January 2003 Issue  Volume 4  Number 1

Product Evaluation

The Novel Experience of Reading: A Review of OPENBook and Kurzweil 1000

This article reviews Kurzweil 1000 version 7.0 from Kurzweil Educational Systems and Freedom Scientific's OPENBook version 6.0, the two most popular optical character recognition (OCR) packages for computer users who are blind or visually impaired. More books, magazines and other printed materials are available to people who are blind or visually impaired than at any other time in history. But nothing beats the power of scanning and enjoying a book that you want to read when you want to read it.

The Many Faces of Print

To determine accuracy, we used a variety of types of text and formats. When necessary, we adjusted scanning settings to improve accuracy. For our simple test, we printed a document with ordinary English text on plain white paper using a laser printer and Ariel 12-point print to be sure that both systems could recognize what we thought should be an easy-to-read item. We printed text in several fonts, including Times New Roman and Ariel bold and italic. We introduced deliberate errors to find out what the two systems would do with a sentence beginning with the word "tke." For tough jobs, we scanned book pages printed on colored paper, pages with light text on dark paper, business cards, magazine pages with nonlinear formats, bills, and tiny print.

OPENBook Version 6.0

Getting Started

OPENBook's default synthesizer, IBM's ViaVoice, is run at the start of the installation, so speech is present throughout. During the installation, we were advised to remove any previous version of OPENBook to avoid conflicts. After we deleted an older version, we had no trouble installing and running OPENBook 6.

Getting Help

OPENBook offers context-sensitive help. Its Key Describer mode allows you to press any key and hear its function described. Its manual is available in the Help menu and in print and braille.

Command Structure

All of OPENBook's commands are located on the number pad and can also be accessed through conventional Windows menus and hot keys. Keyboard layouts have been added for JAWS and Window-Eyes, so users of these screen readers will find it easier to navigate OPENBook.

Simple Scanning

OPENBook read our easy-to-read test pages without errors. It did not change "tke" to "the." It omitted all long dashes from all pages we scanned, so two words separated by a long dash appeared as one word. Freedom Scientific indicated that a free update fixing this bug will be available by the time you read this. OPENBook can read and scan at the same time. There was sometimes a brief delay in reading when the Scan key was pressed. This delay may depend on which scanner is installed. OPENBook took an average of 32 seconds to scan a test page and an additional 7 seconds to complete recognition of the text.

Tough Jobs

OPENBook made few recognition mistakes in the actual text of our test magazine page. However, it interpreted parts of diagrams on the page as text, adding numerous 1s and caret (^) signs to the text. Part of one column of text was read in the wrong place on the page. Using its default settings, OPENBook produced random letters and punctuation marks when we scanned our magazine page featuring white text on a black background. However, when we checked the "Scan light text on a dark background" option and selected "Darken Page" under Scanner settings, the page was read with few errors.

When it scanned our sample business card, OPENBook made two mistakes in the contact information—two zeros in the street address were recognized as two letter Os, and the "com" at the end of both the e-mail address and the web site were read as "corn." Our telephone bill was read accurately once we selected the "darken page" option; there were no mistakes in the phone number or dollar amounts.

The scans of the 4-point and 6-point Times New Roman documents were surprisingly comprehensible—OPENBook made no mistakes on the 6-point test page. However, the pages did take longer to scan. At 8 point, the text was also readable.

Special Features

OPENBook has the ability to save documents as MP3 files. With a portable MP3 player, you can listen to scanned material during your daily commute or while on vacation. OPENBook can also import different file formats. Using the Freedom import printer, you can open a document, such as a PDF file, and immediately begin reading it. This feature is especially helpful when you're dealing with PDF files that cannot be read by JAWS or Window-Eyes. These files are often scanned in as images, which leads to the infamous "This document appears to be empty" message. When it opens one of these files with the Freedom import printer, OPENBook can read what was previously unrecognizable. The DAISY file format is also supported, allowing individuals with Bookshare subscriptions to use OPENBook as their reader. In addition, OPENBook now makes it easier to skim a document if you don't have the time to listen to every word. The first line of each paragraph is read, allowing for quick identification of important information. If you find that you have a few more minutes than you thought, you can use the new Fast Forward or Rewind features.

OPENBook can read in German and other languages. To read text in a language other than the default, the synthesizer in use must speak that language. OPENBook's dictionary includes etymology and sample sentences. You can navigate in the dictionary to spell words and add new ones. Dictionaries and other tools are in English only.

OPENBook's Buc-scan feature scans and recognizes currency. It recognized our $1 bill and the front of our $5 bill, but it failed repeatedly to recognize the back of the $5 bill.

Kurzweil 1000 7.0

Getting Started

Kurzweil 1000's installation is self-voicing, so a screen reader is not necessary. Although we selected the "typical" installation and made the same choices when installing on two different machines, we ended up with the default synthesizer being DECtalk Access32 on one machine and the Microsoft Speech Engine on the other. Aside from this surprise, installation went smoothly, and the program functioned properly when we ran it.

