Man versus Machine: A Review of Multifunctional Desktop Copiers
This is the second in our three-part series investigating the accessibility of today's multifunctional copy machines. In the March 2006 issue of AccessWorld, Part 1 of this series evaluated large, expensive, stand-alone multifunctional copy machines that have been common in offices over the past few decades. That evaluation showed that the great majority of these units pose serious accessibility barriers, mainly because of their use of an inaccessible touch-screen interface and their lack of speech output to guide users who are blind or have low vision. This article examines the smaller, less expensive, desktop units that may be found in a small business or a home office. The final article in this series will go back to the large machines, focusing on accessibility solutions from Canon and Xerox that have been specifically designed to make their units more accessible and usable for people who are blind or have low vision.
Each desktop unit that is discussed in this evaluation is similar in appearance to a traditional printer that you connect to a computer, but with the additional capabilities of copying, faxing, scanning, and e-mail to complement the traditional print functions. Although these units have all the same main functions as the large copy machines that we evaluated in the March issue, they are not as fast and are by no means the heavy-duty workhorses that the large machines are. However, they are also not nearly as expensive. Compared to the $6,000 to $30,000 price tags that we found on the large units, these smaller multifunctional units, priced at about $500, are an attractive option for a small business or home office with modest document-processing needs.
To begin our evaluation, we surfed the Internet and visited several national office product stores to learn what the market for these devices has to offer. We chose to evaluate three units for this article: the Brother MFC-8840D, the Canon Imageclass MF-5750, and the Samsung SCX-4720F. All three units were recommended by both Consumer Reports and PC World and are good examples of what the market has to offer.
Description and Evaluation
The desktop units that we evaluated are all roughly cube-shaped boxes, and each has a large document feeder tray on the top of the unit that is hinged in the back and lifts up to reveal the glass panel where the document's image is captured. Each unit has an output tray on the front or side of the unit and a front panel with doors for accessing and filling the paper trays and ink cartridges. Each unit also has a control panel for accessing the various menus and functions that is located at the top front of the unit just below the document feeder tray. The control panel consists of a small rectangular monochrome display and a series of raised buttons for input purposes. The buttons are grouped by function, and each unit has a group of buttons for speed-dialing fax numbers, a standard 12-digit telephone-style number pad for entering fax numbers, and other groups of buttons for navigating the menu system and for using the print, scan, and fax functions.
Priced at $499, the Brother is the largest of the three units that we evaluated, weighing 36.6 pounds and measuring 21 by 18 by 18 inches, with a display screen that measures 1.1 by 2.9 inches. The Canon costs $399, weighs 33 pounds, measures 19 by 18 by 17 inches, and has a display screen that measures 0.6 by 2.8 inches. The Samsung costs $499 and is the smallest unit, weighing 33 pounds and measuring 17 by 17 by 15 inches; its display screen measures 0.5 by 2.5 inches. All these units are color laser printers and can be networked to your office computer system. They also come with software that can be installed on your PC, so you can control the units with your PC as well as via their own control panels.
Caption: The Brother MFC-8840D, the Canon Imageclass MF-5750, and the Samsung SCX-4720F multifunctional desktop copiers.
To evaluate these units, we listed every task that is related to each of the multiple functions of each machine and determined how accessible each task was for people who are blind or have low vision. We determined whether there was any speech or tone feedback to support the user, evaluated the tactile and visual nature of the buttons and other controls on the unit, and looked at the accessibility of the available manuals and documentation. We evaluated the installation process using the JAWS and Window-Eyes screen readers and the ZoomText screen magnifier. We also used those software products to evaluate the accessibility of the computer software that comes with the units.
In general, although a handful of functions on the Brother, Canon, and Samsung desktop machines are accessible, the majority of the functions are not accessible and cannot be performed easily or independently by people who are blind or have low vision. However, they score a little better than do the large units as far as accessibility. Instead of using the completely inaccessible touch-screen interfaces that are found on the large units, they feature raised buttons for controlling the units. Although no braille overlays are available from the manufacturers, these buttons are easy to identify tactilely, and the units feature tone feedback to confirm that a button has been successfully pressed. A person who is blind or has low vision who needs to use one of these units in his or her daily work could learn the layout of the buttons and perhaps add some braille or other markings to use them effectively. Nevertheless, these units are still hampered by two significant barriers to accessibility. First, there is no speech output functionality to convey the information that is presented on the display screen to users who are blind or have low vision. Second, the information that is presented on the display screen is not large enough for most people with low vision to read.
