The Key to the Information Age: A Review of Three Screen Readers, Part 2
In the May issue of AccessWorld, (see "The Key to the Information Age: A Review of Three Screen Readers, Part 1,") we reviewed Freedom Scientific's JAWS for Windows 5.0 and GW Micro's Window-Eyes 4.5, the two most popular screen readers in the United States. As we noted then, because screen readers make computers usable for people who are blind or have low vision, by serving as the interface between them and the operating system and its applications, their importance continues to grow.
This article completes the evaluation, reviewing Hal version 6.01, the screen reader from Dolphin. Dolphin is based in the United Kingdom and has a sizable user base there and in Europe, but Hal is a relative newcomer in the United States. Hal is also the screen reader component of Dolphin's Supernova, which provides an integrated screen-magnifier and screen- reader suite of products. We evaluated how well Hal performed in Internet Explorer, Microsoft Word, and Excel. Testing was conducted on Pentium 4 computers running at 1.2 GHz or at 866 MHz with 256 MB of RAM running Windows 2000. We tested braille output using a Focus braille display from Freedom Scientific and an ALVA Satellite 544 display.
Getting Started and Getting Help
Hal's manual is available in print, on a digital Talking Book CD, and online. A braille quick-reference guide is included. You can also press a hot key while using the program and hear a list of specific commands for the application you are using.
The Hal installation involves installing the screen reader; Dolphin's synthesizer access manager (SAM); and Orpheus, Dolphin's software speech synthesizer. You are then prompted to install the company's digital Talking Book program, which you need to read Hal's manual in DAISY format. Later, you can add other synthesizers, including IBM's ViaVoice, which is on a CD in the Hal package.
Hal Control Panel
You make basic changes to Hal's configuration in the Hal Control Panel. The Control Panel opens automatically when you enter Windows. There are tab controls for speech settings and braille settings. Speech settings include volume; speed; voice and language; and verbosity, which controls the amount of prompts and tips that are spoken. Braille settings include grade of braille, whether or not to track the application's cursor, whether to show the cursor on the braille display, and so forth.
Some of the items in the Control Panel have submenus that you access by pressing Enter. These submenus have OK and Cancel buttons, but the main Control Panel does not. The main Control Panel stays open, and you can Alt-tab to it or minimize it. Some settings, such as the speed of the speech, can also be changed directly from the keyboard.
The SAM allows you to modify your selection of synthesizer and braille display. It is accessed from the Hal Control Panel or from the Start menu.
Many Hal commands involve pressing the Caps Lock key along with other keys, often on the number pad. Doing so avoids conflicts with Windows commands. If you are familiar with JAWS commands, you can choose a JAWS command set while using Hal.
Hal users have many configuration options to customize the screen reader for specific applications. These options can be divided into three types of files: user configuration files, situation files, and map files. User configuration files, or simply configuration files, allow you to save settings related to a specific application. Characteristics, such as speech rate and verbosity settings (which control how much information is announced and how this information is presented), can be saved in a configuration file. With Hal's powerful customizable verbosity settings, you can store a vast amount of information in these files.
Situation files are similar to configuration files. The difference is that situation files can be automatically loaded for a specific setting within an application, such as a particular dialogue box. So, for example, if you want Hal to use "speak all punctuation" while in the Open dialogue box of Internet Explorer, you can set a situation file to perform this function. When the Open dialogue has focus, Hal automatically uses these settings. Once this dialogue is closed, Hal reverts to the configuration file for that particular application.
Hal's map files perform many of the same functions as JAWS script files and the advanced features of Window-Eyes set files. Using map files, you can configure Hal to work with a specific application. Activities, such as monitoring certain portions of the screen and tracking various types of focus, can be performed using map files. Map files can be created only with Hal Professional, which is intended for trainers and users who will be customizing Hal to work with specific applications, but can be used by either version of the screen reader.
Hal's verbosity settings allow you to choose from one of four predefined verbosity schemes or to create your own. Defining what information and controls will be spoken in a user-defined verbosity scheme is a fairly simple process. Hal provides a list of over 50 different types of controls that can be switched on or off. The screen reader also offers the ability to switch between verbosity schemes on the fly through the use of a hot key. When working in a specific application, it is helpful to be able to switch quickly to a particular verbosity scheme to determine what information will be spoken.
Hal includes support for many of the most popular refreshable braille displays. Configuring the software to work with the display was time-consuming and not extremely intuitive. You must specify what display is to be used in both the SAM and the Hal Control Panels. This process will confuse some users because it is not well documented. We also noticed that several displays were improperly named. When we installed the Focus44, for example, Hal referred to this display as the Blazie Engineering Focus.
Once Hal is properly configured, it offers extensive braille access to most applications. Similar to the speech settings, braille users can choose from several predefined verbosity schemes to determine how much information will be displayed. You can also configure your own schemes in the Hal Control Panel. Several other options, such as the ability to use status cells on any display, make Hal's braille support powerful.
Hal read documents in a predictable manner in Microsoft Word. The attributes of documents, such as font and style, were easily read through the use of hot keys and can be announced automatically. We initially encountered significant problems when we attempted to spell check a document. Hal would not spell out the misspelled word; instead, it would only read the sentence containing the misspelled word. There was no way of knowing what word was misspelled until we tabbed over to the suggestion list. We mentioned this problem to Dolphin and were sent an updated map file that corrected the problem. Users with Internet access can always obtain the latest map files through Hal's Internet Update feature.
