I had initially been a user of the JAWS screen reader since version 1.0 began shipping. I didn’t purchase it at that time but the product came out while I was working for Blazie Engineering in the 1990s. In addition to producing products such as the Braille ‘n Speak and Braille Lite, Blazie Engineering was also a distributor of many third-party products, such as screen readers and speech synthesizers, and the company had been selling JAWS for DOS when I first began working there. When JAWS for Windows, or JFW as it was sometimes called, began to ship Blazie received a copy right away. In January of 1995 I had to have my tonsils removed and was out of work because of this for two weeks. During those two weeks I had the pleasure of unboxing, installing and learning JFW 1.0 while I was recovering and really liked the software. After I left the company I bought my own license but I let it expire while running version 6. Later I began using NVDA and discovered that it was quite a nice screen reader. In the summer of 2009 I began using NVDA exclusively on my home computer and was very happy with it. It continues to offer some nice features and benefits not found in JAWS and, for my needs, I found it to be more than satisfactory.
During this time I was working as a trainer for Associated Services for the Blind where the agency kept their license of JAWS up to date. New versions of JAWS continued to be released and I kept up with what was added. When I left ASB and began working at Comcast as a member of their accessibility team I was able to continue using JAWS with a current license, which is always kept up to date.
As I continued to use and learn more about the newly added features introduced in each annual update I began to encounter features which JAWS had added but which were not available with NVDA. With products such as Office offering a subscription model with their Office 365 packages I really wanted to see Freedom Scientific offer a similar package to its users. With the release of JAWS 2019 FS (now part of Vispero, formerly VFO Group) announced that subscription packages would be available for some of their software packages, with JAWS being the first.
I was quite excited about this as I’d now be able to pay just $90.00 (a bit more with local sales tax) to immediately upgrade from my old license to a new, shiny JAWS 2019 license. This morning I visited Freedom Scientific’s E-store, found the page offering the JAWS annual license, placed it in my shopping cart and then completed my purchase. I immediately received two emails, one confirming my order and the other email containing a link for me to download and activate my software.
I went to the link and downloaded a tiny file which then allowed me to download and activate my software. I opened the program and, with no drama, JAWS was downloaded, installed and activated on my machine. The process was incredibly simple and, upon a restart, my desktop contained the JAWS 2019 icon to start my screen reader. As an added bonus, people who subscribe early as I did actually receive more than one year of use as my subscription officially expires on January 31, 2020, giving me almost fourteen months of actual use.
Now I’ll talk about why I actually decided to start using JAWS at home again. While I was always very happy with NVDA and will continue to recommend and endorse it there were some features and benefits which JAWS offers which are presently not found within NVDA which I really wanted on my home computer. Specifically, these features are:
- The ability to copy a portion of a Web page into an email message with the formatting retained, including links and headings. I often repost various news articles and press releases to the mailing list for the Philadelphia Computer Users’ Group for the Blind and Visually Impaired. These articles usually contain links and headings which I’d prefer to have preserved in the email message. JAWS is able to preserve the formatting of portions of a Web page which are copied and then pasted into other documents or email messages. Currently, NVDA does not possess this capability. For a while I would use Window-Eyes as a backup screen reader to complete this task but this product is no longer in development. This was a decision made by VFO last year which I still strongly disagree with as it has diminished the screen reader landscape.
- The ability for quick navigation keys to wrap. As an example, suppose that a Web page contains five headings and my virtual cursor is at the bottom of the page. With NVDA, pressing the letter H causes NVDA to inform me that no more headings exist on the page. This is, of course, correct. However, pressing the letter H using JAWS would cause the navigation to wrap back to the top, moving my focus onto the first heading. I believe this feature can be disabled for users who don’t want navigation to wrap but I found it to be a useful (though not a necessary) feature.
- Responsiveness. Using Espeak, which is still my favorite synthesizer, NVDA is quite responsive. By responsive I’m referring to the delay between pressing a key and hearing the letter, number or character which was pressed. Even more important is the delay when pressing arrow keys to review a Web page, email message or a document. Again, in nearly all cases NVDA is pretty responsive when doing this when using Espeak. When I use the legally obtained drivers for Eloquence and Nuance voices (such as Tom and Samantha), the responsiveness improves even more, providing performance nearly as good as what you get with JAWS. Notice that I said “nearly.” When using NVDA with Eloquence or with Nuance the responsiveness is quite good and would be fast enough to satisfy nearly any speech user. However, if I’m going to be honest I have to say that the responsiveness with JAWS is just a bit snappier when reviewing a Web page with arrow key navigation. Is it significantly so? Not to me. It’s still somewhat noticeable. However, reviewing Word documents with NVDA, at least on my home computer, is a slightly different matter. The responsiveness when navigating using arrow keys is noticeably slower than what I see when performing the same commands in other programs. My work computer, which has far more RAM and more high-end specs, does not exhibit this type of delay. My admittedly slower Dell OptiPlex, with 8 GB of RAM, exhibits delays that I find annoying and, to be frank, unacceptable. When I compose documents using the open source Libreoffice Writer, performance is what it should be. Using JAWS 2019 on my home system the performance in Word, while still a tad bit slower compared to other programs, is quite good and definitely acceptable, making JAWS an attractive choice for me when using Word.
