A Guide to Making the Switch from Using a Windows Screen Reader to VoiceOver on a Mac

This document outlines the points I go through when explaining the difference between Windows and the Mac.

Whilst not all of the concepts of Windows and the Mac exactly equal each other, they seem close enough in my mind to make a general comparison to get a point across.

Whilst the Mac is usable out of the box with VoiceOver, there are a number of changes that I make, which is the last point in this document.

Keep in mind also that there is a very respectable free screen reader for Windows: Non Visual Desktop Access (NVDA): http://www.nvda-project.org.  So if you want to use a free screen reader, you have a choice between Windows and the Mac.  If you want to read about VoiceOver, use the Apple Accessibility page at: http://www.apple.com/accessibility.


1. Macs cover Mac Minis, Mac Airs, MacBooks, iMacs, and Mac Pros. Accessibility inbuilt in the OS since Tiger 10.4, Leopard 10.5, Snow Leopard 10.6, and at time of writing Lion 10.7).  OS can be fully re-installed without sight.

2. Keyboards – mini and full sized QWERTY keyboards (with a numeric keypad): in Windows Control, Windows, and Alt to the left of the space key, in the Mac Control, Option, and Command: Control and Command similar to Control and Alt.  On a mini Apple keyboard, the function (FN) key is to the left of the Control key making 4 keys in total to the left of the space (some Windows keyboards also have the function key).

3. In Windows (XP/Vista/7) inbuilt screen  reader (Narrator) (which can be launched with Windows+U) to basic besides getting out of trouble (does not support Braille), In mac inbuilt screen reader VoiceOver (which can be launched with Command+F5) fully functional screen reader (supports Braille).  Important note – VoiceOver comes with its own interactive training tutorial.  Many UsB and Bluetooth Braille displays are supported by VoiceOver, and does not require any drivers to be installed.  In Windows you'll find all the accessibility options in the Ease of Access Centre, in the Mac they are in Universal Access within System preferences.  Note - Windows Magnifier in Windows 7 is quite a respectable screen magnifier as is System Zoom on the Mac.

4. In Windows screen readers tend to use a single key which make up 2 or more screen reader commands, in Mac VoiceOver uses the Control+Option keys (plus other keys when required) to perform screen reader commands (called the VoiceOver or VO keys for short).

5. In Windows laptop keyboard  Delete, Backspace, and Insert keys, in a Mac laptop keyboard Delete, and no Insert or Backspace keys.  Even on a full size Apple keyboard, no backspace, Macs only use a Delete key.

6. As Windows is fully keyboard driven, so is the Mac.  A combination of screen reader and OS commands is always the best way to go when using either operating system.  VoiceOver has several options for navigation including the standard VO commands, Quicknav using the cursor keys, NumPad Commander using the numeric keypad on a full sized keyboard, and Trackpad commander using the touch Macbook trackpad or the external Magic trackpad.  In addition, VoiceOver can also be setup to have commands launched by a Braille display.

7. The common tasks of mailing, web browsing, and word processing: In Windows Windows Mail (email which needs to be installed), Internet Explorer (browser), and Notepad/WordPad (text editor).  MS Office or iTunes needs to be installed. In mac Mail (email), Safari (browser), , TextEdit (word processor), and iTunes.  iWork (which contains Pages (word processing), Numbers (spreadsheet), and Keynote (presentations) needs to be installed.  Important note – Microsoft Office on the Mac is not accessible with VoiceOver.  However, you can still access Word documents on the Mac with TextEdit or Pages.

8. In Windows PDF files are mainly accessed by screen reader users with Adobe Reader, in Mac Preview is used to view PDF files: i.e. press Space on a PDF file to initiate Preview.  Preview is great for viewing a number of file types, including mp3 files (if you want to listen quickly to an audio file) without having to run iTunes etc.

