by Wesley Majerus and Clara Van Gerven
From the Editor: Every year thousands of people ask the National Federation of the Blind Access Technology Team for advice in buying just the right computer. Below is the third edition of an article the Braille Monitor periodically runs incorporating information about the latest technology one should think about when purchasing a new computer system. Here it is:
The International Braille and Technology Center (IBTC) is operated by the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute and serves as a demonstration and evaluation center for technology solutions that blind people can use in their everyday lives. The technology answer line that the IBTC operates receives thousands of calls each year from blind people who want to buy computers. Most of our callers want a computer to write letters, keep records, send and receive email, and surf the Web. Some people want to use their computers as reading machines which can scan and speak printed material.
In addition to the staff of the International Braille and Technology Center, the National Federation of the Blind has thousands of members willing and able to answer your questions. I urge you to call the president of the NFB affiliate in your state and introduce yourself to him or her. If you do not know how to reach your NFB state affiliate president, call the NFB's general information staff in Baltimore at (410) 659-9314 (8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time).
Sometimes people new to using computers hire someone to build them a computer. This can include lessons which teach the buyer how to get started once the computer is assembled and ready for use. Such experts often know how to buy good basic equipment during sales or at a reduced rate on Internet Websites. If you know some blind computer experts, I would suggest you ask what fee they would charge for assembling a system in addition to the cost of the computer parts. Remember that sighted experts may help to build a computer but are unlikely to know how to instruct you to use keyboard commands instead of the mouse. Again, I highly recommend locating local blind computer users to help you through the frustrating early days of learning to use your new system.
While most of our readers use voice output with their computers, others prefer screen magnification. People who need to read highly technical material or who are deaf-blind might prefer reading their computer screens using refreshable-Braille technology. We will touch on each of these options in this article.
If you cannot read your computer screen because you are blind, you will need to add software called screen-access technology. Windows and Macintosh systems are two popular options that contain screen-access software. For basic computing tasks, entertainment, and audio editing, the Apple Macintosh computer may be useful for some. As of this writing we recommend Windows if you are creating advanced documents with heavy use of styles and formatting since Windows-based screen-access technology, in conjunction with word processors like Microsoft Word, provides greater reporting and control of style and formatting. The following specifications can be used as a guide to determine which built-in features you should get for your new Windows-based system: at least 2 gigabytes of RAM (random access memory), preferably 3-4 gigabytes; at least 160 gigabytes of hard-disk space (most hard disks have at least this amount or more storage capacity); an Ethernet card if you plan to connect to the Internet using a cable or DSL Internet service; a wireless LAN card supporting 802.11 A, B, and G, if it is not already included; no less than a 1.66 GHZ (Gigahertz) processor speed (nothing slower is sold these days). While almost any video card works with screen-access technology for the blind, the blind person using speech output should bear in mind that the more sophisticated, three-dimensional card used for video games is not necessary.
Because many new computers are being sold with wireless networking hardware that supports the 802.11-N standard, ensure either that you have a wireless router that supports the standard or that the system you purchase is backward-compatible with older standards like 802.11-B or 802.11-G. Please also note that many newer computers are being sold with 64-bit processors. Most screen-access packages have versions supporting these new processors; however, you must ensure that you obtain the proper version for your type of machine.
A brief word should be said about a new class of computer hardware that has become popular over the past year, the Netbook, a lightweight computer designed specifically for travelers who do not want to carry a full-size laptop. These computers are extremely small and have small keyboards. Despite their small size, blind users find these devices useful because they have sufficient processor power to run screen-access software, word processing programs, and Internet-based applications. They are also useful for those who give presentations on the road since they can be connected to audio/video equipment. If you would like to shop for a Netbook, look for a model with a minimum of 92 percent keyboard ratio (a percentage measurement comparing the size and number of keys on the netbook to a standard-sized keyboard). As of this writing the Asus 1018PB is an example of a usable netbook and would make a good benchmark for specifications on any Netbook you may be interested in purchasing.
