How good is the Apple screen reader?

A review of Voiceover, the Apple screen reader

Screen readers are an invaluable tool for those whose vision is not sufficient to use a monitor. There is a reasonable selection of screen reading tools for the PC; however, the options on the Apple Mac have historically been restricted. On OSX, Apple have introduced a screen reader as part of the Operating system, called "Voiceover". This is a very interesting development as Mac Mini (which includes OSX and Voiceover) costs from £359, roughly half the cost of the leading PC based screen reading software. Alastair Campbell and Nomensa's Head of Accessibility, Léonie Watson recently evaluated Voiceover for the British Computer Association of the Blind (BCAB), a process that essentially gets the testers to attempt various standard tasks that are common for users. With their permission we would like to make these observations public to a wider audience. Léonie is an expert screen reader user with JAWs for Windows, but curious as to the possibilities of an OSX based screen reader. Alastair does not use a screen reader regularly, but has usability tested many sites with participants using many access devices. The evaluation was completed over two evening using all the available documentation to try to overcome any learning issues as quickly as possible. This evaluation used the highest-specified Mac Mini in February 2006, and highlights what is easy, difficult and impossible to accomplish on the OSX as a screen reader user.

What is easy?

Given Apple's traditional ease-of use, our expectations were high, and to begin with, we were not disappointed. As the installation process starts the screen reader activates, and gives people the option to carry on using the screen reader. However, we were caught a little off-guard by what seemed to be the complex nature of simple commands via the keyboard. Once installed, getting around the main system dialogues was easy, it was different but not necessarily more difficult than on a Windows based system. The important commands for activating the screen reader and keyboard controls are easy (cmd-F5 and cmd-F1 respectively). Of the core applications that we tried, writing text documents and using email were very straightforward. That is not to say there was no-learning curve, but that all the options were available and that setting up, reading and writing could be completed simply by knowing basic keyboard commands.

What isn't easy?

The biggest issue we had with using the Voiceover screen reader is lack of keyboard accessibility in many applications. Although writing text documents and using email was straightforward, it became clear that these were the exceptions rather than the rule, and they have obviously had a great deal of work performed on them. Other core Mac applications do not seem to be nearly as keyboard accessible. For example, in the contacts application, Address Book, editing a contact is nearly impossible as there are no labels to indicate the contents. We were also unable to get to some dialogues without using a mouse (for example, an alarm from the calendar application). Even the basic commands to get around content seem unnecessarily complex, for example, when reading a web page or other text, 'down' is alt-cmd-down, compared to just 'down' on a windows based screen reader. Also, when using "Finder" (the Windows Explorer equivalent), arrowing around folders was fine, but when you get to a file, neither enter or space keys actually open the file. You have to know to press cmd-o to open the file (enter re-names the file). Around the operating system in general, space and enter do not seem to have consistent meanings. It is difficult to understand why the keyboard controls are so complex. It would be understandable if Apple were trying to prevent breaking compatibility with current applications, however, when you need to activate "Full keyboard control" anyway, why not make that mode much easier for keyboard only control? Browsing web content is certainly possible, however, the information provided and navigation are not nearly as polished as the windows based counterparts. For example, there are none of the commands to navigate via structural elements (for example, headings and lists). In addition, when images have no alternative text, Voiceover gives no indication of their existence. (Most windows based screen readers will read out the end of the image's source and indicate if it is a link.)

Screen magnifier

The screen magnifier is another story. People who use a screen magnifier to zoom in on part of the screen are likely to use a mouse as the primary means of navigation, as that is what moves the magnified area of the screen around. This fits much better with much of the operating systems interface approach, and you get none of the problems outlined above which are mostly due to keyboard access.

Screen shot of zoom settings in OSX

Screen shot of zoom settings

Zoomed in screenshot showing black and white settings and increased contrast.

Screen shot with contrast, colour and zoom settings applied

If you are not reliant on a keyboard, the options available compare very favourably to the Windows based counterparts. There are several options for how the screen is magnified, keyboard short cuts for zoom, and reasonable contrast options. These are all built into the operating system, and offer more than most people would need.

Conclusion

For people who need to use a screen reader for day-to-day computer usage, we could not recommend Voiceover, unless email and text documents are all that is required. It is also not an equivalent screen reader for web developers to use for testing their websites. (Using tools such as "linearise" on Firefox's "Web developer's toolbar" in conjunction with removing styles would be more suitable). However, if Apple continue to work on the screen reader and more importantly keyboard accessibility in general, it would be great to have an equivalent screen reader on a non-Windows operating system. For those that are happy with using a mouse and a screen magnifier, there is nothing to stop them from switching to the Mac, it would be no harder than fully sighted people find it, and possibly far cheaper than buying a Windows based screen magnifier.

Update:

After Joe Clark kindly put me in touch with the Macvisionaries list (and vice-versa), it turns out that using the official documentation probably isn't the best way to learn how to use Voiceover. Although the points above are still generally valid, with help from the list, I will post an update soon. One point that will be corrected is that some of the difficulty with keyboard controls can be overcome by locking the 'Voiceover keys', cntl-cmd. In the mean time, if you are interested in learning how to use Voiceover, make sure that you start from the install process rather than reading the manual first, and check out the newly set up Macpedia wiki.