The five major functional areas of these multifunctional copy machines that we evaluated for accessibility were copying, printing, scanning, faxing, and e-mail. This discussion of results also covers documentation and other miscellaneous accessibility issues.
The basic function of making a single copy of a document is accessible on all these units. You simply place the original document in the document feeder tray on top of the unit or directly on the document glass and press the large, tactilely identifiable, Start button, and the copy is soon delivered to the output tray on the side. With minimal onetime assistance from a sighted person, it is easy to learn how to place your originals properly on the copier. Once you have learned to do so, you can place the original in the feeder tray or directly on the glass tactilely and independently. You can also independently make multiple copies by simply using the number pad to type in the number of copies that you want and then pressing the Start button. The keypad on all these units is a standard telephone-style keypad with easy-to-distinguish keys and a nib that is properly placed in the middle of the 5 key. However, the nib on the Canon unit is too small to be easily identified.
Caption: The basic copying function is accessible on all three units, but performing the more advanced copy functions would require memorizing a series of button presses.
These basic copying functions are the only ones that are fully accessible on these units, however. Performing the more advanced copy functions independently would require a user who is blind or has low vision to memorize a series of button presses. For example, if you have to reduce or enlarge the size of the image on the copy output using the Samsung, you first have to press the Reduce/Enlarge button. That part is easy enough to do as long as you have learned the positions of the various control buttons, but the next steps are where the inaccessibility arises. You have to navigate through a fairly complex onscreen menu system, and although the arrow keys that are used for navigation are easy to identify, it is virtually impossible to choose your desired enlargement or reduction level without sighted assistance. Other copy-related tasks, such as setting the darkness level of the copy output on the Samsung, are not as difficult. To do so, you simply press the Darkness button repeatedly, and it cycles through the three different levels of darkness: light, normal, and dark. This task poses no major barriers as long as you have learned the sequence of the cycle, but speech output would eliminate any guesswork. All three units have similar methods for using the various advanced copy functions, and the lack of speech output to guide you is the main accessibility barrier.
We have good news regarding the printing functions of these machines. Just as we discovered with the large stand-alone units, when these machines are connected to your office's PC workstation, all the printing functions are accessible as long as your PC is equipped with a screen reader or screen magnifier. The copy machine simply acts like any other printer that you have connected to your PC. If you are printing a document, you simply use the print dialog box that you normally use with your word processor or other PC software, and you should have no problem accomplishing the task.
Accessing the scanning functions of these units is similar to accessing the advanced copy functions mentioned earlier. It requires you to count some button presses and memorize the sequence of events that result from those button presses. For example, to scan with the Brother unit, you first press the Scan button and then use the arrow keys to navigate through the list of subchoices that appears on the display screen, which includes an option to scan to OCR (optical character recognition). If you memorize the fact that the third press of the down arrow button lands you on the Scan to OCR option and then press the Set button followed by the Start button, this option actually scans your original and brings up the text of the document on your computer screen in your word processor software. Scanning with the Samsung requires you to memorize similar button presses, but with the Canon, you simply press the Scan button and then the Start button, and a window pops up on your computer for completing the process of capturing the image. All three units would benefit from speech output to guide you in accessing all the scan functions.
In addition to testing the accessibility of the scan functions using the physical buttons on the units, we also tested the compatibility of these units with the Kurzweil 1000 and OpenBook software OCR products. We found no problems with that test, and the units performed just as one would want when using the Kurzweil or OpenBook. As many AccessWorld readers know, these are advanced software products that are designed specifically for use by people who are blind or have low vision. They offer users much more flexibility in scanning and reading documents, and they do a much better job with complex multicolumn and multicolor documents than the Brother, Samsung, and Canon units do. However, for capturing the text of simple straightforward documents, these units do a fine job.
Again, these units require a person who is blind or has low vision to do a great deal of button-press memorizing to use the fax functions independently. The basic function of faxing one document to a certain fax number is easy enough on each unit. You simply place your original faceup in the document feeder tray and, depending on the unit, you have either three or four button presses to memorize before you enter the fax number on the dialing pad and press the Start button. However, other fax functions are much more difficult and require sighted assistance. For example, all the units have directories that you can set up in advance to store the names and numbers of people you may fax regularly, and you can associate these contacts with the speed-dial buttons on the unit's control panel. Just as with all the other functions, there is no speech output to guide you through that process, and there are too many steps to memorize.
