The Key to the Information Age: A Review of Three Screen Readers, Part 1
This article, the first of a two-part evaluation of three screen readers, reviews Freedom Scientific's JAWS for Windows 5.0 and GW Micro's Window-Eyes 4.5. In the July 2004 issue, we will review Hal from Dolphin Computer Access and any new additions to Window-Eyes and JAWS.
Screen readers continue to grow in importance as a tool for a person who is blind or has low vision. It makes your computer usable, since it is the interface between the operating system, its applications, and you. An increasing amount of information about almost everything in our lives is generated electronically. If the screen reader supplies good, accurate information, you can read and edit word-processor documents, browse and shop on the web, read e-mail, and more. If the screen reader does not provide the information you need, you will not be able to do so.
This article presents an overview of the two most popular screen readers in the United States and how they perform in Internet Explorer, Microsoft Word, and Excel. Testing was conducted on Pentium 4 computers at 1.2 GHZ or with 866 Mhz with 256 mb of RAM running Windows 2000. We tested braille output using a Focus braille display from Freedom Scientific and an ALVA Satellite 544 display.
JAWS for Windows 5.0
Getting Started and Getting Help
JAWS 5.0 includes a variety of documentation. New copies of JAWS include a set of basic training tapes that explain the fundamentals of setting up and using the product. When JAWS 5.0 was released, all registered users were also sent a What's New CD with the program CD. The What's New CD briefly demonstrates each of JAWS 5.0's many new features. The real strength of Freedom Scientific's documentation, however, is the online documentation. JAWS 5 includes a help system, based on HTML (Hypertext Markup Language, the language used to code web pages), that is comprehensive and fairly easy to navigate. Although users must know how to navigate web pages and tree views to use this system, once these skills are mastered, users can easily locate a wide variety of information.
JAWS 5.0 performed well with Microsoft Word. Most menus and dialogs within the application were read in a predictable and efficient manner. Freedom Scientific has incorporated some features designed to provide users of Word as much or little information as they want. For example, the Verbosity menu, which controls the amount of speech provided, allows users to select if they would like to hear changes in font and style information. This was very useful when proofreading a complex document. When the proper commands are used, JAWS reads most tables within documents very well. The JAWS help topics for using Microsoft Word are very comprehensive and should provide adequate assistance to most users.
The only major problem we encountered when using JAWS with Microsoft Word was that occasionally JAWS would randomly stop speaking text. Instead, JAWS would simply say "blank," causing the user to think that the text had somehow disappeared. Issuing the JAWS Refresh screen command or changing to another view within Word sometimes resolved this issue. Freedom Scientific states that they are aware of this problem. The March 2004 patch to version 5.0 has incorporated code that will fix this problem for some users.
Internet Explorer 6.0
JAWS 5.0 includes many new features that are intended to help users navigate web pages quicker and easier. Many of these features work on more than just the web. JAWS HTML enhancements also work on many applications that present the user with HTML pages, such as HTML help screens.
The JAWS place-marker feature allows a user to set up to 10 markers on a specific HTML page. Once these markers have been set, using JAWS quick keys (pressing a single letter key while reading a page) allows a user to jump quickly to the next or previously set marker. The unique aspect of place markers is that they are associated only with the page that you are currently reading. If you establish a number of place markers for a specific web page--the front page of Amazon.com, for example--these markers will be there every time you visit this page. The files that store these markers can even be transferred between users. So, if you have a set of place markers that helps you navigate a complicated page, you can give them to a friend to help him or her navigate the same page. For individuals who use cluttered sites on a regular basis, this feature can really save time.
JAWS 5.0 has a feature that allows users to skip over any Flash content that is presented on a page. Flash is a tool that many web-site designers use to present information dynamically on a page. Unless it is written properly, Flash is usually useless for users of screen-review software. Flash content can even be confusing to visually impaired web surfers if it causes the page to refresh constantly. For these reasons, Freedom Scientific has given JAWS users the ability to ignore Flash content. This is an option in both the session-specific Verbosity menu (Insert V) and the Configuration Manager. Unfortunately, when we activated this feature using the session-specific Verbosity menu, JAWS would occasionally ignore our request to skip this content.
Web Site-Specific Verbosity Settings
Since all web sites are slightly different, certain verbosity settings may be more helpful on certain sites. For example, on some sites, it may be useful to know where frames begin and end, but on other sites this may be too much information. JAWS site-specific verbosity features (accessed by pressing Insert-Shift-V) allow users to solve this problem. Certain verbosity options, such as frame indication, graphics and link verbosity, and whether to announce list information, can be set to apply only to a specific site. As long as you are browsing pages at that particular URL (any page starting with bookshare.org, for example), these settings apply.
