A Review of Microsoft Magnifier and Narrator
By Veli-Pekka Tätilä
Alasdair - broken links and unavailable files have been removed from this page and are lost forever.
Since Windows 95 Microsoft have been actively developing accessibility in their operating systems as wel as in many popular Microsoft software packages such as MS Office. Additionally, Microsoft have set many accessibility standards like Microsoft active accessibility (MSAA) and speech application programming interface (SAPI). As a result of Microsoft's active role in accessibility, current Windows operating systems contain basic accessibility aids such as a magnifier (found inlater versions of 95 as well as in 98, 98SE, ME, 2000 and XP) and a screen reader (Windows 2000 and XP only). But how well do these aids work in real life, as even Microsoft admit that they are pretty basic and won't be for everyone. You'll soon find out.Skip to the Narrator Review
Microsoft Magnifier is a basic magnification tool which shows the magnified area in a resizable window. Unlike Close View or Zoom (bundled with MacOS), MS Magnifier lacks full screen magnification completely and also suffers from common problems of windowed magnification. One such problem is the inability to magnify the area under the magnifier itself. MacOS X's Voice Over magnification neatly side-steps the issue by magnifying the control in-place like an auto-lens mode in Dolphin Supernova would. Magnifier also does not smooth the fonts in any way. OS X's Zoom blurs the image to make it smoother but professional magnifiers actually re-render the fonts larger so the more you zoom in the greater the resolution.
On the up side, lack of font smoothing is not a dier omition for most people and the magnification range from 1 to 9 is usually adequate. Further more, Magnifier supports inverse colors in the magnified window, which inverts the red, green and blue value of a pixel separately, This means that cyan RGB: 0, 255, 255 becomes red RGB: 255, 0, 0. Magnifier will happily track mouse and keyboard action (you can specify separately whether keyboard, mouse and editing in a text box is tracked). Tracking works even in an MS-DOS Window.
How Well Does It Work?
MS Magnifier integrates nicely in the Windows environment as it can be docked at any side of the screen where it signals to other programs that it needs that and that amount of screen space. As a result, it is rare that a dialog overlaps with the magnifier. It can sometimes happn with low resolutions, large dialogs or huge menus. One fix would be to tell the OS to cut the menus shorter and make them scroll earlier. On the bright side, the desktop icons are automatically moved upwards and arranged better when you activate magnifier which is pretty nifty. Lastly Magnifier has an option to automatically minimize the settings dialog when the program is started. And one of the strongest points of MS Magnifier is that it takes very little CPU time as it doesn't update the magnification at idle moments such as if no keyboard or mouse data is received)
However, there are some applications which are quite tricky to use with the Magnifier. Some setup programs use an always-on-top bitmap image for the setup background and this tends to cause problems. What happens is that the Magnifier goes under the bitmap image and it cannot be used in that setup program which is a quite serious flaw (there should be an always on top option). There's one workaround, which doesn't make the use of Magnifier in such setups easy but it's possible what so ever. Just activate the Start Menu and Magnifier will pop up showing also the setup dialog. However, as soon as you click on a control in the setup, the magnifier will disappear and you need to reactivate the Start Menu to be able to verify the changes made.
Magnifier works surprisingly well in Windows and in Windows applications in general. IT will gracefully track text editing, mouse and Window elements (menus, dialogs etc...) in most cases. The tracking problems that come to mind are related to the start menu. Magnifier doesn't track the Start Menu selection at all AT THE first level, and the programs sub-menu tends to overlap with the magnification window If you have lots of programs installed. I use the Start Menu as if it was a normal folder in my computer so problems in Start Menu tracking have not bothered me that much. And it seems that they have improved either the Windows GUI or MS Magnifier in Windows ME, 2000 and Xp as the magnifier seems to track the Start Menu better, now.
As with accessibility aids in general, problems begin to arise when using custom Windows applications which do not necessarily have standard windows controls. I have an electronic encyclopedia on my laptop and as most of the controls are custom, magnifier's tracking doesn't work at all with these controls. One has to use the mouse to manually focus the magnification in important areas. Bear in mind that nearly all professional magnifiers suffer from this, too.
If you want a basic, simple, window-based magnifier which takes only little CPU Microsoft Magnifier fits the bill. However, it doesn't support full screen magnification which comes in handy when viewing images and in using a heavily graphical or fully console based application, and some people generally prefer full screen to windowed mode as well. Magnifier also has some minor problems like the inability to magnify under itself and some tracking issues. Despite these shortcomings, Magnifier is a positive surprise from Microsoft.