Text Analyzer. For me, this is one of the features which makes JAWS worth paying for. If I’m composing a document where correct formatting is not only desired but essential then I’d prefer to use JAWS with Microsoft Word. It allows me to easily track formatting changes and errors such as changes in font, color, mismatched spaces and other punctuation, etc. It’s very customizable and easy to use. NVDA currently does not offer this capability.
If we’re going to compare the two screen readers to determine which one contains more features I feel that JAWS is the clear winner. It’s not worth debating; JAWS is, at the time of this writing, more feature-rich than NVDA. I’ve always known and accepted this. However, while I am not at all dissatisfied with NVDA the fact is that there are just a few features which it currently lacks that could really benefit me as a JAWS user. I’ll also say that NVDA continues to offer features which are not currently being offered in JAWS. Examples include:
- Free of cost. This is pretty obvious. I’ll also admit that just because a piece of software is free doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good. However, in the case of NVDA the screen reader, while lacking some of the more advanced features of JAWS, is still a very good and capable screen reader. This also means that subsequent updates, of which there are four per year, are also free of cost to the user. This means that there are no SMAs to pay for or keep track of.
- It can be run portably. NVDA can be run from any folder on your hard drive without installing it. It can also be run from any external drive, such as a USB drive, in the same way. This means that you can take NVDA to just about any Windows machine and run it without the need to install it first.
- Progress indication tones. This is something that NVDA has had since its early days. Window-Eyes eventually added this feature and it’s a feature that I wish JAWS would add. Essentially, if you’re performing a task such as downloading or copying a file JAWS is able to periodically read the progress in percentages, such as 20 percent, 40 percent, etc. When you hear JAWS say 100 percent then you know that the task is complete. This is fine and NVDA can do this as well. However, NVDA can also report this as ascending tones. Instead of hearing verbal announcements you hear quick tones which raise in pitch as the task nears completion. When the tone gets to its highest pitch then you know that the task is complete. Admittedly, this is not effective or helpful for users who are deaf or who have severe hearing difficulties. However, I have grown used to this feature and really wish JAWS would implement it. Now that I’m becoming more of a JAWS user I will suggest this to Vispero.
- Works with Kaspersky. Those of you who don’t use or who want nothing to do with Kaspersky’s security tools won’t care about this. However, I use Kaspersky Antivirus and, while it doesn’t work perfectly with NVDA, it works reasonably well enough in that I am able to control the program. JAWS is, frankly, totally blind to any controls within the Kaspersky window, making it completely inaccessible to a JAWS user. This is another issue I want to bring to Vispero’s attention.
- A more simplified interface. JAWS is running into the same problem that Windows 10 is now running into. Windows used to have all of their settings available via the Control Panel. Windows 10 still offers the Control Panel but now has their new Settings app with most features you’d want to access and change. However, some settings haven’t been migrated over into the Settings app yet and so you still need the Control Panel for some settings, although the Settings app does try to link to Control Panel items where it can. JAWS has a Settings Center, formerly known as Configuration Manager, where many of the JAWS settings are located. Like the Windows 10 Settings app you can even search for items that you’re looking for. However, like Windows 10 JAWS doesn’t have quite all of the settings you might be looking for contained within their Settings Center, such as changing voices or speech parameters, along with other settings. Instead, you need to open the JAWS window and open either the Options or Utilities menus for these items. By contrast, when you run NVDA you press insert-N for the NVDA menu, arrow down to Settings, press enter and all settings for the screen reader are available. To be fair, NVDA is a much newer and admittedly simpler screen reader and so you could argue that these two factors make the interface more manageable. JAWS has been around since 1995 and so they’ve had an additional eleven years to add extra features.
- Pressing Home or End echoes the character at the cursor. When you use NVDA, pressing the Home key always speaks the first character on the current line, which I find very helpful. JAWS does this when using Microsoft Word but it doesn’t seem to do this in other applications and I think that it should. In fact, I can find no way of changing the behavior of the Home key unless you know scripting.
Many JAWS users will want to point out some feature of JAWS that I haven’t mentioned which is not available in NVDA. Of course, there are many but I’ve mentioned the ones which I would personally want to use. Placemarkers is a feature that I might wind up using but I have no real desire to use it but I may change my mind as I begin to use JAWS more at home. NVDA does actually have a Placemarkers addon but it’s not as intuitive or easy to use as it is with JAWS. Flexible Web is another JAWS-specific feature that I don’t feel a real need for but which I might use more often now that I’m once again a JAWS user at home.
I guess the real question is whether I will switch screen readers and use JAWS as my primary screen reader. My honest response, right now, is that I am not certain. However, even if I do switch over to being a JAWS user there will likely be tasks that I’ll still need NVDA to assist me with, such as accessing Kaspersky. In fact, it’s always good to keep at least two screen readers, along with several Web browsers, on your system, if possible, to deal with accessibility challenges or barriers that you might encounter where one combination of screen reader and browser might prove to be more effective than another. I will also continue to support and endorse NV Access, both with financial contributions as well as continuing to spread the word about their free and excellent screen reader.
For now I am enjoying the process of using and getting reacquainted with JAWS. I will continue to blog more about this as I continue this journey and would love to read your comments about this post.