Over the past decade, along with the exploding popularity of iOS and Android, and the continued development of Windows and macOS, a new personal computer operating system, Chrome OS, has steadily come into its own. Chrome OS runs on an expanding market of laptops, known as Chromebooks, and desktops, known as Chromeboxes.
As the name implies, Chrome OS is an operating system largely based around the Google Chrome browser. As Google grew from a search giant to a vibrant ecosystem of solutions for desktop and mobile environments, they began to challenge more established competitors like Microsoft by leveraging their success developing robust web services that perform the functions of desktop apps.
As an alternative to Microsoft Office, for example, you could use Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides. To use these services, all you’d need is a web browser and a Google account.
The versatility, ease of use, and lower cost of Google products has made them increasingly competitive. An example of this is in the education market, where at least in the United States, Apple has historically been the dominant player. With rising technology costs and tightening school budgets, however, Google products are starting to look attractive to some institutions.
With this success, Google has reasoned that if these services can run in a highly capable and widely used browser like Chrome, then the whole computing experience could be browser based.
As Chrome OS is designed primarily for web browsing, and especially using Google’s products, it does not necessarily require all the raw power that Windows and Mac computers need to function. With the expectation being that documents, other files and tasks are stored and processed remotely, a user can get away with a less powerful CPU, as well as less ram and onboard storage. For this reason, various computer manufacturers have appealed to this market with an array of low-cost computers that are not the most powerful, but run the light-wait Chrome OS quite well.
Of course, the increasing popularity of Chrome OS raises new questions, like how accessible is it for people with disabilities? Through school and beyond, as a totally blind student, I relied on my Mac, iPhone, and iPad with the VoiceOver screenreader. Google luckily has not forgotten about blind users like myself, and thus has included the ChromeVox screenreader. Curious about its accessibility, I recently purchased a cheap Samsung Chromebook to test it out.
Choosing a Chromebook
The first thing I realized when looking at the widevariety of Chromebooks, was that I would need to adjust my thinking. Normally, when I buy a computer, I try to find an adequately fast processor, like an Intel Core i5, with at least 8 gigabytes of ram and at least 256 gigabytes of internal storage. While my overall computing needs are fairly basic, I generally want a computer that can store my documents and media, handle my moderate workload, and keep up with software updates for a reasonable number of years.
In this case, with the primary function of the computer being to go to websites and manage browser tabs, with much of the processing and user data handled in the cloud, I found I could get away with a Samsung 11.6 Inch Chromebook with a 1.04 gigahertz Intel Atom processor, 4 gigabytes of ram, and 32 gigabytes of storage. Being totally blind, the 11.6 inch screen was no problem for me, as the full QWERTY keyboard does the trick just fine.
Normally priced at US$ 219, it can occasionally be bought for cheaper, as was my experience when buying it from Best Buy during a doorbuster that preceded Black Friday in the United States by a couple weeks. Don’t be surprised to find similar deals especially during the holidays, as Chromebooks now dominate the affordable laptop market.
Having said all this, everyone’s needs are different, and there are a variety of options, some even beginning to cater to the mid-range consumer market. A good resource I found that captures the vast diversity of Chromebooks is this buying guide from Arstechnica.
After ordering my Chromebook, I did some basic research on how to use ChromeVox, as I had no previous experience with it. Immediately, I came upon the ChromeVox website, which gave me a quick reference of central concepts and keyboard shortcuts. To prove that a Chromebook could be set up entirely without sighted assistance, I discovered an unboxing and setup tutorial from Mystic Access that narrated the initial setup process as well as some basic keyboard commands.
When my Chromebook came, it immediately made sense. For starters, the keyboard layout was different from Windows and Mac computers, with the Control and Alt keys being the only keys to the left of the Space Bar. Also, instead of a traditional caps lock key, the key above the left Shift key is referred to as the Search key. This happens to be the ChromeVox modifier, the key that when pressed, performs functions specific to the screenreader.
After I plugged in my Chromebook and heard a little chime, I pressed Control Alt Z to turn on ChromeVox. Once it started speaking several seconds later, I was able to use the Tab and Arrow keys to select my language, country, and Wi-Fi network, and sign into my Google account.
