Tuesday, February 19, 2008

One Month: Zoom Text USB

The best way that I have explained this product to other long time Zoom Text users off line is like this... Imagine that you have heard that your favorite book is going to be turned into a movie. You think about which actors could play each character. You dream about the styles, sets and costumes. Then you compare your soon to be released movie to other movies of the same genre. And then you go the extra step by going to the midnight showings of this movie because you are a fan and you don't want anyone to spoil it for you. Now here we are at 3 AM, the movie is over and we have to be at work at 7:30 AM. Let's begin our look at the ZT USB.

The Zoom Text USB has finally arrived and it takes on the Dolphin Pen and Freedom Scientific's Magic options in the arena of Screen Magnifier portability. But unlike those competitors the ZT USB doesn't act like some might expect and this could be a make or break issue if you are looking for the ability to use magnification anywhere at anytime.

Box shot of ZoomText Magnifier/Reader

A picture of the original version of the USB Drive for Zoom Text

The good news is that if you are a person with a small amount of vision loss and you are familiar with Zoom Text's installation process then you will be very comfortable with how the ZT USB operates. However if you require some form of Screen Reader or if you use Zoom Text at a high level of magnification you might find yourself needing assistance on new and strange computers.

Ai Squared has utilized a standard USB drive for Zoom Text rather than the U3 type drives used by Serotek and others. The original design used a method where you pinched both sides of the drive and then slid out from the main body the USB connector. This design has now been replaced by a switchblade or swivel method of removing the connector from it's storage area. The original design did protect the connector better, however, individuals who suffer from hand related disabilities may have encountered some difficulty in removing the drive from it's covering. The newer style is easier to open but it does make me encourage you to consider the Drive Replacement plan more readily. Also, this recommendation goes for other companies who offer USB solutions as losing or destroying your only copy of an Assistive Technology program can be costly in the long run. 

All Screen Magnifiers at this time require an install shield of some sort. Current and classic models of Screen Magnification use either DCM or Mirror Driver technology for video interception. Companies like Issist take a kind of Windows Magnifier approach but for the most part the big 3 in mainstream AT go the routes mentioned above. So from this standpoint Zoom Text's USB option isn't unique.

When you approach a new computer using Windows XP with the Dolphin product you will find that the program will start on its own and prompt you verbally that it will need to install a component before you can use Screen Magnification on that particular system. The process is veritably seamless and you only have the one prompt. The process can also be started manually by browsing the Dolphin Pen and choosing "GO" if that particular computer is locked down from launching programs automatically. In cases like this for speech users you will find yourself relying on Windows Narrator or SATOGO to get you past these initial hurtles.

If you approach a new computer using Windows XP with the ZT USB you will encounter a box with options familiar to you if you have multiple media players running on the same system. This box has options for viewing the various file types on the ZT USB, however, in all my tests the default option is almost always "Run Zoom Text". Since this box is not spoken by any on board speech having the default set to "Run Zoom Text" can be very helpful at times. This box launches automatically due to the inclusion of an "autorun" file like those found on installation CDs. One positive aspect of using this method is that you can place a check in the checkbox in this box in Vista which will in turn launch the program every time you come back to this computer in the future.

The decision to use this "autorun" file makes installing ZT on a fresh computer pretty simple. Taking it to another computer already running ZT can be a totally different story though. More on that in a second. Once you select the "Run Zoom Text" option you should be launched into the normal Zoom Text install shield. The same choices found on the CD are available here. So, again, if you know how to install Zoom Text, and you have Admin privileges on that particular system, you will be up and running on the reboot.

From the start of the new session of Windows you can setup your new Zoom Text USB with all your custom settings, features and managed application preferences. In fact operating the ZT USB is just like using the version you are already familiar with from the CD. You still have access to the new tutorials and the Dual Monitor functionality. Plus you have all the voices on board as well. once you have the USB version installed you will have a hard time knowing if you are on a typical install or the new USB option.

That is all well and good if you can get there of course. I mentioned before that running the USB drive on a computer that already has ZT on it can be a challenge. First let me say why you would want to do this. You can save your configuration directly on to the USB its self. Running the USB will launch your settings from the drive and when working with multiple users of Zoom Text on one system this can save tons of time in configuring or searching for one of several profiles. I've thrown people for a loop if I have left my ZT USB active and they hear True Voice instead of Neo Speech. While this is good for  a chuckle it can be confusing to some who aren't well versed in undoing some settings. And yes someone did restore me back to factory defaults to keep me from leaving my drive in systems where it didn't belong.

But even more horrible than being stuck with my funky ZT configuration can be the install process gone wrong. The version in which ZT becomes USB aware is 9.13. This can be a problem if your local library, school disabilities center or VR Counselor's office is behind on their updates. You must update Zoom Text to this version before you can use your new USB drive on these systems. The USB contains this update, however, the prompts for this and other error messages you may encounter are not spoken. They are in large print and that may be enough for some to troubleshoot their way across the gap. But you may find that you will need Narrator or SATOGO or an unsuspecting bystander if you can not navigate these boxes on your own.

Things get a whole lot trickier if the system has an older version of Zoom Text aboard. As a normal part of the Zoom Text USB install process the program will load into a 30 day demonstration mode of version 9.1. This, of course, is normal behavior because the CD version does the same exact thing until you enter your product serial number. Where the USB differs is that after you remove the USB drive from a computer the zoom Text program will remain on that system. And without the drive in the system it will revert back to Trial or Demo mode.

