NVDA 2015.1 screen reader released: hands-on first impressions

Thursday, 5 March 2015 12:03pm

NVDA, the free screen reader for Windows which is one of the world’s most popular, continues to receive significant improvements with the latest version, 2015.1. Dr Scott Hollier provides a hands-on review and initial impressions of the latest software update from NV Access.

Headset resting next to a Windows-based laptop

While not a proficient screen reader user, I find it useful from time to time when trying to read web pages, documents and emails which are text-heavy, so I was interested to take the new version of NVDA for a spin on my Windows 8.1 machine.

For people not familiar with NVDA, it is basically a free screen reader that is very JAWS-like in its usage, but there is still a learning curve for users of other screen readers. One of the complaints people often make when they first open it is about the voice as it is very robotic and some find it hard on the ears, but the benefit is that using this voice keeps it free and other language packs are available. If you can look past the initial impressions, though, what you have is a very powerful and standards-compliant screen reader comparable to the main commercial products which runs on most recent versions of Windows.

One of the features I’ve always liked about NVDA is its customisation. Right from the outset you are given options as to which keys you want to use for commands, generally choosing between the Insert key by default and the CAPS LOCK key. Given there are some other screen readers that use the CAPS LOCK key by default such as recent implementations of Narrator, the flexibility of this choice can help a lot through the learning process.

While daily users of screen readers are likely to pick up on different benefits of the new version, for me there are three standout features with the update. Firstly, reading emails in Outlook seems to be greatly improved, especially if they are complex HTML emails with embedded image links. The second is Skype which seems to have been greatly improved, making it much easier to communicate, and the third is more from a performance perspective – the previous version would hang from time to time while it was processing something and so far I haven’t had that issue. On my basic use of the web and applications, it looks like there’s been a fair bit of focus on Windows-based applications, possibly the Office suite in particular, to make NVDA work better.

The user-related release notes for 2015.1 are as follows:

New Features

  • You can now add new symbols in the Symbol Pronunciation dialog. (#4354)
  • In the Input Gestures dialog, you can use the new "Filter by" field to show only gestures containing specific words. (#4458)
  • NVDA now automatically reports new text in mintty. (#4588)
  • In the browse mode Find dialog, there is now an option to perform a case sensitive search. (#4584)
  • Quick navigation (pressing h to move by heading, etc.) and Elements List (NVDA+f7) are now available in Microsoft Word documents by turning on browse mode with NVDA+space. (#2975)
  • Reading HTML messages in Microsoft Outlook 2007 and later has been majorly improved as Browse mode is automatically enabled for these messages. If browse mode is not enabled in some rare situations, you can force it on with NVDA+space. (#2975)
  • Table column headers in Microsoft word are automatically reported for tables where a header row has been explicitly specified by the author via Microsoft word's table properties. (#4510)
    • However, For tables where rows have been merged, this will not work automatically. In this situation, you can still set column headers manually in NVDA with NVDA+shift+c.
  • In Skype for Desktop, notifications are now reported. (#4741)
  • In Skype for Desktop, you can now report and review recent messages using NVDA+control+1 through NVDA+control+0; e.g. NVDA+control+1 for the most recent message and NVDA+control+0 for the tenth most recent. (#3210)
  • In a conversation in Skype for Desktop, NVDA now reports when a contact is typing. (#3506)
  • NVDA can now be installed silently via the command line without starting the installed copy after installation. To do this, use the --install-silent option. (#4206)
  • Support for the Papenmeier BRAILLEX Live 20, BRAILLEX Live and BRAILLEX Live Plus braille displays. (#4614)

Changes

  • In NVDA's Document Formatting settings dialog, the option to report spelling errors now has a shortcut key (alt+r). (#793)
  • NVDA will now use the synthesizer/voice's language for character and symbol processing (including punctuation/symbol names), regardless of whether automatic language switching is turned on. To turn off this feature so that NVDA again uses its interface language, uncheck the new option in Voice settings called Trust Voice's language when processing characters and symbols. (#4210)
  • Support for the Newfon synthesizer has been removed. Newfon is now available as an NVDA add-on. (#3184)
  • Skype for Desktop 7 or later is now required for use with NVDA; earlier versions are not supported. (#4218)
  • Downloading of NVDA updates is now more secure. (Specifically, the update information is retrieved via https and the hash of the file is verified after it is downloaded.) (#4716)
  • eSpeak has been upgraded to version 1.48.04 (#4325)

