In July 1995, the National Federation of the Blind released a
unique set of consumer reviews it had compiled, covering most
screen readers on the market today. This document summarizes the
complete text by excerpting the conclusions and contact
information sections related to each product, as well as the
cross-product conceptual sections. I have divided it into two
messages: the first on DOS screen readers and the second on
Distributed by Jamal Mazrui
National Council on Disability
SCREEN REVIEW PROGRAMS:
COMPREHENSIVE REVIEWS OF SPEECH ACCESS PROGRAMS FOR THE BLIND
Produced by the
International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind
National Federation of the Blind
David Andrews, Editor
National Center for the Blind
1800 Johnson Street
Baltimore, MD 21230
Telephone (410) 659-9314
BBS (410) 752-5011
Copyright_ by the National Federation of the Blind, 1995
With over twenty choices on the market, the decision of
which screen review program to purchase is an important and
difficult one for any blind or visually impaired computer user.
Further, the new user isn't going to know which features are
important and which features are not; he/she is not even going to
know what questions to ask. This document will provide some
background information and provide reviews of all of the commonly
encountered screen review programs which are currently available
for IBM and compatible computers running MS-DOS, Microsoft
Windows Version 3.1, IBM's OS/2 and Warp, as well as the
Macintosh running Apple's System 7.x.
WHAT IS A SCREEN REVIEW PROGRAM?
The piece of software we will be discussing throughout this
document is generically known as a "screen review program," a
"screen reading program," or a "screen reader." We will refer to
it as a "screen review program" since we feel that this is the
clearest and most unambiguous reference to avoid confusion with a
specific product that uses the "Screen Reader" phrase in its
Essentially, a screen review program is the software that
controls the speech synthesizer and allows a blind person to use
a computer interactively in real time to run most off-the-shelf
commercially available applications.
Two components are needed for a blind person to use a
computer. The first component is the speech synthesizer
(sometimes called the voice synthesizer). This is the actual
hardware that produces the voice you hear. It can be either
internal or external, in the case of IBM and compatible
computers; that is, it is an expansion circuit card that fits
into one of the expansion slots inside your computer, or it is an
external unit that resides outside your computer. External
synthesizers are attached to your computer via either a serial or
parallel connection. A serial connection is the most common by
far. In the case of the Macintosh, the speech is produced by a
chip which is built into the computer.
The second component needed in a screen review program is a
memory-resident program, also called a TSR (terminate and stay
resident) program. That is, it is a program that is run once,
establishes itself, and returns control to the computer. It is,
however, still present and operating so that it can do its work.
A screen review program does a number of things:
1) It allows the user to control the synthesizer: change
volume, pitch, and speed of the voice, as well as to shut up
the synthesizer. Do not underestimate the value of the shut
up or quiet command; you will use it more than any other.
How quickly it acts is in part a function of the speech
synthesizer itself and in part a function of the screen
review program. It is, however, a very important
2) It gives you a set of commands to read and re-read the
screen. You can think of the synthesizer as an audio
printer. It prints or says all output from the computer.
However, once it says something, the text is gone. This
makes it difficult to use an application such as a word
processor interactively. Thus, the screen review program
gives you a set of commands to read by character, word,
line, sentence, paragraph, screen, page, and/or document.
Not all programs have all commands, but all screen review
programs will allow you to re-read the screen by a variety
of text units that you can choose.
3) It has mechanisms for tailoring their output to speak
correctly with specific applications. This takes the form
of automatic analysis of the screen to determine what should
be spoken and when, and/or setting up a so-called
configuration that tells the screen review program how to
work with a specific application. Most of the programs fall
into this latter category; that is, they require manual
configuration by the user, the developer, or a third party.
However, configurations for most common programs exist and
are distributed with the individual screen review programs
and/or are available on bulletin board services operated by
the developers or others. If further configuration is
necessary, the results can be saved and used again, so
configuration is generally a one-time process.
How Were the Evaluations Performed?
In the following evaluations of screen review programs, we
are striving for user-oriented perspectives. All of the reviews
were done by blind persons who actually use the screen review
programs in their day-to-day work. The evaluators were given a
set of guidelines and criteria to use when writing their reviews.
The resulting reviews were then edited by David Andrews, who is
Director of the International Braille and Technology Center for
the Blind. As such, Mr. Andrews has used all of the screen
review programs on the market and is able to provide a unifying
perspective and set of experiences, through which all of the
reviews were passed.
