Since 2005, I have used a variety of Macs, and have regularly used every version of macOS from Tiger to Monterey since then. Over that time, I’ve witnessed the various changes to VoiceOver, both major and minor, as well as how VoiceOver on macOS helped usher in a whole new world of mobile accessibility on iOS and iPadOS.
Today, with the Mac’s transition to Apple Silicon and the performance potential that it’s helped to unleash, it can be argued that the Mac is experiencing something of a renaissance. Indeed, as an AppleVis member, I’ve noticed an uptick in posts related to macOS, including from those who are potentially interested in buying their first Mac, those enquiring about how to complete various tasks on macOS, those experiencing issues, and others. No, I don’t have a hard number to back that up, just my observation.
As more blind and low vision people consider whether or not a Mac is right for them, the common discourse may lead them to one of two conclusions, either that macOS is great and people who discuss bugs they’ve experienced or Apple’s failure to address them are “Whining” and “being negative,” or that Apple doesn’t care at all about VoiceOver on macOS, and thus the accessibility of the platform is hopelessly destined to decay. As a totally blind long-time Mac user, I hope to provide a more nuanced perspective to this debate. In saying this, it should be noted that the things mentioned in this post are my opinions based on my use case, as well as my observations of other users’ reported experiences. Personally, I don’t unquestioningly love or hate any platform, and think all have their strengths, weaknesses, and appropriate places.
Finally, I must stress that the observations and opinions in this post are a snapshot in time. If you come upon this post in the future, you may want to post a comment or perform additional research to assess the current state of something referenced in this post that you’re particularly concerned about.
My use case
When someone is evaluating whether a given technology product is right for them, it is important for them to consider their individual use case and base their research on what users in similar situations report. Similarly, as the author of this post, I feel it is important for me to describe my use case now, so as to give relevant context to my perspective.
I am a totally blind user of VoiceOver on macOS and iOS, and NVDA on Windows. I use these platforms exclusively with speech, so can’t comment on the quality or usability of braille support on any of them. The standard tasks I use my devices for are primarily personal, email, web browsing, communication, occasional social media use, and light word processing. In fact, this post is being written using Pages on macOS and posted to AppleVis using Safari.
I have a 2018 MacBook Air with macOS Monterey 12.4, the latest stable version of the operating system at the time of posting. While I have no direct experience with Macs with Apple Silicon, my takeaway from other users is that, while the chip makes it incredibly fast, the experience is still held back somewhat by VoiceOver being, well, VoiceOver.
What I like about macOS
Integration with the Apple ecosystem
It almost goes without saying that one of the advantages of an Apple product is integration with other Apple products, meaning, for example, if you own an iPhone or iPad and like it, the experience can likely be made even better with a Mac. Personally, if I’m working on my Mac, I love being able to make and receive calls and texts directly from it, rather than having to pull my iPhone out of my pocket. Likewise if I’m browsing a webpage on my iPhone that I want to pick up on my Mac, I can simply press Command-Tab on my Mac’s keyboard to locate the open Safari instance on my iPhone, and it will be handed off to my Mac.
Finally, Apple’s cross-device integration features allow me to store and sync documents, notes, reminders, account credentials, and TOTP-based two-step verification codes, among other things between my devices. If I, for example, had an iPhone and a Windows PC, I would likely need several third-party apps to achieve a similar level of integration, and even then, certain features like iMessage, AirDrop, and handoff would not be possible.
More straightforward settings
While macOS might not necessarily be as customizable as Windows, I find that for my use case, the settings I like to change are much easier to locate and understand. This is largely explained by the fact that on the system level, most macOS settings are located in one app, System Preferences, whereas on Windows, some settings are only available in the Settings app, others are only available in Control Panel, and still others are available in both places. While Windows 11 has made progress on improving the organization and overall utility of the Settings app, I feel it still has a ways to go to reach parity with System Preferences on macOS.
In addition, when changing a setting on macOS to something other than what is recommended, Apple doesn’t constantly take the opportunity to advertise its own products by asking me to change it back. For example, if I wanted to use Google Chrome instead of Safari, macOS wouldn’t regularly pester me to revert back to Safari or use a different search engine than the one I chose.
Another instance of customization where macOS outshines Windows in my opinion is privacy settings. On Windows, there are a number of different pages containing numerous confusingly worded settings, whereas on macOS, similar to iOS and iPadOS, you can easily get a full accounting of what apps have access to what types of data, with an easy way to revoke access or opt out of personalization features.
