February 2014 Issue  Volume 15  Number 2

Product Evaluations and Guides

Evaluating the Accessibility of the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 Using Narrator

First, there was the iPad running Apple iOS. Next, Google chimed in with itsAndroid-powered Nexus 7. Now Microsoft has tossed its hat into the competitive ring of touchscreen devices with their line of Surface tablets running Windows 8. I spent several weeks putting a second generation Surface Pro 2 through its paces. Here's what I found.

Surface 2 (or RT) versus Surface Pro 2

The Microsoft Surface 2 comes in two flavors: the Surface 2 (called the Surface RT in its first incarnation) and the second-generation Surface Pro 2. The Surface Pro 2 is basically an Intel Core i5 Windows 8 touchscreen computer that will run Windows Store apps on the main tiled interface, and also nearly all Windows desktop applications, including third-party screen readers such as JAWS, Window-Eyes, and NVDA.

The Surface 2 runs a slightly different RT version of Windows that is optimized for an Arm processor. Arm processors are the power-conserving chips found in most cell phones, tablets and other touch devices.

Both models will run apps you download from the Windows Store, but the only standard Windows desktop applications that will run on the Surface 2 are the pre-installed versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, and OneNote. The Surface Pro 2 offers free access to the online versions of these popular applications, but to install the complete desktop version of Office you'll need to obtain and install a licensed copy.

At least for now, the Surface 2 does not run any third-party screen reader, and for that reason alone I don't recommend purchasing one. That said, if a friend or family member should offer to let you use theirs to read a Word document, check your e-mail, or do a quick Web search, I would not hesitate to give it a try, especially if you've spent some time honing your Narrator skills on your main Windows 8 computer.

The Surface Pro 2: Specifications

The Surface Pro 2 measures 10.81 by 6.81 by 0.53 inches, weighs 2 pounds, and includes:

  • Front and back video/still cameras
  • Dual microphones and stereo speakers
  • One USB 3.0 port
  • One HD video out port
  • One micro SD card reader
  • Non-user-removable battery
  • 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 4.0.
  • Ambient light sensor
  • Accelerometer
  • Gyroscope
  • Magnetometer

According to specifications provided on the Microsoft site, you should be able to get up to 7 hours of video playback, and 7-15 days idle from a fully charged battery.

The screen resolution is 1920 × 1080. You can opt for certain combinations of 64, 128, 256, or 512 GB of storage with 4 or 8 GB of system memory.

A Guided Tour

Holding the tablet in landscape mode, at the right side of the top edge you will find the power button. The left edge contains, from top to bottom, a 3.5mm headphone jack, the volume rocker switch, and the USB 3.0 port. Uppermost on the right edge you will find the micro SD card reader, which you can use to add up to 64 GB of additional storage. Bottommost on this edge is the HD video out port. Between these two is the magnetic power connector, an inch long trough where you connect lengthwise the metal tip of the wall plug adapter.

On the back of is a two-position kickstand used to hold the tablet at upright angles optimized for use on your lap or a table or desk. Finally, on the lower edge, you will find a second magnetic connector, this one for the optional Surface keyboard.

The Surface Keyboard Covers

The Surface Pro 2 does not come standard with a keyboard. It will work with most Bluetooth keyboards, but you may also wish to consider a dedicated Microsoft Surface keyboard cover that will protect the screen and turn it off automatically when you fold it closed.

There are two types of Surface keyboard covers, the Touch Cover and the Type Cover. Most blind and partially sighted users will want to avoid the standard Touch Cover, a flat pressure-responsive keyboard that offers no tactile orientation. It might be possible to use this keyboard if you marked most or all of the keys with raised dots, but I think a better solution is to spend a bit more money on a Type Cover. This full laptop-size keyboard has raised keys and a clickable mouse track pad in the center of the palm rest. It doesn't add much heft or thickness to the tablet, but the full-size keys have sufficient separation. The keyboard cover attaches and detaches easily via the magnetic connector on the bottom edge of the Surface. There is a satisfying click to let you know the keyboard is properly seated.