Although we primarily recommend Windows, we have noticed interest in the Macintosh operating system over the past two years. For an in-depth look at the Macintosh and VoiceOver, Apple's built-in screen-access package, please consult the December 2009 Braille Monitor. If you are interested in using the Macintosh, we urge you to do so with Apple's latest operating system. As of this writing the latest Mac OS is OSX 10.6 Snow Leopard. It is important to understand that, unlike other screen-access packages, VoiceOver cannot be installed separately from the operating system, so any updates made to it come as part of the OS itself. Greater browser support and other VoiceOver functionality are offered only in the latest operating system. Macs are sold as desktop and laptop units. iMacs are computers in which the operating components are built into the display screen. The Mac Mini is a small computer system that requires that users purchase their own displays and keyboards.
Because VoiceOver is a part of the operating system, any Macintosh computer that is compatible with Snow Leopard will work correctly for a blind user. However, we recommend that, if you wish to run Microsoft Windows in conjunction with Mac OS using a program like VMWare Fusion, you should plan to have at least 4 GB of RAM in your Macintosh system. Users should be aware that memory is not as readily replaceable on Macs as it is in Windows, so some preplanning may be necessary. VoiceOver offers some capabilities for navigation and screen review that work with a multitouch track pad. These are available on Mac Books that were made after late 2008. Recently Apple began producing a portable multitouch track pad that connects with a computer using Bluetooth. Called the Magic Track pad, it may be beneficial for desktop Macintosh systems or older Mac laptops.
Three types of Mac laptops are currently sold: the Mac Book Air, the Mac Book Pro, and the standard Mac Book. All three types should work equally well with screen-access software. The users will need to determine whether the smaller Mac Book Air's keyboard will meet their needs. Because VoiceOver can use the numeric keypad, some users may wish to equip their Macs with keyboards that contain a numeric keypad to take advantage of these features. Training on the Mac may be more difficult to find since its screen-access software is relatively new to the Access Technology market. Handy Tech North America, at <http://www.handytech.us>, offers in-person training through its Mac Academy as well as for-sale workbook and study materials.
The Macintosh comes with a basic suite of applications. TextEdit, a word processor, allows for editing tasks on Microsoft Word 2003 and 2007 documents, as well as text and RTF files. Media playback is achieved through iTunes, or one can download a player like VLC Media Player, which acts more like other stand-alone players that readers might recognize. If you wish to use the Macintosh for presentations or to keep track of numerical data, you can try the IWork suite, Apple's productivity suite of applications that contains Pages, a word processor with advanced features; Numbers, a spreadsheet program; and Keynote, a program for creating and giving presentations. OpenOffice also provides word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software. Although it is for the most part usable, its interface is a bit different from that of standard applications, and feedback that VoiceOver gives could be confusing.
At this writing computers are sold with the Windows 7 operating system (OS). Some manufacturers may still allow you to obtain Windows XP. Four versions are available, Starter, Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate. If you plan to use your computer at home and do not plan to connect to many other devices, Seven Home Premium is sufficient because it includes features like Windows Media Center and is enough for basic computing tasks. If Windows 7 comes on a Netbook, it will most likely be Windows 7 Starter, a slim version of Windows 7 that excludes items like Windows Media Center. If purchasing a traditional desktop or laptop, consider buying Windows 7 Professional or Windows 7 Ultimate since these operating systems offer better networking capability, email, and Web-browsing software. Windows Mail and Internet Explorer come free with the Windows operating system, but you get only a simplified free word processor (WordPad for Windows). While you can use WordPad to write letters and other simple documents, you may want to consider buying Microsoft Office if you are interested in spell-checking your material, creating documents with advanced formatting techniques, generating PowerPoint presentations, or managing numerical data with an accessible spreadsheet.