9. In Windows most screen readers can give you structured info about a PDF file or allow you to navigate a table in a document, in Mac VoiceOver still does not read out the structured information in PDF files such as tables, heading etc, and does not allow the navigation of tables in a document.

10. Both Windows and Mac can have applications installed from various sources (including the App Store on the Mac).  Common install file from 3rd parties is a dmg file (Mac OS X disk image).

11. In Windows, applications are uninstalled via an application, in Mac the applications are deleted to the trash with Command+Delete.

12. In Windows Windows key to access applications by typing in name or via the start menu, in Mac Command+Space to type in or via Shift+Command+a for applications folder.

13. In Windows the recycle bin is on the desktop, in Mac the trash is on the Dock.

14. Windows the Alt key is used to go to the menu bar, Mac with VoiceOver VO+M.  both OS’s have common items on the menu bar such as File, Edit, View ETC.  In the Mac, the first two items on the menu bar are Apple where you can choose to restart or shut down the Mac, and a menu who’s name changes depending in what application you are in such as Finder, Mail, Safari, TextEdit, iTunes etc.  If you wish to get in to the settings of an application on the Mac, Command+, (comma) will take you in to preferences.

15. In Windows context menu Shift+F10, in Mac VO+Shift+M context menu.

16. In Windows Windows+Tab to go to the Task bar, in Mac with VoiceOver VO+D for the dock (which is sort of like Windows Task bar).

17. In windows Windows+B System Tray for battery, network status etc, in Mac with VoiceOver VO+MM for status menu.

18. In Windows Windows+D is used to go to the desktop, in Mac with VoiceOver VO+Shift+D.  Unlike Windows where you have your commonly used applications (icons) such as Internet Explorer etc, the Mac desktop is empty by default and is where an inserted DVD or USB stick appears, or if enabled, where your Macintosh HD appears (like your local C drive in Windows).  You can however put short cuts on your desktop (which the mMac calls alias’s): most people put there commonly used applications on the Dock rather than cluttering up their desktop.

19. In Windows Control Panel to make changes to the system, in the Mac System Preferences.

20. In Windows Windows key to bring up search, in the Mac Command+Space.

21. In Windows documents accessed via the desktop, in the Mac Shift+Command+O.

22. In Windows eject the cd by pressing the eject button on the CD/DVD disk drive, in Mac Command+E for eject on the volume/disk drive.

23. In Windows Alt+Tab to switch between applications, in Mac Command+Tab.

24. In Windows Alt+F4 to quit an application, in the Mac Command+Q.

25. In Windows Control+F4 to close a window, in Mac Command+W.

26. In Windows Windows+M to minimise all windows, in the Mac Option+Command+W.

27. In Windows, Control+Alt+Del to get access to the task manager to close down a non responsive application, in Mac Option+Command+Escape to bring up Force Quit Applications.

28. In Windows when entering a password with a screen reader keystrokes are echoed as asterisk, in Mac with VoiceOver when entering a password clicks are heard.

29. In Windows toolbars, document or edit areas, lists, tables, html pages can be accessed with screen readers, in Mac with VoiceOver Toolbars, document or edit areas, lists, tables, and html pages need to be interacted with to use the controls or space within these items.

30. In Windows screen readers speak the text to the right of the cursor, in Mac VoiceOver speaks text the cursor passes.

31. In Windows when editing a document copy Control+C, cut Control+X, and Paste Control+V, in Mac copy Command+C, cut Command+X, and Command+V paste.

32. In Windows Shift or Shift+Control keys plus Arrow keys to highlight, in Mac Shift+Control and Arrow keys to highlight.

33. In Windows Control+A highlight all, in Mac Command+A highlight all.

34. In Windows Control+S to Save, in Mac Command+S to save.

35. In Windows Control+P print, in Mac Command+P print.

36. In Windows file explorer Windows+E, in Mac Command+N new finder window.

37. In Windows file view can be changed to list view etc, in Mac file view can be changed to list view etc such as Command+2 for list.

