First Look: Screen Readers in Vista

I bought a new HP desktop that came loaded with the Vista OS.  This PC has a Core Two Duo 6420 with both cores clocking at something like 2.2 GHz, a very large cache, fast hard disks, 2 gigabytes of RAM and loads of other niceties that I’ve yet to explore.  As I cannot do anything too interesting on a PC without using a screen reader, on my first sitting, I hit Windows+U to start up Narrator and then proceeded to install Window-Eyes.  I probably would have installed JAWS first but I have a Window-Eyes installation CD and I install JAWS from the web download (I got an 8.0 CD but can’t recall where I put it).  After installing Window-Eyes and getting the machine to see other computers on my home network, I installed the latest version of JAWS from the download page on the Freedom Scientific web site.  A little later, I played with SA to GO and installed the desktop version of System Access.  The following are my first impressions of the four screen access programs I’ve tried so far:


My overall impression thus far is that, excepting Narrator which doesn’t claim to be a complete solution, JAWS performs much worse than the others.  Window-Eyes and System Access both have some problems but both also outperform JAWS.


A bit of background before I get into specifics: I intentionally did not read any Vista oriented documentation on the web sites or in the help files of any of the screen access program vendors.  I felt that I should experience the installation and basic functionality as if I had just received the CD in the mail and slapped it into my DVD drive.  I felt this would offer a fairly realistic user experience as it was how I installed all of these programs in XP and earlier operating systems that way.


To install Window-Eyes, I closed Narrator and inserted the WE CD into the drive.  Doug’s voice spoke clearly into my headphones and I hit “s” to run the WE installer with speech.  It then said that it had to restart the computer to continue and I accepted the “Restart Now” option and waited for the computer to reboot.  It came up with Window-Eyes talking at the login prompt, I typed in my password, hit ENTER and the installation continued.  I chose the simple installation and it concluded quickly and launched the full version of Window-Eyes.  I played around a bit and then returned to the Window-Eyes installer to add Eloquence so I could use it with WE.  This went very smoothly, I returned to the WE interface to switch synthesizer and adjust speech rates and such.


After playing around with various network settings and such so I could see the other computers on our home network, I launched Internet Explorer and went to the Freedom Scientific web site and followed the links to the JAWS downloads page.  From there, I picked the ILM version of the latest JAWS update which, according to the marketing information said it was a final release for Vista users.  I quit Window-Eyes and launched the JAWS installer and heard Rusty’s familiar voice boom through my headphones.  Then, I heard silence.  I called Susan into the room and she clicked on some UAC or other security related dialogue.  Then, she read me the dialogue that asks if I want to restart the computer which didn’t read properly because the Vista security thing jumped in front of it.  When the PC rebooted, Window-Eyes came up at the login prompt and I typed in my password.  When we reached the desktop, JAWS started talking so I quit out of WE.  I chose the typical installation and it seemed to go smoothly until I was once again presented with silence, “Sue!” I yelled and my sighted wife came to the rescue to dismiss another annoying dialogue.  JAWS, once again needed to reboot (I’m not sure why WE only requires one restart and JAWS requires two) so I followed instructions and restarted.


After logging in again, the JAWS Authorization utility came up.  As I’ve done for the past few years, I went to another machine on my network and opened a text file in which I save my JAWS authorization code.  JAWS performance in Windows Explorer seemed terribly slow.  Keyboard interupt seemed to work poorly so hitting a number of consecutive down-arrows caused JAWS to read much more than I would have liked and I found that the CONTROL key only stopped speech in some situations.  When I got to my file I hit ENTER and it loaded in Notepad.  Moving around the document in Notepad caused JAWS to only say “blank.”  Susan had to use the mouse to highlight my authorization code so I could copy it and paste it into the JAWS Authorization manager.  Somewhere in this process, another Vista dialogue popped up and I started to believe I had secretly wandered into a Macintosh commercial.  JAWS did not read the contents of this dialogue so Susan read it for me.  Finally, I got to hit the “Finish” button and started using JAWS for real.


The first thing I noticed is that, due to no apparent rhyme or reason, JAWS started talking in Notepad where I didn’t before.  I will assume this had something to do with it having been obscured by other windows and that when its edit area was told to repaint that the JAWS OSM caught the new information.


