Thursday, July 19, 2007

One Month Of Solid System Access And I am Sooo Hooked

Some quick personal background before I start, like so many others these days, to sing how freaking awesome Serotek's System Access products are to use. I heard Mike Calvo speak years ago about his vision for where we as Blind users of technology should be and where he thought we were going. As those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time know I am a bit of a Futurist myself. So I found a lot of what he said back then, and now, refreshing because Mike shoots from the hip and he is generally accurate about some major industry views. Those views I can never list here because it would get me killed in my day job but let's just say I end up quietly cheering on Mike and others who bring up these important issues that throw a dark shadow on our industry as a whole. I was able to meet Mike for the first time in person at this year's CSUN and it was a real treat to talk about a lot of varied subjects before we finally settled down to business. Again it's not often you can run into someone who is very open about their product line and our brief chat ended up being one of the highlights of the show for me. Since then we've had a few more conversations and I thank him for his time to answer my questions, and better yet, my speculations on the AT industry.

And now my open apology to all for not speaking about System Access or even Serotek as often as I should on TRS. Most of the stuff that gets posted here is either stuff I have open access to or that I have seen/held/observed personally. And in most of those cases, beyond say conventions, I spend a lot of time with something before I blather on about it here. I have been up to my neck in Office 2007, Vista and a ton of betas which left little room for me to play with something new. And I told Mike that it wasn't going to be fair to his product if I didn't wall myself up in seclusion with a sack of sandwiches, several pots of coffee and hours upon hours with the whole Serotek portfolio.

I think a personal testimonial or product review on the web is always a matter of taste versus your own experiences. And that's why I try to stay away from some reviewers out there because a lot of them don't have the same access to technology that I do in my job. That sounds very elitist I know but remember that having a wide knowledge of Assistive Technology is one of those learned non transferable skills. I have been using Screen Magnifiers since early Apple and DOS. I used my first Video Magnifier CCTV in 1980. I remember the process for obtaining a Kurzweil license and seeing the first units all to themselves in a big big room. And currently I have access to over 45 Video Magnifiers, most of the accessible notetaker/PDAs and just about every computer based software solution on the market. I work in a Disneland of Assistive Tech! So when I look at a product it's generally through a real strange and jaded prism.

Now if you are still reading after all that let's begin with my thoughts on System Access. Unlike the wordy intro above I will sum up my opinion in three words. Serotek's System Access, especially the Mobile packages, are "a must buy" for those geeky and techy friends and family members. Remember that bit above about being jaded? Well when looking at the last five years of tech I can openly say that I haven't taken to a product this fast since my move from Windows millennium to Windows XP. I am using SA in a lot of my day to day activities not because I have to for my job. No I honestly want to try out the program and see how it does in and outside of work. To get a lazy sod like me to do this for fun says a lot about how good and how friendly System Access actually is to use.

One of the biggest benifits of SA for me at the moment is that I can use it to discuss Windows Vista without having to depend on Windows Mirror Driver technology. That means I can show off all the visuals, 3D flips and real time graphics in demonstrations to my sighted peers in Windows AERO Glass without utilizing Narrator. Don't get me wrong I like Narrator. It's all I had a year ago when I was working on the betas. But SA offers so much more for learning Vista for me that it's no real comparison.

Another Vista issue I run into with Mirror Drivers comes in when I work with audio and video on my home computer. A lot of what I use, like Nero, rely on 3D video acceleration with Direct Draw. I can't use these programs with traditional Screen Access software because they take Vista down a peg visually to the Vista Basic desktop/appearance. This disables Direct Draw with some video cards like those from NVIDIA. So I end up with video that isn't sinked properly with its audio. Or much worse if I try to use Quick Time files in Vista Basic things get really nasty. Along these lines most AT software also doesn't work well with Windows Media Center. For the first time ever I was able to set my computer to output in High Definition at 720P in Media Center via speech. System Access gives me more information and it speaks more controls in these programs than Narrator. Which now makes System Access the default program when I work on digital video and audio with my home system.

My use of System Access doesn't stop with Vista. I adore launching the program automatically in Windows XP. Either via a USB drive or through System Access To Go I amaze those same sighted co-workers I mentioned before by walking up to a system at random and getting really good speech out of it in seconds. If you have ever had to work with an IT Pro on video interceptors then you know the joy I have in blowing their minds when I employ SA in meetings where someone has forgotten to setup a computer for screen access. Mmm.. the sweet sweet joy..

Another example of how amazing I find SA comes back to something that also has eluded us AT users for years. The majority of access software has some difficulties when it comes to programs for remote desktops and remote access. Laplink especially was one of those programs I just couldn't learn or use due to it's drivers being so closely associated with those used by Screen Magnifiers. So you could have knocked me over with a feather when I used SA at work through SA To Go to connect to my Vista box at home.