Open the kickstand and position the Surface and keyboard cover in a laptop configuration and you're ready to type. Need a few minutes to perform a few touch gestures? You can reach out to the screen and perform the commands just like on any other Windows computer with at least four screen touch points, which are required to use Narrator. You can also replace the kickstand and fold the keyboard all the way around, so that the keys are now facing away from you. Gripping the Surface in this manner will invariably cause you to press down on several of the keys, but it doesn't matter. When you fold the keyboard cover completely open and hold the Surface tablet style, the keyboard auto-disables itself and the Surface presents a touch keyboard whenever it's time for data entry. I found this configuration extremely useful for switching between keyboard and touch modes.

First Impressions

As mentioned, with a Type Cover attached and the kickstand in place, the Surface Pro 2 basically has the functionality of a fairly snappy, Windows 8 touchscreen notebook computer. The keyboard lies very flat on a surface or your lap, and at first this can take a bit of getting used to. The weight distribution also feels a bit awkward at first. Most of the bulk is in the Surface itself, and using it on my lap I always had the feeling I could easily tip it backwards, despite the kickstand.

The Surface Pro 2 would make an excellent computer for someone who travels frequently, since it would fit well on an airplane seat tray. I would be reluctant to use it on a too-small classroom desk, however. A better alternative for screen-reader users would be to pair the device with a Bluetooth keyboard and Bluetooth headset, which would allow you to stow the Surface itself under the desk, or inside your backpack.

The tablet is squared off at the edges, so it doesn't have quite as sleek a feel as an iPad or Google Nexus. The build quality is excellent, however, and it felt solid in my hands. The speakers have a rich sound with average volume.

The magnetic charger is a definite plus, since it will help prevent accidentally pulling the device off a table and damage to the power jack. It's a bit fussy to orient the power tip correctly, but there is only one way it will fit and you can definitely tell when it's properly seated.

You can install the screen reader of your choice on the Surface Pro 2, though currently only two, JAWS and NVDA, offer any touch-gesture support. For this review I did not install a third party screen reader.

Microsoft Narrator

In Windows 7 and most earlier versions, Microsoft Narrator could best be described as a screen reader of last resort, something you invoked when your real screen reader stopped working and you needed to diagnose the problem and hopefully get it fixed. With Windows 8, however, Microsoft has upgraded Narrator's functionality to the point where it can almost (but not quite) be considered a full-fledged screen reader.

The improvements begin with the voices. Windows 8 features a suite of high-quality text-to-speech voices, including three English voices: Hazel, Zira, and David. Personally, I find the David voice to be among the highest quality voices currently available from any source. You can adjust voice speed, pitch, and volume, and there is also an option to lower the system volume whenever Narrator is speaking. I quickly disabled this option, however, as it tended to be a bit sticky. For example, playing a Netflix movie, the volume would stay lowered, making dialogue all but inaudible.

Microsoft has also made Narrator easier to invoke. Before, you had to go through the Ease of Access Center to start Narrator. Now, on any Windows 8 computer or tablet with a connected keyboard, all you need to do is press the Windows Logo Key + Enter to toggle Narrator on and off. Caps Lock + Escape also turns Narrator off.

It is also possible to toggle Narrator on and off on the Surface using a touchscreen command. You do this by pressing and holding the onscreen Windows Logo Key, located midway across the bottom edge of the touchscreen, while concurrently pressing the hardware volume up button. I found this extremely difficult to accomplish. Usually it took me a number of tries, especially when trying to turn Narrator on with no speech feedback. Instead of having to find a special spot on the screen, I think a much better choice would have been to use something like a three-finger touch and hold while pressing the volume rocker.

The Narrator Command Set

You can view a full list of Narrator commands by pressing Caps Lock + F1 on any Windows 8 tablet or PC, or by logging on to the Narrator website. Touchscreen users can call up the same list by tapping three times with four fingers.

