September 2005 Issue  Volume 6  Number 5

Product Evaluation

Not What the Doctor Ordered: A Review of Apple's VoiceOver Screen Reader

This article reviews VoiceOver, the new screen reader for the Macintosh OS X operating system from Apple. Apple released version 10.4 of the Macintosh operating system, named Tiger, on April 30, 2005. VoiceOver is now installed on every Apple computer that is shipped and is included in software upgrades. This fact will eventually make VoiceOver the most widely available screen reader in the world.

Apple began to develop VoiceOver after ALVA discontinued outSPOKEN, the only previously available screen reader for the Macintosh, in June 2003. VoiceOver was tested on a Powermac g4 laptop computer with 512 DRAM (dynamic random access memory).

The Apple Keyboard

Most of the keyboard on an Apple computer is the same as a keyboard on a PC, but there are some important differences. On the laptop that was used for this article, the bottom row of the keyboard consisted of the following keys from left to right: the Function key, the Control key, the Option key, a Command key (with the well-known Apple logo, a picture of an Apple with a bite taken out of it), the space bar, another Command key, and the Enter key. Apple keyboard commands often include the Command key, such as Command-Q, to quit an application. The Control key is also used; for example, Control-F2 is the menu command.

VoiceOver commands involve holding down the Control and Option keys and pressing another key or two at the same time. Control-Option-Shift-? opens VoiceOver help, for instance.

Getting Started and Getting Help

The only documentation that is currently available for VoiceOver is on the Macintosh computer itself, and there is a list of commands in a partially accessible PDF (portable document format) document on Apple's web site. Thus, it is difficult for a beginner or someone who is not familiar with the Apple keyboard to get started. Apple says that every computer that includes VoiceOver will come up talking the first time you turn it on. This did not happen with the computer I received, and there are a number of reasons why you cannot count on it doing so. The volume on the machine could be turned down, for example, or a key could be hit inadvertently as the computer boots. I was not able to start to use VoiceOver until I found someone who knew how to use the program. The current arrangement is not acceptable. Some sort of Quick Start guide must be available both on Apple's web site and by request from Apple in an accessible format.

The current online help provides snippets of information. I was not able to find a manual to read.

The equivalent of the Windows desktop on Apple computers is the Dock. You get to the Dock with VoiceOver by pressing Control-Option-D. Then you can arrow through the available applications. VoiceOver tells you when you arrow to an application that is running currently. You launch a new application by pressing Enter on it.

Text Edit

Text Edit is the simple word processor that comes on all Macintosh computers. This is the application in which VoiceOver performed best. It is possible to write and edit documents, cut and paste text, and save documents as files in rich text format. This editor does not include a spell checker or other advanced word-processing functions.

Browsing the Web

The Macintosh browser is called Safari. It is not easy to use Safari with VoiceOver. When you first get online and open the browser, you are on Apple's web site. However, this fact is not apparent to VoiceOver users. As you read down the page, you hear a list of web sites, such as Google, Yahoo, and CNN. If you press Enter on one of these web sites, the computer loads that site and sounds a musical chord, indicating that the site has loaded. If you scroll down the page with VoiceOver, however, you hear the same list of web sites. You would never know that you were on a new page if you did not know what you must do next.

The way actually to access a web page is to navigate to the line that says "HTML content." Then, rather than continuing to scroll down the page by pressing Control-Option-Down Arrow, you press Control-Option-Shift-Down Arrow. VoiceOver says "interact with HTML content." You can now move around on the default home page <> or a web page that you have chosen to visit.

You can type in a web address by pressing Command-O. You can also bring up a list of the links on a page and then type the first letters of the link that you want. The cursor will jump to that link, and you can press Enter.

Basic browsing on friendly, accessible sites, such as AFB's web site <>, was tedious with VoiceOver. Visiting less friendly sites was frustrating and difficult. VoiceOver has none of the bells and whistles that users of Windows screen readers are used to. There is no simple command to read an entire block of text, such as a newspaper article. You cannot press a letter and jump to a heading, frame, or link. You cannot search for a text string. You must browse by hand, constantly pressing the Control and Option keys, along with arrows. This procedure quickly gets tiring.

The Bottom Line

Using VoiceOver was disappointing and frustrating. The product was apparently rushed onto the market and is not ready for prime time. VoiceOver has none of the tools that users of screen readers have come to expect. A person who is blind or has low vision cannot expect to perform daily tasks fast enough or accurately enough to keep up with his or her sighted colleagues or even enjoy using a computer. Apple must make major improvements in documentation and usability before VoiceOver can be considered a viable product.

Manufacturer's Comments

"Apple ships documentation for Macintosh in the form of online help and provides additional information on its web site. For VoiceOver, Apple also includes a unique Quick Start built into the setup assistant software that runs the first time you turn on a new computer. Since the release of Mac OS X Tiger, and based on customer requests, Apple has released a stand-alone application called VoiceOver Quick Start that allows you to replay the VoiceOver tutorial contained in the Setup Assistant application. This application can be used to revisit the material as often as you'd like, and can also be used by instructors as a teaching tool. The information contained in the tutorial introduces a new user to important VoiceOver concepts, the Macintosh keyboard, basic navigation, and commands that will enable the user to set up their computer and use the online help system to learn more. The VoiceOver Quick Start and manual can be downloaded from <>.

"Tiger introduces a new feature called Spotlight that can also be used to open applications (press Command-Space to activate it). Spotlight is able to find items by name, content, or keyword. It only takes a second or two to search large multi-gigabyte hard drives, and many Macintosh users find Spotlight to be the fastest way to find and open an application or document no matter where it's stored on the computer. Because Spotlight is text-based, many VoiceOver users find it to be more convenient than the Finder for locating and opening documents, folders, and applications on the Mac.

"You can have VoiceOver read an entire web page (press Control-Option-A when you hear 'HTML content,') or read the current 'article' (press Control-Option-W while you're interacting with the HTML area). You can also change the navigation mode using the VoiceOver utility, so that related areas on the page are grouped together for faster navigation. When you find a group of interest, you can navigate into the group (Control-Option-Shift-Down) to interact with and read its contents. There's also a link list menu so you can move the VoiceOver cursor quickly to any link on a page (press Control-Option-U when you hear 'HTML content') and then click the link to go there (press Control-Option-Space while on the link)."

Product Information

Product: VoiceOver.

Manufacturer: Apple Computer, 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA 95014; web site: <>.

Price: Included in Mac OS X, which costs $129.

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