Using Chrome OS
Once initial setup was complete, I found that the browsing experience felt remarkably like Google Chrome on other platforms. Because of this, there wasn’t a huge learning curve involved.
Much of the keyboard shortcuts are quite similar to those on Chrome for Windows, such as Control T to open a new tab, Control N to open a new window, Control Shift N to open a new incognito window, and many others. Once I typed a web address, I could use ChromeVox commands to navigate by web element types like heading, link, form field, etc.
As web browsing is the most important function of Chrome OS, webpage navigation commands are front and center to the ChromeVox user experience; pressing the search key with H will navigate by heading, Search with L will navigate by link, and Search with F will navigate by form field, to name just a few. Navigating by paragraphs using Search and the left and right arrow keys reminded me of using the VoiceOver modifier with the arrow keys on MacOS to accomplish the same task. Needless to say, I quickly felt right at home browsing and working with webpages on Chrome OS.
Something to consider when learning ChromeVox commands is that much of the basic commands, E.G. the ones that involve simply pressing the ChromeVox modifier and a letter, are reserved for webpage navigation. While this can be quite useful when browsing webpages, other tasks, like announcing the time or battery status require pressing the ChromeVox modifier and several letters. For example, to hear the date and time, hold down the Search key and press A and D one at a time. To hear the battery status of your Chromebook, hold down the Search key and press O and B one at a time. Being accustomed to screenreaders on other platforms, this definitely requires some getting used to.
While ChromeVox lacks true single-key webpage navigation, where the letter of a web element type, like H for heading, can be pressed without needing to hold the screenreader’s modifier, pressing the Search key twice will enable, “Sticky mode,” which essentially locks down the ChromeVox modifier, eliminating the need to physically hold it down for each command.
Once I felt comfortable with basic browsing, I began testing some of Google’s services. With a combination of ChromeVox commands and Gmail keyboard shortcuts, composing, reading and replying to emails was a breeze. The same idea extends to Google Docs, which I am using to write this post. Once I focused the cursor on the document content area by pressing Search E, I was able to type and perform basic edits using the wide array of keyboard shortcuts. In my on and off use of Google Docs over the years, this is the most accessible it’s ever been. However, I should note that in this experiment, I only used basic word processing capabilities, as that’s what best reflects my use case for real productivity on other platforms. Therefore, your mileage may vary depending on your use case as well as any future changes Google may introduce to Chrome OS or their services, intentionally or otherwise.
Launcher and Status Tray
In 2014, in something of a concession to traditional PC users, Google introduced a launcher to Chrome OS, a shelf that lists a user’s favorite apps that can be opened with just a click. In addition, the status tray contains information such as Wi-Fi connection and battery information, as well as quick settings and notifications.
Disappointingly, these notifications do not seem to be accessible with ChromeVox, with ChromeVox only reading, “Press Search plus Space to activate,” providing no information as to the source or content of a notification. Pressing Control F 2 reveals the launcher, where I can select from the list of “Favorite,” apps or expand it to show all installed apps. On top of that, pressing Alt and the number the app is placed in the list will open that app, in an experience similar to keyboard commander, a feature of VoiceOver on macOS that allows a user to assign custom keyboard commands to open apps, execute scripts, and perform various other tasks.
On my Chromebook, Chrome, Gmail, and Docs are the first three apps in my launcher. Therefore, pressing Alt 1 will conveniently open Chrome, Alt 2 Gmail, Alt 3 Docs, etc. However, I can’t seem to modify or reorder this list with ChromeVox, which detracts from the convenience of the feature.
Finally, it should be clarified that when I refer to services like Gmail and Docs as, “Apps in the launcher,” I am simply referring to a shortcut icon that launches those service’s respective websites in Chrome.
In addition to traditional keyboard and mouse interaction with Chrome OS, Google Assistant, the intelligent personal assistant made popular on Android and smart home devices, can be used to find various types of information and complete basic tasks.
When your Chromebook is connected to power, it will respond to voice queries when the wake word is spoken. While this setting can be configured to always respond, this can affect battery life.
At least on my Chromebook, there does not appear to be a keyboard command or dedicated key to engage Google Assistant; it apparently must be done from the Status Tray.
