How to Use the Narrator on Windows 8.1 Desktop PCs

NarratorIf you tried to use the Narrator application in Windows 7, you know it wasn't quite ready for prime time. Fortunately, Microsoft has made some great improvements in Narrator for Windows 8.1, basically turning it into a whole new program. Let's see what the new Narrator is all about and how to use it on any desktop computer.

NOTE: Narrator is available for English (USA and UK), French, German, Spanish, Korean, Mandarin (Chinese Simplified & Chinese Traditional) and Spanish.

Using Narrator in Windows 8.1: Now You're Talking!

To start Narrator the most direct way, start typing narrator at the Start screen and choose Narrator from the search charm.

Ease of Access Center, Windows 8.1, Narrator

You can also start Narrator from the Ease of Access Center. The fastest way to get to Ease of Access is to press the Windows key and U. You can also go to the Control Panel and then to "Ease of Access -> Ease of Access Center".

Ease of Access Center, Windows 8.1, Narrator

When you do this, Narrator will automatically read you the Quick Access tools, one by one, even if you haven't yet started it. If you want to start Narrator, click or tap it, or press the spacebar when Narrator reads you this choice.

Narrator will pop up a window and start talking immediately, but the default setting is for Narrator to be minimized to the taskbar.

Ease of Access Center, Windows 8.1, Narrator

Click on that icon and the Narrator window will pop up in the center of your screen. The light blue box in this screenshot and the ones that follow is an artifact of Narrator--it is where the voice is reading.

Ease of Access Center, Windows 8.1, Narrator

The Default Narrator Settings

When Narrator starts, it uses the David voice (American accented male, in the American English version--other languages will have different voices) and speaks just about everything. You can see some basic Narrator controls at the top of the Welcome screen. Try doing the things it mentions--pressing a key, for example, and pressing the Tab key to move from one option to the next. If what you hear is OK, you don't need to change anything. I suspect, though, that a lot of people will want to make some changes though and that's why I would like to cover all the available settings.

How to Configure Narrator's Settings

I'll go through these menu options one by one. In most cases the choices are self explanatory, but I'll highlight a few that might not be readily apparent. Each box includes "Save changes" and "Discard changes". Be sure to click the appropriate box before you leave the window.

  • General:
    • "Read out voiced Narrator errors" tells Narrator whether you want to hear the text of the actual error read, along with any sound that Narrator makes when there's an error.
    • "Highlight cursor" lets you show or hide the box that highlights where Narrator is on the screen (the light blue box in the screenshots).
    • "Play audio cues" tells Narrator whether you want an extra sound that Narrator plays when you do certain things.
    • "Read UI hints and tips" controls whether Narrator will give you a hint or tip about what Windows expects (like the yellow ToolTips balloons do).
    • The drop-down list of times in "Retain notifications to be read for" puts the items that need to be read in a queue, that Narrator will remember for the amount of time you set. After time's up, whatever hasn't been read won't be read.

      Ease of Access Center, Windows 8.1, Narrator

    • The best way to decide what to do with these choices is to play around with them. They're all on by default, so, as I mentioned, if you like the way Narrator works when you start it up you don't need to change anything, but it would still be worth experimenting. I found that I typed way too fast for Narrator to keep up if I asked it to read out the characters and words as I typed.
  • Navigation:
    • "Read and interact with the screen using the mouse" controls whether Narrator will read what's currently under your mouse cursor. Definitely something to play around with, because it has the potential for being rather annoying.
    • "Activate keys on the touch keyboard when you lift your finger" - this is for people who use touch devices and type by sliding their fingers from one letter to the next on the keyboard. Narrator will only announce the letter you've typed after you lift your finger off the key.
    • Enable the "Narrator cursor to follow keyboard focus" and the blue Narrator box (which is called the cursor) will move from item to item as you are navigating with the Tab key.

      Ease of Access Center, Windows 8.1, Narrator

  • Voice: This is where the improvements that Microsoft made really become apparent. Instead of the poor-quality "Anna" voice in Windows 7's Narrator, you now have three built-in choices:
    • David is a male voice with a standard American accent.
    • Hazel is a female voice with what sounds to me like British English as spoken by a lady from India.
    • Zira is a female voice with a standard American accent.

    I am using the English-USA language version of the program, so the voices I can choose from will be different from what is possible in other languages. You can adjust the speed of speech, the volume of the voice, and the pitch of the voice (that last one is fun to play around with).

    There is a link to "Find other voices that work with Narrator". However, this link takes you to a page on the Microsoft web site that lists third-party programs for assistive technology.

    Ease of Access Center, Windows 8.1, Narrator

  • Commands: This is where you can view and modify the keyboard shortcuts built into Narrator. Since there are more than 100 possibilities this is something users will have to experiment with on their own.

    Ease of Access Center, Windows 8.1, Narrator

How to Use the Narrator in Windows 8.1

Narrator works with varying degrees of success on non-Microsoft programs. Just to take one example, I found that it sometimes had difficulty reading web pages in Google Chrome. Switching to Internet Explorer helped that a lot. To demonstrate, start Narrator and Internet Explorer and navigate to the main 7 Tutorials page. You'll hear Narrator read the site's metadata: "7 Tutorials, help and how to for Windows and Windows Phone."

Ease of Access Center, Windows 8.1, Narrator

Use the mouse to hover over the icons at the top of the page, and Narrator will read you what each one does--including text you won't see on the page unless you hover over the icon long enough to pop up the tooltip (it's the tooltip text that you'll hear).

Ease of Access Center, Windows 8.1, Narrator

If you switch the cursor to a link on the page (use the Tab key to navigate to the link without selecting it) Narrator will read you the text of the link, and then the URL that the link goes to.

Ease of Access Center, Windows 8.1, Narrator

You will probably find, as you play around with this, that you'll need to make some adjustments to Narrator's settings to make it work most efficiently for you. It's worth taking the time to do this if you plan to use Narrator much at all.

To exit Narrator, on a system with a keyboard and mouse, press the Windows key and Enter. To exit on a touchscreen device, press the Windows key and the volume-up button at the same time.

Conclusion

In Windows 8.1, Narrator is finally a truly useful application. You will still have to experiment with the settings to find what works best for you, but this version makes the experimentation worthwhile. There are a lot more settings and a lot more choices, which means that there will be plenty of opportunity to make everything sound right.

For more information about Narrator, see Microsoft's information page, which includes a helpful video: Hear text read aloud with Narrator.

If you've used Narrator in languages other than English, I would love to hear more about the voices you are offered and your opinion of how they sound. Please comment below.