Road testing the 3 most popular Screen readers out there, to crown the King of text-to-speech!
So, this year marks 20 years of blindness for me, exactly half of my lifetime, so you can say that I have some experience when we’re talking about ‘Screen readers’. It was 2003 when I first used a screen reader, which was an absolute revelation for me! As the prior 4 years I hadn’t been able to use a computer at all, due to my failing sight. And my first experience with a screen reader was JAWS version 4.1, a relatively new tech at that time. But 20 years on, there’s a few more heavy hitters in the accessibility scene, and in the last week alone I’d used 3 different screen readers, i.e., Apple Voiceover, Microsoft Narrator, and the OG Freedom Scientific’s JAWS, to decide which screen reader could be my one and only. So, I thought to put my thoughts down on paper, in evaluating which screen reader was the best of the bunch!
In my opinion, the most important element of a screen reader is how easy it is to use. Is it intuitive? How much time does it take a new user to learn and to use it proficiently? And how different does it change the normal functionality of your device compared to a non-screen reader user? In this first point of consideration, hands down being the most user friendly was JAWS! Perhaps I’m a little bias as this was the first software I’ve used and after 20 years all the commands are second nature, however I still think the OG set the benchmark for all other screen readers to emulate. Microsoft comes in at second, as they have retained much of the same keystroke commands as JAWS, but with some Suttle differences which super annoyed me when I was attempting to use Narrator for a full day, the annoying part being that Narrator is so similar, but that 10% difference kept popping up and tripping me up at the most inconvenient moment. While by far Apple Voiceover came in last, whenever you’re required to use 4 fingers to enter a keyboard command to perform a simple task which you would perform on a regular basis? That’s asking way too much from a user! And even after 2.5 years of use, I still hadn’t learnt all the key commands in Voiceover.
So, the most user-friendly screen reader? JAWS!
The second element of a screen reader which could make or break an experience is the quality of the synthetic (robotic) voice. I had once downloaded the totally free screen reader NVDA, but within minutes I stopped using it as at that time (5 years ago) the default voice was horrible! For JAWS the default voice is also robotic, but is the most responsive, as in there is no lag between hitting the keys on your keyboard and hearing the speech echoing your commands. While there are now many human-like voices which you can download and use for JAWS, however from this mega test, JAWS is probably still the laggard in this race of quality voice options. Narrator had an average sounding default robotic voice, but the more life like voices were a notch above JAWS. Like I really, really liked the American Jenny voice. Haaha. While Apple has the best life like voices, the male and female Australian voice options are particularly good, which I think I’ll miss the most about no longer being a Mac user (please see previous post for more details on my MacBook divorce).
So, the screen reader with the best voice options goes to Apple Voiceover!
Compatibility with other programs
The third, but the most important of the elements of consideration is how well does the screen reader interact with other programs. As it’s a little pointless if the screen reader is easy to use and sounds great, but it is clunky and incompatible with other popular software, programs and apps. You would think both Voiceover and Narrator should work seamlessly as they’re in-built software within the Operating System, but Voiceover works horribly with MS Excel, maybe it’s a Microsoft Mac thing. But if you use Excel for work, it’s nearly impossible to use it with a Mac and while performing advance functions. And oddly enough, the Narrator compatibility with Excel was also weird. The key reason why I decided I could not use Narrator as my one and only screen reader, was due to how strange it read content in Excel. Like it would read the cell reference first, whether you could edit the cell or not, then the cell’s location within the table it was in, before reading you the cell’s content. I tried changing these settings or re-arranging the order in which it read things, but it made things worse. So, after I had to sit through 10 seconds of unnecessary information each time, before it would read out what I wanted to know, I gave up! For me, who works with spreadsheets 75% of my day, this method of getting through Excel content was not efficient and feasible. While I found JAWS, even though it’s a third-party software, it still plays very well with other software and platforms, and they’re always developing it further to become compatible with even more emerging applications.
So, for those reasons, the screen reader which is the most compatible with other programs is JAWS!
Regular updates and improvements
And since we’re talking about incremental improvements of the product to adapt to the ever-changing digital landscape, I think on paper you’d think Voiceover would have this? But sadly, although Apple strives to continually evolve due to their investment in R&D, but unfortunately not all Apple updates have resulted in an improved user experience. The Ventura Mac OS update rendered Voiceover unusable for me, so because of that, I’m placing them last. For Narrator, I must admit I haven’t used it enough to experience an update to the software, so because of that I’m going to place them in the middle as I don’t have an opinion. While JAWS is the most transparent when it comes to updates, on their website it lists all the bugs they have addressed and the improvements they have made with each update, and with a brand-new version each year, it ensures that they make the largest leaps forward to keep up with the changing times.
So, the screen reader with the best track record for regular updates and improving their product, it goes to JAWS!
And the final element for consideration is how accessible it is. Not as in how disabled friendly it is, but how obtainable it is for a person to get their hands on. For this category Microsoft Narrator is the most accessible, just because Microsoft is the most common operating system in the world, and Narrator is a free feature which can be turned on by anyone, with a simple Control + Windows Key + Enter keystroke! Can’t be any easier than that! Because Apple Macs are a more premium product, it makes Voiceover just that little bit more difficult for people to obtain so they come in second here. While by far JAWS is the most inaccessible, sure you can download a free demo version of JAWS, which runs in 40-minute mode, but to buy the product there’s a real barrier at around $1700 Australian dollars. A costly piece of software however you look at it. And the thing which annoyed me the most, is that if you live in the USA, you can pay for a yearly subscription of JAWS at only $90 per year, which also sounds expensive to an average person, but it’s super cheap if you consider the alternatives for non-Americans. The $1700 for JAWS is just for one version (additional cost if you want to buy 2 more upgrades to the latest version for the next 2 years), and realistically an old version of JAWS might last you 3-5 years? Probably the lifetime of 2 laptops? So, in a span of 5 years, you could easily be spending upwards of $5K just on laptops and accompanying software to make them blind accessible.
So, for these reasons, the most obtainable screen reader is Narrator!
So, to the end verdict, looking at my scorecard, we have a tie! With both JAWS and Microsoft Narrator scoring 11 on my scoring system, while Voiceover lags behind on 8 points. Narrator was the most consistent in the 5 categories, coming in second 4 times and first in the fifth category for being the most obtainable! I would almost say, I could have lived with Narrator as my one and only, if the use of Excel wasn’t a part of my day-job. So, if you don’t use Excel much, I think Narrator can easily do the job. And from the full day which I spent with Narrator, I found it read certain elements in Microsoft products which JAWS had never brought to my attention before- which was beneficial and now I wish I had that in JAWS. and overall, it was very good, reminded me a lot of JAWS. Haaha. But because I do use Excel so much, and JAWS is such a solid workhorse, I ended up forking up another $1700 and getting the latest version of JAWS. Yeah, must be nice to be able to do that, but I really do think JAWS is worth the money. It is the superior product in all respects, except for its high price tag! Come on Freedom Scientific, extend the $90 Yearly subscription model to us international users! Please!