This is the first of two articles on the three leading screen magnifiers. In this article, I evaluate ZoomText, version 9.0, from Ai Squared, and LunarPlus, version 6.5, from Dolphin Computer Access. A future article will evaluate MAGic, from Freedom Scientific.
For this evaluation, I compiled a list of features that are commonly associated with screen magnifiers and integrated screen magnifier/screen readers, including documentation and electronic help, ease of installation, control panel, magnification and display features, and speech output. For each feature, I evaluated the programs' performance in Microsoft Word, Excel, Internet Explorer, and Outlook Express on a Pentium 3, 1133MHz, computer with 256MB of RAM, running Windows XP Professional.
ZoomText, Version 9.0
The version of ZoomText 9.0 by Ai Squared available at the time of this writing and the one evaluated is actually version 9.01.1, the third of several updates to fix a number of problems. ZoomText 9.0 itself comes in two versions—Magnifier, a stand-alone screen magnifier, and Magnifier/Screen Reader, an integrated screen magnifier and screen reader. Both versions have minimum requirements of a 450 MHZ Pentium 3 processor or equivalent and one of the following operating systems: Microsoft Windows 98, NT 4.0 (SP 6), 2000, ME, or XP. Internet Explorer 5.0 or later, a minimum of 256 RAM (512 recommended), and a minimum of 25 MB of hard disk space are required to run the program (an additional 60 MB is required for each new, human-sounding NeoSpeech synthesizer). A sound card is also required for the Magnifier/Screen Reader.
Documentation and Electronic Help
ZoomText is shipped with a User's Guide in 16-point font, a Quick Reference Guide in 14-point font, and the installation CD. Although the documentation is informative and well organized, its presentation could be improved by increasing the font size in both manuals to the American Printing House for the Blind's recommended 18-point font and increasing the size of the graphics. On several pages, the manuals show examples of on-screen menus and dialog boxes that have tiny print and are not visible to people with low vision. Another modification that would make the manuals easier to use would be to change their paperback bindings to spiral bindings, which would keep the pages flat for ease of reading by those who use handheld magnifiers or closed-circuit televisions (CCTVs) and would fit much better on a CCTV's x-y table.
As with most screen-enhancement programs, you can use hot keys to access ZoomText features quickly. Currently, you must look up forgotten hot keys in the User's Guide or the electronic User's Guide from the Help menu on the Control Panel. It would be helpful to have these hot keys listed separately on large-print quick-reference sheets that you could keep next to your PC, similar to the ones that come with LunarPlus.
From the Help menu on ZoomText's main Control Panel, you can access the program's electronic User's Guide and the Help Tool, which describes the toolbar buttons and their functions in a dialog box that is supported by speech. You can also access online help from the Ai Squared web site, check for program updates, download program components, transfer your product license, register your product, receive e-mail technical support, read release notes, and read your ZoomText product information. As you can tell, the Help button on the main Control Panel offers a wealth of help.
Ease of Installation
Installing ZoomText is quick and painless. When the ZoomText program CD is inserted into the disk drive, the installation starts automatically. The installation prompts are all in large print and are accompanied by speech. After installation is finished, you have the option to activate the program immediately or anytime within the next 30 days. Until the program is activated, it will run as a trial version with all the functionality of an activated program. After 30 days, the software must be activated for you to continue to use it.
ZoomText can also be purchased and downloaded immediately from the Ai Squared web site. Ai Squared then follows up the online purchase and download by shipping print manuals and an installation CD to the buyer.
The Control Panel
When you start ZoomText, the Control Panel appears on the screen and contains all the controls for using the program. The Control Panel is well organized. It gives you the ability to switch between the Magnifier and Screen Reader toolbars with the click of a mouse button. The Screen Reader Toolbar gives you access to the program features that are associated with screen reading and speech output, such as AppReader, speech rate, and the echo settings. The Magnifier Toolbar allows you to access screen display features, such as the magnification level, viewing options, and color and contrast settings.
The Toolbar buttons are grouped by function and are labeled with a clickable link that opens the group's associated dialog box. Each Toolbar button is also labeled with a colorful icon and large-print label, and by default, each becomes highlighted when touched by the mouse pointer, which makes the buttons easy to identify. Most buttons also have pull-down menus that give access to frequently used settings and features.
