Buying a Computer
When looking to purchase a personal computer (PC), it's easy to be overwhelmed by the vast number of different setups and configurations available. Even if you do find a helpful salesperson or friend, it can still be difficult to find out what kind of PC is best suited for people with visual impairments. Here are some guidelines and tips for shopping for a new computer if you are blind or visually impaired. Some of them are different from what you read in mainstream computer magazines or hear from friends, because these tips are tailored toward people who will be using what is often referred to as access or assistive technology on their computers. Because of the rapid changes in computer technology the details of these tips may also change, but the basic suggestions will be valid even after the date they were last updated. Please note the "Updated" date at the bottom of the page.
We recommend you purchase your PC from a trusted name-brand company like Dell, Apple, or Hewlett-Packard. Purchasing a PC from a major manufacturer ensures you will get a dependable machine from a trusted seller. Also, these companies usually offer a warranty with good technical support (although often not for assistive technology).
This information focuses on PCs running a Windows based operating system (OS), but you may also want to consider an Apple computer. Apple computers feature a built-in screen reader that speaks text on the screen and a screen magnifier to enlarge text and graphics displayed on the screen at no additional cost. VoiceOver, the Apple screen reader, was recently significantly improved. Zoom, the Apple screen magnifier, offers up to 40x magnification, as well as options for high contrast colors or reverse video. Check out the accessibility overview page on the Apple website for more information. The Windows operating system also includes a screen reading and screen magnification program. While these programs are adequate for some users they do not offer all the features needed by some users for education, employment and personal business.
The amount of memory, or RAM, determines how smoothly and quickly multiple programs will run on a PC. We recommend that you purchase a PC with at least 2 GB of memory, although 4 GB would be preferable. Screen readers and magnifiers both can take up a lot of memory, not to mention other memory-intensive applications you may want to run. If you like having several different programs open at the same time, it would be a worthwhile investment to get a large amount of RAM.
The size of your hard drive determines how many files and programs you can install on the computer. The minimum hard drive size sold with most new computers is 320 GB, though you may sometimes see smaller hard drives in certain setups. This standard size is definitely large enough to install just about any type of assistive technology, as well as store a substantial quantity of files and documents. If you have a large collection of music or video files, you should check out some larger disk sizes and get something appropriate to your needs; hard drives are relatively inexpensive.
Nearly all computers today are at least 2 GHz, and can be as high as 3.7 GHz. Although it?s often tempting to go for the fastest computer available, in reality even the low-end 2 GHz computers are capable of running most types of assistive technology, as well as most other types of programs out there. You may also come across computer chips advertised as being ?dual-core? or ?quad-core,? terms that refer to the number of processors in a given computer. A quad core machine has four smaller processors instead of one big processor, which makes for a faster computer, but is really unnecessary unless you do intensive work on your computer, such as video editing or programming.
If you have some usable vision, look into buying a flat panel monitor that is at least 21 inches in size. If you have no usable vision, consider saving the money and not buying a monitor at all. However, if you will be relying upon a sighted friend for assistance from time to time it would be wise to purchase a basic monitor for your system.
A DVD/CD-RW drive, which can read DVDs and CDs and write to blank CDs, is useful for using discs and backing up data. CDs are inexpensive and can hold up to 650 MB. If you would like a larger capacity data backup option, look into purchasing a DVD-RW, which can write to blank DVDs (up to 4.7 GB).
Ports and Slots
USB ports are the standard for PC connection, and are often used for assistive devices. Make sure the computer you buy has several USB ports. Serial ports, which are common in many older pieces of assistive technology, have disappeared from current computers. If you have a device that uses a serial port, you can purchase USB-to-serial converters that will allow you to connect your device to your PC.
Microsoft released the latest version of Windows, Windows 7, in 2009, and there are a number of screen readers and magnifiers available for it. Windows 7 can be made accessible with the right assistive technology. There are other operating systems available but most people start with Windows because of its wide spread availability and use.
Video and Sound System
The integrated video and sound cards that come standard with most PCs are more than suitable for running assistive technology. A separate or high-end graphics or sound card is really only necessary if you do a lot of work with video files, or if you have a high-definition audio system. A new PC may or may not come with external speakers. You?ll need speakers to hear the screen reader speak and other important sounds made by the computer.
Updated January 2012