the screen can be automatically "panned" in any direction, and the speed can be adjusted. Once the "hot key" to begin "panning" is pressed, "panning " resumes until another "hot key" to stop it is pressed or until the bottom of the screen is reached. MAGic also has a "panning" option called line jump. When the right side of the screen is reached by the magnified view, the view is redirected to the left side of the screen, where "panning" then continues to the right again. The magnified view is also shifted down on every pass to give the effect of reading a document. The distance that the document shifts down, as well as the delay in transition from the right side of the screen to the left, can be controlled.

Keeping Track

Both MAGic and ZoomText Xtra offer "tracking" of the mouse, caret, menus, windows, and controls. In ZoomText Xtra, the delay period before any new activity is tracked can be adjusted. A boundary that allows "tracking" to take place only within a certain area of the screen can also be set up.

Mouse Features

Both MAGic and ZoomText Xtra allow 16 different colors for the mouse; the "inverse" of mouse foreground and background; and adjustment in the size of the mouse, including extra large. In MAGic, the mouse can be set as a cross hair or a bull's eye, and all features are also available in the "unmagnified view."

Color and Contrast

In both products, it is possible to use the "inverse" contrast function in the "primary magnification window" and the "unmagnified view." In MAGic, you can also specify to "inverse" only the "primary magnification window" or only the "unmagnified view." ZoomText Xtra lets you invert only black and white or only the shades of gray that are present on the screen. Colors can also be converted to their equivalent shade of gray. ZoomText Xtra also allows for adjusting the contrast from low to high. These additional features work only if your display is set to 256 colors.

Smooth and Easy

MAGic's "smoothing" feature is easy to use. It just needs to be turned on to smooth every color.

ZoomText Xtra has two settings for "smoothing." One is for "smoothing" black text on a white background. The other is for "smoothing" custom colors. To use the latter setting, you must pick the color of the text you want to "smooth" with the Smoothing Colors Tool.

Screen Reading

Both ZoomText Xtra and MAGic's screen readers have many voices whose pitch and speed can be set. There are "verbosity" settings to control how much is spoken and controls to read as you type or use the mouse to read a letter, word, or line at a time. For reading documents, there are many different options, such as reading the entire current window or document, reading the current line of a document, or simply saying the contents of the clipboard. "Hot keys" can be used to access these functions.

ZoomText Xtra has a module called DocReader, which takes a text document and displays it in a new magnified view that acts as a prompter or ticker reader of all the text. DocReader formats the text to fit on the one-line ticker or multiple line prompter without cutting off any words. It automatically scrolls the application's page down as it gets to the end of a line. Many settings can be adjusted in DocReader, such as the speed of the text being read, the spacing in between characters, highlighting of the text, and all of the screen reader options like volume and pitch.

ZoomText Xtra also has a Speak-It tool. When this tool is selected for use, the mouse arrow changes into a new arrow graphic that has arcs drawn around it, and when you click on a word, it is read out loud. Also if a section of text is highlighted, the screen reader will read the selected text.

MAGic does not have similar advanced modules, but it is easy to use. It was able to read web pages by using its "hot keys," whereas to read text off a web page with ZoomText, one would need to use ZoomText Xtra's Speak-It Tool or DocReader. MAGic has additional built-in features, including the capability of "panning" automatically to view all the text on a line. It can also be set up to highlight by inverting or underlining the current text being read.

Perks

MAGic has created a function that affects Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Word, and Excel. In Word, spelling errors can be displayed in one simple dialog box. In Excel, a dialog box can be displayed that shows all the cells with their data. A cell can be selected from the list, and the "focus" is changed to that cell. In Internet Explorer, you can reformat the current web page so that images are removed and the page is rearranged to make for easier reading.

ZoomText Xtra allows you to set up to 10 targets, which are user- designated regions of the screen. When the hit target "hot key" is pressed, the magnified view jumps to the target. For example, to check the time of day periodically, a target can be placed over the time display located in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. When the hit target "hot key" is pressed, the magnified view shows that area of the screen. There are also talking targets that read all the text in the window.

The Bottom Line

Both ZoomText Xtra and MAGic are stable products—in over 10 hours of testing in Office 2000 and Internet Explorer, we did not experience even one instance of crashing or erratic behavior. They also do what they say they do. ZoomText Xtra did particularly well in documentation, magnification, "tracking," and color and contrast. It also supports Windows NT and Windows 2000. MAGic did particularly well in "panning," mouse features, enhancing images, and cost. Both products did well in Finding Your Place, Screen Reading, and Perks. When you have two good products that do the same thing but in different ways, it bears keeping in mind the simple refrain, "try before you buy." If you need to choose between the two, get to know both and see which one better meets your needs.

If you already own a screen magnifier or if you buy one, we would be interested in hearing from you about your experiences.

Product Information

Product: ZoomText Xtra 7.06.

Manufacturer: Ai Squared, P.O. Box 669, Manchester Center, VT 05255; phone: 802-362-3612; web site: http://www.aisquared.com. Price: Level 1 (without speech) for Win 95, 98, ME, NT4, and 2000—$395. Level 1 Plus (includes DOS support) for Win 95, 98, ME, NT4, and 2000—$595. Level 2 (with speech) for Win 95, 98, ME, NT4, and 2000—$595. Level 2 Plus (includes DOS support) for Win 95, 98, ME, NT4, and 2000—$795.

Product: MAGic 8.0.

Manufacturer: Freedom Scientific, 11800 31st Court North, St. Petersburg, Fl 33716-1805; phone: 800-444-4443; web site: http://www.freedomscientific.com. Price: Magnification without speech for Win 95, 98, and ME—$295, Magnification with speech for Win 95, 98, and ME—$545.

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