By Christopher O’Meally
For blind users, the choice between a Mac or a pc can be a daunting one. Trying to decide what computer would best fit the needs of the user can be a challenge in some situations, so This article will explain why the Mack could be a viable solution and what to look at when making this choice.
The Mac’s operating system is quite different from Windows, but easy to learn. Let’s take a look at some of its features.
When logging in, the desktop is the first window that appears. Unlike Windows, the Mac’s desktop does not contain much; most of the shortcuts and files are located elsewhere. In addition, the computer’s hard drive and devices that are connected will appear in this window. Digging deeper in to the finder, the user folder is shown first. The main user directory contains documents, downloads, music, movies, pictures, and frequently used folders specific to the user logged on at the time. . The finder is composed of three main Windows, with a tool bar and 3 buttons at the top. The tool bar contains navigation buttons and these help control navigation in the finder. Next is the side bar. This is used to quickly switch between the most popular folders on the computer. By default, they will be the folders mentioned in the user folder, as well as any network locations and external devices. Things can be added to the sidebar, but beware that doing this can make it a bit cluttered. Next is the vertical splitter. This just moves the file group left or right depending on what the slider is set to.
Note: this is strictly a visual thing; it doesn’t make a difference when listening with a screen reader,.
Next is the file group. Once a folder is selected in the sidebar, enter the file group to browse these files. Most, if not all finder Windows will be laid out this way. This is because if there are many elements on the screen, it is not necessary to navigate through all of one group to get to another. This eliminates the need for tabbing and groping around crowded and complicated dialog boxes and interfaces. Selecting a file brings up the quick look window. If the file is large, the size will be displayed. If the file is video or audio, it will start playing. That comes in handy when browsing unnamed tracks, so it is not necessary to open a new program just to sample them.
In Windows, the equivalent is Windows explorer. Once logged in, as on the Mac, the desktop is the starting location, which in most cases is a bit more cluttered than the Mac’s. Most program shortcuts and folders will be put here. Most programs will place icons on the desktop by default, but this setting can be changed in setup. But all in all, it serves the same purpose. Unlike with the Mac, there is no quick look option when viewing files. The properties window in the applications context menu gives a bit of feedback on the file, but quick look gives faster feedback when it’s really needed.
A useful feature of OS 10 is the dock. Any IPhone users will know what that feature is. It is a place at the bottom of the screen to store the most used applications and folders, so navigation to them is possible, no matter where the user is located in the operating system.
In Windows, a fast way to get to applications is the start menu. The start menu will show the programs used most frequently, as well as letting users choose the most recent files opened in a particular program.
A notable feature of the Mac is spotlight. Searching by file type, name, and location are some of its basic features. Locations can be added and removed, and external drives as well as network shares can be included or excluded in the indexing preferences.
This can be done by opening spotlight with command space, then command comma to open preferences.
The search bar in Windows can also be customized to include or exclude file locations and types. This can be done by typing indexing options in the search bar, or navigating to start, then control panel, and typing indexing options in the search box.
The menu bar in OS 10 is a way of browsing most options in the system, and the application that is currently open. First is the apple menu, where the user can view their system information, perform software updates, get to the app store, force quit applications, and shut down the computer. the application menu, which changes names depending on the application one has open, will always be there. The file, edit, and view menus normally stay in the menu bar, unless the application does not include them, then the menu disappears. But if an application requires a specific menu, it will appear as Windows change. The second layer of the menu bar, or the menu extras, includes Wi-Fi settings, blue tooth, date and time, battery status, another way of navigating to spotlight, time Machine settings, and a drop box menu, if Drop box is installed. To navigate to the menu bar, press command + option + m, and on the track pad, it’s a two finger double tap on the top of the track pad.
There are many screen reader options in Windows. A popular screen reader, developed by Freedom Scientific, is called JAWS, or Job Access With Speech. Although it is a bit pricy, for the most part, the buyer gets what they pay for. Virtually every aspect of Windows is accessible with this screen reader; however, like all others, there are a pool of applications that it does not work with. Every aspect of the program is customizable: speech rate, punctuation announcements, verbosity, typing feedback, and braille output. Additionally, there is the option of downloading several high quality voices for it. From a user aspect, the main pitfall of jaws is that it locks up quite a bit. Many Jaws users have to restart it more often than other screen readers. As mentioned above, the program is expensive. The professional version is priced at $1,095.00, and jaws standard is priced at $895.00. Note: This does not include the remote desktop features or Service maintenance agreements (SMA’s).