I then adjusted speech rates and the like and continued playing around with JAWS in Vista.  I would say that the most significant issue I found with the world’s most popular screen reader is that everything in Vista seems very slow and, as I mentioned above, it is sometimes difficult to stop speech when it rambles on, kind of like the old bug in JAWS with Excel where it would send a ton of information to the synthesizer and not shut up no matter how hard or frequently one hits the CONTROL key.  Window-Eyes, to the contrary, performs very quickly everywhere I tried it.


Next, I quit all screen access programs, hit Windows+R, typed and struck ENTER.  Within a couple of seconds, Internet Explorer had launched and I was asked to hit ENTER to begin using the software.  It asked me to hit ALT+R a couple of times and then type in my Serotek account number.  I did this and after waiting a little while as the System Access tune played in my headphones, SA launched on my computer and I could use it right away.


I’m not a big fan of DecTalk which is probably the biggest complaint I have about SA To Go as that its default synthesizer and I’m not sure if I could switch it to another as I didn’t look.  I increased my speech rate and continued playing around with Vista with SA to Go.  This not being a controlled or very scientific investigation, I tried to remember what I had done with JAWS and Window-Eyes and repeat the process.


Next, I installed the full, desktop version of System Access without any problems and listened to the Serotek song play as it automatically downloaded and installed updates.  I adjusted speech rate and a few other things I like to configure when using SA and embarked on a similar set of tests with the newest screen reader on the block.


HAL is the only major screen access program I have not tried yet on my Vista box.  I have never tried HAL on any computer and, therefore, would not be able to give it even a moderately fair assessment as I would need to spend a lot of time learning its interface while trying to compare it to the others.


My overall impression is that Narrator has seen the greatest improvement moving from XP to Vista and that it is actually quite usable for many fairly simple tasks.  Window-Eyes and both versions of System Access have very clean installation routines that did not require me to ask my wife to help me with items that did not speak.  The JAWS installation and authorization schemes were cumbersome and did require sighted assistance.  Also, when the second human voice in the JAWS installer comes on to tell me that I must restart my computer, it stuttered badly on a very fast computer with a killer audio card.


In the years since JAWS 3.20 first introduced a talking installer, I have always felt that it provided the cleanest route to getting a screen reader onto a system.  I’m sure that if I had read the Vista installation instructions on the FS web site, it would probably do a better job but if my new desktop was my only computer, how could I read the instructions before installing JAWS – there is a difficult chicken and egg problem here.


Playing around some more, I must admit that I felt most comfortable in JAWS and System Access as they have keyboard layouts with which I am most familiar.  I use a Kinesis keyboard and JAWS is the only screen reader to ship with a layout designed for this very ergonomic bit of hardware.  I put Window-Eyes into its JAWS layout and started changing keystrokes to simulate the JAWS Kinesis arrangement and, the more I customized, the more comfortable I felt.


Primarily due to the scripts written by the gang on the blind programming mailing list, a project led by Jamal Mazrui, JAWS performed the best in VisualStudio when I installed it on the new computer.  Also because of third party configurations, JAWS performed very nicely in the ssh client, putty. 


Overall, though, more operating system dialogues read properly with Window-Eyes and System Access than with JAWS.  Both Window-Eyes and System Access are much faster than JAWS nearly everywhere I have tried thus far in Vista and, oddly, WE and SA seem to have the greatest speed advantage in Windows Explorer even when set to the classic look and feel.


The tests and comparisons I have performed so far represent a “first look” at Vista with the various screen readers I have installed so far, thus, I would not use this article to make any purchasing decisions as I have really only compared the installation routines and operating system features and have not even installed Office 2007 on the new box and JAWS has for a long time dominated these professional applications and I don’t think FS would let WE or SA catch them in support for this important suite of tools.


I would also like to mention that the SAPI voices included with Vista are really nice and sound very human.  I still prefer Eloquence as it kicks ass at very high speech rates but Microsoft did a very nice job with the new synths.


