My experiences with a Mac

Tony Baechler tony at
Sun Mar 16 10:24:23 UTC 2008

Hi all,

Recently, my brother bought a Macbook with OS X on it.  I was interested in 
looking at it because Apple claims that Voiceover is a complete screen 
reading solution and is good enough that you can do your daily tasks.  You 
can read about it and download the getting started manual in pdf and mp3.  I am still very much learning 
as I go and I'm not an expert, but I've read a few chapters of the manual 
and can now do basic tasks.  Here are some of my experiences.  If you want 
me to look at something specific or if you have particular questions, ask 
quickly because I will only have access to it for about a week.  It's a 
notebook so it has limitations, but it's a fairly nice unit.  I like the 
keyboard better than other notebooks I've used.

The core is based on BSD but the OS is completely different than any other 
I've used and I've used most.  I've used DOS 3.3 and ProDOS for the Apple 
II, MS-DOS 3.3, 5.0, 6.0 and 6.22 for the
PC, Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows 95 OSR2, Caldera OpenDOS, Windows 98, 
Windows 98 SE, Linux,
Windows XP home, FreeBSD, Windows XP pro, and finally Mac OS X 10.5.2
Leopard.  That is almost exactly chronological order.  When I say that I
used them, I don't mean just to try them except the Mac.  I mean that
I've used them for at least several months and have at least a good
basic knowledge of them.  With FreeBSD, it has no equivalent to Speakup
so everything I did was with ssh but I got Apache and an ftp server
working.  With Linux, I've used Slackware, Debian and Gentoo.  While I'm
very far from a Mac expert, I know enough to do basic tasks.  I
downloaded and installed Firefox yesterday.  I got 1.22 MB per second
download speed which is faster than I've ever had on any other computer
before.  Mac OS X does have Braille support but I don't know anything
about it.  Apple pushes speech only but there was a category for Braille
in preferences.

Actually, other than a slight learning curve, I'm getting a feel for how
things work.  I would hardly call Voiceover a complete screen reader but
it isn't bad.  Terminal includes a shell with the standard *nix
utilities, but some things are missing.  The default shell is bash.  The
few man pages I looked at point to BSD.  I am guessing but I think it's
based on OpenBSD.  It comes with Postfix installed.  It's about as fast
as Windows XP which is surprising because I expected it to be faster but
I'm still learning.  The Firefox installation was fairly painless.  I think 
the biggest thing I don't like about Voiceover is that you must hold down 
Control and Option with all other commands.  It has its own cursor but you 
must hold down those two keys and use the arrows.  If you're on a table and 
want to interact with it, you must press Control, Option, Shift and down 
arrow.  Once you make your choice, such as checking a box or picking an item 
in a table, you have to press those keys again but instead of down arrow, 
it's the up arrow.  This applies even with web pages, dialogues, tables and 
most other controls.  It doesn't apply to buttons.  To press a button, you 
have to press Control, Option, Space.  I found that in most cases, I can 
just press the space bar instead but the manual says to use all three keys. 
  Like Windows, there are close and minimize buttons.  There is also a zoom 
in or zoom out button.  To access them, you have to hold down the Control 
and Option and use the arrows until you find it.  While still holding down 
those keys, press Space to close whatever you're in.  Escape sometimes works 
instead but not always.

One area where the manual is wrong is where it says that you can hold down 
Control and Option and press the letter H for help on the current control. 
The manual says that most controls have help tags.  Well, every time I tried 
that, I was told that there was no help for this control.  I've so far only 
used programs supplied with the OS.  It has no equivalent of MSAA, browse, 
or forms mode for web pages.  You have to go from upper left to lower right 
with the Voiceover cursor.  I haven't tried any html content yet, so I'm 
only going by the manual.  The manual itself is fairly small.  If there is a 
more complete manual besides the getting started manual that I downloaded, 
it wasn't obvious.  The first three chapters give a general introduction, an 
intro to OS X and an intro to Voiceover.  Even if you don't like reading 
manuals, those chapters are required reading.  You'll be completely lost 
otherwise, especially if you're not used to Windows.  The equivalents of the 
Windows desktop and Windows Explorer are built into one window on the Mac. 
In the Mac world, the desktop is the same as the file browser or "My 
Computer" in Windows.  There must be an easier way to get to installed 
applications, but so far the only way I found was to open the hard disk and 
arrow down to Applications.  Opening the Applications row in the table 
showing all hard disk directories is as close to the Windows start menu as 
you're going to get.  There is also the dock which is like the system tray 
in Windows.  The dock was fairly easy to use.

