The Braille Monitor                                                                                         December, 2003


A Few Notes on Buying a Computer

by Curtis Chong and Steven Booth

Curtis Chong
Curtis Chong

From the Editor: Every year thousands of people ask the staff of the NFB Technology Department for advice in buying just the right computer. Before he left the Center staff, Curtis Chong, then NFB director of technology, compiled his advice into one short handout. Steve Booth has updated the information because we thought that everyone would be interested in reading it. Here it is:

The International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC), which is operated by the National Federation of the Blind, receives thousands of calls each year from blind people who want to buy a computer. Most of our callers want a computer to write letters, keep records, send and receive email, and surf the Web. Some people want to use their computers as reading machines, which can scan and speak printed material.

While most people will want voice output from their computers, others would prefer screen magnification. People who need to read highly technical material or who are deaf-blind might prefer reading their computer screens using refreshable-Braille technology. As a totally blind computer user I find that voice output works well for me. Many of my friends with enough vision to read print prefer to have both voice output (to save on eyestrain and dramatically increase reading speed) and screen magnification (to provide visual verification when desired).

If you cannot read your computer screen because of your vision, in addition to the basic computer you will need to add software called screen-access technology. You should start by purchasing a computer that runs the Windows operating system. The following specifications can be used as a guide to determine which built-in features you should get for your new system: at least 128 megabytes of RAM (random access memory), preferably 256 or greater; at least 20 gigabytes of hard-disk space (most hard disks have at least this amount or more storage capacity); an internal 56K modem with V.90 capability; an ethernet card if you plan to connect to the Internet using a cable or DSL Internet service; no less than a 500-megahertz processor speed (nothing slower is sold these days); and a Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live or Turtlebeach Montego card. While almost any video card will work with screen-access technology for the blind, the blind person using speech output should bear in mind that the more sophisticated, three-dimensional card used for video games is not necessary.

Steven Booth
Steven Booth

Why do you need the Sound Blaster Live or Turtlebeach Montego sound cards? You will need a multichannel sound card that will allow screen-access technology and other Windows applications to generate sounds at the same time. Without a multichannel sound card, sounds generated by Windows or other programs often conflict with your screen-access program's ability to talk to you through your computer's speakers, and one or the other will generate an error message. In our experience the Sound Blaster Live or the Turtlebeach Montego work well as multichannel sound cards. However, you can acquire another multichannel sound card if you wish.

As for software, computers (as of this writing) are sold with the Windows XP operating system. Two versions are available, XP Home or XP Professional. If you plan to use your computer at home and do not plan to connect to many other devices, XP Home is sufficient. Otherwise consider buying XP Professional since it offers better networking capability. Email and Web-browsing software (Outlook Express and Internet Explorer, respectively) come free with the Windows operating system, but you get only a fairly simplified free word processor (WordPad for Windows). While you can use WordPad to write letters and other simple documents, you may want to consider buying Microsoft Office if you are interested in spell-checking your material.

A word processor that works fairly well with screen-access technology is Microsoft Word. Some computer dealers will try to bundle a package called Microsoft Works with your system. While we cannot say for certain that Microsoft Works is not compatible with screen-access technology for the blind, we can say that our experience with it is limited and that we are more confident in the ability of Microsoft Office to work with access technology than we are with Microsoft Works.

The next software item that must be given serious consideration is a screen-access program. Most blind people would prefer to acquire one which converts the information on the screen into speech. Others will want screen-magnification software, and many will want a combination of speech output and screen magnification. See the last page of this article for information about how to contact the appropriate screen-access technology vendor.

If you want your computer to be able to read and speak printed material, you will need to buy a piece of hardware called a scanner (for about $200) and a software product which actually speaks the text on the page. You should be prepared to spend at least a thousand dollars to acquire the blind-friendly systems--especially if you do not consider yourself a relatively sophisticated user of Windows. There are two noteworthy products to consider: Open Book from Freedom Scientific and Kurzweil 1000 from Kurzweil Educational Systems. Both of these programs come with their own speech and can thus operate without screen-access technology.