Sighted assistance was only used in the evaluation of
Microsoft Windows programs. This area is so new that, on
occasion, things happen on the screen that are not reflected in
speech output. A sighted consultant was used to help identify
these problem areas and also to assist with the application
Reviewers used the following guidelines:
1. General description: How does the program work? How are
commands laid out? What is the logic of the command structure?
2. What speech synthesizers are supported? Is indexing
supported, and if so how well does it work? Does it shut up the
synthesizer efficiently and quickly?
3. Requirements: Are there any hardware and/or software
requirements? Is a particular version of DOS required, etc.?
4. Installation: How do you install the program? Is
installation easy? Do you need sighted assistance? Can you do
it if you don't already have some speech up?
5. Memory requirements: How much memory does it take? Can it
be moved high? Can it run in expanded or extended memory? Can
you reduce the memory footprint? Can you remove it from memory?
6. Navigation: How do you navigate around the screen? Discuss
reading units, character, word, sentence, line, paragraph,
screen, entire document, etc. Is there a review mode? An audio
cursor? Can you route the real cursor or the review/audio
7. Settings: How do you set things like speech rate, tone,
pitch, punctuation level, capitalization alert, etc.?
8. Configuring: Do you need to configure? How do you do it?
How difficult is it? How do you define windows, silent areas,
9. Monitoring: Can the program monitor different areas of the
screen and notify you of changes? How do you set it up? How
well does it work? What options are there--beeping, chaining
10. Alternative cursors: Can the program track an alternate
cursor, highlight bar, ASCII character, soft cursor, etc.? How
do you set the feature up? How well does it work?
11. Attributes: How do you identify attributes like background
and foreground color, extended ASCII characters, highlighted
text, bold and/or underlined text, etc.? How can you use this
12. Searching: Can you search for things on the screen,
character strings, attributes, etc.? If so, how well does this
feature work? What can you do with it?
13. Keyboard: How is the key response? Are there keyboard
conflicts, and how can you get around them? Is there a
pass-through key? Can you tell if the caps lock key is down?
Can you find out the status of other toggle keys?
14. Macros: Does the program have built-in macro capability?
If so, describe. Is there provision for macros from an external
15. Pre-defined configurations: Does the program come with
pre-defined configurations for popular software packages? If so,
how many and what? Are there other configurations available via
the company, dealers, or a BBS? How well do any available
16. Autoloading: Does the program autoload configurations? If
so, how does it work, and how well does it work? If not, what
other provision is there?
17. Pronunciation: Can you change how things are pronounced?
Is there an exceptions dictionary? If so, how does it work, and
how well does it work?
18. Responsiveness: How responsive is the software? Does it
require a fast machine? Does it eat up lots of CPU cycles? Does
it adversely affect other applications? Can it run with a
multitasker such as Double DOS or DESQVIEW?
19. Support for sighted people: Do the menus appear on the
screen or just in speech? How well does it help a sighted
assistant, highlighting review cursor, etc.? Can it easily be
shut up if a sighted person must use your computer?
20. Documentation: How is the documentation? What formats
does it come in? How good is it?
21. On-line help: Is there on-line help? How does it work?
How good is it? Is it context-sensitive?
22. Technical support: Is there technical support and help
available from the company? Is it toll-free? How good is it?
Please note that the above guidelines are for DOS-based
screen review programs. Guidelines for those programs that are
used with a Graphical User Interface, i.e. Microsoft Windows,
OS/2, and the Macintosh will be listed in a later section.
The following persons wrote reviews (all or in part) or
provided assistance and advice:
David Andrews Mike Freeman
Brian Buhrow Steve Jacobson
Curtis Chong Lloyd Rasmussen
Dr. Tim Cranmer Cathy Schroeder
Frank DiPalermo Ellen Waechtler
Sharon Duffy Jim Willows
Dr. Emerson Foulke Tom Wlodkowski
For clarity and uniformity in the text which follows, any
commands to be typed verbatim are quoted, e.g., "Backup."
Specific keys to be pressed or key sequences to be entered are
capitalized without quoting, e.g., ENTER or CTRL-SHIFT. Menu
titles are capitalized, e.g., "Options."
Artic Vision and Artic Business Vision are widely used
programs. They were very popular, particularly in the mid- to
late 1980's when they were probably the best things around. They
provide good performance and a rich set of features at a
reasonable price. There are some good configurations around.
The ones for WordPerfect are particularly well done and popular,
and there are lots of users from which you can get help.
