Sometimes, it's better to listen than to read. When you walk, bike, or drive, for example, it's safer to keep your eyes focused on the world around you.
Text-to-speech (TTS) offers an alternative to listening to music, podcasts, or audiobooks. TTS can be a great way to catch up on articles you intend to read. For example, Mozilla's read later service, Pocket, includes the ability to listen to articles.
TTS solves a slightly different problem than the assistive voice capabilities available for the major platforms, such as Android TalkBack, iOS VoiceOver, Chromevox, Windows Narrator, and Mac VoiceOver. These tools typically read everything on a page—content plus navigation.
The following four TTS apps specialize in reading articles and documents you choose. While all of these apps provide text-to-speech capabilities, each app serves a slightly different set of needs. Some apps show the text as it is spoken, while others offer a variety of voices.
All of these apps work on iOS, and support the capability to share an article from the browser to the app via the native iOS sharing system functions. Importantly, as of July 2017, all four of these apps are under active development: The iOS app for each was updated in June or July 2017 at least once.
(iOS, Chrome, and Safari desktop extensions)
I think of Motoread as a podcatcher for articles: Send an article to the app, then listen to saved articles later. There are Chrome and Safari extensions that let you add an article to your Motoread list from your desktop browser with a click. (As of early July 2017, an Android app is listed as "coming soon".)
The app reads articles in a single voice, although you may adjust the playback speed. You can also choose to display the text of the article as you listen. The app is free, although you can upgrade (for $1.99/month or $19.99/year) to get the ability to add an unlimited number of articles.
2. Voice Dream Reader
Voice Dream Reader shows the text of the article being read, and highlights each word as it is spoken. Since the app was originally developed as an assistive tool, you can adjust the size, font, spacing, and color of the text displayed during playback. Voice Dream supports adjustable playback speeds, and allows you to customize pause time between sentences, too. You can select from several system voices, and set a preferred speed, pitch, and volume for the voice. You can also add documents to listen to from Dropbox, Google Drive, Evernote, and other sources.
Voice Dream Reader typically costs $14.99, and a wide selection of additional voices are available for purchase, too—at a cost of up to $4.99 per voice.
3. Speech Central
(iOS, macOS, Windows, Android)
Speech Central works on more platforms than any of the other apps here, with apps available for iOS, macOS, Windows, and Android (although the app is available from Amazon, not the Google Play store). It also supports the ability to read text from other formats, such as Word, PDF, and more. On iOS, the app supports the system voices, although you can adjust the voice pitch, as well as the default 1x speed to be slightly faster or slower.
Speech Central shows the text, with a subtle colored vertical line displayed along the left side of the text of the paragraph as it is spoken. The app will announce the calculated reading time for longer articles, which may be useful if you listen while traveling, and you can change playback speed (between .8x and 2x default speed). Speech Central also offers the ability to shuffle voices, so you don't have to listen to several articles in a row read with the same synthesized voice.
The desktop platform apps are not free, at $6.99 for macOS and $9.99 for Windows 10, although the mobile apps are free, with an optional one-time $4.99 upgrade that gives you the ability to add unlimited articles.
4. Audiobook Maker
Audiobook Maker was the only app of the four to properly pronounce the words "live" and "livestream" with the default voice setting. All the other apps pronounced the four letter word "live" incorrectly for the context, as if it rhymed with "give." Audiobook Maker pronounced it correctly: "Live" rhymes with "hive."
Audiobook Maker also was the only app with the option to display one word at a time, centered in the screen. It also offered an option to highlight the word being read, while showing the surrounding text, in an adjustable size font. As with other apps, you can adjust the speed, as well as select from several voices and languages.
Audiobook Maker development is still in process. For example, the app also includes the ability to use your camera to take a photo of book pages to be read. But when I took a photo of a page from a book, I saw a "less than a minute remaining" message that never left. To be fair, the iOS app is named "Audiobook Maker - Early Adopters." That said, the core functionality of text-to-speech works and the app is free (as of July 2017).
Text to speech for developers
It's also never been easier to add text-to-speech capabilities to apps. Several large firms provide text-to-speech API services, such as Polly from Amazon, Bing Speech from Microsoft, and Text to Speech from IBM. There are smaller competitors in the field, like Responsive Voice, too. And search giants Google and Baidu have each released research papers that tout their progress toward increasingly natural sounding text-to-speech capabilities, called Deep WaveNet and Deep Voice 2, respectively.
Do you use text-to-speech to listen to articles or documents? If so, what text-to-speech system and/or app do you use? And if you're a developer, have you integrated one of above API text-to-speech services into your app? If so, let me know which service and why — on Twitter (@awolber) or in the comments below.
- Five apps for converting text to speech (TechRepublic)
- Pro tip: Have your iPhone read you the morning news with "Speech" feature in iOS 8 (TechRepublic)
- Teach your next Android app to speak (TechRepublic)
- Amazon Lex: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)
- How we learned to talk to computers, and how they learned to answer back (TechRepublic)
- Google's DeepMind claims major milestone in making machines talk like humans (ZDNet)
Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.