There are so far several areas where Voiceover falls short for me.  First, 
there was a dialogue that came up because the network wasn't set up 
correctly.  It never spoke that at all.  I had to have sighted help use the 
mouse to close the window.  Another problem is that there is a permanent 
menu bar on the screen but tapping Command or Option will not open it, 
unlike Windows.  You have to press Control, Option, M to cycle through the 
three types of menus.  One nice thing is that the Apple menu is always 
visible so you can always get out of a program that locks up, at least in 
theory.  There are status menus also, such as for battery power and 
bluetooth.  It read all of those fine.  There is no other keyboard way to 
access them.  If a mouse user opens them for you, don't press the right 
arrow after the last menu or it closes.  Unfortunately you have no way of 
knowing what menu is the last.  Another problem is that sometimes you're on 
a control which you think you can interact with but pressing the keys to 
interact with it just gives you a ding for no obvious reason.  I was almost 
stuck in Terminal until I thought to look at the menu bar.  There was 
nothing on the screen telling me what happened except that cycling through 
the open applications showed that Terminal was still opened even though I 
was getting no feedback.  I randomly tried the menu bar and found a way to 
quit.  That was anything but obvious.

I would like to briefly discuss the terminal since it will be of interest to 
most of you reading.  As I said, it is based on BSD and has the basic 
utilities you would expect such as ls, bash, man, less, and nano.  It is 
missing other things that you would normally find though, such as there is 
no cc or gcc and no text browsers.  There is the standard ftp but no lftp or 
ncftp.  I can't tell if Apache comes preinstalled or not but it didn't look 
like it even though Postfix is installed and running.  There seems to be no 
"root" user from what I can tell but it comes with su and sudo.  If you try 
"halt," you're told that you can't.  If you use "su" to become root, you're 
asked for a password.  Every password I tried didn't work.  Many file and 
directory names have spaces.  My guess is that either you have to add a root 
user (but adduser and useradd didn't exist) or change everything via System 
Preferences.  The only thing I looked at under preferences was how to adjust 
Voiceover.    The voice sounds pleasant.  For amusement, you have to look at 
all the different voices included.  Some of them sing.  Anyway, the terminal 
left a lot to be desired.  Often it would skip several lines of text or not 
read at all.  If I did "ls" in my home directory, it would not read the 
directory listing.  If you use the Voiceover cursor, it reads everything on 
the screen from top to bottom.  There is no easy way to just read the last 
few lines.  In ftp, all I got for a prompt was the word "space."  It 
wouldn't read my current directory or give any other feedback.  Obviously a 
lot of work still needs to be done in this area.  I somewhat got around the 
problems with things not reading by pressing Control, Option, Shift down 
arrow to interact with the scroll area.  That seemed to help a little but 
still gave me no way to read the last few lines if I missed anything.  It 
also has an annoying habbit of not pronouncing whole numbers.  I know 
Firefox is fairly big but I couldn't tell how big because it just read off a 
bunch of digits.  One good thing it has is a keyboard practice mode which 
greatly helps in learning what keys do what.  Since I was using a small 
keyboard, it helped me learn the layout.  Another thing it has is a Control 
plus Option lock so you don't have to hit those keys every time to move the 
cursor.  The problem is still that you have to unlock the keyboard before 
you can go back to your application.

So far, based on my experiences, I would consider Voiceover more of an 
overlay than a screen reader.  In other words, it runs on top of your apps 
and it helps but it's not good enough that I would use it day in and day 
out.  It's quite a bit nicer than XP Narrator though and it does have a 
cursor which you can use to explore the screen layout.  It has no concept of 
things like windows or graphic dictionaries and it only shows you the active 
window or dialogue, so it would be impossible for me to dismiss a background 
dialogue about the incorrect network settings because it would never read 
it.  It has limited mouse support but not like what you would find in 
Windows.  There is apparently support for the numeric keypad but I don't 
know to what extent.  Since it's a portable, I kept that turned off.

Again, I'll only have a week or so to play with it and experiment, so if you 
have any questions or things you want me to look at, please ask soon.  If 
this is considered off topic, sorry.  Please feel free to repost to other 
appropriate mailing lists.

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