Thursday, October 2, 2014

Windows 10 Technical Preview: first impressions, feature intros and compatibility with screen readers



Now that Microsoft lifted the veil on Windows 10 (formerly codenamed Threshold), it’s time to examine its features and compatibility with screen readers, specifically with NVDA. In this article, I’ll introduce you to some of the new features in Windows 10 as of October Tech Preview build when used with NVDA.




When we think of GUI’s (graphical user interface), we often think of icons, pictures and sliders to tell computers what to do. Along with graphics, we also think about interaction with GUI elements, such as with mouse clicks, touchscreen taps and keyboard commands. With the advances in screen reading technology for GUI, blind computer users can utilize sophisticated features of GUI’s to perform tasks, such as dragging, mouse clicks and so on.


One of the aspects of GUI environments is the overall user interface and the introductory screen to launch various programs, open files and search for information. For many, it would be a desktop where a grid of icons representing folders and programs are displayed. For others, it might be a home screen or apps launcher screen to search for apps and open apps by tapping on the app icon.


Windows 8.x: is desktop an “app?”


In 2012, Microsoft introduced Windows 8, featuring a major update to Windows GUI in years. This included a new style of apps, new ways of starting programs and relegation of desktop into an “app”. While the touch-centric interface of Windows 8 and its successor, Windows 8.1 was praised for usability and interactivity, others criticized the decreased prominence of desktop interface and asked Microsoft to undo some of the changes. Responding to criticism, Microsoft reintroduced Start button and ability to go to desktop upon login in Windows 8.1.


Windows 10: attempt at marriage of touch and desktop


Windows 10 can be best summarized as a hybrid between modern UI and traditional desktop interface. For starters, we have the traditional structure of the Start Menu combined with live tiles. Desktop became more prominent with virtual desktops to run programs in virtual workspaces. Of course Windows 8.1 is not forgotten; for instance, toggling a setting in Taskbar and Navigation control panel lets you work with tiles alone.


Windows 10 and screen reader users: current status


As of October 2014 Tech Preview of Windows 10, NVDA works well with Windows 10. It is expected that latest versions of JAWS for Windows, Window-Eyes and other screen readers supporting Windows 8.1 will work with Windows 10 to some extent. If you are used to Windows 8.1 with screen readers, you can pick up Windows 10 quickly, though with some adjustments required such as navigating the hybrid Start menu/screen interface. Let’s examine Windows 10’s features from viewpoint of screen reader users.


Start menu/screen: hybrid of Windows 7 and 8.1


When you press Windows key to bring Start UI, the notable difference from Windows 7 and 8.1 would be addition of live tiles and return of apps tree view, respectively. The screen is divided into two areas: on the left is a familiar structure of Start Menu from Windows 7 days with search box at the bottom. When you open Start UI, you’ll land on the search box, just like it was with Windows 7. Pressing right arrow will you let explore the tiles, which are on the right side of the screen. On the top of the screen are user accounts and power options buttons, just like Windows 8.1 – you can press TAB to move to these buttons.


Task view: viewing running apps at a glance


If you press Windows+TAB in Windows 10, you’ll land at what is termed “Task View”. This window lets you glance running programs for the “current virtual desktop” (more on that in a second). Here you can press left and right arrow keys to move between apps you are running.


Related to Task View is virtual desktops, a virtual workspace that allows you to run programs in separate desktops. For example, you might be running Skype and various instant messaging applications in one desktop while running web browsers on the other. This is similar to features found in some of the Linux distributions. To switch between desktops, press TAB from Task View to go to desktops list, use the left and right arrows to select the desired desktop and press ENTER.


Modern apps: title bars, toolbars and other additions


One of the highlights in Windows 10 is change of appearance of Modern apps. If you use smartphones such as Android and iPhone, you might be familiar with app interfaces where the app takes the whole screen, and in Windows world, it was termed “immersive app”. This isn’t the case with modern apps in Windows 10: just like traditional programs, Windows Store apps have title bars and toolbars. This may pose a problem for screen reader users who uses announce title command to find out which app they are in (for example, in NVDA, the word “itle bar for” is announced instead of the name of the app).


So who should and should not use Windows 10 Technical Preview?


With just the features listed above, some may wish to migrate to Windows 10. If I’m to give an answer to this question, I’d say, “definitely, possibly and no” depending on the audience.


I highly recommend that you try Windows 10 Technical Preview (at least as a virtual machine; more on that in a second) if you are:

·         A screen reader developer who wishes to optimize his or her screen reader for Windows 10.

·         A power user of Windows who can’t wait till next year to try some of the features in Windows 10.

·         A computer user who knows how to format and install new operating systems and knows way of restoring old versions.


It might be possible that you may wish to try Windows 10 but may not commit to it right away. This would be a good option for trainers who wish to get ahead with Windows 10 features and to develop training materials for blind computer users.


You should not use Windows 10 if you are:

·         Content with Windows 7 or 8.x.

·         Unsure about how to format and install operating systems.


The reason is that, as of now, Windows 10 Technical Preview is a late alpha and early beta code, so features may change rapidly. Given some of the feedback comments, it wouldn’t be a surprise if even some of the features described above are changed significantly.


As for using Windows 10 Technical Preview physically or virtually, I highly recommend installing it as a virtual machine to minimize disruption to your existing Windows installation.


I hope this gave you an accessible picture of what Windows 10 Tech Preview is like. I hope to update this series with more news on WinTen with screen readers and to highlight major changes to UI as the Tech Preview (Windows Insider program) progresses.


Joseph S Lee

UC Riverside (formerly), translator and code contributor to NVDA project and author of NVDA add-ons

October 2014