38. In Windows F2 to rename a folder/file, In Mac Enter key to rename a folder/file.

39. In Windows Alt+Enter file properties, in Mac Command+I.

40. In Windows Enter key to activate a folder/file, In Mac Command+O.

41. In Windows RightArrow to expand a folder tree view/LeftArrow to collapse, in Mac with VoiceOver VO+\ to expand and collapse a folder tree view.

42. In Windows to eject a CD/DVD press eject button on drive, in Mac Command+E on the selected DVD/CD volume.

43. In Windows to eject a USB stick/drive Windows+B System Tray and select Safely remove hardware, in Mac Command+E on the selected USB stick/drive volume.

44. VoiceOver tips:
--VO+K for Keyboard help.  Allows you to explore the keyboard, practise VoiceOver keyboard commands, and practise gestures on a Macbook trackpad or an external Magic Trackpad.  Press Escape to exit keyboard help.
--VO+Command+F8 VoiceOver Quick Start Tutorial.  An interactive tutorial you can run at any time to practise VoiceOver commands. Press the Escape key to exit the tutorial at any time.
--VO+F8 VoiceOver Utility.  This is where you access/change all the settings for VoiceOver.  Command+Q will quit VoiceOver Utility.
--VO+H VoiceOver Help.  Where you can access the online manual for VoiceOver, access the Quick Start Tutorial or looks at all the commands for VoiceOver split up in to categories to make it a bit easier to  locate a command.  Press the Escape key to exit.
VO+HH VoiceOver commands.  This takes you directly in to the VoiceOver Commands category directly  where you can arrow through or type in a few letters to find a command.  Press the Escape key to exit.
--VO+Shift+K.  Toggles on/off keyboard commander where you can use RightOption plus M to run Mail, RightOption+S to run Safari etc.  You can also via VoiceOver Utility (VO+F8) Commands category (keyboard commander) assign or view keyboard commander commands.
--VO+two finger clockwise rotate on the Trackpad, Trackpad Commander.  Turns the Macbook trackpad or external Magic Trackpad VoiceOver gestures on so that you can use various gestures to interact with your Mac.  As with the Keyboard commander, you can use VoiceOver Utility to view/add gesture commands to the Trackpad Commander.  To turn Trackpad Commander off, VO+two finger counter clockwise rotate on the trackpad.
---Left+Right arrow keys QuickNav toggle.  Use VoiceOver QuickNav to use the cursor keys to navigate up, down, left or right just using the cursor keys without having to hold down Control+Option (the VO keys).  In addition, allows you to select an item, switch between navigation modes, and interact and stop interacting with an item, all using the cursor keys.
--Numpad Commander toggle VO+Clear.  Used on full sized keyboards where you have a numeric keypad.  Allows you to navigate and use the majority of VoiceOver commands all from the numeric keypad, either using the numeric keypad keys by themselves or in combination with the modifier keys on the keyboard.
--VO keys locked toggle VO+; (semi colon).  This command is rarely used as we now have so many other options for VoiceOver navigation.  Locks down the Control and Options keys so you can perform the rest of a VoiceOver command without having to hold down these keys.  May be of use to some people.
--Sticky keys (left shift key pressed 5 times toggle).  Sticky keys will work with VoiceOver commands.  This means that with sticky keys turned on, you can press multiple keys in a command sequence by themselves until the full command is complete.