Magnification and Display
New to this version of ZoomText are additional magnification levels. For those who think that 2x is not large enough and 3x is too big, 2.5x has been added. In addition, 18x, 20x, 24x, 28x, 32x, and 36x have been added to the levels of magnification. Greater than 16x may be overkill, however, because once the letters get that big, you lose your orientation on the screen.
X-font is another addition to the new ZoomText version. This technology keeps various sizes and types of fonts in clear focus at all magnification levels and in different applications, including the tested applications of Microsoft Word, Excel, and Outlook Express. This is a feature that screen-magnification users will surely appreciate. We are used to the frustration of degraded text clarity in the magnified view, especially with small, italic, and cursive fonts. X-font fixes this problem to a large degree, but do not expect all text to be completely smooth. There is still a small amount of degraded text, especially on web sites as tested through Internet Explorer. According to Ai Squared, X-font technology does not apply to images—that is, to text that appears in company logos, pictures, application toolbar icons, stylized clickable buttons, or advertisements on a web page.
Through the Magnification toolbar, you can also customize the screen display in all four tested applications by adjusting the colors, pointer, and cursor. For each, you can choose from preset schemes or use the customize tool to fine-tune the display to meet your preferences.
ZoomText gives you eight Zoom Windows (the style of the magnified view) from which to choose: Full, Overlay, Lens, Line, and four Docked positions. Each offers a unique way of viewing material on the screen.
The Freeze Window is another feature offered by ZoomText. It allows you to hold one portion of the screen stationary while you simultaneously move and work in another area of the screen.
Still another new feature is Text Finder. This feature is accessed through the Magnifier toolbar and is much like the Desktop Finder and Web Finder tools that you may be familiar with from ZoomText 8.1. Text Finder helps you to locate a word or a phrase within an active application window or the entire screen. Once the word or phrase is found, ZoomText highlights and reads each occurrence. This is a helpful feature that will save you time and scrolling when you are looking for a specific place in a long document or another application.
Application Settings is yet another new feature of ZoomText. Now, within each ZoomText configuration, you can select and save unique settings for each application. For example, you can set your spreadsheet program at one magnification level, your web browser at another, and your word-processing program at still another. When you move between applications, each unique application setting is automatically restored.
The Zoom Window, Freeze Window, Text Finder, and Application Settings features all work well with Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook Express, and Internet Explorer.
ZoomText provides speech output for most functions that are accessed through the mouse or keyboard, including reading documents, web pages, e-mail, window titles, menu bars, and menu lists. Verbosity can be set to different levels and customized to your preferences. ZoomText offers two options for reading full text documents, web pages, and e-mail—AppReader and DocReader. These two reading features are useful for text, but they are not intended for or well suited to Microsoft Excel because of its row and column style of layout.
AppReader reads text within the parent application, and your view of the document does not change, which gives you the ability to transition between reading and editing. As each word is read, it becomes highlighted, and the highlighting can be customized to your preferences.
DocReader reads text in a special environment window where text is reformatted and customized for easier viewing. Text can be presented in a single line (Ticker) and as wrapped lines (Prompter), with your choice of fonts, colors, word highlighting, and magnification level. However, the DocReader toolbar cannot be magnified, which makes it inaccessible to many people with low vision. In addition, the up and down arrows on the speech rate and magnification level spin boxes are small and hence will not be visible to many with low vision. It may not matter that much, though, because the up and down arrows on the speech rate spin box do not work anyway. The number in the spin box changes, but the speech rate does not. Even the hot keys to increase and decrease the speech rate do not work on the fly in DocReader; this is a bug that Ai Squared needs to squash!
Another new feature of ZoomText is the Reading Zone. This feature allows you to see and hear selected areas in an application window. For example, if your database shows several fields and you are only interested in seeing three of them, you can see the selected fields with the press of a hot key. You can set up to 10 reading zones per application and move among them as needed. This is an advanced feature and takes some practice to use effectively.
The Speak It tool reads selected areas of the screen by clicking on them or dragging the mouse. The text on the screen is spoken even if it is not in the active application. The Speak It tool reads words, numbers, menu items, and even icons in a toolbar. It does not, however, read text in graphical images, such as those that are associated with graphics and advertisements on web pages retrieved in Internet Explorer.