If you want to try out other freeware, shareware and commercial
magnifiers, you can go to:
Narrator is Microsoft's free and simple screen reader supporting Microsoft's SAPI (speech application programming interface) and MSAA (microsoft acctive accessibility). Unlike in commercial screen readers, you don't have much control over what Narrator reads and what it doesn't, you can only specify whether Narrator will automatically read the contents of new dialogs and whether it will echo your key pressses. And that's it. NO control over punctuation (every special character will unfortunately be read) or abbreviations (it will speak all built-in abbreviations). Not to mention the ability to spell words or lines, or automatically read the contents of a whole document without having to scroll manually line by line. Fortunately, you can have Narrator re-read the contents of a window a screenful at a time and it will also read what's currently under the keyboard cursor. Though doc read and other such features are essential in daily use, Narrator is ment to be only a basic access aid for fixing computer problems and thus the lack of such features is understandable but unfortunate, too.
Actually, there are two slightly different versions of Narrator, one shipping with Windows 2000 and the other with Windows XP. The XP version has SAPI 5.1 support but, on the other hand, no support for SAPI 4 synths which means most of the speech synths out there. This is a very big minus in my opinion. Even more so, if you consider the fact that oddly enough, they don't offer real support for even SAPI 5. More about this later on.
The Windows 2000 version of Narrator supports Microsoft SAPI 4.0 for speech output and thus also most of the commercial speech synths. By default, one of Microsoft's voices, Sam, is installed with both versions of Narrator. And in the 2k version of Narrator you can add other Microsoft TTS voices (like Mary, Mike and robosoft) and also other, usually commercial SAPI 4.0 compatible speech synthesizers. it is also possible to use languages other than English for speech output, although Narrator will display an error message about this. Besides, Narrator's prompting (saying the names of the window elements, states of check boxes etc...) is still in English so it sounds kind of funny with a Finnish speech synth for instance. Still, it's a nice feature to have a Finnish speech synth of your choice in Narrator for reading the text in IRC for instance.
How well does it work?
Generally speaking, Narrator works OK in standard dialogs, windows and menus and also in Windows Explorer. It reads control labels, types and states as expected. However, even in Windows, there are some parts that won't work well at all. Many IE-based management tools such as System Restore are difficult to use, and the 2k version reads the properties dialog fields in the wrong order. This is quite a bad bug considering that it must be one of the most heavily used dialogs in the whole OS.
However, application support for other than the core applications is pretty poor. Narrator won't read any HTML content in Microsoft's Internet Explorer unless you use the read window keyboard shortcut, and in Outlook Express no message text is read. In addition, only the first column is read in OE's multi-column message views and in Explorer's details view. The only practical way to use IE or OE with narrator is to copy the text you want to read to the clipboard. It is true that the read window command can read some HTML but if the links are on the top, it can be an annoying experience. But fortunately Narrator is able to read some Flash pages via Active Accessibility which is something that most older screen readers cannot do. Lastly, the fact that Narrator doesn't really work with IE has much severe consequences than you might think at first: all content requiring Internet Explorer such as Windows help, Microsoft's lit (e-book) viewer and others are pretty inaccessible with Narrator. Narrator doesn't read Windows help articles without clicking on the article and using the read window command, for instance, because Windows help is actually compressed HTML and IE is used to view all HTML-based content in Windows.
Non-Microsoft application support is generally pretty poor, too. Largely because of the lack of a virtual cursor, which is a pseudo-cursor you can use to read the contents of a window as if it was a text box. mIRC, for instance, cannot be used with Narrator, as accessing the window to which IRC messages are printed would require a virtual cursor. Some applications that have a complex user interface such as the Cakewalk sequencers won't work well with Narrator either. However, some audio and many other programs willl work fine. It¨s really hard to assess beforehand how accessible a given app will be with Narrator. Sonme custom looking but well written apps will, such as the TerraTec EWS88 MT Mixer. I was positively astonished to discover this.
One gripe about Narrator's screen reading are the announcements it gives when it's telling you about check boxes and other control elements. These announcements have clearly not been thought very well. Here's an example, this is what Narrator might say about a check box: "check box. not selected, use space to select". Not many people will want Narrator's continuous advice on what keyboard shortcuts to use, and professional screen readers don't offer such advice either when announcing the user interface controls. Supernova, for example, would just say unselected checkbox. It would be wiser to have the selection state before the control type. If all the controls are of the same type and the selection value is what matters, this saves a bit of time. But then again Narrators way of saying the state last is highly regular, in a way. In brief, Narrator's announcements are really frustraiting but luckuly you quickly learn to listen to only the important stuff.
Some times the built-in acronyms and abbreviations tend to be quite irritating as Narrator will always use the abbreviation or acronym even if it was out of context. Here's an example, when Narrator encounters the text "ms", it will always say "milliseconds". In professional screen readers, there are no or little built-in abbreviations because the manifacturers want you to be able to read all kinds of texts, and that's why a good screen reader will just say "MS" rather than "milliseconds" or "Microsoft".