45. Helpful system changes:
--System preferences Keyboard.  Keyboard tab – Use All f1 F2 as Standard Function keys checkbox,  needs to be checked.  This allows the function keys to be used directly with VoiceOver commands without having to hold down the FN key (which is extremely difficult on a full size keyboard).  If you still want to use the function keys for playing iTunes (F6 Previous, F7 Play/Pause and F8 Next track), mute sound (f10), and volume down (F11), and volume up (F12): hold down the FN key with one of the function keys: i.e. FN+F12 to increase volume).
--System preferences Keyboard.  Keyboard Short-cuts tab – Full Keyboard Access in Windows and Dialogs, Press Tab to Move Focus Between radio button, select All Controls.  This will allow you to tab between controls in Windows and dialogs: Safari with the Tab key is a special case, so see next point.
--Safari preferences (Command+, (comma) when in Safari).  Advanced tab – Press Tab to highlight Each Item on a Webpage checkbox, needs to be checked.  This will allow you to use Tab or Shift+Tab to move through a webpage like you can with Windows using Internet Explorer.
--Finder preferences (Command+, (comma) when in Finder).  General tab – Show these Items on the Desktop: Hard Disks checkbox needs to be checked.  This will show your Macintosh HD on your desktop.
--Finder preferences (Command+, (comma) when in Finder).  Advanced tab – Show All Filename Extensions checkbox, needs to be checked if you wish (not necessary).  This will allow you to see the extensions of file such as .app for applications (like .exe in Windows), .mp3, .rtf, .doc, .pdf etc.

Last updated November 2011.



The guide on this page has generously been submitted by a member of the AppleVis community. As AppleVis is a community-powered website, we make no guarantee, either express or implied, of the accuracy or completeness of the information contained in this guide.


#1 Switching to Mac from PC

David, many thanks for your guide, I got my first Mac yesterday and you've saved me a ton of learning curve time with your article. Thanks again for your invaluable contributions to this list and the visually impaired community.

#2 Switching from Windows to Mac

Your welcome. I just wish there was more course material around for learning how to use the Mac with VoiceOver and associated applications rather than just the user guide.


#3 switching to Mac from PC

Dave, I agree, if I had relied on the user guide I have made much less progress than following your guide. Applevis is a tremendous resource , thanks again.

#4 Superb

I got my Macbook Pro a few weeks ago and have found this list invaluable in learning my way around it. Thanks for taking time to list these commands in such an easy way to navigate and learn, much appreciated.

#5 learning the Mac

Thanks for the feedback. I know that when I started learning the Mac back in 2005 (I think smile), there were not any good resources around, at least in Australia.


#6 Mac book goal

Thanks David. I've had my ipod for nearly two years now and am enjoying upgrading my voyceover knowledge to the Macbook pro. My ultimate goal is to be able to use pro tools ten with my Mac as I have recently started a college course on sound production. This site and your podcasts have been invaluable as where I stay in Scotland is one hundred miles away from the nearest apple store in Glasgow so my one to one training opportunities are slightly limited by travelling logistics. Cheers again.

#7 this has been very helpful.

this has been very helpful. thank you for writing it.

#8 found this very informative.

found this very informative. Also your podcasts.

With thanks,

#9 A bit confused

Hi David. As many said before, you're doing a great job. But I would like to make clear one point in your guide. You say that the Option key on the Apple keyboard is identical to the Windows key on the PC keyboard and that the Option key is identical to Alt. It seems to me that it is not correct. Actually, the Command is a Windows key and Option as an Alt key. At least, I pressed Windows+F5 to start VO while running OS on the vertual machine and it worked. And the "vo-key" is the combination of Control and Alt key on my PC keyboard.

Thanks again.


#10 Re: Getting Started with Voiceover

Thanks David. I don't yet have my Mac but I will very soon, if I get my way. I am finding AppleVis to be an excellent resource. A sister of mine is also probably getting a Mac, and our mother wants to contact a guy from The Hadley School for the Blind to set up some on-site training. But it looks like I can just point them to this very website. My sister hasn't used the computer nearly as extensively as I have. I'm by no means trying to brag or anything, this is just the way it's been. The voc/rehab agency here in Illinois is sorely lacking in several areas. In any case, thanks so much for all this awesome training material! I have bookmarked this website and am going to refer back to it as much as I can once I actually get my Mac.

#11 Thank you!

