Windows screen readers: JAWS vs. NVDA

Date of publication

After seven years of exclusively using Mac and Linux, I finally got to grips with the two Windows screen readers JAWS and NVDA. Of course, this also required me to install the Windows 10 operating system for the first time.

The first surprise

The first surprise came when I found out that the complete installation of Windows 10 can be done with a screen reader. Microsoft has not only caught up with Apple's Macs, but even surpassed them in the reliability of speech output during the installation. I absolutely did not expect this and I appreciate it very much.

On the other hand, it is a pity that the default settings in Windows are naked horror for people interested in data protection. For example, the default settings collect and send to Microsoft software configuration and statistics about which software is used how often and for how long in which time period. Likewise, the personal writing style and interaction with the computer is analyzed, to name just a few points. A lot can be prevented, but not everything, and it takes some searching until you really find all settings.

Screenreader

Windows already comes with its own screen reader (Narrator), which is constantly improving. However, it is not performant enough for me personally. Thus, some time passes from the keystroke to the moment when the action is finally performed. For an observer, these are probably times that could be tolerated, but especially when navigating very quickly with the screen reader, one has the feeling of having to wait for the computer. Whether this is due to Narrator itself or whether there are settings options to give it legs is a topic for a future detailed blog post. For this review, I only used Narrator to download other screen readers, and that was too little usage time to form an informed opinion.

JAWS

Since I had no previous contact with JAWS, I downloaded the current version to get to know the screen reader. I was particularly interested in what makes JAWS so unique.

On my test system, it runs pretty fast and works with both Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox without any major bugs. However, it takes a lot of getting used to that the settings of JAWS can be found in different places and do not follow a structure that is comprehensible to me. Partly you can find settings in the JAWS window itself and partly you have to try to find your way via the "Utilities" window.

Since I use LibreOffice exclusively as an office program, it became apparent quite quickly what for me is the biggest shortcoming of JAWS: It persistently refuses to work with this open source software. This problem has been noted in several forums. Apparently, however, there is no interest in fixing this. Instead, the focus is on accessibility to Microsoft's Office suite.

So, to be fair, I asked JAWS users what they thought was the big advantage of JAWS. The answers can be summarized into two points:

  1. As a less experienced user, I find training offers galore.
  2. If a program cannot be read, JAWS can be customized with its own scripting language.

Only very few users do the latter themselves. The normal case is that companies are commissioned to write such scripts. Since, in turn, very few private users will place such an order, these are therefore mainly arguments for use in a professional environment.

NVDA

Since LibreOffice is not usable with JAWS for me, I downloaded the latest version of NVDA. I have already described the installation and setup of this screen reader in another blog post. The operation is a bit different from JAWS in some places. However, it is similar enough to make it easy to switch.

Add-ons can be installed to extend the functionality. Personally, I also find it very pleasant to be able to use the widely used programming language Python to do things myself if I have the appropriate knowledge.

By the way, LibreOffice runs with NVDA. Not perfect, but still better than what I'm used to with VoiceOver on the Mac. In contrast to JAWS, NVDA offers a very clearly structured menu, whose structure leaves nothing to be desired in my opinion.

Again, I asked around in the community why, despite the excellent performance, NVDA is not catching on in the professional environment. The answers were similar to those from the group of JAWS users down to the last detail.

Conclusion

In my initial experience, there is absolutely minimal, if any, difference between the two Windows screen readers in everyday use. I never reached the edge of NVDA's capabilities at any time during my testing and never felt like I had less control over my computer. This fact makes one wonder, given the high purchase price of JAWS, to which must be added the cost of any customizations. It also begs the question of how much better NVDA could be if JAWS users - say, for example - regularly donated a quarter of a license price to NVDA's continued development.

During the preparation for this blog post, I received a lot of voices that are basically very open to a switch to NVDA, but are concerned about the compatibility of software used professionally. So if there was a vendor that could be contracted to customize or extend NVDA, the user base of NVDA would be much larger.

It is a remarkable achievement that the non-profit organization NV-Access and the NVDA community have managed to achieve to date. And it shows that open source software can come very close to an industry leader, even in critical areas.

To promote the project and to provide more freedom of choice also in the workplace, we professionally address the criticisms of NVDA. Feel free to contact us with your individual requirements!

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DeepL is a deep learning company that develops AI systems for languages. The company, based in Cologne, Germany, was founded in 2009 as Linguee, and introduced the first internet search engine for translations. Linguee has answered over 10 billion queries from more than 1 billion users.

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Dennis Westphal

Dennis is an IT consultant at the Company for the Development of Things. His field is accessibility. Helpfully, Dennis has been blind since birth. He creates his screencasts with open source software.