As I wrote yesterday, I have performed a clean installation of System Access on my Vista machine and have started living with it as if it was the only screen reader I had available to me. So far, I feel cautiously optimistic about SA’s performance in a variety of situations where JAWS performed poorly and Window-Eyes either performed poorly or provided mediocre support. In portions of Vista where JAWS and Window-Eyes perform well, SA does at least as good a job and, in some areas performs better.
Thus far, though, I haven’t run any programs with System Access under Vista that did not come with my PC. So, for the most part, day one of my investigation of SA in Vista meant using it in various operating system features. The two I had hoped to look into yesterday were the WindowsMediaCenter and the Vista Speech Recognition functionality. I only found the time to look at the MediaCenter.
Before I get into the specifics of using WindowsMediaCenter with System Access, I’d like to discuss using the latest screen access product in general. As I mentioned in my piece talking about some of the difficulties I had with learning Window-Eyes, I mentioned that SA mostly mimics the JAWS keyboard layout so it feels familiar to a long term JAWS user as they learn to use it. As I have noted in the past week, I use the JAWS Kinesis layout because I have a Kinesis keyboard which helps cut down on wear and tear on my hands and wrists. As a result, I am accustomed to certain keystrokes that do nothing when running the Serotek product. I feel that SA’s lack of a utility that a user can employ to tweak their keyboard layout is a major deficiency of the product.
System Access does a better job than Window-Eyes with keyboard functionality because it has a number of different modifier keys (insert, scroll lock, num lock, caps lock…) which does make using an oddball keyboard like the Kinesis a bit simpler but, because of my peculiar layout, I rarely need to use a function key while running JAWS so, while running SA, I need to take my hands off of home row more frequently than with JAWS or Window-Eyes which forces me to put additional stress on my wrists and forearms. Thus, I would very much like to see a keymap editor added to System Access.
My second major complaint about SA regards the synthesizers with which it ships. Over the years, like many other JAWS users, I have grown addicted to Eloquence. No matter how clear, human sounding or emotive a speech synthesizer might sound, nothing sounds as good as Eloquence at fast speech rates. Thus, DecTalk and NeoSpeech simply don’t sound good enough at the speed I like to use a screen reader so, due to its lack of Eloquence, I need to move more slowly when using SA.
As I wrote yesterday, I have a very strong interest in making home appliances and consumer electronics products accessible. Thus, the ability to use the WindowsMediaCenter application and all it claims to offer greatly intrigued me.
I attached the coaxial cable to the jack for digital television on the back of my new PC and turned it on. After logging in, I started System Access and, on the desktop, hit ENTER on the WindowsMediaCenter icon. The program presented me with an interface containing a lot of buttons and, for no reason apparent to me, SA “fell out of” the program and returned focus to the desktop. Using ALT+TAB, I returned to the MediaCenter interface.
The people at Microsoft who designed the MediaCenter program neglected to add a usable set of tab stops for moving among the buttons. Cursor keys, however, worked properly to move from button to button so I could reach all of its features. I checked this screen with both JAWS and Window-Eyes and they behaved similarly to SA.
I found a button that said, “Setup TV” and hit ENTER on it. This launched a wizard like set of dialogues that I had to follow to get the system to recognize my television tuner and cable attachment. With System Access, I had to employ the “Virtual Mouse” (equates to the JAWS cursor and the WE Mouse Cursor) quite a few times to read the static text in these dialogues. For comparison sake, I quit out of SA a few times to launch JAWS and Window-Eyes to see how they acted in this interface that SA struggled with. Using the PC cursor in JAWS, I could only read the name of the default control, using the JAWS cursor, I heard nothing but “blank, blank, blank…” Window-Eyes fared slightly better than JAWS but I could not use it to complete the tasks at hand.
Limping along using the SA Virtual Mouse Cursor, I completed the television setup task. As the task was impossible with the other two screen readers, System Access won the day easily.
Next, I launched the “Guide” by hitting ENTER on a button with that label. This brought me into the program guide set up wizard. Much like the television set up interface, I had to switch to the SA Virtual Mouse Cursor to read static text. Trying the same dialogues with JAWS resulted in the JAWS cursor saying nothing more than “blank” and my results with Window-Eyes were almost equally useless. In some of the set up guide dialogues, I could navigate from control to control with SA but the labels didn’t read automatically; fortunately, on each of the controls I could reach by hitting TAB, doing a SayLine read the information about the control and I could use it pretty much as one would expect.
At some point, the guide set up wizard presented me with an edit control in which I was supposed to type in my zip code. I do not know why but SA neither echoed the keys as I typed them nor could it read with its version of the PC cursor or with its Virtual Mouse Cursor. I learned after I hit ENTER on the “Next” button that, in fact, I had typed my zip code correctly.
Once I completed setting up the Guide, WindowsMediaCenter downloaded the television listings for my cable company and returned me to its main interface. There, using System Access, I hit the “Guide” button again and the program presented me with a list, in channel order, of all of the programs currently playing on TV. I could scroll through the list of shows and, by hitting ENTER on one, the television window would launch and I could hear the program and, with the Virtual Mouse Cursor, hear information about it. I grew elated as this was the first time since I lost my vision that I actually had a “modern” interface to watching television and choosing shows I might want to record.
Historically, I have always argued that professional applications, those that people use in a workplace, should have priority over home and entertainment programs. To a large extent, I still hold this belief but I must say that having the ability to control a home entertainment center made me happy and, even with an imperfect screen reader experience from System Access in WindowsMediaCenter, I felt having the ability to use these features of the new OS very rewarding.
Today, I will play around with SA in Windows Media Center some more and, hopefully, if the latest Potter book doesn’t keep me too enthralled, I’ll get to the Speech Recognition features today.
While SA was the only screen access tool that could handle the MediaCenter set up procedure, further investigation did show that JAWS and Window-Eyes both functioned reasonably well in the tv guide dialogue. When using other features, though, the JAWS cursor never provided anything more useful than “blank” and Window-Eyes Mouse Cursor fared only slightly better. So, including further investigation, System Access remains the top dog in WindowsMediaCenter.