September 2016 Issue  Volume 17  Number 9

Product Evaluations and Guides

The Current State of ChromeVox Next (Beta), a Screen Reader for Chrome OS

In the January 2016 issue of AccessWorld we reviewed a Chromebook and its built in screen reader, ChromeVox. Google has been in the process of overhauling the screen reader, the upcoming version of which they have dubbed ChromeVox Next. For a number of months, a beta version of ChromeVox Next has been available for users of the stable channel of ChromeOS. Though it is still in beta, ChromeVox Next may be useful for Chromebook users.

In this article, I will detail the differences between the original version of ChromeVox (dubbed ChromeVox Classic) and ChromeVox Next, as well as describe how the beta version of ChromeVox Next performs in comparison to its predecessor. For this review, I used an Asus C201 Chromebook with ChromeOS version 52.0.2743.116 released August 3rd, 2016 on the Stable Channel. ChromeVox Next is available natively on Chromebooks that run modern versions of the operating system.

After activating ChromeVox Classic with the command CTRL+ALT+Z, you can press the combination SEARCH+SHIFT+Q and then press Q again to activate ChromeVox Next. To return to ChromeVox Classic, press SEARCH+Q ChromeVox will state "Next" or "Classic" to alert you to the version that you have activated.

Essential Differences Between ChromeVox Classic and ChromeVox Next

In the Classic version, ChromeVox injected code into the page to read it. This allowed ChromeVox to provide access to pages but caused some issues. One major issue with this method was that the full capabilities of the screen reader were not available when the user was doing something other than viewing a webpage. In addition, through my use of ChromeVox I found that the screen reader would often lag on some large pages and those with many refreshing ads. ChromeVox Next has been designed as a separate application so that it can better operate throughout the operating system. The main consequence of this change is that ChromeVox Next commands work outside webpages, in areas where the screen reader had previously struggled, like the Files app. This means that ChromeVox commands such as those used to navigate by headings or links are available outside of a webpage but that basic navigation--such as by objects, lines, or words--is also available so that it is possible to navigate areas such as the visual buttons for Back, Forward, and Reload using these basic navigation elements where before they were only available when navigating a webpage. Because of this change, if you use Sticky Mode (which allows access to ChromeVox commands without the need to press the Search key with each combination), you must turn it off when entering text into an edit field or else you will begin triggering ChromeVox commands.

New Earcons in ChromeVox Next

ChromeVox Classic has always contained earcons, sounds that are played to alert the user to various elements and events. These have all changed in ChromeVox Next. One notable difference is that links now produce a sharp thump, similar to that of a struck drum, instead of the soft tone that was used for links in ChromeVox Classic. When pages load, a constant clock-like ticking sound is played that tapers off in volume until it falls silent when the page is finished loading. A guide to these sounds does not exist so you must learn them through trial and error. Most take the form of a thump sound, similar to the sound that is played for links, simply at varying pitches.

Altered Keyboard Commands

Keyboard commands in ChromeVox Next are similar but not the same as those found in ChromeVox Classic. The ChromeVox key, which was SHIFT + SEARCH in ChromeVox Classic, has been replaced by the SEARCH key alone. You can still activate Sticky Mode by pressing the SEARCH key twice quickly. One major difference is that you no longer need to press either the P or N key before issuing a jump command, such as for a heading or link. Now, you only need to press the ChromeVox key plus a single key to move forward or press the ChromeVox key plus SHIFT plus the element's key to move backward.

With this change, in Sticky Mode you can navigate the web much as if you would when using a Windows screen reader. As noted on the ChromeVox Next page, some jump commands have not yet been implemented. Below, I have listed the elements that are included and the keyboard key associated with each:

  • Button: B
  • Checkbox: X
  • Combo box: C
  • Editable text area: E
  • Form field: F
  • Heading: H
  • Link: L
  • Table: T
  • Visited link: V

Basic screen navigation with the Arrow keys has changed somewhat in ChromeVox Next. ChromeVox Classic required that you select a navigation level for navigating with the Up and Down Arrow keys, and the Left Arrow and Right Arrow keys would move by the next level down. Now, the Up Arrow and Down Arrow keys will navigate by line when pressed while holding the ChromeVox key or while in Sticky Mode and the Left Arrow and Right Arrow keys will move by object when holding the ChromeVox key or while in Sticky Mode. Other key commands are used in conjunction with the Arrow keys to move by word or character as well as to jump to either the top or bottom of the page. I have listed these commands below:

  • Move by word: SEARCH+SHIFT+CTRL+LEFT to move backward and SEARCH+SHIFT+CTRL+RIGHT to move forward
  • Move by character: SEARCH+SHIFT+LEFT to move backward and SEARCH+SHIFT+RIGHT to move forward.
  • Move to the top of the page: SEARCH+CTRL+LEFT
  • Move to the bottom of the page: SEARCH+CTRL+RIGHT

It is also possible to activate the item that has focus with SEARCH+SPACE, the same combination used in ChromeVox Classic. A particularly useful new addition is the ability to simulate a right-click/evoke the context menu through SEARCH+M.

