October 2017 Issue  Volume 18  Number 10

Product Reviews and Guides

The Current State of Windows Narrator: One User's Perspective

Ever since the year 2000, the Microsoft Narrator screen reader has been built into every copy of Windows installed on a PC. From its inception, I, like many other blind people with whom I have spoken, viewed Narrator as a tool of last resort. If my preferred screen reader stopped talking for some reason, I knew that Narrator might get me out of a tight spot, allowing me to get speech up and running again. Narrator has always been able to go deeper into Windows than other screen readers could, thereby assisting with things such as the installation and updating of Windows drivers. Narrator's screen-reading abilities were very basic, and Microsoft Sam, the TTS voice used in Narrator, sounded as though he had just awakened from a deep sleep in order to perform his duties. For anyone who has never had the privilege of hearing Microsoft Sam in action, here is a hilarious YouTube video demonstrating some words that Sam can't say properly. (Warning: there is a bit of profanity sprinkled throughout the video.)

Fast forward to the year 2017, and the release of Windows 10 Creators Edition. One of the features being touted in the newest release of the Windows operating system is the inclusion of many improvements in Microsoft Narrator. These included enhanced braille support, better Web support with Microsoft's Edge browser, and the ability to perform a fresh install of Windows without sighted assistance in much the same way that Mac users are able to do using Apple's built-in VoiceOver screen reader.

I decided to install Windows 10 Creators Edition and put Narrator through its paces. This is by no means a comprehensive review of Microsoft's screen reader for Windows, but my impressions should give you a good idea as to whether you wish to do your own evaluation of the screen reader.

Getting Up and Running with Microsoft Narrator

My first task was to update my PC to the latest version of Windows 10. Fortunately for me, this process went off without a hitch and didn't need any intervention from me. I understand that there are parts of the update process that do not read using JAWS or NVDA, so Narrator must be started with Control+Windows+Enter to read the screen and find out what is happening. More about Narrator commands later. I had already set Narrator to load when Windows started, so I had speech as soon as my PC rebooted after the update was finished. As stated earlier, if I had needed to start Narrator manually, I could have simply pressed the Windows key plus the Control key long with the Enter key to load the screen reader. Narrator settings can easily be adjusted by Alt-Tabbing to the Narrator settings dialog that is always accessible. Along with changing Narrator's settings, it is possible to get a list of all Narrator commands here as well. As is the case with most anything else in Windows, there are multiple ways of accessing Narrator's settings, which include going to the Ease of Access Center.

Anyone who uses a smartphone with a screen reader will immediately feel at home with Narrator's "earcons," sound cues played by the screen reader when certain actions are performed such as activating a link or menu item. I personally like the audio ducking feature available in Windows Narrator that reduces the volume of other sounds such as YouTube videos when the screen reader is speaking. This feature is a part of Windows, so JAWS and NVDA take advantage of it as well. I do all of my audio editing with NVDA running, so I disable this feature in that screen reader and leave it enabled in JAWS and Narrator.

Anyone who uses VoiceOver on the Mac will be struck by the similarities in VoiceOver and Narrator when it comes to moving around on the screen. As with JAWS and NVDA, Narrator has a key that is used in combination with other keys to perform various actions. In the case of Narrator, that key is the Caps Lock key. By default, the Caps Lock key plus the Left and Right Arrow keys move you item by item. An item could be a chunk of text, a link, or an image. The Caps Lock key plus the Up and Down Arrow keys adjust how the Right and Left Arrow keys behave. Choices include moving by line, paragraph, and character, just to name a few. As with VoiceOver on the Mac, it is possible to also move around using more traditional methods such as the tab key and arrow keys, but you may find different results in various screens depending on whether you use Narrator navigation commands or the more traditional methods.

It is also possible to activate "Scan Mode" by pressing Caps Lock plus the Spacebar. This allows you to use Narrator in a more conventional manner, especially on the Web. For example, you can use the letter H to move to a heading on a Web page, and the letter T will take you to the next available table if one exists. At the time of this writing, Scan Mode is not enabled by default, but Microsoft states that this will change in a future update to Narrator.

Narrator uses Microsoft Mobile voices, which I find to be easy to understand and very responsive. I did notice that Microsoft Mark, the voice I currently use, makes it difficult for me to identify single characters such as the letters P, T, and D.

The Finer Points of Windows Narrator

When it came to actually using Microsoft Narrator, I had no difficulty accessing areas of Windows that one would expect to be useable with Microsoft's own screen reader. Tasks such as moving around on my desktop, accessing Windows Explorer, and examining the taskbar to see whether Dropbox was still syncing files were all quite easy to accomplish.