A word processor that works fairly well with screen-access technology is Microsoft Word. As of this writing Office 2007 has been on the market for three years. Although it contains a more complicated menu interface consisting of ribbons that contain buttons for completing tasks, we have found that it is usable with screen-access software. We have not thoroughly reviewed Office 2010, which was released recently, but we believe that it can be used with screen-access software, Office 2007, previously featured in a Monitor article, sports a new and potentially complicated Ribbon interface. If you still have a copy of Office 2003, it will run satisfactorily on Windows 7. As we reported in our previous Monitor article, Office 2007 is usable with screen-access software, but one will need to relearn the location of popular menu items and functions. For a detailed look at Windows Vista and Office 2007 soon after their release, you can consult the June 2007 Braille Monitor, which may be viewed online at our Website. The article is entitled "Windows Vista and Office 2007."
The next software component that must be given serious consideration is a screen-access program. The last page of this article contains further information about how to contact screen-access technology vendors.
If you want your computer to read and speak printed material, you will need to buy a piece of hardware called a flatbed book scanner (for about $230) and a software product that actually speaks the text on the page. You should be prepared to spend at least $1,000 to acquire the blind-friendly systems--especially if you do not consider yourself a relatively sophisticated user of Windows. There are two noteworthy products to consider: Open Book from Freedom Scientific and Kurzweil 1000 from Kurzweil Educational Systems. Both of these programs come with their own speech and can operate without screen-access technology.
For those users who can benefit from magnification, a number of magnification programs are available. These software packages will magnify the content of the screen in a number of ways and let the user pick a color scheme and contrast setting. The packages listed here all have a speech option, which reduces eyestrain for the user who makes use of this option.
The most popular magnification software is ZoomText by Ai Squared. It has a simple user interface and basic speech.
MAGic from Freedom Scientific is a powerful magnification package. It is a little less intuitive in its use than ZoomText but lets the user customize the settings more and also integrates well with JAWS, which is made by Freedom Scientific for consumers who benefit from magnification with full-fledged screen-access software.
British company Dolphin Computers has become well established in the US, and its magnification software is another option available to low-vision users. SuperNova Magnfier and SuperNova Magnifier with Speech are easy to use and have magnification from the logon screen. All three of the above magnification programs have scripting capabilities so that scripts can be created for specific functions or applications that are not fully supported
Dolphin Computer Access's SuperNova Access Suite combines all the commands of its screen-access software with the full-function magnification of SuperNova Magnifier. There are many other possibilities, so you would be wise to start networking with other blind people. Again, call our NFB state presidents to meet people already using computer systems you'd like to have yourself.
A word should be said about using portable screen-access packages. If you find yourself working with multiple machines, you may wish to use your screen-access package from a USB flash drive. This is possible with several of the screen-access packages. Dolphin products allow access to the Dolphin Pen, which works with all of the company’s screen-access and magnification products. A small driver must be installed on the computers that you want to use with the Dolphin Pen. JAWS for Windows also runs from a flash drive as long as you first install the JAWS Video Intercept Manager on the computer. NVDA can run in portable mode from a thumb drive with no extra installation. Serotek's System Access Mobile Edition allows you to create a flash drive providing access to any Windows computer using System Access. This must be a U3-enabled drive, which can be purchased separately and created using tools that come with your license, or can be purchased as part of the package. VoiceOver, the Macintosh screen-access package, allows the use of portable preferences. This saves settings such as speech parameters, control labels, and hotspots on Webpages to your flash drive. Then any Mac can use these settings when you plug in the drive.
Refreshable Braille may be another consideration. It is important to understand that a Braille display alone will not provide Braille output on your system. You need to be running a screen-access package in order for Braille to work. Once you have decided on a system and screen-access package, consult the documentation to determine which displays it supports. The Access Technology Team's Technology Resource List contains information about Braille displays and display manufacturers. Displays can communicate with your computer either using USB or through Bluetooth wireless technology. The advantage to obtaining a Bluetooth Braille display is that it can be used with a mobile device like a cell phone or iPod Touch. Displays range in cost from $1,900 for an 18-cell display suitable for use with laptops and mobile devices to $10,000 for an 80-cell display that one might rely on to assist in computer programming or other Braille-rich fields.
