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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 September 2009 Issue  Volume 10  Number 5

Access Issues

Is a Netbook Computer Right for You?

The new generation of small notebook computers, often called netbooks, are cheap, light, and wildly popular. But are these devices a good choice for those of us who rely on assistive technology?

The convenience offered by a 2- or 3-pound netbook or a manageable laptop with a full-sized keyboard is as welcome as it is for sighted colleagues who use the same machines. If you have contemplated shifting from a desktop to a portable computer, you should give some thought to the selection and configuration of a screen magnifier, screen-reading program, or other specialized technology. Here are some observations that we hope you will find helpful.

Size Matters

Although the lines among laptop, notebook, and netbook computers are fuzzy, here are some helpful identifiers to assist in separating the classes of systems.

Laptops are the largest portable computers that you will encounter. They offer screen sizes of 15 inches and larger. They also include fast processors that are comparable to standard desktop computers. Optical drives, formerly CD-ROM drives, are integrated into the computer. They commonly offer three or more USB ports; full audio in and out connections; and connections for external video monitors, including both VGA for the traditional computer monitor and HDMI connectivity for the current generation of household television sets.

Laptop systems with screen sizes greater than 15 inches often use screens in the 16 by 9 aspect ratio. This important change facilitates viewing of the increasingly popular letterbox formats such as Blue-Ray and high-definition television. An additional characteristic of the 16 by 9 screen machines is that their keyboards often include the full complement of keys of the traditional desktop keyboard. For those who use screen readers, the availability of a number pad on a laptop is a welcome convenience.

Product shot of HP laptop computer. Laptop has a full keyboard, including number pad.

Caption: A typical laptop

Notebook computers are typically smaller than laptop systems, with screens ranging from 12 inches to 14 inches, and include the traditional 4 by 3 screen of earlier computers. Like laptop systems, they include an optical drive, three or more USB connections, and at least a VGA video connection and have processors that are comparable to less powerful desktop systems. The keyboards on notebooks do not usually include a number pad; however, they offer separate Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys.

Product shot of IBM notebook, which has a full-sized keyboard but no number pad

Caption: A typical notebook

The netbook, the new kid on the shelf, has received a lot of attention for good reason. These machines are available in sizes small enough to rival traditional notetakers for people who are blind. Most of them feature a 10-inch screen and have remarkably similar technical and physical characteristics.

Product shot of HP netbook, including a pencil to show scale. The netbook is just slightly wider than a sharpened pencil is long.

Caption: An example of the new kid on the shelf, a typical netbook

Most netbooks are based in the Intel Atom processor, the slowest and most efficient of the current line of processors in use. Thus, certain compromises have been made in the name of efficiency and battery life, and this is what these machines are all about. The form factor of products from at least half a dozen manufacturers, including HP, Toshiba, Dell, Asus, and Samsung, is remarkably similar. The keyboards are a fraction of the size of a full-size notebook keyboard; 90% to 94% is typical. USB ports, usually three in number, offer connectivity. A card reader is also typical. Audio in and out is handled by two connections that serve double duty in some instances. No optical drive is included, requiring the purchase and configuration of a separate outboard drive. The keyboard may not include separate keys for Home, End, Page Up and Page Down. These keys require the use of a function key in combination with another key. Screen navigation or review tasks, which use the Control, Shift, and Home keys, require pressing four keys at the same time in such machines.

Netbooks are amazingly inexpensive, ranging from $299 to $499. The devices rely on Windows XP for the operating system, rather than Windows Vista, now the standard on most notebooks and laptops.

Screen Readers and Magnifiers on Laptops and Netbooks

Any Windows screen reader or screen-magnification program that supports the Windows XP or Windows Vista operating system should work on a laptop or netbook as it will on a desktop PC. Netbook audio support is similar to the built-in audio found in the larger laptops. We at AccessWorld have not received reports of difficulty with text-to-speech synthesis on these machines. Some special drivers, which are not common on larger computers, may be used to accommodate the reduced size and capacity of the Intel Atom processer.