In my experience, the assistant works well to find local weather, news, stocks, and trivia facts. In addition, I was able to open apps and check my calendar using my voice. However, I am unable to connect any music services through Google Assistant settings, as the links for the respective services are not properly labeled for screenreader access.
If you’re looking for some quick entertainment, Google Assistant seems to have a vibrant personality when asked to tell a joke, story, or sing anything from a lullaby to holiday carols to, “Happy Birthday.” In my experience, Google’s AI blows Siri and other intelligent personal assistants out of the water, particularly when doing actually useful tasks, E.G. not enquiring about the meaning of life, woodchucks’ hypothetical chucking abilities, or other silly queries.
One thing to note when using Google Assistant is that it saves your activity and voice recordings to your Google account. To view and change these settings, go to myactivity.google.com. You can also go to myaccount.google.com and click, “Data and personalization,” to check on other privacy settings.
Even when browsing a streamlined view of settings with the Google Privacy Checkup, I found that needing to go to several different places to opt out of various personalization features seemed clunky. This is where I think Google could improve privacy management, by working to minimize the number of separate pages a user must go to opt out of web activity, voice recordings, ad personalization, and more. If Google expects people to use their productivity services, which involve the storage and management of private information on the company’s servers, it is imperative that privacy settings are presented in a clear and concise manner to give the user as much control over their data as possible.
Google Play Store
In addition to web apps, Chrome OS includes the Google Play Store, where Android apps can be installed and used as if your Chromebook was running the Android operating system. However, in my experience, the interface of the Play Store seemed difficult to navigate with ChromeVox, with elements randomly disappearing and the system occasionally becoming completely unresponsive. In some cases, the only way I could restore the system to a functional state was to toggle ChromeVox off with Control Alt Z, wait a few seconds, and then toggle it back on.
After I installed several free apps, I found I was able to navigate them with mixed success, but I couldn’t seem to get them to quit or switch focus to another app or website. What’s telling is that Android apps are theoretically accessible with ChromeVox, but it looks like Google needs to improve the underlying code base to make them actually useful to ChromeVox users.
While it is true that most of the computing tasks on Chrome OS are intended to be performed in the browser, it can be beneficial to run an Android app for a service that, for example, puts mobile first or whose mobile app is more feature-rich than its web equivalent.
Overall, I must say my Chrome OS experience has been largely positive, especially for a relatively new product. I hope that as more people use Chrome OS and ChromeVox, Google will continue to innovate and improve on it, fixing some of the issues I and others have encountered.
The simplicity and consistency of both the Chrome OS interface and the Google services I tested make a compelling case for a Chromebook in addition to, or in some cases, in place of, a Mac or Windows computer. Similar to Apple products, you can make the most of your Chromebook when you have other Google products, as Google has steadily built an ecosystem of desktop and mobile solutions.
If I was still a student and my school made the transition or required the use of Google apps, I would feel confident using it in its current state of accessibility. Of course, if you’re thinking about getting a Chromebook and have a disability, I would encourage you to read up on the various accessibility features of the platform, as a quick look through the accessibility settings seemed to reveal several potential options. Having not used any other accessibility features however, I cannot speak to their usefulness in a given context.
As stated in the title of this post, I used Chrome OS for 30 days to get a general feel for the platform. If you believe I missed anything, or if you have additional tips and tricks, I’d be interested to know. Likewise if you have any questions or experiences of your own, be they positive, negative or neutral, feel free to comment.
As I rap up this post, we are also rapping up the decade. While Chrome OS isn’t exactly, “Revolutionary,” it demonstrates the ever-growing power and potential of cloud computing. At around this time ten years ago, many people, myself included, were skeptical of the then newly presented idea of a computer based around a web browser. While the platform has its limitations and is thus not for everyone, it has certainly come a long way since then. Its comparatively low costs have the potential to bring technology access to even more people, and with ChromeVox, blind and visually impaired users might not be left out of that future.
Of course, that will only happen with continued improvement from Google and developers in the months and years to come. Here’s hoping the coming decade brings even more advancements in technology, accessibility, and inclusion.
While you are here, you may like to check out the following as well:
Running Linux as a Blind Mac User for 30 days; Yes, It is Possible