This article is also available as a TechRepublic download. This article was originally published on October 24, 2005.

Windows XP includes many different features that make it
accessible to all different types of users. One such feature is the Narrator
which uses Text-to-Speech (TTS) technology to enable Windows XP to play back
printed text in a pre-recorded spoken voice. This can be very useful if there
are users on the network who have vision impairments and difficulty reading the
text that is displayed on the screen. In this article I will outline how you
can configure Text-to-Speech in Windows XP and then use the Narrator to read
the text that is displayed on the screen.

Text-to-Speech in Windows XP

A sound card and speakers is all you need to make Windows XP
talk to you. This is because Windows XP is capable of playing back text in a
spoken voice. This technology is referred to as Text-to-Speech (TTS). Not only
is this technology useful for a person with visual impairments, but it is also
useful for someone who is working on multiple tasks at one time.

Windows XP makes this possible through a built-in driver
called a TTS engine that is able to recognize text. It can play displayed text
back using a pre-generated voice. Although it is a very useful technology, the
engine included with Windows XP provides limited text-to-speech functionality
but you can obtain third-party engines from other manufacturers. In any case,
let’s take a look at how you can configure the TTS engine included with Windows

Configuring Speech Properties

Configuring TTS is very straightforward. Open the Speech
folder within the Control Panel. The Speech Properties dialog box will appear
as shown in Figure A. It allows you to control various TTS settings.

Under Voice Selection, you can select the voice you want to
use. By default, there is only one voice available in Windows XP called
Microsoft Sam. Additional voices can be downloaded from various Web sites.

Figure A

Configuring speech
properties in Windows XP

Once you have selected a voice using the drop-down arrow,
you can preview the voice by clicking the Preview Voice button. Assuming that
the speakers are already connected to your computer, the voice will read the default
text displayed in the Use the following text to preview the voice field.
Alternatively, you can type in specific text to preview by highlighting the
existing default text and typing in the text you want read.

Along with selecting a specific voice, you can also control
the speed it which the voice reads text. By dragging the slider you can
increase or decrease the voice speed, although the default value of “Normal”
tends to be fine for most people.

By clicking the Audio Output button you can select the audio
output device. From the Text To Speech Sound Output Settings dialog box, select
from one of the two options: User preferred audio output device or Use this
audio output device. By leaving the default Use preferred audio output device
option selected, the audio device used for all other sound is also used for
TTS. Conversely, if there is more than
one audio device installed on the computer, you can specify a separate audio
output device for use with your speech programs.

Figure B

Selecting the Text To
Speech output device

The Text To Speech Sound Output Settings dialog box also
includes a Volume button. This allows you to control the TTS volume. By
selecting this button, the Master Volume dialog box will appear as shown in
Figure C allowing you to adjust the volume output levels.

Figure C

Configuring the
text-to-speech volume

As you will now see in the next section, once you have
configured all the text-to-speech options, you can have Windows XP read the
text on your screen using the Narrator.

Configuring the Narrator

Windows XP includes its own TTS utility called the Narrator.
If you require a TTS utility, keep in mind that it is limited in functionality.
First of all, it is designed to work with a specific set of programs that
includes Control Panel programs, Notepad, WordPad, Internet Explorer, Windows
Setup, and the Windows desktop. This means it may not work for other programs.
Second, the Narrator is only supported on the English version of Windows XP.

To start the utility press [Ctrl][Esc], press [R], type narrator, and press [Enter]. You can
also configure the Narrator to start automatically each time you log onto the
computer. Open the Utility Manager be pressing the [Windows Key][U]. Select
Narrator and place a check beside the Start automatically when I log in option.
As you can see, the Narrator is configured to start automatically when you
launch the Utility Manager.

Once you open the Narrator, a dialog box will appear as
shown in Figure D. As you can see, it can be configured to perform several
different TTS functions that include:

  • Announce events on screen – The Narrator will
    read aloud new windows, menus, or shortcuts when they are displayed.
  • Read typed characters – The Narrator will read
    typed characters aloud.
  • Move mouse pointer to the active item – The
    mouse pointer will follow the active item that is on the screen.
  • Start Narrator minimized – This allows you to
    start the Narrator without seeing the dialog box. The utility is minimized.
  • Figure D

    Configuring the
    Narrator to perform text-to-speech functions

    The Narrator dialog box includes a Voice button that can be
    used to control voice settings. As shown in Figure E, voice settings for the
    Narrator include: Speed, Volume, and Pitch. Once you have configured the
    appropriate values, click OK to return to the Narrator dialog box.

    Figure E

    Configuring Narrator
    voice settings

    With the Narrator settings configured, your speakers turned
    on, and the volume turned up, you can minimize the Narrator dialog box, and
    Windows XP will be ready to talk to you. Depending on how you have the Narrator
    configure, you should hear the pre-configured voice read the text that appears
    on your screen. For example, if you are working in Microsoft Word, the Narrator
    will repeat the text as you type. You can turn off the Narrator at any time by
    clicking Exit from the Narrator dialog box and clicking Yes when prompted.

    Troubleshooting Text-to-Speech in Windows XP

    Troubleshooting can be a difficult task, especially if you
    have not worked with a specific technology before. When it comes to
    troubleshooting text-to-speech problems, there are a few points that you should
    keep in mind.

    • Use the Preview Text button from the Speech
      Properties dialog box to verify that the TTS engine.
    • Open the Utility Manager to check the status of
      the Narrator program.
    • If you do not hear any sound and you are using
      external speakers, make sure they are turned on.
    • Check the Master Volume dialog box to make sure
      that muting is not enabled.
    • Verify that the speakers are properly connected
      to the computer. You may need to check the documentation that came with the
      speakers for the proper procedure.
    • Use Device Manager to check the status of the
      computer’s sound card. If necessary, reinstall or update the drivers for the

    Now your computer can talk back to you too

    Windows XP includes built-in technology to make it more
    accessible for users that are blind or who have vision impairments. The
    Text-to-Speech engine can read text on the screen using a pre-generated voice.
    Windows XP includes a default voice called Microsoft Sam. Other voices are
    available through third-party manufacturers.

    You can hear your computer talk using the Narrator. This is
    the built-in text-to-speech utility that is included with Windows XP. It is
    designed to work with common programs that come with Windows XP such as
    Internet Explorer and WordPad. You can launch the utility by typing narrator using the Run command. The
    Narrator provides limited text-to-speech functionality, but third-party
    programs are available from various manufacturers.