Saturday, 18 October 2014

My Review of the Samsung Chromebook's accessibility for VI users.

My Review of the Samsung Chromebook's accessibility for VI users.

Today i was able to sit down with a Samsung Chromebook and assess it for accessibility for students with low vision and compare it to other well known accessible machines such as a Windows machine with Jaws or Zoomtext or a Macintosh with its out of the box accessibility settings.


I will appraise each particular major accessibility feature separately,  the hardware and layout, the zoom function, the screenreader and the overall integration into the O/S, but as a general note it is fair to say that the chromebook accessibility features out of the box are functional but underwhelming and benefit from additions within the chrome store and elsewhere, as such it will be a preferable device for a computer savvy user who is comfortable customising their machine- on this note it is unlikely this kind of user would migrate to chrome- already having a customised Windows or Apple computer which offer more versatility and power than the users of chromebooks will recieve, the other drawback i found is that the third party apps just don't run as well on a chromebook as they do on a more powerful device with Chrome installed.

A blind user will have to forget a lot of what they have learned about Apple and Windows compatible keyboards as the Chrome keyboard is new again and the top row of keys features different functions than other keyboards- such as a refresh button in the F3 position and a power button which has almost the exact same shape as the other top keys, the spacing between all of the top keys is identical and ungrouped so it can be difficult to find the right keys towards the centre.

In place of a capslock the Chrome user will find a search button which will be essential for ChromeVox use.  Despite the slight changes in interface, the keyboard is perfectly accessible with keys being widely spaced and many functions utilising haptic strategies of changing the button size and spacing- there are none of the familiar bugbears for VI users like noiseless LCD buttons or a mouse nub in between g and h and the home keys feature tactile indicators to reinforce correct orientation. I did not find myself accidentally touching the touchpad when in screenreader mode.

The battery is amazing, not only does it last eight hours but it charges very quickly, a few minutes of charge giving you 15 minutes of use without charge, at least on a new device and unlike Apple machines- the battery is replaceable.

The screen is a no-frills small LCD- it does distort from the wrong angle and it lacks the touch interface of up and coming competitors- but for the price of the machine ($350 at the time of writing)- this is an understandable shortcoming.

All in all the machine performed well although i did notice that in screenreader mode there was occasional lag when typing on some Apps including google docs which suggests that the machine is a little light on memory.


Screen Magnification

Screen magnification features were largely underwhelming even compared to the inbuilt Windows 8 Zoom, i was however impressed with the capability to use both zoom and screenreader at the same time and the fluidness of the screen magnification (this would work even better with a touchscreen for gestures), but there are many missing features that one would expect from a functional screenreader such as;

  • no shortcut to enable and disable screen magnification
  • zoom cannot be configured to follow keyboard or other focus than mouse -(available in both windows and mac inbuilt zoom)
  • no software to sharpen text at high magnification (aka zoomtext)
  • out of the box mouse cursor can only be increased to a relatively small size and there are no colour options- instead mouse cursors need to be imported into chrome and converted into a different format which is fiddly.
  • any magnification user is going to be frustrated by being forced to work within program and O/S zoom to get the desired magnification of any webpage- constantly altering both zoom levels to get the ‘sweet spot’.


Whilst missing some of the more extensive features of Jaws for windows, Google Chrome’s screenreader, ChromeVox, compares favourably to inbuilt accessibility and free or cheap alternatives i have used on other machines.

The Google ChromeVox tutorial is excellent and I finished the ChromeVox tutorial feeling more confident than i have after navigating Jaws or VoiceOver resources, whilst not a fully fledged screenreader- ChromeVox is still powerful enough for an excellent browsing experience as long as you are navigating an accessible page, positive features include
  • Screenreader works with mouse/zoom
  • Start and Stop screenreader with a shortcut
  • customisable speech- pitch, rate, etc
  • Multiple navigation levels, group-character,headers-links-words etc
  • Robust and Intelligent table mode

Once you have finished the table you will enjoy exploring a range of websites, however i found a few weakness in ChromeVox compared to other screenreaders such as;
  • lag when typing using Google Docs
  • You have to descend to the character navigation level to navigate buttons on web pages(!?)
  • You only have a british female voice out of the box
  • the navigation can be stilted and fall down without accessible web design incorporated into pages
  • System volume is irritatingly linked to Chromevox volume, you can’t alter them separately
  • ChromeVox is hard to turn on unless you are starting on a new Chromebook or know the shortcut by previously having been shown or read a tutorial
  • If you use voiceover on an iPad, you’re going to miss your touchscreen, if you use Voiceover on a Mac, you’re going to be at home with ChromeVox.
  • No lists or onscreen OCR like Jaws, so you cannot ‘force’ accessibility in programs or websites that are not designed with you in mind.

Final Words


In summation, with some training and education the Chromebook is a great cheap start for somebody who would like a computer which performs basic functionality, but a more expensive product such as the iPad or Macbook Pro still sports more accessible applications, a more intuitive interface and more overall versatility in performance and design.

Chromebook is certainly evolving and can certainly be enjoyed and customised by a VI user, but at this stage it’s going to be more appealing to higher end users who are already familiar with other screenreaders and magnifiers and thus are likely to already access more versatile machines which they are more familiar with.

Stephen Cordwell


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