Jaws was my first screen reader. I started using it as a kid, and so have had about 15 years of experience with it. It has come a long way in this time, and I find that I can get almost anything done with it. I have ran in to a bit of accessibility issues, primarily in college, but again, most screen readers would have issues with the programs I had to use. For example, Auto cad is visual, so a screen reader may have problems telling me what is going on in a set of blueprints. Things that I have observed pushed me to start trying other screen readers. Jaws tends to be a bit resource hungry, and when I went shopping for a new computer, I found I needed to buy a pc with higher specifications, to help prevent jaws from locking up and consuming a lot of my resources that I could use for other things. I have had it lock up on me a lot. Sometimes I have simply had to restart jaws, sometimes I had to sit for a few minutes and it would fix it self, others I had to completely restart the computer, which more times than not, caused me to lose work.
The next option in Windows is NVDA, or Non Visual Desktop Access. This is a screen reader that is made by blind people, for blind people. Like jaws, virtually every aspect of Windows is accessible, and like others, highly customizable. It provides braille display support, and it can be used in over 40 languages. Not only can NVDA be installed, but it can be extracted it to a portable storage device, and run on any computer. However, it has several pitfalls. For example, the default voice can be a bit hard to understand at times. Also, it has limited braille support, and interrupting the speech can be difficult sometimes. But it is updated often , and, best of all, it’s free.
As I mentioned before, I have tried many different screen readers, and NVDA has come a long way for freeware. Most of the time I use it, I am using it on another’s computer, simply because of the portability feature. I keep a flash drive with it installed in my pocket, and if someone needs me to fix something, I just pop it in, and I am on my way. Some things I have noticed are, the voice is a bit metallic, it can be hard to understand at higher speeds, the braille support is lacking, and interrupting speech does not work half the time, but all in all, you get a lot out of this free screen reader. I have actually visited the sight and donated to the development team.
The screen reader for the Mac is called voiceover. Voiceover is integrated in to all apple devices, and the Mac is no exception. Similar to Windows screen readers, Voiceover makes every aspect of the system accessible. Users who are familiar with the iPhone’s interface will have an easier time learning it, but like all screen readers, there is a learning curve. To start voice over, simply hit command + F5. It is possible to learn voiceover on your own, because of the quick start guide provided with the screen reader. It can teach the basic features of voiceover, such as navigation, settings, changing input and output, and how to find more about the advanced features of the screen reader. What sets voice over apart from others, is along with the keyboard commands, it offers screen reader specific multi touch gestures on the computers track pad. ( Note that the computer must have a multi touch track pad to use this feature. Older Mac’s will not support it without an external magic track pad.) Also, pressing vo+h, or command+option+h, will bring up a menu where you can find out everything there is to find out about this screen reader, and its vast list of commands. Voiceover does have a few pitfalls. The keyboard commanders tend to be a bit frustrating. Anything over a 3 key combination is a bit much, and people who may have dexterity limitations in the fingers may have problems with the interface. The commands can be changed, but by default, it is difficult. The support for applications not posted to the app store is limited, but improving.
I started using mobile VoiceOver 3 years ago, when the IPhone 4 was launched. It worked quite well, although I noticed a few bugs that apple fixed in later updates. At that time, I didn’t even know voice over on the Mac existed. I got the chance to play with one about 2 years ago, and let’s just say I was blown away. I made the transition last summer, and I have not been disappointed. Because of my experience using voice over on my phone, a lot of the features and commands did not take long to figure out, although I did have to ask quite a few questions from the users that I now teach. I still find new features of voice over, after owning my Mac for over a year. But if you take a look at voice over, compared to jaws, it has come a long way in a short amount of time. Jaws has been out for over 15 years, and voice over has been out for just over 5. The progress apple has made happened fairly quickly, and they are still expanding on the infant screen reader.
The applications built in to OS 10 help the user optimize work flow, and they are all fairly easy to use with voice over. Most can be learned quickly, while others take a bit of hair pulling to learn the interface with nested groups.
One of the most used applications on the Mac is safari. Safari is the default internet browser. All aspects of safari are accessible with voice over, and the interface is well organized. Information only appears as needed, and using your roader settings make web navigation easy and efficient. The first element is the tool bar. The tool bar contains items like navigation buttons, the downloads window, and sharing items. Continuing on are the open tabs, the search window, and the HTML window. Interacting with this element will place the voice over curser in to the web page. As mentioned before, when navigating the web, using the roader settings allow you to move by heading, link, edit fields, tables, buttons, and many more forms of navigation categories.
The default internet browser in Windows is internet explorer. Most elements in this application are accessed by tabbing, and navigation is easy. But with my own personal experience, it tends to lock up and crash more than safari, and some web elements are more accessible on its OS 10 counter-part.