When you view a Roman site, speak like the Romans. In earlier versions of JAWS, a feature was introduced that allowed the software to automatically detect the language settings of the Microsoft Word document that was currently being read. If possible, JAWS would then automatically change its synthesizer language to match the text of the language being read. This feature has now been expanded to include the reading of web pages. JAWS uses the code of the web page to determine the language on the page and how this text should be pronounced. Although this is a great idea in theory, it does not always work. Many web designers have improperly coded this information on their pages. For example, the web site for the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, <http://www.fcc.gov>, is spoken in a pleasant British English. JAWS 5.0 includes a dialogue that allows users to change synthesizer languages on the fly. When we viewed the FCC site, we attempted to use this feature to correct the improper switch to British English. Changing this setting had no effect. The only solutions were to disable the autodetect language feature in the Verbosity menu or to disable language detection on this site using the site-specific verbosity features.
JAWS 5.0 provides excellent access to Microsoft Excel. During our evaluation, JAWS read basic and complex spreadsheets with no major problems. On some systems, JAWS would occasionally misread information in a spreadsheet with a large amount of data and formulas. This error was easily noticeable, and a screen redraw (having JAWS query Windows to get a new image of the text and controls on the screen) solved the problem. The Get Object command provided excellent information on charts within spreadsheets. Getting at this information by this method may be a bit confusing for new users, but once you learn how to do so, it is a simple command to remember.
Speech and Sounds Manager
JAWS 5.0 includes a new utility known as Speech and Sounds Manager. This tool allows you to assign sound effects or speech attributes to a wide variety of on-screen events. You can, for example, set up JAWS to speak all links on a web page in a higher pitch and play the sound of a bell ringing when the focus is placed on a check box. A set of rules, such as these, can be saved into a scheme that can be easily switched on. The product includes approximately 15 different schemes that are designed to be useful in various situations. One scheme causes JAWS to read text with an attribute, such as bold, in a different voice. This scheme is useful when you are proofreading text.
Freedom Scientific has also incorporated sound-effects and voice-language attributes into the Dictionary Manager. The new Dictionary Manager, which was traditionally used simply to change the pronunciation of a word, can now be used to have JAWS speak a specific word in a specific synthesizer language. JAWS can also be instructed to play a sound instead of to speak a particular word. A practical use of this feature is to censor objectionable language when young children are using the computer.
Both the Speech and Sounds Manager and the advanced options of the Dictionary Manager are not intended for new users of the product. However, once these tools are set up properly, they give you a unique way of reading information.
Getting Started and Getting Help
In most cases, the Window-Eyes installation is simple. The default synthesizer is DECtalk Access32, and a temporary version of Window-Eyes can be installed automatically to talk you through the installation if you have no other screen reader running.
You bring up online help in Window-Eyes by pressing Control-Shift-F1. There is specific help for some applications, such as Internet Explorer and Word, including hot keys and instructions on navigating. In other cases, Window-Eyes provides general information for the Windows control you are on. So, in NotePad, you get instructions about an edit box, and in Windows Explorer, you are told how to navigate in a listbox, tree view, or edit box, depending on where you are when you ask for help. We found some typographical errors in the online help.
The Window-Eyes manual comes in Windows Help format, ASCII, MP3, and PDF formats. The manual gives you a quick overview of the Windows environment and deals in depth with configuring Window-Eyes to work better with applications. In addition, Window-Eyes provides hot keys for all supported braille displays in a single document. The manual is also on GW Micro's web site.
Window-Eyes performed well in Microsoft Word. The Read-to-End function allowed us to read documents without interruption. Window-Eyes also performed well in the Spell Checker and other dialogue boxes. However, the incorrect word was sometimes read along with one or more lines of text. Pressing Insert-W ended the confusion by spelling the highlighted word. Most menus and dialogue boxes were spoken and easy to navigate. It is important to make sure that Window-Eyes is using the correct set files for the version of Microsoft Word that you are running.
Internet Explorer 6.0
Window-Eyes 4.5 offers dramatic improvements in web access over previous versions. Web pages are reformatted and presented in a similar way as word-processor documents. Previously, you could tab from link to link and move through text by word or line and read tables, but you could not navigate on a higher level.
Quick navigation keys have now replaced harder-to-remember two- or three-key combinations for navigating web pages. Window-Eyes takes advantage of much more of the information that Internet Explorer provides, allowing you to navigate via headings, lists, paragraphs, and forms. For example, type L to move to the next link and C to move to the next control in a form on a web page. Smart Paragraph and Smart Table mode let Window-Eyes determine what information is most important on a page. This version also includes Tools to access the beginning and end of elements, route the mouse pointer to specific elements, and get detailed information about any element.
