A Review of Freeware and Shareware Screen Magnification Software for Windows
People with low vision who use screen magnification software to access computers running the Windows operating system are often shocked by the cost of these programs. Full-featured screen magnifiers cost $500 to $700; moderately priced programs are in the $300 to $400 range; lower-cost programs are around $100. People often ask if there are more affordable alternatives, and the answer is yes. Freeware and shareware programs don't offer the variety of features available in commercial screen magnification programs, but they may be adequate for some users who are on a tight budget.
The Windows and Mac operating systems include screen magnifiers as part of their accessibility options. The Microsoft Magnifier was significantly improved in Windows 7 but appears to have had no major upgrades for Windows 8. The Apple screen magnifier, Zoom, is included with Mac computers, iPhones, and iPads. For a comprehensive review of these two programs, see the AccessWorld article
"The Bigger Picture: A Comparative Review of Magnifier for Windows 7 and Zoom for Mac OS."
Freeware programs are free, but shareware programs allow the user to "try before you buy." If a shareware program meets your needs and you wish to continue to use it, you are asked to register the program and pay approximately $50 or less. This will fee entitles you to a licensed/registered version of the program, and the developer will notify you when updates or fixes are made to the program.
The following search strings were used to locate software for this review:
- "Free screen magnifier software."
- "Free screen magnifier software download."
- "Best free screen magnifier software download."
- "Free screen magnification software."
The results of the searches provided links to an overwhelming number of matches. One of the notable matches of interest is the Screen Magnifiers Home, which lists articles about screen magnifiers and other topics of interest to people with low vision. The "Download" link on the homepage leads to a page where the visitor can download over 30 different Windows-based freeware and shareware screen magnifiers.
I evaluated twelve of these programs using an HP Pavilion zd8000 Pentium 4, 3.0 GHz notebook computer with 1 gigabyte of RAM running the Windows XP Professional operating system. The programs were downloaded from various websites. Before downloading these programs and trying them out, I suggest that you create a new user account profile on your computer and use it while previewing these programs. You can switch back to your regular user account to fix any problems that may occur. I also created a new folder for each program and experienced no problems when I chose to save the downloaded files into the folder. I opened the folder and ran the .ZIP file. I have not had any problems with my computer after downloading, installing, and running these programs. When launching many of these programs, a security warning will appear stating that Windows could not recognize the publisher. You will need to click "Run" or press the "Enter" key to proceed. A checkbox near the bottom left corner of this window states: "Always ask before opening this file." Uncheck this box to launch straight into the program in the future.
Some of these programs were very simple, providing the equivalent of a hand-held magnifier that you might use by holding it up to the screen for viewing. These types of programs may be useful for spot reading or viewing small details found in graphical information on a webpage. They may be adequate for entering small amounts of text, but they do not perform well with text editors, word processors, or e-mail programs. Many of the freeware programs fall into this category and are addressed as a group rather than individual programs.
The freeware programs reviewed reinforce that old saying, "You get what you pay for." Most of these programs only offer the ability to enlarge a circular or rectangular area beneath the mouse pointer. Programs such as Dragnifier 2.5, Lupa 0.99, Magnifier 2, Magnifixer 3.2, Virtual Magnifying Glass, and Zoom+ provide a limited number of magnification choices and are primarily useful for spot reading. Some of the features offered include:
- Several levels of magnification.
- Adjustability of the lens size and shape.
- Some offer visual cues to help locate the cursor (most do not).
- Most of these programs can be configured to automatically run when the computer starts up.
Factors that make these difficult to use:
- Limited or no documentation (instructions, user manual, etc.).
- A confusing user interface.
- Severe pixelation as magnification increases (stair-stepped edges of letters).
- No tracking of the insertion cursor in a word processor or e-mail.
- Some do not show the mouse pointer in the magnifier area, thus requiring the user to navigate and place the pointer using the unmagnified view.
It appears that most of the software in this group has been designed for users with good vision who just need a bit of magnification on occasion to view information displayed at a small size. Users with low vision will find these programs of little use beyond the spot reading tasks described above.
Two programs in this group merit further exploration: DesktopZoom 3.5 and Lightning Express. Both of these programs offer additional features that make them useful to people with low vision:
- Multiple viewing modes (full screen, lens, fixed window).
- Color inversion (dark on light, light on dark).
- Color choices for the mouse pointer.
- Keyboard commands for adjusting settings.
- Higher magnification with a wider range of powers.
- Tracking options that follow the insertion cursor in a word processor and e-mail.
- A fixed window location so that the viewing window can be placed in the best location on the screen for users with certain types of field loss.
These features make DesktopZoom 3.5 a more useful tool than the others in this group, but the program does require fine tuning many of the settings for optimum efficiency. The combination of settings that leads to efficiency is not clearly defined in the sparse documentation. Lightning Express, which can be downloaded to your computer like all the other freeware programs, offers an additional feature that allows the program to be launched directly from its website. This can be very helpful when using a public computer where installation of a program may not be permitted. Based on the features available and the ease of use, I would select Lightning Express as the best of this group.