Narrator works well with Microsoft's built-in Mail program, as well as Outlook 2016. Microsoft Word was also a pleasure to use in most aspects, although this is as good a time as any to talk about some of the things that bothered me about the screen reader when I first began using it, and still bother me to some extent today. I still primarily use a desktop PC, and I was at first taken aback by the lack of any support for the extended number pad at the right end of the keyboard. Upon further reflection, however, I realized that many computer users today primarily use a laptop or tablet for their computing needs, and perhaps it made sense to focus on keystrokes that only take advantage of the main keyboard. Also, Narrator allows one to change keystrokes they don't like. That being said, I still find it odd to press Caps Lock+Control+O to read the current line of text in a document I am working on. Pressing Caps Lock+H to read an entire document doesn't feel particularly intuitive to me, nor does using Caps Lock plus the function keys at the top of the keyboard to navigate tables when Scan Mode is turned off. Fortunately, when scan mode is enabled, it is possible to use Alt+Control+Right Arrow to move across a table to the right, and all the other table navigation commands you have come to know and love in your favorite Windows screen reader of choice. Perhaps I am missing something really obvious here, and I will stand corrected if this is the case, but I never did find a command that would allow me to read the status line of a Microsoft Word document--something I do all the time when writing articles for AccessWorld.

Microsoft has provided a plethora of settings that you can customize if you don't like how Narrator speaks to you, so some tweaking should take care of any problems you have in that department.

I found it really difficult to make myself use Narrator with Microsoft's Edge browser when surfing the Internet. I wasn't sure when I wanted to turn Scan Mode on--something that, at the time of this writing, must be done each time a new page loads--or when I preferred to use Narrator's normal mode and navigate the page with the screen reader's dedicated navigation keystrokes. I didn't find keystrokes to let me bring up a list of links, headings, form fields, etc. as I can easily do with JAWS and NVDA. I have found PayPal's website to be increasingly challenging of late no matter which screen reader I use, but I found it especially maddening when using Narrator. I had better success visiting websites I knew were more screen reader-friendly including, ironically, the "Surf's Up" area of Freedom Scientific's JAWS Headquarters page.

Summing Up My Thoughts On Microsoft Narrator

After taking time to play with Microsoft Narrator off and on over the past three months or so, I am confident that I could sit down at a computer at my place of employment and get work done using this screen reader. The one thing that other screen readers such as JAWS and NVDA have going for them is the fact that configuration files--call them add-ons, scripts, or whatever you wish--are available that enhance the accessibility of many popular programs such as Skype, Reaper, and GoldWave, just to name a few. Custom scripts or add-ons can be written to make specific applications needed in a particular job work better for a blind person than they otherwise might. As far as I know, it is not possible to write scripts for Narrator, although I can't imagine that Microsoft isn't thinking about the problem as I write this article.

Another problem that I have when it comes to using Narrator is that there are already familiar alternatives available to me. It is easy to simply revert back to JAWS or NVDA in order to get my work done, rather than taking the time to learn a new screen reader. Finally, the use of what I consider less-than-intuitive keystrokes makes me less likely to use Narrator than I would if Narrator used many of the same commands as other screen readers. Perhaps this is my problem, and not Microsoft's. Should I be unhappy with them for thinking outside the box? This brings me to my last thought.

What compelling reason do I have to use Narrator for anything other than basic tasks? My sense is that there is a lot more power under the hood of Microsoft's built-in screen reader than I have tapped into up to this point. I haven't tweaked a lot of Narrator's settings, mostly because I am happy with the way the screen reader behaves, for the most part. Even though I grumble about some of Narrator's keystrokes, I haven't bothered to take the time to change any of those commands to something that feels more comfortable under my hand. Perhaps Microsoft might consider doing some audio tutorials on using Narrator, and highlight some areas where the screen reader really shines in comparison to the tried-and-true alternatives that are familiar to many in the visually impaired community. I haven't even touched on braille and low-vision support in Narrator. For anyone who likes to read user guides as I do, Microsoft's online guide to getting started with Narrator is quite well written.

Whether you read blogs, listen to podcasts, spend time on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, or go to the various blindness-related conventions held throughout the country each year, it is not hard to find a representative from Microsoft who is eager to talk about Narrator. When I first began working on this article, I hoped that I would be able to write the definitive guide to using Microsoft Narrator, but I don't believe it is time for such an article just yet. Narrator is still coming into its own as a screen reader, and things could change a lot over the next few months. I plan to continue working with the screen reader on a regular basis. There are tools built into Narrator that allow a user to leave both positive and negative feedback for Microsoft developers, and I plan to make use of these tools over the coming months.

Am I ready to take any existing screen readers off of my computer just yet? No. Do I believe that I could use Narrator on the job if I needed to? Yes. Do I believe that there are good things in store from Microsoft? I am very optimistic that the answer to this question is yes as well.

What are your experiences with using Microsoft Narrator? After you've had a chance to kick the tires, so to speak, leave us a comment, and let us know what you think.

As things develop where Microsoft Narrator is concerned, you can count on AccessWorld to keep you up to date, so keep reading!

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