As of 2015, an estimated 3.2 million Americans had visual impairments, and due to aging demographics, that proportion is likely to grow. Many people with vision disabilities use screen readers, software that outputs text as speech or braille — and some screen readers are much more useful than others.
Since 1999, Microsoft has provided a free screen reader with every iteration of its Windows operating system. In fact, Windows 2000 was the first operating system with a built-in screen reader; Mac OS didn’t include VoiceOver until 2005.
Over the past 22 years, Microsoft has introduced regular updates to make Narrator more useful for people with vision disabilities. But despite those improvements, Narrator remains one of the least popular screen readers available.
For many screen reader users, Narrator is a last resort
In a 2021 survey of screen reader users performed by WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind), only 0.5% of respondents said that they used Narrator as their primary desktop/laptop screen reader.
By far, the most popular Windows-compatible screen reader was JAWS (Job Access With Speech), a fairly expensive piece of software. At the time of publication, a lifetime professional JAWS license used by companies, government and education cost $1,285 (the home version in the United States is under $100).
So, why do users prefer to pay for a screen reader when they could use a free utility? The simple answer: Historically, Narrator has provided poor experiences for users.
Writing for the American Foundation for the Blind's AccessWorld, Jamie Pauls explains that Narrator — while occasionally useful — had numerous issues when first introduced.
“Narrator's screen-reading abilities were very basic, and Microsoft Sam, the TTS [Text-to-Speech] voice used in Narrator, sounded as though he had just awakened from a deep sleep in order to perform his duties,” Pauls wrote.
George Thompson, an instructor at Perkins School for the Blind, agrees.
“Narrator is useful in a pinch but offers limited functionality, particularly with browsers and web apps,” Thompson explains. “My students encountered navigation issues and sometimes silence when using Narrator to navigate the deeper levels of a Windows operating system (control panel applets, etc.).”
Users have described early versions of Narrator as grating, annoying, and inconsistent — the tool simply doesn’t provide the seamless experience of dedicated screen readers like JAWS and NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access). Fortunately, Microsoft seems aware of the problem, and the Windows accessibility team has taken steps to make the utility more useful.
Windows 11 contains a host of accessibility improvements, including a more natural screen reader
To serve their intended purpose, screen readers need to pronounce text accurately and consistently. Early versions of Narrator did neither — Microsoft Sam, the default TTS, routinely mispronounced common words and would occasionally miss onscreen text. Narrator also had limited braille support, so users couldn’t simply disable the TTS to switch to a refreshable braille display.
Windows 11 addresses these issues with several improvements:
- More voices, which use a neural TTS model to provide more natural speech output
- Improved support for braille devices
- More customization options for keyboard controls and hotkeys
Of these changes, the inclusion of natural voices is arguably the biggest improvement. Instead of listening to Microsoft Sam stumble through sentences, Windows users can choose from several pleasant TTS models — and adjust the speed, pitch, and volume of the output to meet their preferences.
Will Narrator become more popular as a default screen reader?
Switching from one screen reader to another isn’t like switching your mouse or keyboard. Users become deeply familiar with how their software functions: They memorize hotkeys, customize the controls, and pick their favorite TTS voices.
While the new version of Narrator is much more powerful than earlier iterations, most screen reader users will probably stick with their favorite third-party screen for the foreseeable future.
But since Narrator is bundled with Windows, it’s not just a “last resort” accessibility tool: It provides essential functionality, and as its features improve, more people will probably use it as their go-to screen reader.
Can I use Narrator to evaluate website accessibility?
If you’re curious about screen readers, using Microsoft Narrator can provide some valuable perspective. After learning a few Narrator keyboard commands, try opening a few applications or browsing the internet. WebAIM has a detailed guide for using Narrator to evaluate internet content.
However, if your goal is to improve the accessibility of your website, we’d recommend using JAWS or NVDA — those applications are much more popular, so they’re better tools for screen reader testing. Just remember that if you aren’t familiar with the features, your experience might not reflect the experiences of regular users.
For more information, read: What Screen Readers Work Best for Web Accessibility Testing?