On the negative side the program can be difficult to
configure. Artic Technologies has been slow to update the
programs in the past several years. They promise things early
which are a long time coming if at all, such as macros. They
have not kept up with DOS screen review features wars very well
lately, and seem to be concentrating on their Windows product and
Artic Technologies International, 55 Park Street, Suite 2, Troy,
Michigan 48083-2753; telephone (810) 588-7370; fax (810)
588-2650; BBS (810) 588-1424
Technical Support--East Coast (810) 588-1425; Technical
Support--West Coast (209) 291-3645
Prices: Artic Vision $395, Business Vision $495, SynPhonix 210
and 215 $395, SynPhonix 315 for Microchannel computers $495,
TransPort $895, TransPort with Business Vision $1295.
ASAP has made a large impact in the four years it has been
around. It was the first program to employ extensively automatic
techniques for aiding the user in reading the screen. While not
perfect, these techniques are often quite helpful, particularly
with software that you use infrequently which has a complex user
interface and software for which you don't want to take the time
to configure. The software provides good performance and a wide
variety of features, particularly with the Double Talk family of
synthesizers. The author is responsive, willing to help solve
problems, and regularly adds features at user request.
This software is updated on a regular basis. Some people
consider this to be a plus, while others think it is a minus. If
you are interested in keeping up with updates you will need to
access the Microtalk BBS regularly. Some of the commands and
processes can get a little complicated when configuring
applications. Nevertheless, there are lots of configurations
around as well as people who can help you.
Microtalk, 917 Clear Creek Drive, Texarkana, Texas 75503;
telephone (903) 832-3471; fax (903) 832-3517; BBS (903) 832-3722;
technical support (404) 299-6832
CompuSight Screen Reader
Overall, CompuSight Screen Reader isn't a bad program. It
can do just about anything a user could want. Nevertheless, it
would be difficult to recommend it to most users. It isn't
widely distributed, and there are few people in the U.S. with
experience using it. There are few, if any, configurations
available. The Dolphin synthesizers are mediocre in quality, the
program takes a good bit of memory, and some of its functions are
awkward to use.
E.V.A.S., 16 David Avenue, P.O. Box 371, Westerly, Rhode Island
02891; telephone (401) 596-3155; toll-free line (800) 872-3827;
fax (401) 596-3979
Price: CSR alone $495; Apollo II, internal, or Juno synthesizers
$995 each; one of the synthesizers with CSR $1195
After having played with a few other screen readers for
MS-DOS, this writer believes that Flipper is one of the best
designed and most versatile screen readers he's come across. In
the time he has used Flipper, there have been very few (less than
five) text-based applications that he found difficult to use with
Flipper. As he has increased in sophistication, Flipper has
grown with him. When he is presented with a new application that
he must make work with Flipper, he doesn't say, "Will this work
with Flipper?" but "How will this work with Flipper?" Flipper
itself has never crashed his machines and has always been
extremely responsive, even on the slowest computers. (This is
starting to change with regard to the later versions on PC and
PC/XT machines). The writer has had no trouble using it with
networked workstations, even those machines which were extremely
slow (a Toshiba T1200 probably falls in this category).
With all of that said, there are a couple of minor
inconveniences one might encounter when using Flipper:
1. Flipper configurations must be saved from the DOS command
line. When you are developing a new configuration, you might
find that you need to exit the application for which the
configuration is being developed in order to save the
configuration to the hard disk. This can significantly increase
the development time of a configuration if your technique is to
make small changes and save as you go so you can back them out if
they go awry.
2. The number of times a repeat character appears on the screen
before Flipper switches from saying it multiple times to counting
it is hard-coded at 4. It would be nice if this were a user-
3. Flipper version 4.06 is noticeably slower on the Toshiba T1200
than was version 2.74. There are a lot of additional features
which make it extremely useful; however, it does have a
noticeable response lag on very slow machines. This lag does not
make it unusable, and we are sure that new Flipper initiates
wouldn't notice the drag at all.
4. The 100K or so Flipper requires on the disk from which it is
started can be an inconvenience on low density floppy disks. On
the Toshibas, which have non-volatile RAM which can be used as a
boot disk, it is downright annoying. The fact that Flipper
allows you to edit the messages and menus it voices to the user
is nice, welcome, and much appreciated. The fact that it
requires those files for operation and is unable to work with
compiled defaults in the absence of those message files is
All in all, Flipper is well worth its asking price of $495
and should provide fast, reliable service for as long as you use
text-based applications under MS-DOS.