Narrator now sports a full set of keyboard navigation and voice synthesizer controls, most of which use Caps Lock as the modifier key. (If you need to press Caps Lock while you are working, press it twice in quick succession.) You can change the keyboard shortcuts for any command, but here is a list of a few of the defaults to demonstrate the breadth and level of functionality:

  • Caps Lock + H Read document
  • Caps Lock + I Read next paragraph
  • Caps Lock + J Jump to next heading
  • Caps Lock + F3 Jump to next cell in row
  • Caps Lock + F2 Show commands for current item
  • Caps Lock + Minus Decrease voice speed

Using the Surface Pro keyboard and Narrator, I was able to accomplish all of my basic computer tasks: checking and replying to e-mails; browsing the Web; creating, revising, and reviewing Office documents. I could also easily navigate the Windows 8 tiled interface, purchase and use most Windows Store apps, and modify system settings.

One Narrator annoyance I did experience on occasion occurred when I ran the app for Netflix or Audible. Often Narrator would go dead silent for an extended period of time, much longer than it should have taken to gather my account information from the cloud. No progress beeps were emitted, and if I tried toggling Narrator off and back on again, I often received this error message:

Another Ease of Access application is preventing Narrator from supporting touch. To use touch with Narrator, close the application and then re-enable Narrator by pressing Windows plus Volume Down on a slate or Caps Lock plus F11 on a keyboard. To continue using Narrator, please plug in a keyboard and press the Space key.

This is a rather awkward error message. Apparently I have to close an application I cannot access with speech, then turn Narrator back on and try again. Luckily, pressing the Spacebar, and perhaps Escape a few times, tended to clear things up. But this is not what I want to hear after I get all settled in for the evening on my sofa using touch gestures to listen to a recorded book or play a movie.

Narrator Touch Gestures

Of course one of the main reasons for considering a Windows tablet is so you can access and use your favorite Windows applications without being tethered to a keyboard. To that end, Narrator provides a fairly comprehensive collection of speech-enhanced touch gestures. Some add speech to pre-existing gestures. A one-finger drag in from the right edge of the screen, for example, calls up the Windows 8 Charms menu where you can access your computers settings; Narrator announces "Charms Menu." Dragging down from the very top of the screen with one finger causes Narrator to announce options to make the current app go full screen, or to close it and return it to your running apps list. Continue to hold after Narrator says "Close," and after a second or two you'll also be given the option to end the app and remove it from active memory.

As with Android and iOS, dragging a finger slowly across the Windows 8 touchscreen causes Narrator to voice the item located directly beneath your fingertip. A one-finger double tap opens the app, activates a control, or summons the touch keyboard, depending on your location. Audible clicks and pops confirm your actions, though you can turn these off in the Narrator settings menu.

Performing a one-finger swipe to the left or right advances you one item in that direction. For example, on the Start screen, swiping right advances your touch point from app window to app window, a double tap then opens the app. You can move by headings, links, tables, paragraphs, lines, words, characters, and screen items such as app windows and controls. Moving among these options is done by performing a one-finger swipe up or down until you reach the one you want. Perhaps Microsoft should consider adding a separate gesture that would allow you to swipe left or right to change voice, speed, and other Narrator options currently buried in the Narrator settings menus and only quickly available using a keyboard.

Using the Windows 8 Touch Keyboard with Narrator

In the Narrator settings you can choose whether you want to use the Windows 8 touch keyboard in standard mode (swipe until you find the key you want, then one-finger double tap to enter it), or in touch mode (slide your finger until you find the desired key, then lift your finger and the key is typed automatically). The touch keyboard is well laid out, with numbers/symbols and emoticons accessed by touch toggles. All of the emoticons are labeled.

With no physical keyboard attached, the touch keyboard popped up automatically whenever I double tapped a password or other Windows Store app field that required data entry. Strangely, however, it did not appear when I double tapped the edit area in either Notepad or MS Word. There is no Narrator or Windows 8 gesture to summon the touch keyboard. I had to locate and double tap the difficult to find toggle button at the bottom, midway right, of the touchscreen. Also, swiping around the keyboard, I occasionally called up the Windows Charms menu, and by the time I got it closed, I had also turned off the touch keyboard and had to find the toggle button again. Small snippets of text are quite doable with the touch keyboard, but if you plan to do a lot of text entry, you will definitely want a Type Cover or Bluetooth keyboard.