My hatred for pre-installed software has not decreased with the purchase of this new HP.  The most annoying of the bloatware programs on this PC is the Norton virus protection program which, due to lots of custom controls, works like crap with every screen reader I tried.  Recently, InfoWorld compared about 10 virus/malware/adware protection programs.  NOD32 came in first place far ahead of Norton, McAfee and Microsoft, the three most popular.  NOD32, the protection program I use on every computer in our house, allows users to turn off its graphical interface and, thereafter, it works very, very nicely with JAWS, Window-Eyes and SA in Windows XP (I haven’t installed it under Vista yet).


As usual, though, the “All Programs” menu on my new PC is resplendent with lots of crap I don’t want.  I am writing this on an XP PC which I’ve owned for over a year and a half and I’ve still not figured out how to fully remove AOL, a service I have never used nor do I intend to use in any future I can predict for myself.  I saw that AOL was pre-installed on my new HP and wonder if it will be a permanent fixture.


This new PC has 640 GB of hard disk space so the bloatware hardly means anything in terms of wasted storage but I hate seeing crap I don’t want in my Add/Remove programs list where I actually want to find programs I do want to update or remove.  Then again, I got this computer from NewEgg at a great price and bloatware often provides a way for computer manufacturers to keep retail prices down by taking advertising revenue for loading this garbage onto new computers.  I’d rather deal with removing a bunch of stupid programs than pay more for the computer.


So, look for some additional articles on my adventures in Vista with Office, VMWare and Ubuntu with the Orca screen reader and checking out the WindowsVistaMediaCenter with my new PC attached to the cable television connection and FM radio antenna.




Rumors are starting to form about the upcoming JAWS 9.0 release.  So far, Blind Confidential has only heard that it will do “revolutionary things on the Internet.”  As I was removed from the JAWS beta team back in 2005, I have no non-disclosure with FS nor do I have access to the software so all I can report on are rumors and conjecture.


FS had included language about support for AJAX in JAWS in some of its 8.0.xxxx release notes but this was later removed so, perhaps, they have found a way to provide really cool access to some of the new dynamic web pages in a manner that would be meaningful to a screen reader user.


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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

4 thoughts on “First Look: Screen Readers in Vista”

  1. FS has actually allowed Window-Eyes to surpass them in virtually all areas of Microsoft Office support. I believe much of the problem is the continued reliance on the off-screen model for reading text in these applications. System Access also does a better job than JAWS in some areas, including reading text in Microsoft Word.

  2. To hear a balanced and detailed demonstration of JFW WindowEyes and System Access with Office 2007, check out the Infotech audio magazine for the month of May at

    Infotech is an audio magazine focusing upon the subject of Information Technology. It comprises fair, impartial reviews of a wide range of specialist equipment for visually impaired people – ranging from small low-tech items (clocks watches and calculators etc.), through to computer hardware and software.
    The reviews are presented in straightforward easy-to-understand language, and the magazine contains interviews with representatives of equipment suppliers and service providers, many of whom are visually impaired. The magazine also contains small tutorials, teaching computing applications using adaptive technology.

  3. In part you said: FS had included language about support for AJAX in JAWS in some of its 8.0.xxxx release notes but this was later removed so, perhaps, they have found a way to provide really cool access to some of the new dynamic web pages in a manner that would be meaningful to a screen reader user.

    AJAX has been supported in System Access for over a year. You really should try it on the yahoo mail environment and on the Windows Live web site.

  4. I think that freedomscientific have to improve their products as soon as possible. I bought a new computer with windows vista. When I tried to use openbook on windows vista, the application started crashing, and Microsoft Office Word did not opened any document scanned by openbook. When I complained about this to freedomscientific, technition told me to wait untill new release of openbook… Whell, I switched to Omnipage, and it seemed to scan a lot better than latest software of openbook.

    Moreover, I have to do a lot of work using microsoft office word and notepad. Jaws works very slow on microsoft office word, and you cannot read more than one page on notepad (Jaws stops reading). Yesterday, firsttime, I downloaded and installed trial version of Window eyes. If Jaws will not increase its speed and functionality in Jaws 9.0, I may switch to Window Eyes.

    It is possible all the blind people perchasing new machine may not perchase blind softwares from freedomscientific, because currently some freedomscientific softwares are a lot behind than other blind products in the market.

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