Flipper, Omnichron, 1438 Oxford Street, Berkeley, California
04709; telephone (510) 540-6455
IBM Screen Reader for DOS
IBM Corporation, Special Needs Systems, 1000 NW 51st St., Boca
Raton, Florida 33432; telephone 800-426-4832, technical support
JAWS is a powerful and flexible screen review program that
usually makes the information displayed on the screen of the
monitor easy to acquire when a speech synthesizer is used. It
handles troublesome screen displays fairly well when its default
settings are used, and it can be customized to provide precise
solutions for the problems posed by such displays. Configuration
files that prepare JAWS for use with several of the most popular
application programs, such as WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3,
Professional Write, Procomm Plus, First Choice, FormMate, and
Arkenstone Easy Scan, are supplied with the JAWS installation
disks, and other sets of configuration files may be purchased for
little more than the cost of the disks on which they are
recorded, or obtained without charge from the electronic bulletin
board maintained by Henter-Joyce.
Some people have criticized JAWS because they believe that
when "Smart Screen" is used with its default settings, it does
not always read troublesome screens as effectively as it should.
The default settings for "Smart Screen" appear to be a
consequence of the principles that have guided Henter-Joyce's
approach to the design of the program. For instance, default
settings could have been chosen that would cause "Smart Screen"
to be more selective in determining what should be spoken, but to
do so, it would be necessary to make some additional assumptions
concerning what designers of programs do to draw the sighted
operator's attention to the significant information on the
screen. The problem is that not all software designers take the
same approach in designing screen displays. If, in a particular
case, the "Smart Screen" assumptions are warranted, the screen
will be read more effectively. If they are not warranted,
reading of the screen will not be improved and may be less
The course taken by Henter-Joyce appears to make "Smart
Screen" a little less precise, but more generally useful in its
default mode by employing less stringent criteria for determining
what should be spoken, and to provide "Smart Screen" options that
are easy to learn and use in order to make adjustments on the fly
that solve the problems offered by whatever program happens to be
running at the time. As has already been mentioned, the JAWS
user who needs to make frequent use of a program for which
specific solutions to screen reading problems have not been
worked out, and who is willing to learn and use the tools
provided by JAWS for the solution of such problems, can create
configuration files that implement very precise solutions to the
screen-reading problems presented by the program in question.
Many good screen review programs are now available. In the
final analysis, deciding which screen review program to buy may
be determined more by personal preference than by objective
measures of functionality. Some users have no interest in
learning how to find their way around in the screen review
program's menu system, or in learning how to construct frames,
macros, configuration files, and the like. They are willing to
settle for less than perfect functioning, and just want a screen
review program that works well enough to meet their needs without
Others enjoy learning how to modify the performance of the
screen review program and enjoy the challenge of fine tuning it
so that it will meet their needs more precisely. Both
orientations are defensible, but those who just want to use JAWS
would doubtless be pleased if Henter-Joyce made a more
conscientious effort to develop and distribute sets of
configuration files that tame more popular application programs
than the application programs for which sets of configuration
files have so far been developed. Self-reliance is
unquestionably a virtue, but the reality is that many JAWS users
have little interest in developing the kind of self-reliance that
would allow them to design precise solutions to screen-reading
It seems to us that traditionally, JAWS has had two main
groups of users. The first group includes tinkerers with some
technical acumen and willingness to experiment, write macros,
etc. For these people, JAWS offers lots of grist for their
mills. The second group of users is either people who don't care
about such things and use applications in the best way they know
how, or people who have someone such as a rehab technologist who
sets up their system and applications and trains them. JAWS is
probably weakest at serving a middle group of users, those people
who want and are willing to learn and make some modifications,
but who aren't willing to take the time necessary to learn the
macro system and the other powerful features of JAWS. The "Smart
Screen" and "Smart Focus" with their ability to automatically
provide good output are minimizing these problems to a certain
Henter-Joyce, Inc., 2100 62nd Avenue North, St. Petersburg,
Florida 33701; telephone (813) 528-8900, toll-free (800)
336-5658; fax (813) 528-8901; BBS (813) 528-8903; CompuServe "go
All in all we would have to say that the Keynote Gold PC,
Master Touch, and Keysoft products from HumanWare are a mixed
bag. All of them have some nice features and some drawbacks. At
this time, they are probably best suited for a beginner who wants
to write with Keyword and use DOS programs a little. HumanWare
promises improvements so the program bears watching. The Touch
Tablet is a unique approach and may appeal to some. Master Touch
also is easy to use because of its extensive use of menus. Its
automatic features, speech sluggishness, and lack of
configurations could use some attention.