Bug Fixes

  • In Microsoft Excel, merged row and column header cells are now handled correctly. For example, if A1 and B1 are merged, then B2 will now have A1 and B1 reported as its column header rather than nothing at all. (#4617)
  • When editing the content of a text box in Microsoft PowerPoint 2003, NVDA will correctly report the content of each line. Previously, in each paragraph, lines would increasingly be off by one character. (#4619)
  • All of NVDA's dialogs are now centred on the screen, improving visual presentation and usability. (#3148)
  • In Skype for desktop, when entering an introductory message to add a contact, entering and moving through the text now works correctly. (#3661)
  • When focus moves to a new itemn in tree views in the Eclipse IDE, if the previously focused item is a check box, it is no longer incorrectly announced. (#4586)
  • In the Microsoft Word spell check dialog, the next error will be automatically reported when the last one has been changed or ignored using respective shortcut keys. (#1938)
  • Text can again be read correctly in places such as Tera Term Pro's terminal window and documents in Balabolka. (#4229)
  • Focus now correctly returns to the document being edited When finishing input composition of text in Korean and other east Asian languages while editing within a frame in Internet Explorer and other MSHTML documents. (#4045)
  • In the Input Gestures dialog, when selecting a keyboard layout for a keyboard gesture being added, pressing escape now closes the menu as expected instead of closing the dialog. (#3617)
  • When removing an add-on, the add-on directory is now correctly deleted after restarting NVDA. Previously, you had to restart twice. (#3461)
  • Major problems have been fixed when using Skype for Desktop 7. (#4218)
  • When you send a message in Skype for Desktop, it is no longer read twice. (#3616)
  • In Skype for Desktop, NVDA should no longer occasionally spuriously read a large flood of messages (perhaps even an entire conversation). (#4644)
  • fixed a problem where NVDA's Report date/time command did not honor the regional settings specified by the user in some cases. (#2987)
  • In browse mode, nonsensical text (sometimes spanning several lines) is no longer presented for certain graphics such as found on Google Groups. (Specifically, this occurred with base64 encoded images.) (#4793)
  • NVDA should no longer freeze after a few seconds when moving focus away from a Windows Store app as it becomes suspended. (#4572)
  • The aria-atomic attribute on live regions in Mozilla Firefox is now honored even when the atomic element itself changes. Previously, it only affected descendant elements. (#4794)
  • Browse mode will reflect updates, and live regions will be announced, for browse mode documents within ARIA applications embedded in a document in Internet Explorer or other MSHTML controls. (#4798)
  • When text is changed or added in live regions in Internet Explorer and other MSHTML controls where the author has specified that text is relevant, only the changed or added text is announced, rather than all of the text in the containing element. (#4800)
  • Content indicated by the aria-labelledby attribute on elements in Internet Explorer and other MSHTML controls correctly replaces the original content where it is appropriate to do so. (#4575)
  • When checking spelling in Microsoft Outlook 2013, the misspelled word is now announced. (#4848)
  • In Internet Explorer and other MSHTML controls, content inside elements hidden with visibility:hidden is no longer inappropriately presented in browse mode. (#4839, #3776)
  • In Internet Explorer and other MSHTML controls, the title attribute on form controls no longer inappropriately takes preference over other label associations. (#4491)
  • In Internet Explorer and other MSHTML controls, NVDA no longer ignores focusing of elements due to the aria-activedescendant attribute. (#4667)

Overall NVDA remains an effective screen reader, especially for browsing using the Mozilla Firefox web browser, and its recent improvements will continue to cement it as a great option for people looking for a fully-featured screen reader over the built-in Windows Narrator. NVDA can be downloaded for free from the NV Access website.


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