Using Narrator with Microsoft Office

Currently, a Windows tablet is the only one that will run Microsoft Office, an absolute must-have for many work environments. I tried Office 365 with the Surface Pro 2, with mixed results.

As with other software, using a touch-type cover or an attached USB keyboard causes the tablet to work like any standard laptop. Using touch, however, results in some unique accessibility challenges. I never was able to review a PowerPoint file using Narrator and touch gestures. When I loaded in an Excel file the only navigation available was by item element, and swiping left or right only allowed me to navigate column to column on the same spreadsheet row. I could not easily navigate up and down from row to row.

MS Word performed much better. I could navigate via all the standard elements, characters, words, paragraphs, etc. Table navigation was limited, however. Entering a table, no matter which mode I chose, I could only go left or right until I reached the end of a row, at which point another swipe would move to the beginning or end of the next or previous row, depending on which way I was swiping.

I did enjoy the way Narrator handles cut and paste in Word and other text-rich apps. With the cursor at one end of the block of text you wish to highlight, you perform a one-finger triple tap, which places you in text-selection mode. Use normal one-finger swipe gestures to move to the other end of the text you wish to highlight. Then perform a four-finger single tap, which enables you to access controls to Cut, Copy, Paste, Delete, or Read Highlighted Block.

Narrator: Conclusions

With the release of Windows 8, Microsoft has provided a new and greatly improved Narrator. It is by no means a full-featured screen reader, but I suspect that a casual PC or Windows tablet user could perform most essential tasks, checking e-mail and Web browsing, with little difficulty. It's also a useful emergency screen reader when your main screen reader crashes, and I would encourage all Windows 8 users to spend some time familiarizing themselves with Narrator's various commands and hotkeys before they are needed.

I also believe that with the current release Microsoft has positioned Narrator exactly where it needs to be: good enough, but not too good.

Currently, the vast majority of employers use Microsoft Windows. Many rely on custom programs and interfaces, which often lack "out of the box" accessibility. Happily, there are a number of third party companies who compete for the opportunity to support sight-impaired users of these software packages and custom interfaces, and when a new standard, such as ARIA, is introduced, they race to be the first to support it with advanced scripting and public betas to implement new screen reader functions and features.

If Narrator had more features, it would probably drive Freedom Scientific, GW Micro, and other makers of screen readers out of business. We would then be at the mercy of a single company, Microsoft, to make the inaccessible accessible. Without any real competition, I suspect this would happen in a much slower timeframe than it does now.

True, these third party screen readers can be expensive, but how many people with visual impairments are employed today because they are available? For those who can't afford the expensive readers, there is the free NVDA screen reader, and now, with Windows 8, a new and improved Narrator.

The Bottom Line

Starting at $899 without a Type Cover (which start at $119.99) the Surface Pro 2 is a bit on the expensive side, but keep in mind that it provides the functionality of both a laptop and a tablet. Add a Bluetooth keyboard and USB sound card and it transforms into a fairly snappy desktop computer.

As a tablet, I found the Surface Pro 2 to be not quite as intuitive and easy to use as an iPad, but considerably more accessible and less frustrating than a Nexus 7 Android tablet. Windows users who are visually impaired and who wish to extend their computer use to a tablet without learning iOS or Android will enjoy the Surface Pro 2. You can run all of your favorite Windows Store and Windows Desktop applications for both work and play from the convenience of your couch. Though it's true that Narrator's touch gestures do not enable 100-percent access to MS Office applications, third-party screen readers such as JAWS and NVDA are adding additional touch support with each new release. Worst case, you can always flip the Type Cover or a Bluetooth keyboard into place to work past nearly all accessibility snags.

Product Information

Product: Microsoft Surface Pro 2
Price: starting at $899.99
Available From: Best Buy, Walmart, Staples, Tiger Direct, and other major retailers

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