Getting Help

Kurzweil 1000's Help key is identified when the program opens. When it is pressed before another key, the function of the second key is explained. However, this feature works only for keys on the numberpad, not for important Kurzweil commands that use the function keys. The manual is accessible on the Help menu.

Command Structure

Kurzweil 1000 uses the numberpad and the function keys for its commands. Its functions can also be accessed through conventional Windows menus.

Simple Scanning

Kurzweil 1000 read the easy test pages without errors. Its default setting corrects errors, so it changed "tke" to "the" in the test document. It handled scanning in the background seamlessly, allowing us to read continuously while scanning. Kurzweil 1000 took an average of 14 seconds to scan a test page and an additional second to complete recognition of the text.

Tough Jobs

Kurzweil 1000 read the headline and subheadings of our sample magazine article in the middle of the page, but otherwise the text was presented in the proper order. Few recognition errors were made in the text. With its default settings, Kurzweil 1000 did a poor job of recognizing our magazine page featuring white text on a black background. However, when we enabled "Recognition of light text on a dark background" and increased Scanner Brightness to 90, the page was read with few errors.

Kurzweil 1000 made some errors in reading the numbers in our sample telephone bill. Two 5s in the customer service number were read as Ss. However, it read our charges and other account information correctly, leaving no reason to call customer service. There were minor errors in the scanning of business cards, but none in phone numbers or e-mail addresses. For example, "product manager" was read as "product llanger." The text was formatted correctly.

Kurzweil 1000 struggled to read our 4 point print test page. It left out words and made many errors. It did considerably better on the page with 6-point print. It repeatedly failed to recognize the word "AccessWorld" correctly—an unfortunate error in our biased opinion.

Special Features

Kurzweil 1000 scans and reads in Spanish and other languages. It also includes an extensive dictionary. Anyone who has fallen asleep in bed while listening to a Talking Book and then searched for his or her place the next morning will join us in appreciating the "Duration" feature, which lets you set the number of minutes after which continuous reading will stop.

Kurzweil 1000 will search and download books from Project Gutenberg, Baen Books, and Bookshare.org. You simply type in all or part of a book title and select Search, and matching titles are located. Anyone can download books that are in the public domain, but only members can download copyrighted titles. A free Bookshare trial membership is included with the purchase of Kurzweil 1000.

Kurzweil 1000 can save files in MP3 format, so with a portable MP3 player, you can listen to scanned material during your daily commute or while on vacation. You can import and read PDF documents. We received an error message when we first tried doing so, but after we ran a utility on the Kurzweil CD, the feature worked.

The Recognize Currency utility allows you to scan and recognize paper money. It recognized both our $1 bill and our $5 bill without problems.


Occasionally, a scanning error will add an unintended meaning to the text. Here are a few examples that we collected during our testing. We won't say which product produced these errors.

"There's millions of elderly Americans who live on Social Security, who depend on Medicare," said the Mouse minority leader, Richard Gephardt of Missouri."

"This is a very helpful feature and is available only in the web trial version. It is not available with the clownloadable product."

"And [Jupiter's moon] Ganymede had yet another surprise in store: a distinct cloud of lust, consisting of grains kicked up from the moon's surface by impacts."

Recognition Complete

Despite the recognition errors noted, we were impressed with the accuracy of both products. There were dramatic improvements in performance since our last evaluation in January 2000. OPENBook consistently did a better job of recognizing numbers. (Keep in mind that you are living dangerously if you let an OCR program be the final authority for critical numbers, such as your checking account balance.)

Both programs are packed with additional features above and beyond basic scanning and recognition functions. The deciding factor for many people may be speed. Kurzweil 1000 scanned and recognized a typical page more than twice as fast as did OPENBook.

Manufacturer's Comments

Kurzweil Educational Systems

"The default voice used by the Kurzweil 1000 is influenced by what engines may already be in use on the PC. Typically, it installs the two included speech engines: RealSpeak and ViaVoice. It has two user interfaces: the keypad user interface and a more standard Windows menu system. Online help is available not only on the keypad, but for all menu items and dialogues through the F1 key. Kurzweil 1000 also comes with two different recognition engines. Changing these, as well as scanner resolution, could resolve many challenges involving fonts and page design. We hope for future feedback on new features, such as hierarchical bookmarks, prioritized spell checking, and automatic product updates."

View the Product Features as a graphic

view the Product Features as text.

View the Product Ratings as a graphic

view the Product Ratings as text.

Product Information

Product: OPENBook 6.0.

Manufacturer: Freedom Scientific, Blindness and Low Vision Group, 11800 31st Court North, St. Petersburg, FL 33716; phone: 800–444–4443; e-mail: <Sales@freedomscientific.com>; web site: <www.FreedomScientific.com>. Price: $995.

Product: Kurzweil 1000 7.0.

Manufacturer: Kurzweil Educational Systems, 14 Crosby Drive, Bedford, MA 01730; phone: 800-894-5374 or 781-276-0600; e-mail: <info@kurzweiledu.com>; web site: <www.kurzweiledu.com>. Price: $995 with FlexTalk speech; $1,195 with DECtalk speech.

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