I can't tell you how helpful this has been. I was tearing my hair out trying to figure out how to move between sections of my mail and how to get to the toolbar. (The commands they tell you to use in the guide didn't work for me.) Things will go much smoother for me new.

#12 Windows off the brain

I purchased the Mack Book Air and had become so frustrated. Being a windows and JAWS user for all my years and also using it on my job, it was difficult to find the relation between my JAWS keystrokes and lingo to the Mack keystrokes and lingo. Felt like I was beating my head against a brick wall. This has been a tremendous help.

#13 very helpful!

once again this article is very Helpful! being an experience Jaws/windows user is very complicated, and for a fact I need to install all of my programs/drivers onto my windows machine, whereas with a mac it's easy to set up out of the box. nicely done! one question though: in windows the music is stored in windows explorer, whereas your macintosh HD stores all of your files and folders, so how can I copy all of my music onto my mac and find it using voice over? btw, will be getting a MacBook soon and I will completely ditch windows for good.

#14 Any updates

Hi Dave,
I'm a new user of OSX from Sri Lanka. I found that caps lock key has more or less replaced the VO keys in El capitan. As a user of NVDA I found that tweak as something convenient in getting the hang of OSx commands. I think it would be even better if you could add a section to this tutorial or maybe a whole new tutorial to help the people who find it really fussy to deal with the logging in issues at the start screen of Mac devises and how to set up voiceover to automatically get turned on at the start screen.
Thanks a bunch!

#15 Good tuetorial

Really helpfull

#16 your article

I just wanted to tell you thank you very much,before the fantastic jobs in the world of apple to make music totaly accesible to the blind user, you know to be able to choose your artist and so on, all I was told is horror stories about apple and not so much now, but still if I walk to a store tghat deal with pc, I am amaze that they still try the fear tactics to make sure that you never even think about purchasing a apple computer, but it is harder and harder when everyone I know even my 75 years old sister has a iphone ipad and forgive me I don't know how to spell it but she even just bought last week the less expensive of the ipod, I will try, the ipod shaffel, sorry, I was so surprise, I go why did you purchase it, well she like the size she calls it very nice to listen music without every one seeing the ipod, so at my local pc store , just the other day the person why still not so much trying to scare me but he was prepare and and in one shot told me about ten reason why I should think about it before getting a mac, I didn't say anything, it was not the time and place to pick an argument. but I am no longer scare because of my first ipod nanno and now ipod touch and mini ipad 2, the second mention ws a gift, I would not have purchase the 2 because a side of the side of the screen, and I am totaly blind I don't beleive that they are any difference but you don't complainte when someone has good intention and give you something, you say thanks very much but sure you see I am 60 years old and I want to experience a apple computer before my days are over, I just have too. and by the way when I stop working, money was a bit tite so I did just that, get the nvda and I donate a donation every month and I phone back the one that start with the letter J they wanted something like five hundred dollars just to put me up to date, I really don't know how they get away with it the free nvda for a regular user like me is just as good, but my bneed are so simple, what are my need if I would to purchase a apple computer, it is simple, I like to send and receive e mail, of course all the stuff of itunes, go on the webb and not very often but I would like to be able to, I like to make a audio cd from my purchase at the apple store so that I can listen it in the living room on my sound system, but to be honest, I am in the country and the closest apple store is about 3 hours away, and when I went to apple.ca to read the different model, if you don't know the terme or the language use you know by apple, how do you know to decide wich one to get, what I mean is for those very basic need I may not have to purchase the most expensive one if you see what I mean. oh I guess I can phone the store, but to be honest around here I must say that it is hard just to get through, or a long long time on hold. would you have an idea having said my need as what do I do with my pc, I wonder if it is an easy one to just suggest me maybe the name of one or 2 model that would be just fine for me. I have been ready and it is way over due for me to get mooving and get a apple computer and I really enjoyed your article. thank you again I will come back and read it again.