I wowed my nearest friends at work when I not only brought up a visual interface of my home computer's desktop but then launched System Access from the Windows Vista Start Orb as easy as you please. I moved a bit slowly through the menus and files which prompted some to nit pick. Then the problem that I was having came up and was voiced for all to hear. It seems I forgot to enable Windows Live One Care to allow System Access the ability to cross my firewall. SA not only told me this but it actually told me that the link home was disconnnected by One Care before it dropped me out. This then had me calling home to let the wife know that I really did want this to be allowed and not to block a strange program. Oh and that the computer may be talking when you go to do this. You see I didn't let her know I was experimenting at work. More on that in a second. The thing is that I never did this before with such ease and I was totally schocked when I was able to trouble shoot this situation thanks to System Access speaking in boxes I would have never guessed it would have read on a bet.

Back to the wife thing. One day I logged in and I could see Firefox running. She had walked away from the system. So for fun I changed a page view and opened a few tabs. While I ended up doing a few more chores that week than I would have liked i can still say I was smiling the whole time because I was able to do something I never did before. Or perhaps again if the wife has anything to say about remote networking options at home. I guess that's why she likes to use her laptop more these days.

I've gone on about the high tech options of System Access, however, I would be remiss if I also didn't say that the program is even better for those who are intimidated by computers. SA relys upon less complicated keystrokes and commands. And the newly renamed System Access Mobile Network is the perfect tool for introducing new Screen Access users to the web and email.

The Network, formerly known as the Freedom Box Network, is another one of those things where you can find information easier in one simple package. For example I got hooked on a radio station in LA while at this year's CSUN. The Indi 103 has tons of music that fits that LA vibe I grew to respect when I was lounging around in the hotel room. The station has it's own stream but their site is a flash/macromedia nightmare to navigate. So when I explored the Radio options on the Serotek network I was extatic to find a link to the Indi 103 stream. In seconds I can walk up to a computer, start SA, log on to the Network and get to that stream. This will make trouble shooting at holiday time so much easier when I end up working on everyone's computers. Headphones on and streams at minimized positions. Hooray!

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Customizable Newspaper feeds, books, links to podcasts and audio described television and movies are just some of the other aspects to the Network that I enjoyed in the last month. And there is even more than that I just haven't played in that part of the sandbox yet. I have toyed with the optional Document Scan, I love their version of Neo Speech [also optional] and I haven't even launched Office 2007 with SA yet. I'm too busy playing and exploring to come back to earth and do real work at the moment.

Alright you must realize by now for me that this has been way too positive. usually I find at least one thing to be cranky about. Hmm.. lets see.. uh.. Well not really. I guess if I have to say something I would say that I have to refresh the screen a lot more than other programs. However that's not a big deal for me considering the types of programs and boxes I have to view at home and at work. Outright crashes have been very rare and it may have been caused by something else running in the background. I notice that running in XP is a bit better than Vista. But this is a bit off target for a nit pick as I have so many parts of Vista committed to memory that I tend to run on automatic no matter what product I am using at that given moment. The way I look at it is that I can use SA in a pinch or for longer sessions to do my most critical tasks. And if it happens to read strange boxes in Nero Update, the odd PDF or other such flash driven controls then for me it's a bonus. As I said above it's perfect for a lot of trouble shooting tasks I have to do on strange machines that I dare not even introduce to other Assistive Technology solutions.

Oh sure it's not the end all be all of Screen Access as we know it now. But that's the key. Now. Later others will have to look at what Serotek is doing and decide if they want to address the digital lifestyle in the same space as or in the same way. Is System Access like other traditional Screen Readers? no and it's not trying to be which is refreshing. Many out there have been saying that you need to know more than one Screen Access solution for a more expansive skill set or tool box. For me SA is perfect for this as I don't have to remember another hundred keystrokes and I don't have to load something that will more than likely conflict with something else loaded on my system. And this all takes me back to what I said at the top of this post. System Access for some out there should be considered "a must buy" if they want to break the chains of traditional Screen Access. You don't have to throw away your old Screen Reader but you may want to have this program around when you need to hear things from a unique and different perspective.

To try out System Access To Go hit the link below..

And to learn more and download the other System Access products go to..

Random Goodness: Victor Stream, Voice Sense, Topaz, Clearview And KNFB Reader

The post convention season is always a busy one for me as the new product is either shown to us before or right after the shows. And in some cases we get our hands on a unit for evaluations so we are set for the product's launch at the same time it is debuting at convention. Here's a brief run down of some of the neat stuff I got to fondle in the last two weeks.

Victor Stream: It's small, it's sleek and it's the next on the list behind that Creative Zen Stone for purchase I think. All jokes aside I am really impressed with the feel of the Stream. I can see myself using it for so many formats and I think it's a lot better than say the Milestone 311. Okay the Milestone is going after a different audience but at $329 for the Stream I have to look at them both in the same light. I know one of my friends, here's that peer pressure thing again, will but one soon. So I imagine I will have more to say about this little guy by default. I mean my friend has to leave her office or turn her back at some point right? And then I will strike! Here's the link to the Humanware product page for the Victor Stream..