Mail is, well, the default mail application built in to OS 10. The application is simple, Multiple mail boxes are easy to manage, And it has many features you can manipulate to keep clutter to a minimum, and organization to a maximum. The keyboard commands are easy to memorize, and elements and groups are clearly labeled. It is one of the applications that you can just open and use, without much frustration. All aspects of the program work with voice over, apple made nested tables and groups easier than most applications, and information only appears as needed.
I personally don’t have any modern experience with mail applications in Windows, as my last use of outlook was back when xp was at its prime.
Word processing on the Mac and its accessibility is widely debated in the blind community, and many will say that it is not possible or productive. For the most part, this is true. Pages, apple’s word processing application, is a clunky application, requiring a lot of interacting, switching in and out of quick navigation, and fooling with popups that voice over doesn’t even see 90 percent of the time. Learning this application is possible, but Using it in a school setting would not be possible without turning a person’s hair gray. An alternate application that takes most, if not all of the features of pages, is IText express. This application is capable of advanced formatting, and it gives quite a bit of feedback in a simple and efficient manner. The application is structured similarly to safari, with a tool bar at the top, elements underneath, and a window to interact with at the bottom of the application where the text editing window is located. The tool bar contains buttons like cut, copy, paste, undo, redo, and other basic editing tools. Below that are various groups and combo boxes. You can change the text color, background color, font size, font style, paragraph formatting, line spacing, and anything else you could expect from a major word processing application. I have personally tested most functions of the application, and it works well with voice over. The interface is simple, while still displaying all information needed for spell checking, viewing text attributes, and advanced formatting.
The Windows counterpart is Microsoft word. This application works well with all popular screen readers on the Windows platform, and it performs all word processing tasks well.
Numbers is apple’s spreadsheet application, and its voice over support has come a long way in the past year. Like the other applications in the IWork package, numbers was not accessible at all in the past. Because of this, the Mac was not a viable solution for a blind user. The voice over support is there, and basic spreadsheet editing and navigation works quite well. Voice over announces all of the information you need, and it works some, but not all graphing and formula creation. According to a member of the apple accessibility team, “we are working on voice over support in the IWork package, so users should expect major voiceover improvements in the update of IWork in the fall.”
The Windows counterpart is Microsoft xl. Xl works well with screen readers, and simple graphs, tables, and advanced formulas are easy to use. Screen readers tend to have trouble with the more complicated graphs and charts, but in an academic situation, xl is easy to learn, and simple once you know how.
Keynote, the third application in the IWork package, is the presentation creation application in OS 10. The interface is like most on the Mac, simple, and organized, but some elements of the application are hard to read. The full screen slideshow window is practically invisible with voice over, and seeing how this is an important feature of the program, I would not recommend expecting a lot from keynote until its update in the fall.
Its Windows counterpart is Microsoft power point. Power point is completely accessible with most screen readers, and slides are easy to edit, organize, and view, even in the full screen slideshow mode.
People may argue that buying a Mac is cheaper because they do not have to purchase jaws. The fact of the matter is, there are free solutions like Non Visual Desktop Access (NVDA), witch can do 90 percent of what jaws can. But right now, the current MacBook air compared to a similarly configured PC will be about the same price. Windows 8 will play ketchup at this point. SO it all depends on the user’s preference, how much people are willing to research software, and if they are willing to sit down and learn a new screen reader. emperorMuzz, a user on www.applevis.com says the following.
“Although the following is not entirely true, this is how conventionally things have evolved so make up your own mind: Are you a gamer? Do you make, use or engage in a lot of flash content? Do you have a lot of videos in old AVI, WMV or divx format? Do you use a Blackberry or Android device? Are you still using that old Nokia phone with Talks or Zooms installed? If your answer is yes, then you need a PC.
Are you into making or editing music? Do you edit and shoot films? Are you interested in photography and photo editing? Do you own an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch? If your answer to the above questions is yes, then you are suited to a Mac.
If you want to fiddle with your Machine's hardware a lot, get a PC. If you want to do old school software development, get a Mac. If you want to have a lean, mean, sleek operating system not bloated with unnecessary software or drivers you may never use, thereby improving your system's speed: it's a PC. If you want things to just work out of the box for almost all basic tasks from the word go: get a Mac. Productivity (word, excel, PowerPoint, pdf): PC is better. Web browsing and creative work flow?: much better on a Mac. Managing and making a website that is cheap and easy to maintain?: PC. Want a stylish, modern standards compliant website? Mac. Want to choose from a range of developers, programs, cost prices, from almost all across the web? PC. Want a one stop shop for all your apps (nearly all your apps anyway!) : Mac. Working a lot with a mouse or keyboard? PC Want a touch screen or track pad? Mac. Working with other people who may not be techy or comfortable with different technologies? PC. Working alone, or with designers? Mac. Want cheaper costs up front? PC. Want longer lasting hardware with significantly reduced after care costs? Mac. Want an unlimited online resource to almost any program written on earth from a worldwide community? PC. Want excellent personal assistance in a shop setting? Mac.”