In addition to the staff of the International Braille and Technology Center, the National Federation of the Blind has thousands of members willing and able to answer your questions. I urge you to call the president of the NFB affiliate in your state and introduce yourself to him or her. If you do not know how to reach your NFB state affiliate president, call the NFB's general information staff in Baltimore at (410) 659-9314 (8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time).

Now for those who want large print. We are not experts on low-vision software but have heard good things about ZoomText from a company called Ai Squared. This software is particularly helpful if you want to use screen magnification as your primary means of reading information displayed on the computer screen. ZoomText comes with speech which can increase your speed when reading text.

For those who want speech output most of the time but need some visual verification every once in a while, the combination of JAWS for Windows and the MAGic magnification software (available from Freedom Scientific) seems to work well. There are many other possibilities, so you would be wise to start networking with other blind people. Again, call our NFB state presidents to meet people already using computer systems you'd like to have yourself.

Sometimes people new to using computers hire someone to build them a computer. This can include lessons which teach the buyer how to get started once the computer is assembled and ready for use. Such experts often know how to buy good basic equipment during sales or at a reduced rate on Internet Web sites. If you know some blind computer experts, I would suggest you ask what fee they would charge for assembling a system in addition to the cost of the computer parts. Remember that sighted experts may help to build a computer but are unlikely to know how to instruct you to use keyboard commands instead of the mouse. Again, I highly recommend locating local blind computer users to help you through the frustrating early days of learning to use your new system.

At present the average cost for a full system can be broken down like this:

$1,200, Intel-based computer with Windows operating system

$1,000, Reading software (optical character recognition software) will let you use your commercial scanner. First it scans any typeset print you've placed on the scanner; then it will recognize the document and read it aloud to you.

$900, Screen-access technology, such as JAWS for Windows or Window-Eyes, will see your computer screen and articulate what is there.

$200, A typical commercial scanner

$200, A typical commercial color printer

$300, Estimated: state tax, an electrical power surge protector, computer supplies (printer paper, CDs or disks, and computer application programs), computer user manuals in Braille or on cassette, Internet service provider fees, ($100 to $200 per year), and other such incidentals

$3,900, Total best estimate (October, 2003)

References and Contact Information

While JAWS for Windows from Freedom Scientific appears to be the best-known screen-access program for the blind, we should call to your attention another program, Window-Eyes. Each program has a unique set of features. The decision about which screen-access program to buy should be based partly on the features important to you and partly on the amount of money you have to spend. You should consult with the screen-access vendor to obtain the most current information about features and prices.

JAWS for Windows by Freedom Scientific, 11800 31st Court North, St. Petersburg, Florida 33716-1805. Telephone: (800) 444-4443, (727) 803-8000; fax: (727) 803-8001; email: <>; Web site: <>. JAWS for Windows ($895) provides speech and Braille access to Windows 98, Windows Millennium, and Windows XP Home Edition. Another version of JAWS for Windows ($1,195) provides access to Windows XP Professional Edition and Windows 2000. JAWS for Windows is shipped with the Eloquence software speech synthesizer, meaning that it can generate speech through your computer's sound card.

Window-Eyes by GW Micro, 725 Airport North Office Park, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46825. Telephone: (260) 489-3671; fax: (260) 489-2608; email: <>; Web site: <>. GW Micro offers Window-Eyes Home Edition for use with Windows 98, Millennium, and XP; and Window-Eyes Professional for use with Windows 2000 and XP Professional for $795. Both versions come with the Eloquence Synthesizer.

ZoomText, available from Ai Squared, P.O. Box 669, Manchester Center, Vermont 05255. Telephone: (800) 859-0270; fax: (802) 362-1670; email: <>; Web site: <>. This screen-magnification program sells for $395 without speech and $595 with speech.

Kurzweil Educational Systems, 14 Crosby Drive, Bedford, Massachusetts 01730, Telephone: (800) 894-5374; fax: (781) 276-0650; email: <>; Web site: <>. Kurzweil 1000 is available at $995.