Sunday, 18 December 2011

A Review of Vinux - Linux for the Visually Impaired

Vinux is a specialist distribution remastered from a Ubuntu base and optimized specifically with visually impaired users in mind. Some others also come with a screen reader and other accessibility options by default, for example in the login screen, but these are never turned on from the start and voice recognition software is rarely if ever present.

Knoppix 'ADRIANE' edition is a version of the popular live distribution that has all these services turned on by default, but is booting into a text interface. While it works very well it seems to be aimed at users who lost all vision, not at users who are partially sighted to varying degrees. Using a custom environment, Vinux provides a graphical, high-contrast desktop with screenreaders (ORCA is turned on by default), full-screen magnifiers, a configuration that supports global font-size and color changing, and out of the box support for Braille displays.

Originally I set out to write this in March, but other releases happened and as I was waiting for feedback from users that never came it slowly slipped away. An ex-colleague of mine is a visual impairment worker in the Sensory Team of another borough, and she was going to offer it to some of her clients. Unfortunately inertia in this area affects people with disabilities just as much as the rest of us, and everybody in that community seems settled in with their main OS already, loathe to try anything new. Understandable, when they have invested a significant amount of time to train up their proprietary software and are happy with it. In particular, users who feel vulnerable probably do not wish to experiment and stay with what they feel has proven to work for them.

Which Image to Download?

The Vinux team provide a whole wagon load of different images, so there can be little excuse not to find one that suits your needs if looking for a solution that caters to the needs of visually impaired users. On the downloads page you will find images for whatever your situation that make sure people can get down to running it with minimal fiddling required. In 3.0.1 Vinux provides a release based on the current Ubuntu LTS 10.04 that is deemed stable and which the team recommend to most users, while newer releases are provided under the experimental moniker, the current one being 3.2.1. The ones dubbed experimental or development builds are built on the newer Ubuntu releases. However, with 3.2.1 being based on 11.04 'Natty' there currently is no release based on Ubuntu 'Oneiric' 11.10.
The project are making CD size and DVD size images available, the latter being around 1.5 GB for the older 3.0.1 and around 1 GB for the 3.2.1 release. The latest release also offers a DVD plus edition coming in at a little under 3 GB with extra packages for sighted users, so several other members in the household can also share the same computer without rebooting into another OS. The versions for optical media are available in 32-bit as well as 64-bit. Then there are USB editions that can fit on a cheap 1 GB memory stick, all built from the standard 32-bit CD image, and the stable release also offers a USB office edition and a larger USB DVD edition.
Links to older versions are also provided on the downloads page. The website warns that the DVD and Plus editions contain some non-free packages and codecs. On top of this a boot CD for older computers is provided, as is a virtual edition of Vinux that comes pre-packaged with VMware Player for Windows. The virtual edition has its own page linked at the top. This enables people to run Vinux inside Windows without changing their operating system, and users can copy, paste and share files between them as well as over the network from within Vinux. Shared folders are already set up.
There is also a virtual version for 'any OS' with a link to download VMware Player yourself due to licensing issues. The old stable and the short term development images here are 725 MB and 733 MB respectively. Spoilt for choice?

Booting Up

The standard Vinux ISO image is distributed as an installable live CD/DVD, the same as Ubuntu, and it inherits everything else from it as well, even the purple boot screen with the white dots indicating loading. As such the installer and its capabilities is identical, as is the procedure, so I'm not going to cover installation here.
The live session boots into the ORCA screen reader, which is basically starting to read out as soon as you boot up, giving accoustic feedback while navigating the desktop. For those who prefer working in a simple text based console the Speakup reader is included, as is a hybrid screen reader called YASR which can be run either in a console or in a virtual terminal.

System requirements are quite decent, which means anybody should be able to run it whose computer can also handle Windows XP. They are stated as

  • 1 GHz x86 processor.
  • 1 Gb of system memory (RAM).
  • 15 GB of hard-drive space (although this can be split onto 2 drives, a 5Gb / and a 10Gb /home partition fairly easily).
  • Graphics card and monitor capable of 1024 by 768 resolution.
  • Either a Cd/Dvd-drive or a Usb socket (or both).

I still had Vinux 3.1 CD image and virtual edition lying around which I had played with for a few weeks earlier this year. The virtual edition comes as a 741 MB 7z archive and includes VMware Player 3.1.3 as well as 2.5.3 for users with older machines. Very thoughtful. Make sure you got enough space available as it extracts to a cool 3.87 GB virtual machine, and if you haven't got it yet installing VMware Player will also need a bit. I also downloaded the latest 3.2.1, all in their x86 releases for maximum compatibility, although in this case it is not as important to test the latest version, it is more about introducing and assessing the accessibility features.

The Desktop

We're being told several times on the web site that the Vinux people do not recommend installing updates because they often break the system, and I presume speech functionality in particular, and "it may be difficult to impossible to repair if you loose speech without performing a complete re-installation". I can second that as it happened to me that after several updates the reader fell silent. Therefore you can safely ignore the Synaptic package manager unless you want to install more apps, but be careful about the impact on core aspects of the system. Also, installing Vinux in Virtualbox from CD gave me a system without speech, so stick with running it live, a full install or in VMware which it seems to be optimized for.