You can now adjust the amount of information that Window-Eyes tells you as you surf the web directly from the keyboard, rather than having to bring up the Window-Eyes Control Panel. Pressing Insert-V brings up the MSAA (Microsoft Active Accessibility) Verbosity Settings list box. MSAA is a set of programming language enhancements and standards for programmers to follow, which Window-Eyes uses to obtain information from the Windows operating system. Here you can control how much information Window-Eyes will tell you about links, forms, lists, tables, and more. Window-Eyes makes a clicking sound when a second browser window opens. This click alerts you instantly that you may not be where you think you are. Multiple open browser windows can also cause a screen reader to get confused and crash. Crashes occur less often with Window-Eyes 4.5, and rarely in Windows 2000.
Exploring the web sites that you visit regularly can provide tips on how to find what you want quickly. For example, at the New York Times web site, <http://www.nytimes.com>, a large number of repetitive links and advertisements make it difficult to find the article that you have selected to read. However, knowing that there is typically only one heading on an article page lets you hit H and jump directly to the beginning of that article.
Window-Eyes 4.5 had significant problems with Microsoft Excel. When we used the default settings for both Window-Eyes and Microsoft Excel, it was impossible to get any useful information. After we made some changes under the Excel View menu, which are listed in the Window-Eyes Read Me file for Office XP set files, the screen reader was able to read and navigate basic spreadsheets. More complex information, such as charts, was read inconsistently and not well described. When reading a pie chart, for example, Window-Eyes simply announced the presence of a chart and read the chart's title. Information such as how many slices made up the pie and the total size of each slice was impossible to read.
Microsoft Remote Desktop Connection
Windows 2000 and Windows XP allow a network administrator or technical support specialist to access a server in another location using Microsoft Remote Desktop. This application was not accessible to users of screen readers before Window-Eyes 4.5. The Information Systems Department at the American Foundation for the Blind installed Window-Eyes 4.5 on a server with a sound card using the Windows 2000 Advanced operating system. The speech synthesizer on the server must be switched to virtual channel so the synthesizer on the client computer will speak. Other modifications on the server were necessary because of the use of Windows 2000. Once configured this way, the server's desktop appears as an image on the technician's machine, and Window-Eyes speaks. Using this setup, a network administrator who is blind was able to perform such functions as adding a printer, restarting the server, stopping a program (Norton Antivirus Services), installing an application, and creating a new user account.
The Bottom Line
The newest versions of both Window-Eyes and JAWS contain numerous new features that enrich the screen-reading experience. Many of these new features are devoted to enhancing the reading of HTML documents. Since an increasing number of applications are becoming web-based applications, this is a logical step in the ongoing quest for access.
"We appreciate AccessWorld's efforts in attempting to convey the strengths and weaknesses of Window-Eyes. Of course, Window-Eyes offers much more in areas discussed and not discussed. For example the Internet access in 4.5 goes well beyond what was described. We feel the 4.5 release has raised the bar regarding web-based applications. Also, our Citrix Metaframe, Microsoft Terminal Services and Microsoft Remote Desktop support goes well beyond what was reviewed, opening up doors which previously were locked to blind computer users. "
"We state in our six-hour tutorial, which is included, that you should read the README.TXT file for each application's set file being used. Also, for basic documents we feel the existing Window-Eyes 4.5 Office support is more than adequate. However, the emphasis on our next release is for advanced documents in Office. This release will once again raise the bar when it comes to accessing Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents."
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Product: JAWS for Windows 5.0
Manufacturer: Freedom Scientific Blind/Low Vision Group, 11800 31st Court North, St. Petersburg, FL 33716-1805; phone: 800-444-4443 or 727-803-8000; e-mail: <Info@FreedomScientific.com>; web site: <http://www.FreedomScientific.com>.
Price: JAWS Professional (works with Windows NT/2000Pro/XPPro), $1,095; JAWS Standard (works with Windows 95/98/Me & XP Home), $895.
Product: Window-Eyes 4.5
Manufacturer: GW Micro, 725 Airport North Office Park, Fort Wayne, IN 46825; phone: 260-489-3671; e-mail: <email@example.com>; web site: <http://www.gwmicro.com>.
Price: Window-Eyes Standard (works with Windows 95/98 and Millennium), $595; Window-Eyes Professional (works with Windows 95/98, Millennium, 2000, Windows XP Home, or Windows XP Professional), $795.
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The Great Screen Reader Race: A Review of the Two Leading Screen Readers by Jay Leventhal and Koert Wehberg
Screen Reader Boot Camp by Deborah Kendrick
An Introduction to JAWS Scripting by Joe Lazzaro
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