Many will find the best new ZoomText feature to be the human-sounding NeoSpeech Synthesizer. With NeoSpeech, you can choose to have either Paul (the male voice) or Kate (the female voice) read the on-screen text. The NeoSpeech volume and speech rate can also be adjusted to your preference. The speech rate is adjusted in terms of a percentage, instead of in words per minute, with 50% speed being the default setting. The new synthesizer options will make using the program more pleasurable for many users because the speech is much less robotic sounding. However, power users may not care for it as much. Although NeoSpeech is much more human sounding, there is a noticeable lag between sentences at higher speech rates, which may annoy people who prefer high-speed speech. For them, and anyone else, for that matter, ZoomText comes with three additional speech synthesizers: TruVoice, ViaVoice, and Microsoft Speech. It also supports other SAPI 4 and 5 synthesizers that may already be installed on your computer.
The Bottom Line
The new ZoomText Magnifier/Screen Reader is much better than its previous version. Its ability to customize aspects of the display and speech output is excellent, and thus it can meet the needs of most computer users with low vision. Furthermore, ZoomText has many new features that increase the usability of the program. As previously mentioned, the documentation could be improved, as could the ability to resize the DocReader toolbar and to adjust the speech rate on the fly when using DocReader. The NeoSpeech synthesizer could also be improved by making the speech clearer and decreasing the lag between sentences in the high-speed settings.
LunarPlus 6.5 is the latest magnifier/screen reader program offered by Dolphin Computer Access. It combines Dolphin's screen magnifier, Lunar, with basic speech output and is compatible with the following operating systems: Windows 98, 98 SE, ME, NT 4.0 (SP 6), 2000, and XP with Internet Explorer 5.5, and MSAA installed. The minimum requirements also include an Intel P2 processor with 400 MHZ or equivalent, 128 MB of memory, a video card with 4 MB of memory, a Sound Blaster compatible sound card, and 125 MB of free hard disk space.
Documentation and Electronic Help
In addition to the installation CD, LunarPlus ships with a User Manual in DAISY format and an IBM ViaVoice synthesizer CD. Also in the package are a LunarPlus User Manual, a Getting Started Tutorial for Dolphin Software Manual, and an Introducing Windows Manual, all in 16-point font, as well as three laminated, double-sided Quick Reference Sheets for Hot Keys that have diagrams and various size fonts.
The spiral bindings on the manuals make them easy to handle while reading, and the manuals fit well on a CCTV's x-y table. The User Manual is somewhat confusing, though, because of its layout and description of information. For example, the first sentence in the Installation chapter of the LunarPlus User Manual reads, "The installation of LunarPlus is easy!" and then takes the next 19 pages to explain it. Too much detailed information is presented on situations that most people will neither encounter nor understand, and it may overwhelm or confuse people who are new to screen-magnification software or are not computer savvy.
That the Getting Started with Dolphin Products Manual is not specific to LunarPlus may increase the likelihood of misunderstanding, since the reader must sort out which sections pertain to LunarPlus and which do not. The Quick Reference Sheets that list information on hot keys are also not specific to LunarPlus, but contain information on other Dolphin screen-enhancement and screen reader programs as well. While the Quick Reference sheets are a great feature, they could be improved by removing all references to other Dolphin programs. All documentation that comes with a product should be product specific.
The Introducing Windows manual gives easy-to-understand, basic computer information and definitions that will be helpful to those who are new to using Windows, but this information may be unnecessary for people with computer experience.
All three manuals that are shipped with the program and the LunarPlus Version information are also accessible through the Help button on the LunarPlus control panel. Another useful feature is that both general and context-specific help are available by clicking on the Help button or question mark associated with the dialog box. It would be helpful, however, if there was also a link to the Dolphin home page from the Help menu on the Control Panel.
Ease of Installation
The LunarPlus program installation automatically begins when the CD is inserted into your computer and is fairly simple to perform. The installation prompts are all in large print and are supported with speech. During this installation, you must install three components: LunarPlus, Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA), and Synthesizer Access Manager (SAM). LunarPlus provides the access tools and interface that bring screen magnification and speech output. MSAA—a set of programming language enhancements and standards—allows applications to make useful information available to screen readers and other accessibility aids. SAM provides for the sharing of speech synthesizers and braille displays between compliant access aids.
