July 2000 Issue  Volume 1  Number 4

Product Evaluation

When Is a Little Magnification Enough? A Review of Microsoft Magnifier

If you want to make the text or other items on your computer screen appear a little larger, Microsoft Magnifier may be the answer. Or, if you normally use a full-fledged screen magnification program, you may find this application helpful when you must use a different computer temporarily. First available as part of Windows 98, Magnifier has been improved in Windows 2000. So what is it and what does it do?

The Big Picture

Many full-blown screen magnifiers on the market are compatible with Windows operating systems, and they offer options like font smoothing, mind-boggling magnification levels, smooth panning, and an array of hotkeys. Most are also currently compatible with Windows 2000. But what if you don't need all of that? Why get a toolbox when all you need is a screwdriver? If all you require is a simple, temporary solution to make the screen more visible, Microsoft's Magnifier may be enough. This program has been offered in Windows 98 and is now also available in Windows 2000 Professional, a version of Windows that is designed for use on business desktops and notebook computers. This version of Windows 2000, a combination of Windows 98 and NT, should be an easy transition for Windows 98 users, and with the security of Windows NT, it seems like a worthwhile upgrade.

Windows 2000 Professional includes all the options available on the Magnifier for Windows 98 and two new options: Start minimized and Show magnifier. The Start minimized option allows the user to start Magnifier with the control panel minimized, and the Show magnifier option displays the Magnifier window along with the control panel.

This evaluation reviews Magnifier's options and its performance in Windows 98 and Windows 2000. The Magnifier for Windows 98 was tested on a Dell Inspiron 3500 Pentium II processor, and the Magnifier for Windows 2000 Professional was tested on a new Dell Optiplex GX1P with a built-in video card and sound card. It was evaluated using MS Word, MS Excel, and MS Internet Explorer 4.0. It was also tested on the non-Microsoft programs America Online 4.0 and Adobe Photoshop 5.0.

The Search for Magnifier

If you have never heard of Magnifier, you are not alone. Although Microsoft does have a Web site dedicated entirely to accessibility, which among other things, lists assistive technology resources such as vendors, Microsoft does not make a big deal out of announcing that it has Magnifier. On its Web site it treats the introduction of Magnifier as it would any other program included with Windows 98 and Windows 2000 Professional. The accessibility features are shown much more prominently on the actual systems. A user is more likely to see Magnifier while using the systems' online help or the start menu and through the Accessibility Wizard available in both operating systems than on the Web site. (The Accessibility Wizard helps users customize the Windows applications and accessibility options.)

No Frills Display Options

To open up Magnifier, press the hotkeys CTRL+ESC, followed by R, and then type in "Magnifier." Or, go to the Start menu, Accessories, Accessibility, then Magnifier. The Magnifier has up to 9x magnification, which is less than the full-blown screen magnifiers on the market, such as Dolphin's Lunar, which offers up to 32x. The Magnifier does not have separate options for display modes; however, the user can easily manipulate the Magnifier window into a split screen or static window anywhere on the display. After the program is closed, it remembers the last configuration of the Magnifier window until it is changed again. The default or standard mouse pointer that is used to resize the Magnifier window is so thin that most of the time it is not noticeable. However, to make it more visible, there are options to change the size and color of the indicator in the control panel's Accessibility options, Mouse menu.

A Cover Up?

A serious problem that occurs in both Windows 98 and 2000 is that the area of the screen the Magnifier window occupies is displayed as a gray area, obscuring anything under it. For example, suppose the Magnifier window is set as a static window at the center of the display and a window pops up at the center of the screen. The pop-up window will pop up behind the Magnifier window and will not be seen.

Playing Catch Up

Another problem in Magnifier for Windows 98 occurs when the Magnifier window is moved too quickly. It leaves a trail of multiple stationary windows that disappears when the window stops moving. This problem was fixed in Windows 2000. Also, in Windows 98, the magnified screen moves slightly more slowly than the unmagnified portion of the screen no matter what program is being operated. This problem was very apparent when Adobe Photoshop 5.0 was used to edit a picture. The movement of the tools for drawing or moving components was very choppy. This problem did not occur in Windows 2000.

Follow the Leader

The three tracking features available on the Magnifier are: Follow mouse cursor, Follow keyboard focus, and Follow text editing. The Follow mouse cursor option displays a magnified area by following the mouse pointer. In the Windows 98 version, there is noticeable flickering of the magnified screen when the mouse moves quickly over it. In fact, the mouse of the unmagnified screen flickers even when stationary. However, in Windows 2000 Professional, it was smooth sailing for the display and mouse.

The Follow keyboard focus option displays a magnified area that follows keyboard commands. For both versions of Magnifier, this option worked very well in Word; however, for the Windows 98 version, there were a few problems that occurred in Excel. When we tabbed to other cells, this option was not responsive. When the Tab key, as well as the Return key, was pressed repeatedly to move to other cells, the Magnifier did not follow the highlighted cell. The focus moved only after information was typed into the cell. This problem was fixed in the Windows 2000 Professional version.

The Follow text editing option follows text while a user is typing. This option worked well in all programs and for both versions. Magnifier does a good job of following other areas of focus, such as pop-up windows—for example the window that pops up in Word that asks if a user would like to save changes.

The Colors

There are two options on Magnifier that aid in visibility: Invert colors and Use high contrast scheme. The Invert colors option is available in all screen magnifiers. This option, which inverts the colors of the Magnifier window, worked well in all programs. The High contrast scheme option displays a high-contrast color scheme for the whole display. On the desktop, however, the background is not affected; only the colors of the toolbars take on a high-contrast color scheme, and the text under the icons on the desktop appear white on a black block background. In Adobe Photoshop 5.0, there was a slight problem using the high-contrast scheme for the drawing toolbox. In the toolbox, the tools are shown as icons. When a tool is chosen, the icon is highlighted while the other icons stay dark. In the high-contrast scheme the dark icons are too dark to be seen.

So How Does It Measure Up?

In Windows 98 Magnifier has its share of problems: the limitations of the Magnifier window, the flickering of the magnified screen, the flickering of the unmagnified mouse, the delay for the magnified window to catch up with the unmagnified window, the defects in the Follow keyboard focus in Excel, and the inability to see the toolbox tools in Adobe Photoshop 5.0 while the high-contrast scheme is activated. With the exception of the limitations of the Magnifier window, all problems are fixed in Windows 2000 Professional.

Magnifier is easy to operate because it has far fewer options than full-fledged screen magnifiers; it is simple, especially in the way it allows the user to manipulate the Magnifier window into any size and position with just the mouse; and it is convenient since it does not need to be separately installed from the operating system and it does not require any special changes in the display properties of the control panel that other magnifiers require to be compatible with the system.

It is also important to note that it never crashed during testing, and Magnifier worked rather well even on the two non-Microsoft programs tested. Finally, since it is free, the price can't be beat.

Does Magnifier compete with a full-featured screen magnifier? Absolutely not. It is designed to help out in a pinch or for those users who do not need more than a minimal set of screen magnification features.

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