Here are the approximate costs of setting up a fully functional computer system for the blind as of December 2010. We assume that an average Windows 7-based computer costs between $500 and $700. Screen-access software costs from $399 to $1,195, depending on the package and options chosen. Office 2010 Home and Student, which contains Word, Excel, Power Point, and OneNote, costs $149. Some users are accustomed to Outlook, which is an email and calendaring application that works with screen-access software. The Home and Business version of Office 2010, containing Outlook, can be purchased for $279.
A good baseline for a Windows computer is $2,050. This assumes JAWS for Windows Standard at $995, $600 for an Intel-based Windows 7 Home Premium machine, Office Home and Business 2010; and a $150 printer. If you choose to add scanning and reading capability to your system, plan to spend an additional approximately $1,229. This assumes the $995 cost for either Kurzweil 1000 or Openbook and the Plustek Bookedge scanner, which works well and is recommended by the Access Technology Team here in Baltimore. The scanner costs approximately $230.
The Mac Baseline is as follows: We chose a 21.3 inch iMac and included the Magic Track Pad for $69. In addition, we included iWork Suite, which is discounted to $49 with the purchase of a new computer. We also assumed the same $150 for a new printer. The baseline comes to $1,636. As of this writing, only one blindness-specific OCR package on the Macintosh is available. It is the Eye-Pal for Mac, which is produced by ABiSee. This package, which comes with software and the camera for capturing the image, retails for $1,275.
Computer ownership has some ongoing costs. Some screen-access packages offer software maintenance agreements as a way to keep software up to date at a lower cost. Depending on the software and the terms of the agreement, expect to pay around $150 to $200 a year. Antivirus/antimalware software is essential in today's connected society. Expect to pay $30 to $50 annually to keep your protection up to date. A usable package is ESET (Essential Security against Emerging Threats) NOD32 Antivirus. This company also produces a full-fledged security suite that contains antimalware protection called ESET Smart Security. At the time of this writing this Windows package works with screen-access technology using the screen-reader’s review cursor in some areas.
If you plan to subscribe to Internet service, expect to pay approximately $250 annually for a cable or DSL-based broadband package.
References and Contact Information
While JAWS for Windows from Freedom Scientific is the most widely used screen-access program, several other options are available. Window-Eyes, manufactured by GW Micro, offers many useful features. System Access, a third option, includes features such as the ability to be run from a USB flash drive and an online community similar to AOL called SAMNet. Each program has a unique set of features. The decision about which screen-access program to buy should be based on the features important to you and on the amount of money you have to spend. The availability of local training resources and hands-on support may also be an important consideration. You should consult with the screen-access vendor to obtain the most current information about features and prices. Screen-access software vendors can also provide demo versions of their software that you can try before committing to a specific choice. These demos can be downloaded, or the vendor can ship them to you on a CD.
Recent years have seen the introduction of low-cost screen-access software. While these may be helpful for someone on a budget, users need to be aware of a few concerns. Some applications may not be fully supported, or their level of support may not be as good as a full-cost screen-access program. Because some low-cost screen-access software is open source, it may contain more bugs or stability issues. For a run-down of such low-cost screen-access software, consult the May 2009 Braille Monitor article entitled "Low-Cost Screen Readers."
JAWS for Windows and OpenBook by Freedom Scientific: JAWS for Windows ($995) provides speech and Braille access to Windows XP Home Edition and Windows 7 Starter and Home Premium editions. Another version of JAWS for Windows ($1,195) provides access to Windows XP Professional Edition and all other versions of Windows 7. JAWS for Windows is shipped with the Eloquence software speech synthesizer, meaning that it can generate speech through your computer's sound card.