Musings on Speech Quality
I think Microsoft's speech synth sounds quite good, almost as good as the MacinTalk Pro on the Mac. However, Apple have made significant progress in terms of intelligibility and naturalness. Narrator's for manipulating the voices are limited, however, just pitch, speed and volume. And the ranges of these controls are from 1 to 9, I would have liked to have a larger range for some other non-MS speech synths. Fortunately the ranges are chosen a bit better in the XP version. But the real down sides of Microsoft's speech are poor pronounciation compared to professional screen readers and unclear speech. I can listen to Supernova's synthesized speech a lot faster than I can listen to Microsoft's speech synths for the two reasons I mentioned above.
I've noticed they've somewhat improved the screen reading in the XP version, though . The number of built-in abbreviations has significantly dropped and it seems they've slightly enhanced the speech as well. The intonation of the speech doesn't vary that wildly as it did in the 2k version of Narrator, which greatly helps in listening the speech vary fast. In addition, the sound quality and pronounciation of the SAPI 5 voices are significantly better, I detected no nasty clicks in vowel sounds as was the case with som of Microsoft's SAPI 4 voices (notably Sam and Mike). On the other hand, Microsoft has tuned the voice controls to be more suitable to normal use, which is a minus, because you cannot any more listen to the speech as fast as was possible in the 2k version. Also, SAPI 5 does not include any of the funny or strange voices that came with SAPI 4. These include robotic voices and voices with reverberation. Both of these seem to be based on some cheap, software controllable delays but they were nice all together.
Early in this review, I promissed to talk more about what has gone horribly wrong with the XP version of Narrator. I received an e-mail some time ago telling that the person in question couldn't find the other SAPI 5 voices in Narrator. So I went ahead and installed the other MS SAPI 5 voices on my machine, looked at the voice dialog in Narrator and to my surprise found only MS Sam, the default voice, in there. I then fired up Supernova, my real screen reader, and looked for the other SAPI 5 voices, they were fully functional and in deed there. Hmmm...
So let's face it: the only SAPI 5 voice usable is Microsoft Sam, the XP version of Narrator deliberately ignores all the other MS voices let alone other speech engines or those engines supporting foreign languages. Why did they have to do this? The only things that come to mind are that they thought one voice would be enough and also wanted to avoid problems with other speech engines such as prompting in a wrong language, different pitch settings and so on . This theory is further backed up by the fact that Narrator was design to be a basic screen reader helping in troubleshooting situations. Still, I think it would have been nice to give us users the freedom of experimenting.
Other Interesting Bits
I was recently in contact with a guy who had been developing Narrator and learned a lot about Narrator. Basically he would have liked to make Narrator a real screen reader but unfortunately Microsoft wanted it to be a basic accessibility aid that should be used alongside other, real screen readers. Narrator's faults are not because of poor design, it was design to be a basic screen reader, nothing more nothing less. And we are not dealing with a newbie designer here, suffice it to say that he had been working with Dolphin who make really fine accessibility software. By the way, the XP version of Narrator was not designed by this guy I talked about earlier, he worked only with the 2k version.
One reason why Microsoft didn't want to go with a full-fledged screen reader is that the competitors were afraid of a free alternative shipped with Microsoft operating systems. This is because most commercial screen reader authors get most of there sales through some agencies, so they'd lose a lot of money if those agencies decided that the free MS screen reader was good enough for there clients. Still this explanation seems sort of unlikely to me personally. MS certainly had no such ethics wehn they integrated their browser in the OS in fighting Netscape. Apple has had to add accessibility themselves because the only Mac screen reader maker was not able to produce anything for OS X. I hope to be able to review the Aplle screen reader, Voice Over, at some point. It is lightyears ahead of Narrator but very far from the professional Windows readers, too.
Narrator has a strangely contradictory mix of would-be professional and really amateurish screen reading features. For using simple Windows applications and Windows Explorer Narrator is decent. However, I really cannot recommend it for Internet use. The same is true of many other third party applications, too. Narrator should really have a virtual cursor for improving accessibility and the announcements for user interface gadgets should be reworked to be shorter and more informative. But then again, I emphasize that Narrator was designed to be simple and easy and in this new light, it's drawbacks don't seem to be that serious. If one feature be added to Narrator in Vista, though, I wish it was virtual cursoring because it really can make the difference in most inaccessible software. One additional point is that Narrator is also pretty light in comparison to other screen readers and because of this reason is well suited for running in the background even in CPU intensive audio and graphics applications.
Narrator's speech support in Windows 2000 is quite good as it can use external speech synths even with other languages. the XP version can use only one voice, so a really big minus to Microsoft for this, though. The prompting would really need to be localized, the resolution of the speech controls should be tweaked, and the speech made more clear not to mention that pronounciation needs lots of developing as well.
I can recommend Narrator for basic Windows use. But for Web-surfing, e-mail, word processing, reading e-books, using music and graphics applications, get a real screen reader.