These units are not designed for composing or receiving e-mail messages. Instead, they are used to scan and capture an image, after which you use your computer's e-mail software to send the image to a recipient. The Samsung unit requires you to memorize a sequence of four button presses to choose the scan-to-e-mail option, and when the scan is complete, your e-mail software, such as Microsoft Outlook, comes up on your computer screen with the image attached to a new message, and you go from there. The process has an extra step with the Canon and Brother units. With these two units, after the image is captured, the accompanying software comes up on your computer screen, and you use it to choose the e-mail option. Then your e-mail software comes up, and you are ready to send the image.
There is a brief installation process when you connect these units to your PC. We tested the accessibility of the installation process using the Window-Eyes and JAWS screen readers and with the ZoomText screen magnifier. On each of these units, the installation process was not designed to allow Window-Eyes or JAWS access to its graphical nature. Barriers were discovered involving graphical representations of text, as well as unlabeled form fields, and each unit required sighted assistance during installation. However, this is a brief, onetime-only process. Installation posed no barriers to ZoomText users when installing the Samsung, since all the screen-manipulation and speech-output functions worked properly. However, the speech output did not work when the users installed the Canon or Brother units using ZoomText.
Each unit also has accompanying software that allows you to control some of its functions with your PC, including the aforementioned software components of the scanning and e-mail tasks. Again, we tested the software's accessibility using JAWS, Window-Eyes, and ZoomText.
In the Brother suite of software, the Copy Center 2.0 application, which gives your PC control over the multiple functions of the unit, poses many accessibility barriers to people who use JAWS and Window-Eyes. There are some unlabeled graphics and a lack of full keyboard access to all the controls, and you often have to use the mouse cursors of the screen reader. However, when the Copy Center software pops up during the scan and e-mail processes, it is not difficult to find the proper buttons to complete the process. We had little or no trouble using JAWS and Window-Eyes with the other utilities in the Brother suite, including the scanner setup utility, the guide for using the PC Fax function, the PC Fax setup, and the PC Fax address book. However, the speed-dial setup was not accessible. The Brother software poses no barriers to ZoomText users, since all screen-manipulation and speech-output functions work properly.
In the Samsung suite, SmarThru is the name of the software that gives your PC control over the unit, and, as with the Brother, unlabeled graphics and the need to use the mouse cursor for everything pose significant barriers to using a screen reader. The Samsung suite also has a settings utility that is used to adjust the settings for the printer and scanner functions and for setting up your phone book. It is a multipage dialog box, and although some of the same barriers exist, it is more screen-reader-friendly than is the SmarThru software. If you are comfortable with your mouse cursor and are willing to endure some initial practice with sighted assistance, the settings utility could be usable. We found no barriers when using ZoomText with the settings utility, but the speech output was inconsistent when using SmarThru. The Samsung suite's Scan-to-PC utility is just like pressing the scan button on the unit itself. You choose this option in the Samsung suite from your PC's start menu, and the unit begins scanning a document that you have placed on the scanning glass; this option poses no barriers to screen readers or screen magnifiers.
Caption: The Samsung's SmarThru software, which allows the PC to control the desktop unit, uses unlabeled graphics and requires the mouse cursor, creating barriers to a screen reader.
The Canon software that is used to control the unit is called the MF Tool Box. The initial problem that we found with this software is that, unlike the Brother and Samsung software, it did not install automatically during the initial installation process. We had to explore deep into the installation CD to find and install the software. However, once we discovered it, we had no problems installing it with Window-Eyes or JAWS. Furthermore, other than some unlabeled graphical buttons on the software's opening screen, we had no problems using the software with Window-Eyes or JAWS. The software also worked well with ZoomText, since all the screen-manipulation and speech-output functions worked properly.
We found a mixed bag when evaluating the documentation that is available with these units. The Canon and Brother units came with print manuals, but the print on both was small, with font sizes ranging from 8 to 12 points. The diagrams were also too small, and the booklet style of the manuals made it difficult to read them with a CCTV (closed-circuit television). CCTV users often prefer manuals in a spiral binding, so they can be laid out flat under the camera. All three units also came with electronic versions of their manuals on CDs in PDF (portable document format). The text of each manual could be accessed with Window-Eyes and JAWS, but we ran into some familiar PDF barriers, including some unlabeled graphics and occasional directions that tell you to press the elusive "graphic" button. Although none of the visual diagrams was designed properly to be accessible to screen readers, a great deal of information can still be gleaned from the manuals. All functions of ZoomText worked properly with the Brother and Samsung units, but the speech output did not work when reviewing the Canon manual. None of the manuals was available in braille for any of the units.