OpenBook is a scanning and reading package that sells for $995. It offers self-voicing capabilities and can work in tandem with JAWS. Braille and notetaker support, among other features, is included.
Window-Eyes by GW Micro: GW Micro offers Window-Eyes for use with all Windows XP and Windows 7 versions for $895. This screen-access software ships with both Dectalk Access32 and Eloquence voices.
ZoomText, available from Ai Squared: This screen-magnification program sells for $395 without speech and $595 with speech.
SuperNova Access Suite by Dolphin Computer Access: SuperNova Access Suite, which includes both screen reading and magnification, is available for $1,195. SuperNova Screen Reader, Dolphin's screen-access software, is available for $795. SuperNova Magnifier with Speech is available for $595.
System Access by Serotek: Serotek offers several software solutions. System Access Stand-Alone ($399) can be run on two computers and is simply a screen reader that can be installed on those computers. System Access Mobile Edition ($499) combines the stand-alone screen reader with the capability to install and run System Access from a U3-enabled pen drive. The AIR Foundation offers System Access to Go, a free screen-reader that can be run from <www.satogo.com> and will run as long as the browser is open and connected to the Internet. In addition, Serotek offers an online community called the System Access Mobile Network for a yearly fee of $129.
Macintosh Accessibility using VoiceOver: This screen-access package ships with all Macintosh systems, and Apple's accessibility Website has usage resources available. The software uses both keyboard commands and a touch pad commander to allow access to software on the Mac. It also supports thirty plus refreshable Braille displays. Some may find Handy Tech's training resources helpful. The company, in Columbia Heights, Minnesota, can be contacted at (651) 636-5184 or <http://www.handytech.us>.
Kurzweil 1000 by Kurzweil Educational Systems: Kurzweil 1000 is available at $995.
Company Contact Information
Freedom Scientific, Inc., 11800 31st Court North, St. Petersburg, Florida 33716-1805
Telephone (800) 444-4443, (727) 803-8000, fax (727) 803-8001
Email <[email protected]> <http://www.freedomscientific.com>
GW Micro, Inc., 725 Airport North Office Park, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46825
Telephone (260) 489-3671, fax (260) 489-2608
Email <[email protected]> <www.gwmicro.com>
Ai Squared, P.O. Box 669, Manchester Center, Vermont 05255
Telephone (800) 859-0270, fax (802) 362-1670
Email <[email protected]> <www.aisquared.com>
Dolphin Computer Access (US), 231 Clarksville Road, Suite 3, Princeton Junction, New Jersey 08550
Phone (866) 797-5921, fax (609) 799-0475
Email <[email protected]> <http://www.yourdolphin.com>
Handy Tech North America, 3989 Central Avenue NE., Suite 402,
Columbia Heights, Minnesota 55421
Phone (651) 636-5184
Email <[email protected]> <http://www.handytech.us>
Serotek Corporation, 1128 Harmon Place, Suite 310, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55403
Phone (866) 202-0520, fax (612) 659-0760
Email <[email protected]> <http://www.serotek.com>
Apple, Inc., 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, California 95014
Phone (800) MY-APPLE
Email <access[email protected]> <http://www.apple.com/accessibility>
ABiSee, Inc., 20 Main Street, Suite G2, Acton, Massachusetts 01720
Phone (978) 635-0202
Email <[email protected]> <http://www.abisee.com>
Kurzweil Educational Systems, 14 Crosby Drive, Bedford, Massachusetts 01730
Phone (800) 894-5374, fax (781) 276-0650
Email <[email protected]> <www.kurzweiledu.com>
ESET, LLC, 610 West Ash Street, Suite 1900, San Diego, California 92101
Phone (866) 343-ESET (3738), fax (619) 876-5845
Email <[email protected]> <www.eset.com>