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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 May 2011 Issue  Volume 12  Number 5

Product Evaluations

Guide Software, Revisited

Electing to use screen access technology—either a screen reader or magnifier—is a very personal matter. If you have considered the options and made your choice already, you are no doubt using your preferred method to read this article. Others may be in the process of choosing what, if any, assistive technology to use for their computer work, and still others may not be familiar with these technologies at all.

Most of us in the vision loss field are familiar with the leading screen access technology providers, AI Squared, Freedom Scientific, GW Micro and, most recently, Apple. The products sold by these companies provide comprehensive access to the operating system of either a Windows or Mac OS-based computer. For employment-oriented tasks, such as using Microsoft Office, these products are a requirement. For other tasks, learning either Windows or the Mac OS using keyboard navigation and/or screen magnification can be overwhelming.

Guide, from UK-based Dolphin Computer Access, attempts to provide an alternative strategy for performing many of the tasks for which a Windows OS computer is equipped. Here is how we described Guide in the March 2009 issue of AccessWorld :

"[Guide is] a comprehensive set of applications that replaces the customary programs that are commonly used with Windows, such as Internet Explorer and Microsoft Word. Its objective is to provide a consistent interface across more than 20 functions, rather than requiring you to learn the different interfaces of a separate web browser, e-mail program, personal calendar application, address book, and so on. Visually, Guide provides a simple, high-contrast proprietary interface. Numbers for each choice or option are associated with the function and can be entered directly from the keyboard. For example, if you want to send an e-mail message, you press 1. If you want to write a letter, you press 2. To navigate, you use the alphanumeric keys or the arrow keys. A voice-input option is also available at an additional price."

More than two years have passed since that article's publication, and the computing landscape has changed remarkably during that time. The desktop PC, once the dominant computer hardware product, has been surpassed by handheld devices such as iPads and powerful laptop and netbook computers. System Access To Go, a free Windows screen reader/magnifier, the NVDA screen reader, and Apple's VoiceOver and Zoom have made gains in popularity and have matured substantially in functionality and features.

Against this newly redrawn backdrop we revisit Guide and consider it for the newcomer to screen reading and/or magnification.

Documentation

The entire Guide manual is available on the Dolphin website in Word format. Dolphin Computer Access and the authors of this article recommend you either receive training or read the manual carefully before using the program as it can be a bit difficult to get started on. The manual is very clearly organized, is printed in 16-point font, and describes each of the menus and functions in detail.

Installation and Startup

After installation, you can set the Guide software to startup automatically when Windows starts. In testing, however, we found that the Guide program came on after the login screen, meaning if you have a computer on which you have to provide a login and password, the Guide software will not start until after you have logged in. This can present a significant hurdle for many who use the login screen, since they will have to perform this action without speech or magnification.

User Interface

The Guide interface is designed to allow you to accomplish nearly all of the common computer tasks within a single application. When you start up Guide, you will be presented with a simple and consistent text list of items, each of which takes you to a different application or another menu. Each of the items is presented in large high-contrast print and spoken aloud. In the Main menu, you are presented with the following options: E-mails, Letters and Documents, Access a Website, Scan and Read, Address Book, Play Audio CD or Mp3, Calendar, Voice Memos, and More Options. You can scroll among items by navigating with the arrow keys on the keyboard, using the mouse, or entering the number for the desired option.

Navigating the user interface with the keyboard is very easy, and, once you get used to the shortcuts, quick and efficient. Selecting F1 at any point will bring up a help menu that shows you the keyboard shortcuts for that menu. Using the mouse to navigate is not as smooth, since Guide does not allow you to adjust the cursor settings to make it easier to see.

Guide offers 20 color choices for the interface, allowing for a high degree of customization of text and background color. There is also an option to change the typeface for the text, though doing so can be a bit confusing. Choosing the option to change typeface brings up an extensive menu with all of the typefaces installed on your computer—which can easily number in the hundreds—without providing a preview option. The only way to see what each typeface looks like is to open the menu, make a selection, and then close the menu. Though this may be a nice feature for more advanced users who already know specifically what typefaces and colors work best for them, it would increase the program's usability to offer some preset options.

Guide does not provide the ability to increase the size of the type for all menus. You can press the F12 key at any time in the menus to increase the font size, but this setting does not carryover to other menu screens. If you prefer larger type, which many users of assistive technology do, you must manually increase the type size for each page of text. This is an unnecessary annoyance that could easily be fixed by creating a setting for a universal type size.