The first thing you will notice is how big everything is, and an absolutely massive cursor. You're logging into a desktop that's using the GNOME environment, adjusted for people with poor vision, and a high-contrast wallpaper with turquoise vine leaves on a slate black background. Fonts have been adjusted to Sans Bold 12 which makes it in my view very legible. The panel is a size 50, that is wider than the default in KDE 3. If I take my glasses off though I can barely see the cursor or the desktop icons. 

While navigating you have the pleasure of having everything under the mouse cursor read out to you. This can quickly become annoying, but let's not forget that some users rely on this functionality. If there is one problem I have with the screen reader it is the monotonous robotic voice and the speed which is hard to follow. I always think it is reading too fast, but you can change rate and pitch under ORCA/Speech. I have never studied its preferences in as much detail before and am truly impressed by all the options in this useful piece of software, even a screen magnifier can be enabled from within which is inverting the colors for supposedly higher contrast. Speech actually seems slightly improved in the latest 3.2.1 release, slightly slower and better to understand and follow.

There's a lot of normal user software here, like Thunderbird and Gwibber, a client for Twitter, but no office suite or word processor. However under System Tools you'll find plenty of EasyInstall links for all sorts of software, including office and OCR character recognition software. Some of these links that are obviously deemed more important are also on the desktop, to install multimedia, codecs and office applications. You'll also find a shortcut to the Quickstart guide that opens in the browser from local hard drive, no internet access required. A long text file details keyboard shortcuts, so that users can theoretically move around the desktop with only the keyboard and audio feedback. Compiz is pre-installed which contributes its own screen magnifying glass.

The VMware entry in the menu leads to Shared folders in the virtual edition, and I've been generally surprised by how much is included, even Tomboy, and with it the Mono libraries, Rhythmbox for music, Totem as movie player, a desktop recorder, Gespeaker, a disc burner, a little known web browser called Conkeror that was inspired by GNU Emacs and can be navigated completely with keyboard shortcuts only (it opens the user manual at start up,  giving overview of keys and movement), bareFTP, the Transmission bittorrent client and more.

Some beautiful themes and backgrounds are also included for the desktop although this should be less important here, perhaps noteworthy when sharing this install with sighted users or family members.

Being based on Ubuntu gives Vinux wide-ranging hardware support, and although one can add proprietary drivers and codecs already during the install phase thanks to the Ubuntu installer, I was pleased to note that in the newest 3.2.1 release my Broadcom brcm43225 already worked and Network Manager detected all wireless networks in the area and notified me straight after log in.

Web Page and Help

The web site is now located at which is why a link to on the desktop of my older copy of Vinux did not work anymore. I found the site easy to navigate and friendly looking. You got the trademark vine leaves and logo in the banner at the top, with a short summary on the main page and links to the other sections below the banner and to the left.
Here we find a news section where new releases and things like user surveys are announced. Perhaps more importantly, FAQ's (Frequently Asked Questions) and a Getting Started guide can be accessed here. These are extremely comprehensive and are ranging from 'Why use Vinux', 'How to use a Braille display' and a discussion on whether Windows or Linux are more accessible to VI users to advanced stuff like key bindings and creating and using bash aliases. Highly recommended, and a lot to read, but that's what we now have screen readers for!

The Wiki, which even includes a packaging tutorial, a developers blog, a list of people behind Vinux and other useful support links can also be accessed from the left side column. Here you can also find links to Vinux build scripts to create custom copies, which could be interesting for organizations, and links to the project pages of accessibility software in use.
Some interesting news from the blog are that it is now possible to buy computers and pen drives with Vinux pre-installed (UK only), and that the next version 4.0 will be based on the next Ubuntu LTS, 12.04. According to this post the switch away from the GNOME 2 desktop upstream in Ubuntu has presented some problems for the folks at Vinux, and they have now apparently decided to go with the Unity desktop for the next release instead of GNOME 3. It should be interesting to see how they handle it, for my part I'ld probably stick with one of the older versions for a while.

There's also an Audio section where users can listen to several files relevant to the project. Key bindings for their embedded audio player are explained. I seem to recall that there used to be example audio files here that were show casing the ORCA screen reader talking at various speeds in different voices, but currently there is only one file titled 'An introduction to Vinux virtual and USB', an interview with Mo Iqbal, one of the developers, who talks about his own experiences and states he is completely blind.


It shouldn't come as a surprise that this project originated in the UK given the scope of legislation and the emphasis on disability rights and anti-discriminatory practice, as well as the number of advocacy groups in existence.
Vinux in my opinion provides a highly valuable service to a disadvantaged segment of the population and very competently fills a niche as best as it could. As freely stated in the FAQ's, proprietary software currently provide better speech and magnification facilities than what is currently available on Linux, but these are not provided by default and due to the high pricing often not financially accessible to disabled and visually impaired users.

Using Vinux was one of these defining 'Aha' moments for me. Similar to Trisquel, which showed how much can be done and that one can run a computer quite satisfactory with only libre software (in other words without non-free and proprietary bits like firmware), Vinux demoed functionality we know exists but typically never explore, and it shows off what it's like to have a fully text-to-speech enabled system, what can be achieved with tools like screen magnification and adjusting the desktop environment to special needs.
It feels more integrated and optimized for their client group than others. Vinux has a lot to offer, not just to the group it is primarily targeting, and be it as a learning experience.

Changes: Some subtle editing 20/12 and 21/12/11 (added the part re. Broadcom).


  1. Very well-written review of a distro that would deserve more spotlight. One question though: is it just me or is the text here black on black background? Thank you for the post!

  2. Thank you for pointing that out. That's the trouble with changing templates.


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