LunarPlus cannot be downloaded and purchased from the Dolphin web site; you must contact the company directly or purchase the program from a dealer. A free, 30-minute demonstration version, however, can be downloaded from the web site. From a practical standpoint, 30 minutes is not nearly enough time to try out a screen-enhancement product. This time frame should be extended to a 30-day trial period.
You cannot have more than one version of LunarPlus installed on your computer at one time. If you have a previous version already installed and you want to upgrade to the new version, you should follow the instructions as if you were installing LunarPlus for the first time, so as to install the newest version directly over your old one. When you do so, most of your preferred settings will automatically be imported into the new version, which makes upgrading your program much easier.
Another option is available when you purchase LunarPlus: You can purchase the LunarPlus Pen edition of the software. Unlike most other screen-magnification software, the LunarPlus Pen is not installed on the PC. Instead, it runs from a USB Pen Drive, a small device, approximately 7 centimeters by 2 centimeters, that plugs directly into a spare USB port of a computer.
With the LunarPlus Pen, your LunarPlus program is truly portable. You can carry the LunarPlus software with you and run it on any Dolphin Pen-friendly computer. To make a computer Dolphin Pen friendly, you download the Dolphin Interceptor from the Dolphin web site. Downloading the Dolphin Interceptor may require sighted assistance and Administrator rights, but after you do so, the next time you insert the LunarPlus Pen, the screen-magnification software will run automatically.
The Control Panel
The LunarPlus Control Panel appears on the screen when the program starts, and it contains all the configuration settings for LunarPlus within a menu system. The most commonly used settings can be accessed through the two property sheets in the main Control Panel: the Visual property sheet and the Speech property sheet.
The Visual property sheet gives access to program features that are associated with screen display, such as magnification level, display modes, and color changing. The Speech property sheet gives access to program features that are associated with speech output, including speech rate, character echo settings, and user-defined voices. These two property sheets have the same general layout. The main section gives direct access to the most basic settings for the speech or visual features, and the right side has a group of buttons that give access to additional settings. These buttons represent categories of settings with related functionality. Each button opens a dialog box, allowing you to make desired changes. The menu bar across the top of the property sheets contains all the settings that can be found on the property sheets, as well as some more-advanced settings.
Although functional, the Control Panel could be made more user friendly. It would be useful if more settings were available directly on the property sheet without having to navigate to other tiers. It would also be helpful if there was a greater use of color coding and representational icons on the property sheets, such as the ones used on the Mode section of the Visual property sheet.
Magnification and Display
LunarPlus offers magnification up to 32 times, which may sound like a good thing, but, in practice, magnification over 16x is not practical. On the other hand, LunarPlus offers many fractional levels of magnification under 4x, which is helpful.
One problem is that the magnification cannot be changed while using the Document Read feature. The reading must be stopped, the magnification level adjusted, and the Document Read feature restarted. This is a cumbersome process and interferes with the efficient flow of work. In addition, in the Enhanced Document Read feature, the magnification level of the magnified line at the top of the screen cannot be changed. The ability to adjust this level of magnification would improve the usability of this feature.
From the Visual property sheet, you can adjust the screen's colors. You can select a preset color scheme, replace problem colors, and further refine the color setting through custom settings. You can also customize the style and color of the cursor and mouse pointer to meet your viewing preferences.
LunarPlus offers eight different screen magnification styles: Full Screen; Fixed Window; Lens; Auto Lens; and Right, Left, Top, and Bottom Split Screen. The position and size of these windows can also be adjusted to suit your needs.
Line View is another way of viewing text with LunarPlus, in which lines of text are reformatted into one continuously scrolling line, which works much like a marquee moving across the center of the screen. Unfortunately, this feature does not provide speech support.
The Application Settings feature is also offered on LunarPlus. As with ZoomText, Application Settings allows you to create and save unique settings, such as magnification level and color changes, for each application that you use. These settings are automatically restored when you change applications.
LunarPlus uses its Dolphin Orpheus synthesizer, which is compatible with Via Voice, SAPI, and other synthesizers that you may have already installed on your system. LunarPlus provides speech output for most functions that are accessed through the mouse or keyboard, including reading documents, web pages, e-mail messages, window titles, menu bars, and menu lists. Verbosity can be set to different levels and customized to your preferences. The status of a check box or radio button in a dialogue box, however, is not spoken, nor is the information in a message box.