Miscellaneous Features and Functions
Loading paper in all the units can be accomplished tactilely, and with some minimal practice, it is easy to learn how to load paper of various sizes in each unit's paper tray. The same can be said for changing the ink toner cartridge. However, troubleshooting is partially inaccessible. Although a unique three-beep tone is emitted by all units to warn of a malfunction, such as a paper jam or an empty paper tray, the error messages that tell you what the malfunction actually is are presented only on the display screen. For instance, the screen may display the message "paper jam," but there is no speech output to notify a person who is blind or has vision.
Low Vision Accessibility
In addition to testing all the PC-based functionality with ZoomText, we also looked at the visual nature of the units themselves from the perspective of a person with low vision. The displays on all the units are small monochrome displays that are difficult for a person with low vision to read without the aid of an external magnifier. The Brother's display was the best of the three, featuring contrast adjustment, backlighting, and a 30-point font, but our testers with low vision still had trouble viewing the monochrome display. The Samsung and Canon displays were even more difficult to view, with darker screens, smaller font sizes, and no contrast adjustability.
Caption: The Samsung and Canon displays were difficult to view.
Although the buttons on all the units are well designed to be tactilely identifiable, the Brother uses the best techniques for visual usability. Its buttons contrast better with the background panel, and more color is used. However, the labels for the buttons on all the units are too small to be read by most people with low vision without the aid of a magnifier.
Caption: The Brother's display was the best of the three units tested and the buttons contrast better with the background, although the labels are too small.
The Bottom Line
This evaluation has pointed out some major accessibility barriers to these desktop multifunctional copy machines. Although we did a detailed evaluation of only three machines, their user interfaces are representative of nearly all the desktop multifunctional units on the market. Because of the tactile nature of the buttons, they are more accessible than are the large units discussed in the first article in this series, but the lack of access to information on the display screen is still a major barrier. The fact that computer software can be used to control these units is one way to provide better access, but the accessibility of the software must be improved to make that a more viable solution.
None of these units stood out enough to garner a recommendation as the most accessible or usable by a person who is blind. The interface of each unit was similar, and each had various degrees of inaccessibility for various tasks. However, the Brother unit did stand out as the best one for a person with low vision. Although still not perfect, it does have a more viewable display screen, and the buttons and their labels are more easily distinguished visually.
As we stated in the first article in this series, a survey of business leaders showed that it is essential for employees to be able to use the various features of a copy machine and that a person's employability may depend, in part, on the accessibility of these machines. Although a determined and technologically savvy person who is blind could, in theory, memorize all the requisite button presses and configure his or her screen reader to work better with the units' accompanying software, this is not what we consider true accessibility. It is also not considered true accessibility under the regulations defined under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires that technology, such as these units, be accessible to people with disabilities before it can be purchased by the federal government.
For people who are blind or have low vision to enjoy the same access to these units as do sighted people, all display information needs to be communicated through easy-to-understand speech output, and all the functions need to be operated through tactilely identifiable controls. The display screens also need to be better designed to make them more viewable, which could be done by designing color displays that have larger fonts and adjustable contrast levels and are less susceptible to glare.
AFB TECH is currently evaluating the accessibility solutions offered by Xerox and Canon on some of their large stand-alone multifunctional copy machines. These solutions involve connecting a PC with a screen reader and screen-magnifier software to act as a remote interface for accessing all the copier functions. Canon is also introducing a new system, called Voice Guidance, which has the speech-output functionality built into the unit itself. Both Xerox and Canon also have braille overlays available to mark the buttons of the large units. We will report on how well these solutions provide access to people who are blind or have low vision in the July issue of AccessWorld. If these techniques remove the barriers that currently exist with copy machines, perhaps they can be used by other manufacturers on both their large units and the desktop-style units that were evaluated in this article.
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Manufacturer: Brother International, 7777 North Brother Boulevard, Bartlett, TN 38133; phone: 1-800-284-4329; web site: <www.brother.com>.
Canon Imageclass MF-5750.
Manufacturer: Canon U.S.A., 1 Canon Plaza, Lake Success, NY 11042; phone: 703-807-3158; Canon accessibility solutions on the web: <www.usa.canon.com/gmd/section508.html>; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Manufacturer: Samsung Electronics America, 105 Challenger Road, No. 1, Ridgefield Park, NJ 07660; phone: 201-229-4000, phone (customer service): 800-726-7864; web site: <http://www.samsung.com>.
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