Large Print Reviews
A Full Function, Highly Accessible, Suite of Office Applications from Sun Microsystems
Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - May 6, 2004
Computers have proved to be an invaluable boon to the visually impaired community. They have enabled users to access material via enlarged print (screen magnification) and audibly (text-to-speech / screen readers). Computers also have the ability to translate text into braille. However, most users have been forced use computers that use the Windows operating system. The reason for this is simple, most computer accessibility aids have been designed for use on computers running Windows. This is, however, is a situation that is changing...
One of the major changes that has occurred goes by the name of Gnopernicus. A product of the open source GNOME project, Gnopernicus is a fully functional, free Screen Reader and Magnifier software package that is designed to run on computers using either the Linux and Solaris operating systems. In addition, Sun Microsystems has developed a suite of office applications called StarOffice, that is designed to work with the Gnopernicus Screen Reader and Magnifier program. The advent of Gnopernicus software, makes the StarOffice not only amazingly accessible for visually impaired users, but it is also an extremely affordable solution when compared to the high cost of most screen reading and magnification programs that are currently available for Windows operating systems.
In addition to running on Solaris and Linux operating systems, the StarOffice suite will also work on Windows systems. As most visually impaired computer users are currently using computers running Windows, I have chosen to evaluate the StarOffice suite with this operating system. For the purposes of this review, I appraised the functionality of the StarOffice (version 7) on a computer running Windows XP.
What is StarOffice7?
StarOffice 7 is a suite of office applications, that includes word processing, spreadsheet and web publishing applications (i.e., an HTML editor with full XML support). It also includes applications that allow you to create presentations, develop and manage databases. Drawing and graphics applications are also included, as is a photo editing program. In short, StarOffice7 is similar to the standard editions of Microsoft Office or Corel's WordPerfect Office. StarOffice is fully compatible with Microsoft office files, and it can be set as your default program to open word and excel documents. It will also open WordPerfect documents, however these documents cannot be edited in StarOffice as they open as read-only files. The main difference between the standard editions of Microsoft and Corel's office suites, and StarOffice, is that StarOffice includes a wider range of applications and capabilities - and it cost less!
StarOffice 7's new Accessability features
In addition, with the release of StarOffice 7, Sun Microsystems has greatly enhanced the accesability of this program, in comparison to previous editions of this software. These accesability features include the ability to manipulate / use all the applications, solely via keyboard input, extensive short cut key, and a handy user interface that allows you to easily rescale the entire screen. For example, if you are working in a text document, by default all of the dialog text is set at a scale of 100%, which corresponds to a 12pt font size. If you go to Tools-Options-StarOffice-View, you can change the scale down to 50% and up to 200%. From this dialog, you can also increase the size of the buttons and icons that appear on the screen. You also have the option of just increasing the size of the text in the document itself, either by increasing the font size or by using the built in zoom function. They have also tweaked the readability of onscreen content.
In addition to these embedded accesability features, StarOffice 7 also supports a range of additional accesability programs. As mentioned earlier, it is also designed to work with the Gnopernicus Screen Reader and Magnifier program on Solaris and Linux operating systems. In regard to Windows operating systems, StarOffice7 supports the ZoomText Screen Magnifier (version 7.11 or higher), braille display devices, as well as the Galileo screen magnifier and the Virgo 4 screen reader programs.
In addition, a demo of Virgo 4 can be downloaded from: www.virgo4.com
The Galieo and the Virgo are extensions of the Gnome project, and I plan on reviewing them shortly, both as independent programs as well as how they function with the StarOffice suite. I'll post links to these reviews, in this space, as soon as they are published.
StarOffice with JAWS and MAGIC
The range of accessibility programs that is supported by StarOffice is broad, however not all programs are, as of yet, fully supported. For example I tried using JAWS 5.0 (a screen reading program) with StarOffice. In general, JAWS worked well. However it did have one annoying hick-ups, in that it tended to repeat some lines of text. It appears to me that all that is needed to fix this program is the addition of a script file. JAWS require a .jss files for most Windows applications. These files help JAWS to interface effectively with each application. I've not yet found a script for StarOffice. If one does not yet exist, I'm confident that one will soon surface. As soon as I find one that works, I will post a link to it here so that JAWS users can add it to their JAWS ENU folder.
In contrast, I did not have any problems using Magic 8.02 (a screen magnification program) with StarOffice. Both JAWS and MAGIC are programs produced by Freedom Scientific. While this new version of StarOffice may not fully support all the accessibility programs now on the market, they do support many of them, and the StarOffice suite presents a much needed alternative to Microsoft Office which has become the default program used by most visually impaired computer users, simply because this is the programs that most accessibility programs are currently vetted against.
Windows XP's Accessibility Tools
Two of the accessability tools that are included in the Windows XP operating are a magnifier and a narrator tools. The usefulness of both of these programs is limited, for most visually impaired computer users, but they can prove useful for those who only occasionally need such aids. For example, the Windows Narrator is a text-to-speech application that will read menus and dialog box options. It will also read the text that you type - letter by letter. It will not, however, read an entire document for you, as will most conventional text-to-speech or screen reading programs will. Both the Windows Magnifier and Narrator work as well with StarOffice7 as they do with any other program that I've tried them with.