Let me expand on that a bit from my own personal experience. I am an IPhone user, and I will say that if you did decide to purchase a Mac, the devices talk to one another so well. As soon as I linked my Mac to my I cloud account, all of my contacts, my mail boxes, my mobile pages documents, spreadsheets, and my pictures downloaded on the spot. I am in to producing, and I have had a lot less of an issue using garage band vs. using sonar on the pc. I do have a lot of media that was originally stored on a Windows computer, and quick time cannot play them, but a simple application called VLC player resolved that issue fairly quickly. There are a few unlabeled buttons, but when you sit down and press each one to figure out what it does, a bit of button labeling was all it took. If you don’t want to take the time to download programs and drivers to allow your computer to write to ntfs drives, or to play all of your .avi files, a Windows computer is for you, and I still have a Windows box at home that is used for entertainment only. As a person who is in to computers, I love tinkering with hardware. Sadly, big brother apple doesn’t want just anyone metalling around inside the shiny Mac’s, so it can be a bit harder to get your tinker on, so again, this is why I keep a pc laying around for all of my experimental pleasures. But because of the fact that the Mac just works right out of the box, and all aspects of the operating system are completely accessible without any further instillations make it a hassle free computer to pick up and use for the average person. Expanding on the programming segment of the article above, I find Xcode to be complicated, and I personally have not taken the time to sit down and figure it out. A podcast does explain how the interface works though, and it can be found at http://Maccessibility.net/2013/01/17/the-Maccessibility-dev-podcast-1-using-xcode-with-voiceover/
Productivity has always been an interesting topic on the Mac, and many will argue that it is better on the pc, and for the most part this is the case. But if you’re like me, and you love making things work, you will find that with a combination of programs, it can be done effectively. For me, web browsing works a lot better on my Mac, mainly because safari doesn’t crash on me as much as internet explorer does, but that particular activity depends on preference. As to the one stop shop for apps, Windows 8 now includes an ever expanding app store, and it is just as easy to use. As of late, the cost of the Mac vs. the pc with similar configurations has virtually equalized, though I have had a much better customer service experience with apple over any other company. Its more like they are building a relationship with me rather than working for a pay check. I will say though, that on the Windows side, it is a lot easier to find online help if something breaks than with OS 10, just because Windows is much more open to tweaks, hacks, and exploration.
If something breaks, or if people have a question about their respective screen readers, it helps to be around people who know how to use the technology. Also, it is a good idea to find online resources that can answer most questions that may arise. More likely than not, if there is a problem with your screen reader, other users will be using a Windows computer with jaws, NVDA, or Window Eyes. Several online resources exist for these, and phone support is also easy to come by in most cases.
Support for voiceover is out there, if people know where to look and who to talk to.
A helpful resource many blind Mac users utilize for mobile voiceover, as well as voice over on the Mac, is www.applevis.com. It is a web site with guides, app reviews, tips, and podcasts on everything voiceover. Its content is provided by apple device users, for apple device users. They offer solutions to anything from productivity issues, entertainment to coding and advanced usage.
Mac Access.net is a web site containing a helpful list serve, as well as podcasts and guides.
Mac for the Blind is also a member run forum that has podcasts, articles and useful links.
The process of choosing a computer can be a bit complicated. It can be made easy by taking a few things in mind before making such a major purchase.
Some people just want to be able to pick up a computer and use it. Some are comfortable with learning new technology and welcome the idea of venturing in to new territory. The Mac is new. Some processes take a bit of time to get used to, and the Machine can be really flexible once they are learned. But for users who just want to pick up a computer and use it, especially if they are buying for school may find the interface a bit challenging.
The Mac is a bit expensive. Apple likes to always include the latest and greatest in the Mac line, and the physical features of the computers, while appealing, add to the price as well. Most likely, a computer that has a good balance of power and affordability will be around $1200.00, so making sure pricing is considered can be a critical step.
Meeting the user’s needs
Depending on the field of study, doing things on the Mac is just easier. Working with music production, graphics, and other audio and video intensive applications tend to be apples strengths, and the fact that most of the applications used for this are accessible with voice over make the Mac a good choice for the arts.
VoiceOver has come a long way in the short time it has been around, and users who are comfortable with the IPhone will have no problem picking up the usage of the screen reader. Those who are used to the Windows platform will argue that it just does not compare, and in some situations this is true, but taking the time and learning the interface will allow you to handle most situations on the Mac.