Digital Voices: Devices that Speak & Listen

mikeDid you know that you can have your computer read text out loud to you? Or that you can read to your computer and it will type what you say? You can, and neither of these features require special programs. Both are built into features that you already have on your computer (they are also built into your phones, too – see the linked instructions on enabling these features on iOS devices).

But why would anyone want to listen to their computer in the first place? Some reasons include:

  • Proofreading: hearing text read aloud can help identify grammar errors and other writing issues.
  • Multitasking:  listen to articles while exercising, doing routine computer tasks, or working on household chores.
  • Memorization: it’s often easier to memorize information when heard aloud.

Similarly, dictation is useful for:

  • Getting started: speaking to your computer often helps overcome writer’s block.
  • Speeding up: slower typists may find that speaking can speed up their productivity; faster typists may be able to type as fast as they can speak.


Ready to get started? Here’s where to find the dictation tools on Macs and Windows computers.


  1. To get started with dictation, go to Settings >> Dictation and Speech >> Dictation.
  2. Create a keyboard shortcut that will start the microphone (usually pressing the “fn” key twice).
  3. To start dictating, click the shortcut. Speak when the microphone appears.


  1. Open Speech Recognition by clicking the Start button and search for Windows Speech Recognition.
  2. Say “start listening” or click the Microphone button to start the listening mode.
  3. Open the program you want to use or select the text box you want to dictate text into.
  4. Say the text that you want dictate.

Directions and screenshots for computers and iOS


With the Mac tool for text to speech, you can read almost anything on your screen (except PDFs). Microsoft Office for Windows also features tools for text to speech. 


To get started, go to Settings >> Dictation and Speech >> Text to Speech. Use this screen to select the voice and speed you prefer. Of the available voices, “Alex” works best.


Use the “Speak Selected Text” button in Office 2010 and 2013 to read Word and other Office documents.

Directions and screenshots for computers, iOS, and listening to PDFs. 

Bottom Line

None of these tools work perfectly on PCs or Macs. These tools are meant for casual use. For more robust text to speech options, check out the accessibility features in both operating systems. For example, VoiceOver on the Mac is a sophisticated screen reader that provides more information than just reading the text on the screen – it also provides detailed information about what the computer is doing. Windows “Narrator” tool provides similar features. And for faster, more accurate speech to text, consider using a sophisticated program like Dragon Dictate.

But for the basic tools, I found the text to speech features were easier to use on a Mac. Mac’s default “Alex” voice sounds relatively natural and handles punctuation well. Also, while the Office version of text to speech was easy to set up, I experienced a lot of difficulty setting up Windows Narrator when I tried to use it.

I also found that Macs running Mavericks (the last version of OSX) handled dictation better than PCs. Although once trained, PCs performed fairly well. That said, in my experience, dictation does not work well in Apple’s recent Yosemite update (try changing the keyboard shortcut to improve performance).