One nice accessibility feature, than many vendors overlook, is that StarOffice allows you to adjust the background color of your screen to any color you want. You can do this by either setting StarOffice to use your default Windows colors, or you can format the background color for each document individually. One advantage of setting StarOffice to use your default color scheme is that this color will show up on the background on any box that allows background colors to show up, such as the menu that lists your available fonts. If you just format the background color for the text, the background of the text will be the color you choose, say grey, but the open boxes will have a white background.
StarOffice can be set to automatically detect systems set for high contrast. You can also set options regarding animated graphics and text and how long pop-up tip dialogs appear.
Setting Up StarOffice to work with Accessibility Devices
If you want to use StarOffice7 with nonembedded accessibility tools, there are two steps that you need to take. The first is to go to Tools-Options-StarOffice-Accessibility. On the right hand side of the dialog you will find a list of options that can be checked or unchecked. The first one on the list, under miscellaneous options, is a check box labeled "support accessibility technology tools." You need to make sure that this box is checked.
Secondly, you need to download a small program called, Java Access Bridge Software. You can download this program from the Sun Microsystem website at: java.sun.com/products/accessbridge. This software works similarly to the JAWS scripts in that it will allow StarOffice to interface with the various accessibility programs.
Once you load this program, and you enable the accessibility technology tool support, you may notice that it takes a few seconds longer to load the StarOffice programs. I did not find this slight delay to be any problem, just something that you should be aware of if you are relying solely upon screen reading (text-to-speech) or Braille display programs and you are not receiving visual clues as to when the program is fully loaded.
Using StarOffice - In General
For the purposes of this review, I have been concentrating primarily on the accesability features and accessibility of the StarOffice applications for visually impaired users. However I'd also like to say a few words about the applications included in this program.
The StarOffice office suite consists of traditional office programs: word processing, spread sheet, HTML / web authoring, and presentation applications. It also includes some nice additional features such as a database management application and a built in PDF export program. Word and text documents can be opened and edited with StarOffice, as can Excel files. Transferring data from one application to another is a snap, and intuitive dialogues and buttons are found throughout making the programs easy to learn and even easier to use. In addition, StarOffice includes a host of templates that you can use, as well as 'wizards' step-by-step dialogs that help you create labels, print envelopes, create presentations, and more. There is also an application that will help your write / create formulas and to do and write-out math problems. Adding footnotes, captions, and other text to documents is easy, as is adding bookmarks to your text that enables you to cross-reference data.
I found the installation process very user friendly. Simply insert the installation disc into your CD-ROM drive and follow the onscreen instructions. If you will be using the StarOffice with any accessibility software tools, than you will also need to download and install the Java Access Bridge Software, mentioned above. As with the main program, this is a quick and painless process. Even with forgetting where I downloaded the Java Access Bridge Software program to, (you have to download the .exe file and then click on it to start the installation process) it only took me about half-hour to get fully up-and-running. If you have the help of someone fully sighted, it should take you even less time.
Overall, I found most of the applications in this suite to be easy to use and fully accessable to the visually impaired community. The only applications that might presented any problems, in regard to accessability issues for the visually impaired, are the Presentation and Drawing / Graphics applications. These are, by their very nature, highly graphical programs, which may make them difficult to use if you have a severe visual impairment. This does not mean that they are totally off-limits, rather if you are accessing them solely via a text-to-speech or via a braille display you might not be able to effectively make use of all of the applications options. If, however, you have some vision, you should find it relatively easy to access these 'graphically intense' applications with the use of a screen magnification program, should the built-in magnification function prove to be insufficient for your needs.
One of the best accessibility features of the StarOffice suite is that they have embedded sufficient shortcut keys and keyboard commands, which allow users to never have to use a mouse with these programs! (A complete list of shortcut and keyboard commands can be found in the printed User's Guide that accompanies the software, as well as via the StarOffice help files that can be accessed via the help menu found at the end of the main toolbar. In addition all the user guides and set up instructions are available in both HTML and PDF formats, both of which are easily accessible with screen readers.
In addition, all the applications are customizable - both in terms of the color of the page views, icon size, and the scalability of the text and dialogs. For many low-vision users, these features will allow them to satisfactory use the StarOffice Suite without having to go the expense of obtaining additional accessibility tools. For those that do need such aids, StarOffice 7 supports a wide range of accessability tools, and I full expect that the range of programs that are supported will continue to increase.
In short, StarOffice is a full-function, user friendly, easy-to-use suite of office applications that include a number of unique features that makes the software especially suitable for use by visually impaired computer users. As an added bonus, Sun provides free support and free web-based training that will enable you to get the most out of this innovative software package!
Windows System Requirements
Microsoft Windows 98, ME, NT (Service Pack 6 or higher), 2000, or XP
Pentium-compatible PC with 64 MB RAM
250 MB available hard-disk space
Java v1.4.0_2 or v1.4.1_1 (for Java 1.4.1, Java Access Bridge v 1.0.3 is
800x600 resolution or higher, at least 256 colors
For more information about StarOffice 7, including ordering information, and the requirements for Linux and Solaris operating systems, visit: www.sun.com/staroffice
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