Microsoft Surface From a Blind Perspective
Can the new Microsoft Surface be a viable tablet for a blind user? That’s really a two-part question. On the one hand, you need to decide if learning Windows 8 is worth your time, and the other is deciding what tablet can best deliver the kind of experience you seek. These are some initial impressions based on my recent purchase of the Microsoft Surface running Windows 8 RT.
Windows 8 is a different but not disappointing experience. The search feature across files, settings, and apps is outstanding and probably my favorite component thus far. There has been much talk of how computer users will encounter a steep learning curve on the latest operating system, but if you’re upgrading from Windows 7, the differences come all dressed up as pluses rather than setbacks. If you’re upgrading from XP, the learning curve will indeed be steep but rewarding when you recognize how much easier it is to find and activate items that previously required laborious jumps through multiple screens. Also, you may find, depending on your computer specs, that Windows 8 will dramatically rejuvenate an older system thanks to performance enhancements.
Before getting into the Surface, you should understand my reasons for wanting a tablet. My negative observations are aspects you may be able to overcome. I primarily need a tablet that will help me read and edit Excel, Word and Adobe documents on the road, and I want, perhaps ambitiously, the same level of editing I have come to expect of Office 2010. Ideally, my work will synchronize with Dropbox for easy retrieval from my home computer.
For my purposes, it’s not important that a tablet have screaming graphics, 3G, superb cameras, or blazing processors. I feel comfortable using my iPhone to achieve the tasks that make use of those features, and if I had found an advanced editing app on iOS, the Microsoft tablet would have never entered the picture.
The Surface itself is a handsome tablet. You can read a more comprehensive overview of the hardware here, but suffice to say that no aspect of the tablet feels cheap or delicate as is true of certain other hardware, ahem ... Acer.
Things I really love about the Surface:
- I love that the kickstand is sturdy in both landscape and portrait mode and runs the length of the device as opposed to a bar that could be more vulnerable to accidents. There is a ridge along the left side that makes it easy to fold back.
- I love that the tablet comes equipped with a USB port and not some proprietary jack like the iDevices.
- I love that the magnetic hinge between the tablet and the Type Cover is solid.
I was not a fan of the Touch cover. There was a review somewhere that compared it to cardboard, and the comparison was accurate. I need feedback in my typing, but the lack of feedback should not be confused for lack of key distinction. The keys are clearly marked, and the touch type method is represented well in this tablet accessory.
The Type Cover at $10 more was much more pleasant. There is sufficient feedback, and the letters are spaced well enough to make general typing a very pleasant experience. I am not a big fan of the rest of the keys, but to be fair, I am not a big fan of many keyboards other than the laptop arrangement I got first on my Dell Inspiron and now on my Dell Latitude. With a little customization, Apple keyboards would be a mild second.
Type Cover Drawbacks include:
- The F keys require a combination of the Function key to activate.
- There is no six-pack of keys i.e. Insert, Home Page Up, etc.
- The Tab key seems small and is often mistaken with the Q key. Or, maybe I just have monkey fingers.
- The arrow keys are not offset as is true of Apple keyboards. The positive side to this is that the Left and Right arrow keys are full keys, with the Up and Down keys being split in half horizontally so that the worst mistake you’ll make is head in a different direction as opposed to typing an unwanted character.
Picky bastard, aren’t I?
The rest of the review is a critique of Narrator. Since Windows 8 RT does not allow third party applications outside of its Store, it will not be possible to run screen readers like JAWS or System Access. Therefore, so much of the Experience is governed by the level of access granted by the native screen reader.
Narrator has come a long way. It is no longer the joke it used to be on XP, and much of this has to do with the software no longer being relegated to the afterthought on someone’s isolated roadmap. The Windows voices alone, particularly David and Sarah, give Apple’s Alex a run for his money, though I have to confess that listening to any speech synthesizer take a breath between syllables still creeps me out no matter which platform it’s speaking through.
You ought to buy a product for what it can do for you now and not for what it may do for you later. For my part; Narrator is still a work in progress. If any of the following is inaccurate, please do correct me on how I might go about solving the issues.
- Narrator does not read all page elements. Saving a document proved more difficult in Word 2013 than was necessary. Perhaps this will change when Office goes from a Preview version to the full installation. For now navigating the ribbon is an exercise in patience. There is a very neat feature in the Windows Store that tells whether an app is accessible, but I did not always find this label to be accurate. It may very well be that the accessibility will prove more accurate with more mature screen readers.
- There is no contextual feedback when you press the Backspace key. The only feedback is “Backspace,” but you have no idea what you’re erasing without reading back character by character.
- Navigation keystrokes are better than the finger acrobatics you have to perform with Voiceover on OSX, but Narrator is not exactly intuitive. For example, you use the letters O and P together with the Caps key, Shift, and Control to read current, next and previous elements. I guess I expected Windows to make better use of the more natural arrow keys. Also, now that Freedom Scientific has lost their suit against GW Micro, there should be more grounds to use the browser hot keys we’ve come to expect on JAWS, System Access, etc. Jumping from header to header using the J key is counterintuitive. Here again it would make better sense to use Control + arrow keys to jump around online blocks of text.
- Online browsing was a little sluggish. I cannot tell if it’s Narrator, IE 10, or a combination of both.
- I would like to see the Narrator main screen be removed from the Alt Tab rotation. I’m not yet sure if Windows 8 features a System Tray as was true of Windows 7, but pressing the Minimize button with Enter or Space does nothing to get rid of the Narrator window.
- Sometimes Narrator stops talking. I have no way of explaining the behavior. It is random, and none of the keystrokes to reactivate the screen reader work. When it comes back, I have no idea how that came to be other than an emphatic shake of my fist.
Altogether, my gripes with the product are not reasons to dismiss Windows 8 or the screen reader. The fact is that if I could load my screen reader of choice, I would be keeping the device, and at some point I may very well invest in the more expensive Surface Pro, due for release during the first quarter of 2013. I could wait to see if Microsoft will update the RT platform and through it bring some needed improvements to Narrator. Yet, I return to my initial thought that people mostly want to buy what works now, and something like Lenovo’s ThinkPad Tablet 2 running Windows 8 may be the device that fills the void.
Consumers will need to decide if the Surface Pro is worth the investment. The store representative roughly estimated the Surface Pro would run somewhere between $900 and $1,500, and if this projection is accurate, we’re out of tablet country and well into ultrabook territory. I am not quite ready to replace my laptop.
I will say my experience in the Microsoft store was pleasant. There have been reviews of overenthusiastic employees doing a poor attempt to mimic Apple staff. I can say that my experience at Pentagon City was excellent. I wish the staff knew a little more about Narrator, but I have never found Apple employees to know about Voiceover out of the box either.
As to what this could all mean for screen readers in general? Let’s put it this way. I called the Freedom Scientific sales department to ask if they thought JAWS would ever be configured to perform on the RT platform. It’s probably an unfair question given the limitations of the platform, but ARM chips aside, the question I got at both the Sales department and later at the Tech Support department to which they referred me, was: What’s RT?
The countdown to the end of Windows screen readers just took a quantum leap.
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