At least one manufacturer, System Access (www.serotalk.com) offers a version of its screen reader and magnifier that is intended specifically for netbooks that operate the Intel Atom processor. The limited version is priced substantially lower than the company's flagship product, which also works on the Atom machines. Check with the vendor who sold you your access technology or with the manufacturer directly before you purchase this version.

If you are contemplating the use of an optical character recognition (OCR) program, you should also check with your manufacturer before you make a purchase decision. The Kurzweil 1000, for example, will work on Atom-based netbooks. According to the company, the speed will be slower on the less powerful netbook computer than on a fast laptop. Some portable flatbed scanners are available from manufacturers, such as Canon, and make excellent companions to a netbook.

Proprietary Add-ons and Trial Software

Firing up a netbook, notebook, or laptop for the first time will reveal the add-on programs, free trial programs, and proprietary utilities that are associated with your new purchase.

Free offers include preinstalled services that want to tempt you to sign up for service by offering 30 days free. Norton Antivirus and McAfee Antivirus are common. It is always a good idea to install and maintain a full arsenal of defenses against unwanted viruses and spyware. We suggest that you investigate which program or programs will work best for you in advance and install them before you go online. It is generally advisable to have the free software offerings removed or to remove them yourself before you use the computer with speech or magnification.

Custom enhancements, such as the HP Desktop Assistant and Toshiba's management tool, an inaccessible bar that floats beside the desktop, are offered by manufacturers to increase the value of their brand in comparison to the competition. Although this is an understandable strategy, many people who use screen-access technology find that these add-ons are often inaccessible baggage that detracts from the experience, rather than enhances it. As with free trial software, we suggest that you remove these applications unless you have specific knowledge that they are both useful and accessible.

Proprietary tools are another class of software that you may encounter on a new system. Netbooks, by virtue of their size, try to pack lots of functions into a small package. They often rely on specialized software to do so. For example, when I connected the headphones on the Toshiba Netbook that I recently purchased, using the standard audio output, a popup item required me to select headphone or line level and then to click OK. While my screen reader recognized the choices, the OK button was not identified. A quick trial-and-error session revealed the correct "custom control" for "OK."

Over the past few months, we have received anecdotal reports from many individuals who, for the most part, are happy with their netbook choices. Asus machines appear to provide useful tools and software features and Toshiba and Acer less so.

If you have an issue with the inaccessibility of a custom utility, it may be possible to change the software that controls a particular function. An example is the management of wireless connections. On many systems, wireless management defaults to a proprietary application provided by the manufacturer. This application can be changed by going to the Network Connections option in the Windows Control Panel and selecting Wireless Network Connection. Information available in the dialogue box will guide you to finding and selecting the option to allow Windows to manage wireless connectivity of the system.

For more technical adjustments, such as selecting the processor speed and setting the battery-conservation settings, there may be no other option than to interact with the manufacturer provided applications. In many netbook systems, a number of functions are performed by means of the function key and a number key. Making note of these keys can also be useful as you customize the machine to meet your needs.

Purchasing from the Best Source

Laptops and netbooks are often purchased online. For the experienced user of assistive technology who has access to good information about the characteristics of a computer, an online purchase can be convenient and satisfying. However, if you need to be able to ask some specific technical questions and to try the machine for yourself, where you buy can be as important as what you buy.

Big box stores and computer centers typically offer the most choices in one place. Best Buy defines "big box" and, as you would expect, offers many choices to try in the store. More specialized retailers, such as Micro Center, offer a large inventory; I counted more than 10 netbooks on a recent visit. The additional advantage can be in the depth of knowledge of the sales staff. A salesperson who sells systems to business and advanced users may have a body of knowledge greater than the generalists at an office superstore.

As with any successful technology purchase, some advanced planning and data gathering can go a long way toward avoiding a poor choice and dissatisfaction with your new computer.

Try them all. In an orderly manner, try each of the systems you are considering. Check out the feel of the keyboard and the location of the controls and commonly used keys. See the checklist presented later for specifics.

Take your screen reader on a thumb drive or try System Access or System Access to Go (www.satogo.org) in the store. A membership is free. Even if it is not your primary screen reader, System Access will give you a clear impression of the behavior of a particular machine compared with others you are considering.

