This post was updated on 8th July 2012, to reflect changes in the Windows 8 release edition.
Windows 8 has several accessibility improvements. One of the most noticeable is Narrator, Windows’ built in speech capability. Narrator has grown up in Windows 8, and now comes with a lot more to offer.
Narrator is much more configurable under Windows 8. Under Windows 7 you can choose Narrator’s voice, and alter its speed, pitch and volume. It’s rudimentary at best. Narrator under Windows 8 has many of the configuration options you’d expect to find with an old school desktop screen reader.
Like many other desktop screen readers, Narrator uses a modifier key. The Capslock key is used in combination with other keys to create a suite of Narrator specific keyboard commands.
Under “General” settings you can choose to permanently turn on the Narrator modifier key. This saves you from having to include the Capslock key before each Narrator command. You can toggle the modifier key lock on/off at any time using one of Narrator’s many new keyboard commands (Capslock z).
You can configure Narrator to start at logon, and to start minimised. There is an option to turn keyboard keystroke echo on/off, and you can also toggle this setting on the fly ((Capslock f12).
There is an option to enable visual highlighting of the Narrator cursor, and this is on by default. Particularly helpful if you’re working on something alongside sighted people. The final setting under “General” lets you choose how long Narrator notifications are retained for reading.
You can choose to enable reading and interaction with a mouse, useful if you have enough vision. If your device supports a touch interface, another option appears that lets you make the same choice about reading and interaction via touch.
Narrator is a lot more sophisticated when it comes to cursor modes. By default the Narrator cursor follows the keyboard cursor, a setting you can set within the “Navigation” settings. You can also route the Narrator cursor to the keyboard cursor (Capslock g) or to the mouse pointer (Capslock t).
You can choose between two Narrator cursor interaction modes (normal and Advanced). It isn’t entirely clear what the difference between the two is, so that’ll take a bit more investigation (and probably another blog post). The setting can be toggled on the fly as well though (Capslock a).
The settings here remain largely unchanged from Windows 7. You can select the voice that Narrator uses, then set the speed, pitch and volume it uses. It must be said that the voices available under Windows 8 are much better though.
On a desktop computer, Microsoft David is the default. It’s a pleasant American voice that’s easy to listen to. The desktop alternative for people in the UK is Hazel. It’s another voice that’s easy on the ear, this time with a British accent.
Windows 8 voice samples
Narrator has 72 keyboard commands (as of the June 2012 release edition. When Narrator is running you can call up a list of available commands (Capslock f1). Within the “Commands” settings you can change the keystrokes required to invoke any particular command.
Under Windows 8, Narrator can be used to interact with content much more Intuitively. For example it has commands for reading the current/next/previous paragraph, sentence, word or character. It can read the column or row header from a table, the entire row or column, as well as the cell content itself. In fact many of the basic commands you’d expect from any screen reader are available.
Narrator has clearly acquired many more features under Windows 8. Only time and use will tell whether the experience of using it has similarly improved. In the meantime it does seem as though Narrator might be on its way to being a screen reader, instead of a last resort when your primary screen reader dies.