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..


Anonymous said...

How does SA work with terminal emulators?

Rick Harmon said...

Great review of a great product. Thanks for all of your great efforts here.

David Stanley said...

I am a brand new user to the network. It's a good thing I got this computer when it was called freedombox, when I did. It's going to take me a while to get used to the new name, SA mobile network.

Jake said...

Nice review. I have JAWS version 8.0 set as my default screen reader, but I have played around with System Access to Go and I must say it works quite well in Windows XP. I haven't gotten introduced to Vista yet, but I might do so very soon as I am starting a job where Vista is installed on at least some of the office computers. But one thing which I find rather refreshing about SA to Go is that it requires no download and installation. With the exception of one time when the Serotek server in Virginia experienced a power outage, I used SA to Go very successfully. I have only used it with Microsoft Mary and the DEC-talk voices though. Hopefully I can muster up enough money to purchase the NeoSpeech voices because I've heard them and they sound great. Funny thing though, I haven't seen much publicity lately for the free and open-source screen reader Non-Visual Desktop Access. Perhaps it is still too new and not many people know about it yet. But I do have the latest version of NVDA and I really like it. The default voice which now comes with NVDA can get rather annoying at times though.

Tony Broome said...

Besides being blind, I am an ordained pastor who uses System Access Mobile Network and SA To Go in my work all the time. I'm able to produce files for the ministry handouts for the sighted people who attend my services. That way, they can have the same notes I have and can follow along quite well. Thus, the sight barrier is broken down. Using the remote control feature, I can access the files from another machine at home or away. This also allows me to work on my website:
where I offer ministry helps and encouragement, as well as blindness and general pc help. I have used Jaws and Window Eyes and have even trained and helped others to learn to use them. However, when I came to FreedomBox, Now, the System Access Mobile Network, years ago, I have never looked back. The Ranger posting on this access technology breakthrough has been professionally and well done. I like seeing a fair, well-balanced view of a solution, without nit picking it to death. Don't be surprised if the browser improves drasticly and the speed response zips along even greater than ever!

Anonymous said...

Generally good review, but I think if you work harder you can find some negatives (no product is without problems). But, your review has enticed me to check it out. Thanks.