As was mentioned earlier, it is important for you to find out what free software is included. If the machine you are interested in includes proprietary applications and utilities, can it be returned for a full refund if these applications are inaccessible or interfere with the operation of your assistive technology?

Netbook Laptop Checklist

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Will this machine support my access technology? Check with your vendor or manufacturer. Generally, most machines will run assistive technology in a manner similar to a desktop.
  • Is this machine powerful enough to run the programs I need? Simple word-processing, e-mail, and web browsing will run smoothly on the most modest processors. Video and audio editing, games, manipulation of large files, and other complex tasks may be unpleasantly slow on netbooks.
  • How is the keyboard on this machine? Be sure you can perform specialized tasks, such as table navigation with speech, or zooming control with screen enlargement. If a keypad is a necessity, is it easy to use and reach? Are the Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys usable in combination with Shift and Control?
  • Can I hear and understand the audio? Some speakers, especially in netbooks, are difficult to hear. The HP DV2, a 12-inch netbook, has an especially easy-to-hear speaker for speech.
  • Can I configure the machine myself, or do I need assistance? As was mentioned earlier, addressing the management of unwanted or proprietary software is one of the most important considerations. If you are not comfortable with this task, purchasing from a source that also offers fee-for-service support may be the best option.
  • Who will install my access technology? If you are comfortable installing and configuring your access technology, you are ahead of the curve. If you have concerns about installation on an unfamiliar system, arranging for assistance at the same time that preinstalled and unwanted software is removed is advisable.
  • Do I know which optical drive will work with this machine? Not all optical drives work equally well on a given machine. As a general proposition, devices of the same brand should be the most compatible.
  • Can I connect peripherals at my desk? Many users want the full complement of monitor, desktop keyboard, speakers, printer, and scanner when the portable is at the office or home. If the USB connections are not sufficient to support your devices, will a USB hub do the trick?
  • How long will the battery last on a charge? This is a significant question for netbook users who often choose the technology for extended mobile operation. Three hours are typical on standard battery packs, and seven to eight hours are not uncommon on larger battery packs. For larger machines, the battery life may be significantly shorter.

Sources of Information

A UK-based site (www.trustedreviews.com) is an interesting and potentially useful source of in-depth reviews. The reviewers do not hold back. Since netbooks are so similar, their reviews are detailed. The current video reviews are easy to locate on the page. The commentary is useful and includes a description of the physical layout of each machine. In addition, www.blindcooltech.com offers many reviews of netbooks and other portable options.

The Mac Option

The release of Apple's Snow Leopard operating system has focused increased attention on the Macintosh as a viable alternative to Windows-based portables, including attention by those of us who use screen reading or screen magnification. Recent price reductions in the Macbook laptop line have spurred sales of these machines. Starting at about $995, Mac notebooks are more expensive than Windows machines. However, when you add the price of a screen-access program to the price of even a modest Windows system, the total expenditure may shift significantly in favor of the Mac.

It is important to consider whether the Mac, using the free Voiceover screen-access program, can satisfy your computing needs. Many web sites and articles address this issue with reviews and demonstrations.

While text editing, web browsing, and e-mail functions are all supported by the suite of applications that is included on every Mac computer, we are not aware of specialized OCR offerings that are comparable to Freedom Scientific's OpenBook or to the Kurzweil 1000 package. As with Windows, off-the-shelf OCR programs may be accessible and effective alternatives.

The Macbook Pro laptop, priced at $1,200 and up, includes some innovative navigation technology. With Voiceover, the use of gestures means that for the first time the touchpad can become an effective nonvisual element. Although AccessWorld has not yet evaluated this technology, we have observed that similar gesture-based navigation of the iPhone is a compelling advancement

If you are interested in exploring the Mac option, VoiceOver can be activated on any system that runs Snow Leopard. Resources and information are growing on the web, and many users have provided personalized information by means of lists.

On the high end, the combination of a powerful MacBook and a product called VMWare Fusion allows you to run Windows, including your access technology, as a virtual machine on a Macbook. In this ultimate configuration, you can enjoy the best of both worlds, Snow Leopard with VoiceOver and Windows when you need it. Be advised that the price is also high end. Expect to spend upwards of $1,400.

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Copyright © 2009 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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