Lack of bloatware
While Apple users may take the lack of software from other companies or ads in the core of the operating system for granted, this is not the case for much of the competition. If you buy a Windows PC, even one that is not cheap, it will often come with third-party software that doesn’t serve much of a purpose unless you pays separately for a subscription or full license. Adding to that, it may not always be obvious which apps from the PC’s manufacturer are essential to the system, and what can be safely removed.
On macOS, Apple’s bundled apps that are not part of the operating system, like iMovie and GarageBand, can be safely and easily removed if you don’t have a use for them. In addition, as updates to macOS and system firmware are handled by Apple, they can be completed in one fully accessible preference pane, often at one time in one package. This is in contrast to the utilities provided by PC manufacturers to update drivers and firmware, which are often poorly designed and not particularly accessible with screenreaders.
System stability and ease of troubleshooting
Another advantage of the hardware and operating system coming from the same company is the increased overall stability of the system.
On Windows, cryptic error messages, system crashes, and complications during updates that necessitate reinstallation of the operating system are not uncommon. While macOS is far from immune to these types of issues, I’ve experienced far fewer of them in the same amount of time, and when issues do occur, I find the process of troubleshooting easier. For issues that prevent my Mac from starting, I can attempt to start up in the mostly accessible macOS recovery partition, run first aid tests on the startup disk, and attempt to reinstall the operating system if necessary. Additionally, although it doesn’t provide any audible feedback, I can start my Mac while holding down the D key to run Apple Diagnostics, and use Seeing AI on my iPhone to read the results, which can provide valuable insight into the cause of the issue.
Furthermore, the fact that both the hardware and operating system come from the same company means that for many issues, I can likely call Apple Support and get a better experience that doesn’t involve needing to contact another company. In contrast, when attempting to diagnose such issues on Windows, I, the user, must consider a litany of possible causes, such as Windows update, a driver issue, a hardware issue, and then hypothesize whether the issue is software or hardware related, in order to decide if I should first contact Microsoft or the PC’s manufacturer for support.
Where macOS falls short
Note: When discussing ways where I feel macOS falls short, the purpose is not to cover specific or transient bugs, but rather to give an overview of issues that I view as endemic to the platform and how they could be addressed. Apple has been made aware of all these issues.
As said earlier, while users broadly enjoy the vast performance gains of Apple Silicon, many continue to experience slower than expected performance with VoiceOver, which can significantly detract from the appeal of a Mac for a blind or low vision user. This is particularly pronounced when browsing webpages, an essential task for many users.
This issue is perhaps most apparent when trying to brows a webpage and hearing the VoiceOver announcement that “Safari is not responding.” While the browser usually only becomes unresponsive for a few seconds at a time, the performance and prices of modern Macs make such an issue, and the amount of time it’s existed, unacceptable. Specifically, it has been present since the release of Safari 15 in September 2021, and has possibly existed in some form even before that, with so far little response from Apple. I feel confident in saying that if sighted users experienced an issue where their Macs froze for several seconds when browsing webpages, the issue would be fixed within weeks or days, rather than months or years.
In addition, when browsing webpages, many screenreader users prefer to use the arrow keys to navigate as if the webpage were a document, rather than navigate with VO-left and right arrow, allowing them to view and select text on the webpage. This functionality was added to VoiceOver with the release of OS X Yosemite in 2014, however the behavior is not always reliable. In my experience, sometimes using the arrow keys as opposed to VO-left and right arrow works as I’d expect, other times pressing the arrow keys appears to move focus to a different area of the webpage than what I was browsing, and still other times, pressing the arrow keys does nothing at all.
Consistency of grouping behavior
One thing that can be quite confusing to new Mac users is grouped navigation, VoiceOver’s default organizing of elements into groups that a user must interact with to view other elements inside them. In my opinion, while this may be useful when wanting to quickly bypass a series of related elements, the behavior is not particularly consistent in built in macOS apps.
For example, certain apps require you to interact with a scroll area or collection to view information or click a button while others don’t, certain app tables can be navigated by simply focusing on them and using the up and down arrow keys while others must be interacted with first, and certain elements require you to interact twice in order to view the desired content. While no two apps are the same, and thus complete consistency in all aspects of an app’s user interface is impossible, the wide variation in behavior from app to app, coupled with the fact that grouped navigation is a feature largely unique to VoiceOver on macOS can make the process of using macOS apps very confusing, especially for new or inexperienced users.
