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.



Does the screen reader on the Microsoft Surface report formatting information such as heading styles in word documents? What about handling tables?

What would stop the screen reader vendors from offering their software for sale inside the Microsoft App Store? Doesn't Code Factory do this with their Mobile Accessibility app in the Android store? Isn't the whole point of the store to get third party developers to make and sell apps for Windows RT to make it more popular?

Very well written review first of all. I was on the fence about purchasing this particular device for that reason that I was unsure how good Narrator was really going to be, and now thanks to this and other good things that I have heard, I am ready to head out there and give this product a try, because I like you wanted something where I could work on the important stuff on the road such as word and excel documents and not just entertainment stuff like facebook, twitter and things like that, which is what the IPad primarily offers. This is great news because we are sure to get better accessible products in the coming years; the new Windows 8 competition is going to make things better.

@Pranav: From what I've experienced, the formatting is not what you'll expect from other screen reading options. I linked to the Narrator commands in my blog post, and you can go there to see the navigation commands available to use right now. There is something like 71 commands, which is impressive but not the robust experience you've come to expect of other options. I have not checked to see if you can navigate tables in Word 2013.

@Emma: Yeah, the Store ought to be able to feature screen reading options, but they'd have to reconfigure the software to work on the processor the Surface features. Screen readers aren't the only "major" software packages the RT platform won't sustain. I'm with you though. I wish it could be possible for us to load an alternative screen reader. Maybe one of the vendors will go out of their way to develop a lite version of their software?

@A. Z.: Remember I can't really endorse this product the way it exists right now. I suggest people wait for the Surface Pro or swing for one of the alternative tablets running Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro. At last check, the Lenovo ThinkPad 2 was going for something like $649. True, this is without the keyboard dock, but even with the dock, I think you're going to pay less than the upcoming Surface Pro.

How about touchscreen access.
Have you found time to play around a bit with that? Seems to me I read somewhere on the Microsoft development site that Narrator has gestures kind of like VoiceOver on the iPad.

I've been considering the surface because I'm a Mac user and I need to be able to use Word's track changes feature. Did you perchance test whether or not that feature is usable with Narrator? I'd rather lay out the $630 for a surface and TypeCover than have to lay out even more for a windows license, Office License, and screenreader license.

@Matt: I have not played around with touch gestures on the Surface but plan to experiment a little more this holiday weekend before I return the tablet. I was not successful initially with gestures, but I am also not sure if I need to tick a setting somewhere to make gestures work. For a list of gestures, click here.

@Al: Regarding Track Changes, up to this point, I have not found a means of reviewing document revisions, comments, footnotes, or other reference points in a document. I have not found a keystroke to gather this information. That does not mean it does not exist. I will play around with it a little more to see if I can find track changes feedback comparable to JAWS, since that is what I am primarily using to read such document features. What you are looking for will be possible with the full version of Office 2013 using your own screen reader on the Surface Pro. I believe NVDA provides this kind of feedback. Someone please correct me if I am wrong.

Hi Joe,
This was a well written and thorough review. I just wanted to add a few more details to what you've said already.
First, there is a command in narrator to alert you of formatting in office documents. However, unlike other screen readers, you cannot adjust what details are spoken when you initiate the command. You will hear all the information every time. Though you get a good amount of detail such as font, style, alignment, color, etc. it is far from efficient. Additionally, I found no way for narrator to alert you when formatting changes in your document. This means that unless you press the command to obtain formatting info at each line of your document, you will have no idea where inconsistencies are.
Second, I have not gotten narrator to work properly with excel or powerpoint on my desktop machine. In fairness to Microsoft I've only been playing around with the office 2013 beta. As such things may have improved in the final release. However I did see a post on the Microsoft blog stating that narrator could be used as a basic screen reader. This may mean that Microsoft is not going to update narrator further at this time. In either case I think it will be an interesting feature to watch in future windows releases. For now I think you've got the right idea that the surface PRO with a third party screen reader will be your best bet. To that end NVDA has just been updated to enable touch support in windows 8. If you choose to try using the surface PRO I'd be interested in reading more of your thoughts and commentary.

John, I got a Samsung Activa Smart PC to try out. It's running Windows 8, and son of a gun, the gestures work well with NVDA. It's too early for me to give a complete review, but I'm really liking what I'm seeing. I did not get the keyboard dock. I'm trying to use the touch screen and plug in a wireless receiver to get around the system when needed. So far it's very nice though and an up and coming competitor to the iDevices, and that's saying something.

Sorry, the name of the Windows 8 is the Samsung 500T1C, ATIV Smart PC.

The blind perspective made me open my eyes!

Microsoft surface is one of the best concepts in the touchware field which ships with Windows 8 operating system.
microsoft outlook problem solving
I think the device will get more popularity if it is equipped with Android. I don’t think this will happen any soon!

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