The synthetic speech that Guide uses is clear and easy to hear. A male voice, with a pronounced British accent, reads all text. We installed Guide on two computers and encountered a noticeable lag between each press of the arrow key on an HP desktop machine running Windows 7 with 2 GB of RAM and a 2.4GHz processor. This sluggishness made navigation slow and cumbersome. This sluggishness was not observed on a Windows 7 Dell desktop with 3 GB of RAM and a 2.9 GHz processor.

E-mails

Before using the e-mail option, you will have to set up an e-mail account. There are three ways to set up an e-mail account: You can import an e-mail account from Outlook Express (but not Outlook), you can manually input your e-mail settings, or you can use Guide's E-mail Wizard. The Wizard worked well when setting up accounts with online e-mail services such as Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and Hotmail, but did not work as well for professional e-mail accounts, which usually required manual input.

Letters and Documents

Guide features a basic word processor, which allows you to create and print text documents and open a limited number of PDF files. The word processor operates similarly to Notepad: it's very simple to use and easily allows the entering and moving of text. Basic formatting is possible using keyboard shortcuts, such as Ctrl+B for bold, and you can press F1 at any time to bring up a list of all available formatting shortcuts. Though you can insert images into your documents, overall the functionality is still very limited in comparison to a full-fledged word processing program like Microsoft Word.

Documents produced with Guide software are saved as proprietary GDoc files, which can't be opened by any program other than Guide. There is no method to import Microsoft Word files, making it difficult to use Guide with existing documents. Although it's possible to open Adobe PDF documents, this functionality is limited to those PDFs already organized in an accessible format, which is often not the case.

Access a Website

There is a zoom feature built into Guide's Web browser, which can be activated either with the mouse or with keyboard shortcuts. When compared to most screen magnifiers, Guide's zoom feature is extremely limited. While it does increase the size of images and the text, the zoom feature has trouble presenting pages that contain advanced tables or frames. For example, the AFB home page has two sidebars, one on the left and one on the right, with a main body area between. When you use Guide zoom on the AFB page, it increases the size of the two sidebars, and shrinks the size of the middle area until it disappears. If you use a high level of magnification, you would never even know there was a central section on the page.

There isn't a way to change the color of the text or background in the default web browser. It's possible to convert the page to text-only, which removes all images and tables, and then you can edit the size and color of the text, but this does not work well on all pages. It would be nice if there were an easy way to change the color and size of the text for the main page.

Additional Functions and Tools

Address Book
Play audio CD or Mp3
Calendar
Scan and Read
Scan and Magnify
Podcast
Internet Radio
Skype (you need to have Skype installed)
Games

This list indicates the depth of the applications included with Guide. The calendar is noteworthy. Because Dolphin is a UK company, some terms and day/date formatting follow British conventions. This is also noticeable when using the spell checker and in some other functions.

Despite some peculiarities, all applications were stable; given the large number of features this is an impressive accomplishment.

The Bottom Line

Because Guide requires the use of only the alphanumeric keys and arrows, beginner keyboard skill will allow someone to get up and running with the program, which is a definite advantage. However, the significant shortcomings of the program outlined in this review do not recommend Guide for most people with vision loss as even a first step toward full use of a computer.

We also would expect that any word processing program offered for sale in 2011 will be capable of opening documents and saving documents in the Microsoft Word format.

Finally there is the price, which will be prohibitively high for some people. Guide is available in the United States for $795; there is a "hands free" version available for $1,295.

Product Information

Product Name: Guide and Guide Hands Free.

Manufacturer: Dolphin Computer Access.

U.S. Distributer: EVAS
39 Canal Street
Post Office Box 371
Westerly, RI 02891.

Website: www.evas.com.

Toll Free: (800) 872-3827.

Alternatives

As mentioned earlier, several free access products have gained popularity and matured significantly in the past two years. Availability of training on the Apple interface with VoiceOver and Zoom is on the rise in many communities. System Access To Go continues to offer a downloadable, free, and comprehensive access tool for both nonvisual and low vision use of Windows-based computers. The System Access Mobile Network (SAMNET) offers a suite of applications that resemble many of those contained in Guide for the annual subscription cost of $129. SAMNET can be used with any Windows screen reader including System Access To Go.

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Copyright © 2011 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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