While it is true that the process of using different apps can be made easier over time as a user develops confidence and muscle memory, I feel that the learning curve for beginners could be reduced by implementing similar behaviors for similar types of interfaces.
Consistency of interface mechanics
With the introduction of the “Mac Catalyst” technology, developers have been given the opportunity to port their iOS and iPadOS apps to macOS in a process easier than creating an entirely separate macOS app. However, VoiceOver’s divergent behavior in these apps relative to apps developed with the traditional “AppKit” technology has the potential to confuse users. For example, in Mac Catalyst apps, the Actions menu is more heavily utilized than those developed with AppKit. In addition, unlike in AppKit apps, where you can simply focus on a text field and start typing, you must first press VO-Space on text fields in Mac Catalyst apps in order to start editing.
In my opinion, both frameworks include behaviors that users may find desirable. For example, if the Mac Catalyst style Actions menus in macOS apps contained the same or similar types of actions as their iOS equivalents, it may give users an increased sense of comfort and familiarity with macOS as a whole. In this model, similar to iOS and iPadOS apps, the purpose of the actions menu would be to enable VoiceOver users to accomplish tasks that sighted users would accomplish by swiping on or hovering over an element, whereas the contextual menus would contain a greater variety of options, similar to the behavior of the one-finger triple-tap on iOS and iPadOS. However, I feel the behavior of text fields in AppKit apps is more intuitive, as it does not require an extra keystroke to type or interact with text.
VoiceOver information commands
One convenient feature of Windows screenreaders is the inclusion of commands to announce the time and battery status without needing to navigate to the location of the specific element. For example, to check the time or battery status using NVDA on Windows, you could either press Windows-B to access the notification area and use the left and right arrow keys to find the information, or simply press NVDA-f12 to hear the time, or NVDA-Shift-B to hear the battery status. To get the same information using VoiceOver on macOS, you must press VO-M twice to access menu extras, then use VO-left and right arrow to find the information; an additional keystroke is then required to exit the menu extras and return to your original task.
Alternatively, you could use keyboard commander to map custom commands to scripts that report information using system speech, but there is a slight delay between issuing the command and the information being spoken. Furthermore, as this method uses system speech rather than VoiceOver directly, braille users cannot access this information. Currently, VO-f12 and VO-Shift-B are not in use by VoiceOver, so I’d imagine it would not be difficult for Apple to add this functionality to VoiceOver using those key combinations or others.
Part of what makes a screenreader desirable to use is how clearly and concisely it reports information about the system to a user. Currently, there are a number of VoiceOver announcements that are either repetitive or do not meaningfully convey the intended information. Examples of these announcements include:
- When a Mac goes to sleep, VoiceOver may announce “Application, Application, Application” or “Authentication is not responding.” A more meaningful announcement could be something like “Entered system sleep” or the VoiceOver sound that indicates the locking of an iOS device's screen.
- When sending a message in the Messages app, VoiceOver will announce “Delete [message content].” A more helpful announcement could be something like “Sent message.”
- When cutting text, VoiceOver will announce “Delete [text].” A more helpful announcement could be something like “[Text] cut.”
As I’ve hopefully articulated in this post, I believe there are a number of advantages of macOS over Windows, along with a number of things that can make the Mac experience very frustrating for blind and low vision users. For my individual use case, while I find the various oddities of macOS puzzling and at times annoying, they generally don’t prevent me from being productive.
As VoiceOver is quite robust on iOS and iPadOS, the continuing transition to Apple Silicon could give Apple an opportunity to better optimize it on macOS, possibly applying what they’ve learned from developing and refining iOS and iPadOS over the years. In addition, as apps written for iPadOS can run on Macs with Apple Silicon, developers may have more potential in the future to create a wider variety of accessible apps and games for both platforms.
These are just a few of my thoughts on the potential of macOS, and what could be holding it back. In the end, only Apple and third-party developers can decide if they want to live up to that potential, and how they want to do it.
To my fellow Mac users, do the things I covered in this post match with your experiences? Are there things about the Mac experience, either positive or negative, that I missed? Sound off in the comments with any thoughts you have.