In Microsoft Word, LunarPlus does a good job of reading by word, line, or the entire document. In Excel, it reads row and column headings, as well as the contents of the cell. When it comes to speech support for Microsoft Internet Explorer and Outlook, however, there is room for improvement. In Internet Explorer, LunarPlus does not read a link when the mouse pointer is positioned over it, unless the link is actually selected. In addition, it begins reading a web page at the top, and if you want to stop in the middle and then restart, you have to start from the top again. Apparently, there is no way to start reading from a desired point in the text of a web page. The same seems to be true for e-mail messages in Microsoft Outlook. This is a significant problem that leads to frustration and wasted time. The ability to start and stop at any point on a web page or e-mail message is essential, especially when you are working with lengthy texts.
The Bottom Line
LunarPlus is a robust screen-magnification program that incorporates basic speech output. The program gives you the ability to customize the screen display to meet your preferences and will work well for many people with low vision.
Streamlining, simplifying, and making the documentation more specific to LunarPlus would further improve the overall product. The ability to adjust magnification on the fly while using the Document Read feature would be an improvement, as would be the ability to adjust the size of the magnified line at the top of the screen in the Enhanced Document Read feature.
The greatest need for improvement is in speech output. The addition of a more human-sounding voice would make the program more pleasant to use. In addition, expanding speech support to include check boxes, radio buttons, and message boxes would increase the functionality of the program, and enhanced speech support for Internet Explorer and Outlook would make LunarPlus more user friendly.
All Things Considered
After careful review of both these screen magnification programs, it appears that ZoomText would better meet the needs of most computer users with low vision. There are four main reasons: ZoomText has (1) superior speech support for all applications, (2) many more available features, (3) a more user-friendly designed Control Panel, and (4) a better-organized and easy-to-understand set of documentation. Dolphin Computer Access makes the point that LunarPlus is not a screen reader, but a screen magnifier that provides basic speech output, but at the same price as ZoomText, I expected more from it. ZoomText offers you more for your money.
Before you make your own decision, you can become a more informed consumer by visiting the web sites of both manufacturers to learn as much as you can about each product. You can also download free trials of the products and try them out, so you can choose the screen magnifier/screen reader that is right for you.
"First, our new xFont technology reliably smoothes all font-based text in web pages. Only text appearing in graphical images is not smoothed. Second, although the SpeakIt tool does not read graphics in web pages (no screen reader can do that), it will read the Alt tag text for images, when it exists. And finally, we have reproduced the problem with the speech rate buttons in DocReader, and will resolve this problem as quickly as possible."
Dolphin Computer Access
"Dolphin always welcomes feedback from the marketplace. We are currently reviewing all of our documentation for all products and do appreciate that in some cases the level of information supplied is too extensive. We have tried to ensure that all the necessary information is supplied as part of the product as a complete package; however, with all of the documentation available from within the online help, it is certainly worth reducing the level of hard-copy documentation. Simplified documentation is certainly a priority for us and will be addressed in future product releases. It is worth reiterating that Dolphin's LunarPlus enhanced screen magnifier provides outstanding screen magnification coupled with entry-level speech (as a backup for low vision users, rather than full screen-reading capabilities). Dolphin's Supernova reader-magnifier, however, provides the same unparalleled screen magnification access coupled with fully customizable screen reader speech output and braille support. Supernova gives the user many of the speech features requested by the reviewer, such as the ability to start, stop, and restart the reading of e-mails and web pages, or start and restart the reading of web pages and e-mails at a user-selected point."
Product: ZoomText 9.0.
Manufacturer: Ai Squared, PO Box 669, Manchester Center, VT 05255; phone: 802-362-3612; web site: <www.AiSquared.com>.
Price: ZoomText 9.0 Magnifier, $395; ZoomText 9.0 Magnifier/Screen Reader, $595.
Product: LunarPlus 6.5.
Manufacturer: Dolphin Computer Access, 60 East Third Avenue, Suite 130, San Mateo, CA 94401; phone: 866-797-5921; web site: <www.dolphinusa.com>.
Price: Lunar (no speech), $395; LunarPlus (with speech), $595; LunarPlus Pen edition, $690.