- ABF Magnifying Tool ver. 184.108.40.206 ($14.95)
- DesktopZoomer 1.3.1 ($14.95)
- The Magnifier ver.1.50 release 5 ($49.95)
- Screen Loupe for Windows 95/NT Ver. 4.5 ($14.95)
- ZoomPower v.1.2 ($29)
You can use all of the programs in this group for a specified period of time or for a specified number of trials for free. Once you have reached the limit, you will need to register the program and pay for a licensed copy in order to continue use. In most cases, you can accomplish this at the developer website. For an additional fee, some offer a CD/DVD version of their product in addition to the downloadable version.
The programs in the shareware category have many of the same strengths and weaknesses of the freeware programs, but some offer additional features and better usability for people with low vision. ABF Magnifying Tools, Screen Loupe for Windows 95/NT, and Zoom+ do not offer any additional features or ease of use that make them a better choice than Lightning Express. They are adequate for viewing information but offer weak support for word processing and e-mail applications.
DesktopZoomer does offer several additional features not found in the freeware programs. One of the most notable of these is the ability to download the program to a USB flash drive that can be used to run the program on any personal computer. (Some networked computers may not allow a program to run from the USB flash drive.) DesktopZoomer supports multi-screen monitors and works with Windows 7; a soon-to-be-released version will work with Windows 8. This was the only program that specifically stated that a Windows 8 version is being developed. Others may be developing Windows 8 versions, but plans are not specifically noted in the documentation.
The documentation for DesktopZoomer is more extensive than that for the freeware programs, and it does a good job of explaining the features. It does not always inform the user about which combination of settings to select to achieve the best use of the program with word processing, e-mailing, and Internet browsing. Tech support is available via e-mail, and the developer was very helpful in answering questions and explaining how to use the program effectively.
This program works well for reading and for text editing. Once the appropriate settings have been selected, the lens and full screen modes will follow the insertion cursor in Notepad and WordPad but not in Microsoft Word. Determining the combination of appropriate settings was not clear at first, but with feedback from tech support, I was able to make the program work efficiently for text editing. One other positive feature of DesktopZoomer is the use of keyboard commands to control the program and the ability to edit or reassign these functions to different key combinations when they cause a conflict with keyboard commands of other applications.
The Magnifier, version 1.5, release 5 is available as a free demo version, an e-License ($49.95), a DVD ($59.95), and on USB ($69.95.) Its online User's Guide is available in several formats: Manual PDF, EBook PDF, US Letter PDF, and A4 PDF. It provides essential information and assists the user in understanding the program features and how to use them effectively.
The Magnifier magnification range is 1x to 40x and can be adjusted in increments of one-tenths. A toolbar can be displayed for quick and easy adjustments, or you can use an extensive list of keyboard shortcuts to access almost all of its features. One reading feature of this program that I found very useful is an option for panning that is a bit different from other programs when reading text from left to right. The user can hold down the "Control" key and press the right arrow key to start panning the viewing window across the screen. When you reach the end of the line of text, simply release the "Control" key, and the viewing window jumps back to the beginning of the line. Other programs require the user to issue an additional command to move back to the beginning of the line. Better smoothing of text, better tracking of the insertion cursor, and more robust panning features make this program seem more familiar to users of commercial screen magnifiers.
The Bottom Line
Freeware and shareware screen magnification software can definitely save the user some money, but at what cost? Users must determine if these programs offer the features required to accomplish their desired tasks. Successful use will be greatly determined by the user's ability to understand the various features and how to combine the settings for these features to provide optimal productivity. Those who are new to computing will find this process challenging and possibly frustrating. Those who have used a full-featured screen magnifier will immediately notice the inadequacies of freeware and shareware programs and be hampered by the limitations.
Three of the most widely used applications on computers are for word processing, e-mailing, and Internet browsing. Some of the freeware and shareware screen magnifiers will provide adequate access to accomplish these tasks, but they may prove frustrating to new users and underpowered to those more experienced. Commercially available screen magnification programs generally offer more features that make accomplishing these activities easier, but for a price. This leaves the computer user with low vision in a quandary about which screen magnifier to use. A reasonable course of action might be to try the steps below, and if they do not work, move on to the next suggestion.
- Investigate the Microsoft Magnifier included with Windows.
- Create a new user account and some folders on your computer in preparation for trying out freeware and shareware programs.
- Search the Internet for "free screen magnifiers," or just try some of the ones reviewed in this article.
- Download and save these programs to their individual folders.
- Try out the programs individually to see if they meet your needs.
- I suggest starting with Lightning Express, DesktopZoomer, and The Magnifier 1.5.
- If these are not adequate, download and investigate a demo copy of the low-cost (less than $100) commercial programs: ZoomText Express and WinZoom Lite.
- If none of these provides the features you need to get the job done, then acquire a demo version of one of the mid-range programs ($300 to $400): WinZoom, iZoom, or Lightning Express (with speech).
- Some applications will require a much more robust set of features. Users of these applications will want to acquire demo versions of full-featured screen magnifiers ($500 to $1,200): Magic, ZoomText, or Super Nova.
- One final option to consider is an access program that provides screen magnification, screen reading, and applications all in one package: CDesk and Guide. These two programs may be more than adequate for individual and personal use but may not be appropriate for many work environments and educational settings. For a review of these programs, see the AccessWorld articles "CDesk COMPASS by AdaptiveVoice: A Low-Cost Screen Reading and Screen Magnification Solution for Windows" and "Guide Software, Revisited".
Following these suggestions should assist users with low vision in determining which screen magnification software will best meet their needs.
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