Hal properly read tables within a Microsoft Word document. When the focus was placed on a new cell, the cells column or row number was spoken. Moving between cells was accomplished using the arrow keys. For cells that contained little or no data, moving was not an issue. However, cells that contained a significant amount of data required pressing the Control-Right arrow several times to move to the next cell to the right.
Hal 6.01 does not reformat web pages into a word processor-like layout, as other screen readers do. Instead, it presents the web page as it is written. When you select a link, Hal says "Hypertext, downloading frame." Once the web page has fully downloaded, Hal reads the page's title, followed by the first line of the page. To read the entire page, you press the Plus key on the number pad. To stop reading and move the focus to the last word read, you press Plus again. There are also commands to skip to the first text on the page and to skip to the first control on the page. When you arrive on a web page, Hal is in Live Focus. You can tab from link to link. You switch to Virtual Focus, which is similar to JAWS Cursor Mode, by pressing the Minus key on the number pad.
The Hal Find command is F3. You type in a text string, and Hal searches the entire web page. We found that a search could take up to 10 seconds, depending on how complicated a web page was.
Pressing CapsLock-1 brings up a list of links on a web page. You navigate by pressing the first letter of the link or article title that you wish to read. The list can be arranged in the order in which the links appear on the page or alphabetically. CapsLock-2 brings up a list of headings, and CapsLock-3 presents a list of frames on the page. For example, at the New York Times web site <www.nytimes.com>, the title of the article on a page is usually the only heading on the page. So, by using the headings list, you can jump immediately to the title of the article and skip over many repetitive links.
Filling Out Forms
You activate Hal's interactive mode, used for entering text in a form, by pressing Enter. Unlike other screen readers, Hal turns the interactive mode off when you tab to the second control on a form. So, to enter your user name and password, you move to the Edit box for user name, hit Enter, type your user name, tab to the password field, hit Enter, and type your password. It can be difficult to remember to activate the interactive mode multiple times.
In both Windows 98 and Windows 2000, Hal crashed a significant number of times when multiple Internet Explorer windows opened. Of course, multiple windows open regularly, including those with pop-up ads.
Hal 6.01 accurately read worksheets in Microsoft Excel. Cell values and cells with formulas were consistently identified and read. Switching between Hal's three default verbosity levels dramatically affected the amount of information spoken while moving through a worksheet. Using a high-verbosity setting caused Hal to read the cell coordinate, the cell's contents, and the background color of the cell. Usually, when the color of a cell is changed, it is the foreground color that is altered. The color is often changed to highlight a particular cell or group of cells. Hal did not detect when the foreground color was changed. Hal's medium verbosity simply read the cell's coordinates and the cell's contents. This was the most useful setting. When we used low verbosity, only the cell's content was spoken. For cells that do not contain any data, this can be confusing. Dialogues, such as the formula-selection dialogue, were read with few problems. Reading the equation that made up a formula was accomplished with one of Hal's custom action keys. Although it was possible to determine this keystroke using Key Describe mode, this keystroke could not be found in any documentation that was shipped with the product.
One of the new features in Hal version 6.01 is the ability to read log-on screens in operating systems, such as Windows 2000 and Windows XP. When you install the product, you are prompted to indicate if you would like to have Hal start automatically every time the computer is started. One would think that answering Yes to this prompt would activate the talking log-on feature. This is not the case; it simply means that Hal will start when Windows is loaded and you reach the desktop. The talking log-on feature must be activated within the Hal Control Panel. Once activated, Hal does speak while you are logging on. Error messages, however, which sometimes pop up immediately after the log-on is submitted, are not spoken. Having access to the text of these error messages can be beneficial to someone who is attempting to troubleshoot a system. Although Hal allows its users to choose among a variety of speech synthesizers, the only speech available at start-up is the Orpheus speech synthesizer. If another synthesizer is selected as Hal's default speech synthesizer, the software automatically switches to Orpheus during the log on.
The Bottom Line
Hal is a powerful part of Dolphin's Supernova screen magnifier-screen reader. It has been around for many years and contains the tools to make it work well with many applications and in myriad situations. Hal's main drawback is that it requires the user to go through a series of steps to change even minor settings that can be changed in JAWS and Window-Eyes in one or two steps or toggled with a hot key. Hal's strengths are how well it integrates speech and braille access and how configurable it is by a trained technician or power user.
"Hal's unique 'Update from Internet' facility allows Dolphin's users not only to keep abreast of product updates, but also to automatically download and install an ever-increasing range of configuration files for hundreds of popular applications. Intermittent Internet Explorer problems experienced with the initial rollout of Hal version 6 were found to be due largely to older operating systems running older versions of Internet Explorer and have now been corrected in Hal version 6.02, which is due for imminent release. Users of Hal version 6 will be able to download this update free of charge simply by choosing the option 'Update from Internet' from Hal's control panel.
"A new feature included in the free Hal version 6 update also provides the industry's best braille and speech access to thin-client environments, such as Citrix MetaFrame and Windows Terminal Server, and sister products Lunar, LunarPlus, and Supernova are currently the only assistive technology products to provide screen magnification and Java focus tracking in this environment."
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Product: Hal 6.01
Manufacturer: Dolphin Computer Access, 60 East Third Avenue, Suite 301, San Mateo, CA 94401; phone: 866-797-5921 or 650-348-7401; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>; web site: <www.dolphinusa.com>.
Price: Hal Standard Edition (runs under Windows XP Home and Professional editions, Windows 2000, Windows ME, Windows NT 4.0, and Windows 98), $795; Hal Professional $1,095.
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