Voice Sense: I saw this little guy back at CSUN and I have to say I am still impressed. Light, small and it fits into a shirt pocket with no trouble at all. The Wireless G built in is one of the fastest solutions out there for internal connections and the transfer speeds are pretty good as well via bluetooth. And who will balk at a removable rechargeable battery option now a' days? Check out the product page from GW Micro's site to learn more..

Topaz: Freedom Scientific's line of Video Magnifiers has gotten a few tweaks since their original release almost two years ago. The firmware has been updated, the lights are now LED based and now another good addition comes in the form of a new front panel which sports a knob for contrast adjustment. In previous units you had to use a button as a toggle to move a slider up or down on an on screen menu. You could easily have people not knowing if they were moving things in the right direction or forgetting which direction the gauge was moving when they started to make alterations. now doing this is a snap and I think it adds a lot more value to the Topaz in the old "Ease Of Use" category. Learn more about the Topaz from the product page below..

Clearview: The new Optelec models we are seeing have a new grey scale feature that gives them a real foot in the door of High Contrast Black and White color modes. And maybe it's me but the cowling on the arm and monitor connections seems different as well. But it's probably just me. The clarity of the new units seems a bit better but that's really subjective of me to say too. So check out the new units yourself and here's the product page for Optelec.

KNFB Reader: The product recently updated it's software to include a Currency Reading Mode and better support for text on various colored backgrounds. You can find the release notes and the download links for your particular flavor of the Reader at the below link.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Vista Tip: It's Not Easy Being Green And Power Plan Balanced

Ironically I had this in draft form prior to the Live Earth festival but seeing that reminded me to post this tip. So I guess this makes me a little less eco friendly.

One way to speed up your Vista system is to tweak it's Power settings. Now before even considering this you need to be sure of two things. One thing is have your restore points set in case you forget what you have done and the second is avoid messing with Power settings if you are using a Vista based laptop. Most laptop makers preset these settings to extend battery life or keep down the heat output of a system. so jacking with these settings is ill advised for laptops.

But those of you who like to peek under the hood or want to scale back some of those dips in performance that can happen in longer Vista sessions may want to play with the steps below.

  1. Access the Start Button now called the Start Orb in Vista
  2. Go to Control Panel
  3. Choose the System and Maintanence link
  4. Now select the Power Options link
  5. Find the radial buttons in the middle of this page.
  6. Change the option from "Balanced" to "High Performance"
  7. Tab once if you want to modify the settings of High Performance, otherwise, close this window

Remember that you only want to play with these settings when you reach a point where you know your Vista install forwards and backwards. That point is generally about 2 weeks to a month down the road. Vista is always adding or subtracting items, resources and services/programs it does or doesn't need. Like Linux the Vista OS can scale up or down to meet the needs of the user or the network. So when you make little changes you might not notice their effect at first. But this tweak is very noticable if you have been using the Balanced Power Plan for awhile.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Oh Wow.. Big Shock.. New Iphone Nano On The Horizon

The big surprise here is that the news leaked before the next iTunes update. But again here is where Apple fans get burned for that classic "On and one more thing..".

And this link will take you to the in depth Ars Technica review..

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Humanware Announces Keysoft 7.5, The Victor Reader Stream And A Correction To Their Press Release About The Victor Reader Stream

Those who were hoping that Humanware would answer the PAC Mate Omni announcement with Keysoft 8 will just have to wait until the fall it seems. Keysoft 7.5 will be a paid upgrade or it will take 1 count off of your SMA. Enhancements to Keybook, Keymail and the new Keyview are just some of the highlights of this new release. Also be aware that this is the final release, as advertised previously, for Classic Series Braille and Voice Note owners. To learn more about just what comes in 7.5 hit the link below.

Press Releases are tricky things. Some times you just want to run right out and tell the world about your product. And sometimes that means that you may not have copied everyone on the memo before going out and shouting out to the hills your great news. Looks like this happened with the new Victor Stream. You can't really blame Humanware here as hardly any of us know the ins and outs of the crazy world of copyrights and outside US distribution. Heck I'm lucky that I can figure out the coffee maker some days.

Here's the link to the correction about NLS playback.

And here is the original PR on the Stream.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Dolphin Releases Supernova, HAL And Lunar 8 For Windows Vista

Dolphin has now released version 8.01 of their popular line of products for Windows Vista. I have been using this version in Vista for a few months as a part of the Beta Team and I can say that it's more responsive than previous versions by far. And even better yet it uses Eloquence as a default synth. Download the demo and play with Supernova 8 at the link below..

Monday, July 02, 2007

FCC Tells VoIP Venders To Support The Disabeled

Rather than me rant on about the iPhone some more let's just move our focus elsewhere shall we? The FCC has ruled that Voice Over Internet Providers need to start providing services that their Land Line cousins offer in the ways of equal access. Take a look at this Ars Technica article to learn more..

Zoom Text 9.11.2 Released!

Ai Squared has released an update to Zoom Text 9.1. To see the release notes go to the link below..

To download the update click the link below..