HumanWare, Inc., 6245 King Road, Loomis, California 95650;
telephone (916) 652-7253; fax (916) 652-7296; toll-free (800)
722-3393; BBS (916) 652-8637.
Price: Master Touch software $495, Keynote Gold PC and PCMCIA
synthesizers $950, Keynote SA external synthesizer $1245, Touch
Tablet $395, and Keysoft software $595.
PCMASTER is an interesting and unique screen review
alternative. It allows a user to employ his/her Blazie
Engineering note taking device both as a speech synthesizer and
as a computer input device. PCMASTER is straightforward and easy
On the negative side, it does not come with any
configurations for commonly used software. Some commands involve
a number of keystrokes when using Braille entry, and others are
impossible to enter, and the program does not have the breadth of
features and customization that some screen review programs
possess. Further, the program is not updated that often, and
some users have reported bugs and other problems with the
Blazie Engineering, Inc., 109 East Jarrettsville Road, Forest
Hill, Maryland 21050; telephone (410) 893-9333; fax (410)
836-5040; e-mail: Telnet to blazie.com or write to (first
name)@blazie.com where (first name) is the name of the person you
wish to reach.
While PROVOX has some interesting features, it isn't for
everyone. It offers a relatively low price, a small memory
footprint, and efficient resource utilization. If you are
running a BBS or other dedicated application, to which you need
speech access, PROVOX may be the program for you. When you
purchase PROVOX, you can also obtain a copy of the assembly
language source code, which may be of interest to new
programmers. On the negative side, it does not have all the
bells and whistles that other screen review programs have, and it
may not have the tools to be configured adequately in complex
We had an opportunity to test briefly a beta version of an
updated PROVOX, Version 6.1. It used somewhat less memory, 28K,
although this is likely to increase as features are added. It
had the ability to read pop-up boxes automatically as they
appeared, and it used some mnemonic commands such as "Prefix-s"
to read the screen, "Prefix-l" to read the current line, etc.
The program is now loaded as a device driver from the
"CONFIG.SYS" file and activated, deactivated, and changed with a
program called "PV." Finally, the ability to mark and define
sub-screens from "Direct Mode" has been restored.
KANSYS, Inc., P.O. Box 1070, Lawrence, Kansas 66044-8070;
telephone (913) 843-0351; E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Speaqualizer is the most unusual and atypical system
that we have reviewed. We wouldn't recommend it for most people
who are word processing, using a modem, and the like, on a
regular basis. However, it does have its niche, and if you need
it, nothing else will do. If you have a very tight memory
situation, are involved in complex terminal emulation situations,
and/or need access to your system prior to the operating system
being up, nothing else will do.
American Printing House for the Blind, 1839 Frankfort Avenue,
P.O. Box 6085, Louisville, Kentucky 40206; telephone (502)
895-2405; fax (502) 895-1509.
SCREEN POWER SPEECH
Screen Power Speech is a good and straightforward product.
Its lack of speech synthesizer support and configurations are
disadvantages. Its menuing system will be familiar to users of
other Telesensory products, and it is easy to use and
full-featured. This is likely to be the last major DOS screen
review program release by a major company since everybody's
efforts are now going into Microsoft Windows and other GUI
Telesensory Corporation, 455 North Bernardo Avenue, Post Office
Box 7455, Mountain View, California 94039-7455; telephone (415)
960-0920; fax (415) 969-9064; Customer Service (800) 227-8418;
technical support (800) 537-3961.
We would judge that Tinytalk Personal has met its goals. It
provides more than the necessary minimum feature set to use most
modern text-based DOS applications. It is relatively easy to use
and it provides exceptional value for the dollar. Finally, it is
a good way for people to experiment, to get their feet wet with
screen review programs and/or to try out a sound card that they
OMS Development, 610-B Forest Avenue, Wilmette, Illinois 60091;
toll-free (800) 831-0272; telephone (708)251-5787; e-mail
We think that Vocal-Eyes is an all-around good program. It
isn't as automatic as some, but it has a good and complete set of
features, clear and complete documentation, good technical
support, and a relatively straightforward approach. It is widely
used, and we in the International Braille and Technology Center
for the Blind find ourselves recommending it more often then
probably any other screen review program. While it is not
perfect, it is a very good general, all-around choice. Finally,
when GW Micro releases new versions, they tend to work well
without bugs or problems. While this isn't always true, they do
have a better track record than most in this area.
GW Micro, 310 Racquet Drive, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46825; telephone
(219) 483-3625; fax (219) 482-2492; BBS (219) 484-0210; E-mail