Ai Squared has enabled the USB drive to load a key onto that computer to make it a full version of Zoom Text if you so desire. By loading a key, as with the CD version of the program, you can use ZT with no fear of timing out. Sadly though if this is a computer that you do not own or if you are using on a temp basis you are loading the system down with an unactivated version of the product. Also since the program runs from the computer and not the drive you will need to uninstall ZT from a computer who has been nice enough to let you use it temporarily. Other USB options for Assistive Technology can leave some residual files too, however, the Zoom Text install can be pretty invasive to some Network Admins out there. Therefore caution is advised on where you decide to use your USB drive. 

Note: I stress this portion of the program's use because so many people I run into are comparing the various USB AT options in a universal way. Serotek's way of doing things is not the method Dolphin, G.W. Micro, Freedom Scientific or Ai Squared accomplish USB connectivity. Counting the number of times I explain this a day off line requires me to use both hands and four toes on one foot. This confusion is natural do to the various strategies employed by all for each of their portable options. Still knowing how your particular product works in this arena will save you a world of disappointment later on down the line.

For one month I used the USB drive in my daily work. I tried it on five systems. Two were laptops, three were desktops of various ages and one of each ran Vista. In all cases, once the USB was installed correctly, the product ran fine. Having my specific configuration on hand was fantastic. Sure I could have made a .zxc file and carried it around on a drive, however, I would still have to install ZT and then open that file to get it to work in the same "all in one" package of the ZT USB. I also found the empty space left on the drive [around 400 MB] made a great last second dumping ground for small files. And in this respect I could drop one of my many other USB memory sticks for a while.

What I didn't like about using the drive is that if the ZT USB is not connected Zoom Text will look for it when booting up. The program will send a call out to all my USB ports and I can clearly hear my Seagate Free Agent drive spin up when I launch the program without the ZT USB on board. I occasionally heard one older system's floppy drive be called as well. This was annoying but not a showstopper for me by any means.

I also generally hesitate in the idea of carrying the program in such an easy to lose, crunch, fold, spindle or mutilate fashion. I guess the argument could be made that taking around the CD could be just, if not more, dangerous. But I don't carry the CD around with me either. Which then brings up the question.. "Who is this for anyway?".

If you have to move around to a lot of systems a day, month or year then this may not save you any time. You still have to install the program. You still need access as an Admin. You still are restrained by any system requirements. You are still only running a 30 day trial if you do not have your ZT USB on board or if you haven't transferred one of your three keys to that system.. And you still might find  that a multi license agreement ,if you are in a call center or some such employer with a lot of computers, is a far faster way of accessing the program on the fly.

Who this option is perfect for is the Road Warrior person in sales or who often travels to various offices. A lot of these types of companies outsource their I.T. departments. And one thing I have learned about that is they love to reimage a system at the drop of a hat. In these situations having an easy to find copy of your program can be a real necessity if you  cannot get to the Internet to download a trial copy of the program you are using regularly. Moreover, if the laptop supports this option of course, being able to have Screen Magnification on a Power Point via the laptop screen while using the Dual Monitor feature in version 9.1 to show the Power point through a projector unmagnified has served me well in several situations.

The USB drive is also great for those of us who use the same system with multiple ZT users. Schools especially would be great places for this device as you wouldn't have to worry about setting or resetting your program configuration again and again. Long time users of Zoom Text can accrue many specific managed application files. Or they may forget what they checked off in the checkboxes in specific verbosity options. Having it all just load automatically may save some V.I. Teacher's sanity as a result of being unburdened by this process. 

overall I have to say that upgrading to the USB version of Zoom Text can mainly depend on what you want to do with all this new found portability. You *could* carry around a off the shelf USB drive with a 30 day demo of ZT and your configuration files. However installing all of that could be time consuming and awfully hard to do on smaller monitor displays. that is If you can get to those files without Screen Magnification or Speech Assistance in the mix too. In most cases placing in the ZT USB drive and hitting the "Run Zoom Text" option is faster and easier. Plus you already have your desired settings on hand. So for some users this option will allow for an easier go when traveling from system to system.

I just don't know if this accessory is for everyone. I'm glad to have one don't get me wrong. But I think I let my mind run away with me on how good this device was going to be back when I dreamed about it coming to the market. Hence that first paragraph at the top of this post. I built this thing up in my mind and those poor people in Vermont couldn't possibly figure out what goes on in there. Nor would I have them try! I think in this story my expectations clashed with reality and I may have wanted the movie to be more like the book. And now I get what all those Harry Potter fans go on about on the list serves.

As per my usual recommendation. "Try before you buy" or at least perform a little research before you pull out your wallet.

I didn't talk about the backup feature included on the ZT USB. Here is a link to the MS Word version of the install documentation. It covers the backup feature and more if you are interested in knowing more details about how the drive works.


To learn more or if you are interested in purchasing the Zoom Text USB check out the link below.



Shawn Warren said...

There are a few points I take issue however in the grand scheme of this comprehensive (and well done) review I don’t think they are worth brining up. Good job Ranger.


Jessica said...

Too bad I read your review after purchasing ZoomText USB. I chose this product due to its portability. However, the admin right requirement really throw the wrench into its usefulness. As a result, I can't use it at the library or internet cafe.

Anything out there that runs the magnifier program directly from the flash drive? Want to avoid leaving a footprint on the guest computer system.

How about Dolphin Pen or Magic USB?