ChromeVox Next on Standard Webpages

ChromeVox Next demonstrates very polished performance on traditional webpages. Basic navigation using the Up and Down Arrows set to Line is similar to navigating with ChromeVox Classic. The commands that most differ in ChromeVox Next are the commands for navigating by character and word, and the commands for navigating to either the top or bottom of the page. Most other commands have changed little or mirror familiar commands from other screen readers.

Using Sticky Mode and the new jump commands in ChromeVox Next will seem very familiar to Windows screen reader users, since the commands are nearly the same in regards to element hotkeys. One issue that I encountered is that certain combo boxes are not recognized by the combo box jump command in ChromeVox Next. To find these combo boxes, the user must use the jump command for form field instead. An example of a combo box that does not register to ChromeVox Next as a combo box is the Filter combo box under the heading "The Most Recent Additions and Updates to the AppleVis Site" on the AppleVis homepage. ChromeVox Next similarly misidentified most other combo boxes I encountered, with the exception of the combined combo box/edit field on Google's search page, which ChromeVox Next identified correctly.

Both ChromeVox Classic and Windows screen readers can recognize combo boxes even if they have been included as part of a form. ChromeVox Next, however, only recognizes combo boxes included on a form as form fields. Note that these fields are not referred to as combo boxes by ChromeVox Next, but as popup buttons.

There are two major functions that have yet to be included in ChromeVox Next. One is the ability to select text on a webpage. In ChromeVox Classic, you can press SEARCH+S to begin a selection, navigate through the text you want to select, and then press the same command to end the selection. This command has not yet been implemented into ChromeVox Next. The other command that has yet to be implemented is the Table Mode in ChromeVox Classic. This mode allows users to navigate cell by cell through a table as well as gather information about the table. At this time, it's possible to navigate to a table with a jump command but it's not possible to navigate the table with the level of detail found in ChromeVox Classic.

ChromeVox Next and Google Web Apps

I have reviewed Google Drive, Docs, and the Files app in order to determine their usability with the current iteration of ChromeVox Next. Google Drive works very well from my testing with ChromeVox Next. Tabs are read correctly and it is possible to navigate through files and folders as well. Menus and dialog boxes were also read correctly; I did not encounter any issues that would make it difficult to use Drive with ChromeVox Next.

At this time, there is an issue with Google Docs that may make it difficult to use effectively with ChromeVox Next: when navigating within a document, often words, characters, and lines are not read. For example, if you move through a word character by character using the Left and Right Arrow keys, many characters are not read. There is no set pattern for these omissions; in some cases, letters are read once but not again when navigated past at another time. The issue occurs most commonly with characters, less commonly with words, and very infrequently when navigating by line. Otherwise, menus and dialogs behaved as expected. ChromeVox Next did not announce dialogs when they were launched where ChromeVox Classic does so by saying "Entered Dialog." At this time, using ChromeVox Classic will provide a better experience when using Google Docs.

As the Chromebook has been updated, ChromeVox has acted differently in the Files app. Both ChromeVox Next and Classic act similarly in the app at the time of this writing. It is possible to navigate menus, buttons, and lists of files and folders without using specific ChromeVox commands with Classic and Next, but the list of drives and folders is not read by either without using ChromeVox specific commands. When moving from one file or folder to another, ChromeVox Next will read the previously selected folder or file before reading the file or folder that is currently selected, which means you have to wait through a repeat before hearing your currently selected item. If you navigate using ChromeVox Classic, or ChromeVox Next specific commands, only the newly focused file or folder is read. One major benefit of using ChromeVox Next with the Files app is that you have access to the context menu for items. This menu is not announced when it is launched but it is possible to navigate and operate the menu when it has been evoked. Because of this, ChromeVox Next does provide some benefit in the Files app over ChromeVox Classic.

The Bottom Line

Even in its beta state, ChromeVox Next provides a more fluid experience when navigating traditional webpages than ChromeVox Classic. Some needed commands are not yet implemented and there are issues with some controls and applications in this beta version, but even in its current state ChromeVox Next can enhance the Chromebook user experience for people with vision loss. Since you can switch between ChromeVox versions with a few keystrokes, you have the freedom to use ChromeVox Next in the areas where it currently excels and return to Classic for those areas where ChromeVox Next is incomplete or is experiencing issues.

Product Information

Product: ChromeVox Next (Beta)
Manufacturer: Google
Price: Free

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