Red Letter Day

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Color Decoder Reviewed

Color Decoder 1.0 by Stray Cat Technology

"Colors" are not just the theme of a mediocre 1980s gang movie starring Sean Penn and Robert Duvall. We mammals perceive the world in color, including our computer screens. However, a significant portion of the population experience color vision deficiency (popularly and somewhat inaccurately known as "color blindness") where certain shades of color are unable to be properly perceived. Given that this is a fairly common phenomenon, and given how important color is in the Apple user interface, it seems rather surprising that Apple has neglected to handle color vision deficiency in their otherwise thorough Universal Access preferences. Luckily, Stray Cat Technologies has stepped up to fill this gap with their initial software release of Color Decoder.

Color Decoder is a simple application that does one thing - it tells you what color the screen is displaying underneath the mouse pointer. Color Decoder does this one of three ways; via a pop-up bubble the displays the color name, by speaking the color name out loud using Apple's voice technology, or by flashing all pixels on the screen that share that specific color. Any of these three methods of color notification can be used by themselves or combined, so for example you could have the computer speak the color's name and display it's name in a bubble, but skip the flashing, or vice-versa. These preferences are controlled from a small palette on the screen which is the application's entire user interface. Color Decoder's recognition system can be turned off or on entirely via a hot key in case you only need it on occasions. The only other user interface option is the ability to turn on a magnifying glass to see exactly where the mouse pointer is pointing, which can be very useful when trying to find a single colored pixel in a huge image.

In actual use, Color Decoder works exactly as advertised. After launching, the palette opens where you can select your settings (you can hide this window once you have things set up as you wish). I tried out all three of the methods for communicating color in turn. The color name display only is a very minimalist method of showing the color, and is very useful when you have images on the screen where color is important, especially things like charts, graphs and other documents which use color to communicate data. The "flash colors" feature works well on images that are more complex with many colors mixed together such as gradients, weather radar displays and similar items. For most daily use, naming colors, supplemented by flashing colors works well. Magnification is usually not needed, although it is nice when you are looking at very complex images where there may only be a few pixels you need to track down or see (in these cases, the flashing feature is excellent as well).

I wasn't as excited with the speak color name feature, where Color Decoder uses Apple's speech synthesis to actually say the color names out loud. I can see this be very useful to someone with severe vision deficiency, but in actual use, having this feature on resulted in a continuous stuttering stream of half-spoken color names as I moved the mouse around the screen. I think this feature would be much more useful if there was a longer delay between mouse movements and the color being spoken, or even better if you could assign a separate hot key to speak color names on demand without having to leave the feature on all the time.

This minor quibble aside, I found Color Decoder to be a very functional and useful piece of software. Those with color vision deficiency will absolutely want to check this program out, but I would also recommend that anyone who works with color on a regular basis give Color Decoder a test drive. It fills an important hole in Apple's OS and makes using a Mac easier for a large segment of the population, in a clean and elegant way.

Plusses: A great way for those with color vision deficiency to recognize and differentiate colors on the Mac; useful for designers and other users to find all examples of a particular color on a busy screen

Minuses: The spoken color feature could use some polishing

Summary: Color Decoder fills a gaping hole in Apple's otherwise fairly complete Universal Access accessibility preferences and is definitely worth a download for those with color vision deficiency or who work with colors.

Color Decoder by Stray Cat Technology.
Price: $21.95; fully-functional demo version works for 1 week
Requires MacOS 10.5 or higher

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