What is text to speech?
Two years ago this article would have covered many different text to speech software products, most of which were inadequate and expensive. However, now I can honestly recommend one great new app that I entirely depend on for all my text to speech on my phone and computer. Speechify, is hands down the best free (or paid) text to speech app on the market.
You might ask: So what is this text to speech thing anyway?
Text to Speech (TTS) is software that reads aloud digital text (i.e. words) on your computer, phone or tablet.
Speechify combines this with OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software, which takes documents like pictures, scans, and pdf, and converts them into searchable, editable data, also known as text. Speechify combines these to allow you to convert just about anything on your phone or computer into speech or make it into an audiobook!
A bit about me and Dyslexia
I am dyslexic (more on what that means in the next paragraph). I struggled through much of elementary school. Until eighth grade, I only read books if they were assigned. Then I discovered Audible, which I love. From that point on I devoured books, but since not everything is available on Audible, I had to read my homework, rather than listen to it.
This worked until high school when I could not finish all my homework by reading it. I came to the sad realization that I would have to buckle down and get used to the monotonous computer voices and clunky software that characterized text to speech at the time. I would also have to learn how to be a better auditory processor. Systematically by listening to harder and harder books I have become an excellent auditory processor. There came a point when I could finish my assignments by listening faster than my classmates could finish by reading them. You have to be dyslexic to understand just how thrilling that moment is. I now listen to everything — articles, emails, every book I read, my homework, textbooks, messages, and my own writing (to proofread). Now computer voices sound basically human to me.
In the early years, I tried every text to speech, OCR, dictation, and speed reading software I could get my hands on. No one piece of software met my needs. Then I discovered Speechify. That was a year and a half ago. It was just a beta version, but I came to use it dozens of times a day. Speechify has changed my life!
As promised, dyslexia, for those who don’t know, is a learning difference that makes reading, spelling, and other language-related tasks significantly more difficult. It can also affect basic math, fine motor skills, and general speed and accuracy. It affects about 10% of the population and is unrelated to a person’s intelligence. While dyslexia creates challenging handicaps, dyslexic brains also have many strengths. Dyslexics tend to excel at seeing the big picture, finding patterns, making connections, creativity, spatial reasoning, and entrepreneurship. Speechify helps dyslexics to be successful by making learning and information easily accessible. Dyslexia is not the only learning difference that Speechify can help with. I also happen to be ADHD and love being able to move around as I listen to my books.
Speechify has recently made a series of updates to the iPhone app that have vastly improved it. They are working on further significant interface improvements. That means that it is time to review everything that Speechify does, and yes, does not yet do. Speechify is a simple, easy to use app, which has the perfect combination of features for most of my needs. In this article, I will talk about both the pros and the cons.
Speechify is your next productivity boost
Speechify was originally made by a dyslexic to help other dyslexics. However, today it is used by a wide range of people. The number one user group is busy professionals who want to read quickly and hands-free. Other avid users include college students, professors, and lawyers. Commuters use Speechify to listen to articles and books. Actors use it to memorize their lines. Athletes recovering from concussions even use it to do their reading before they can focus on a screen again.
I have come to realize that Speechify transforms the lives of all kinds of people, not just those who have trouble reading. Most non-dyslexics can benefit from text to speech technology because of productivity gains. But they don’t use it because they have been put off by the monotonous computer voices. Now the voices are very natural, making text to speech ready for the non-dyslexics.
In a world where you can never consume all the information that interests you, and where media of every type vies for your attention, increasing your reading speed just a little bit adds up pretty quickly to hours of saved time or dozens of additional articles, books, homework assignments, and emails read. As this article on Medium explains in greater detail, the average reading speed of an American is 200 wpm. When users start out on Speechify they tend to immediately accelerate to 300-400 wpm, and, as I can attest, with a week or two of practice, even high reading speeds can start to sound almost like normal speech. If you regularly listen at 2 to 3 times the speed you can read, regularly paced audio books and speech starts to sound irritatingly sluggish. Of course with higher reading speeds comprehension can become a little harder, but sometimes skimming is all you need. The problem with text to speech is that you can’t skim. Speechify tried a skim feature that picked out key sentences and words, it was imperfect, but it gave me the gist of things when I was running late. I hope they improve this feature and bring it back.
As Simeon, a Speechify team member, explained it, text to speech is a new behavior for most non-dyslexic or visually impaired people. Most people are not used to taking in the world by listening to it, in the same way, that most people were not used to the new behaviors the iPhone introduced to people’s lives in 2007. Through good design, the Speechify app tries to make that behavior more intuitive. I hope that this article similarly helps you to relate the behavior of using text to speech to yourself and your life.
So before I tell you all about the app here is a little bit about Cliff Weitzman:
The backstory with Cliff Weitzman
Like many other great technologies, Speechify started with one college student trying to fix a personal problem. Cliff was born in Israel; he moved to the US when he was 12 and learned English by listening to a Harry Potter Book 22 times. He is severely dyslexic. Cliff made it through high school by working hard and not reading much. When he got to Brown University, there was just too much reading to struggle with doing the best that he could with the insufficient existing text to speech apps. So he wrote himself a program to read everything on his computer and phone to him. That software is Speechify.
Since making Speechify, Cliff has been named one of Forbes 30 under 30 for education, graduated from Brown, and turned Speechify into a startup company. He currently runs Speechify full time with about five other people in an apartment in Palo Alto. Creating value that improves people’s lives, helping fellow dyslexics, and entrepreneurship continue to be his primary passions, but he also finds time to do parkour, freestyle rap, and write music. Cliff is also one of the nicest people you will ever meet.
Speechify offers a mac app, chrome extension, and iPhone app. Many of the features are similar, so I will go over the common ones first.
- Free: Speechify is completely free! It does not even spam you with ads!
- Great voices: It uses deep learning for natural voices the utilize AI to sound almost human. On the phone app, they have added new voices called “Cliff” and “Simeon” that honestly sounds like a person. A new female voice, “Anna,” is up on the Website and will soon be added to the phone app. Across all platforms, you can choose between 6 HD voices and 10 standard voices which include a range of different languages which read English text in say, a French accent, or French text in French. This includes some fun one ones like “child HD.” (check it out, it really sounds like a child!).
- Speed: Speechify goes up to 800 words per minute, more than any other text to speech app I have yet come across. I have never met a person who can take in the world at 800 words per minute, but with a few weeks of listening you can easily work up to speeds that previously sounded like jibberish. I don’t go much above 400 wpm, but Cliff, the founder listens at 600 wpm.
- Basic but a lifesaver: Speechify tells you how long it will take to finish a reading, and adjusts it when you adjust the reading speed. This means that if you have 10 min before class starts you can crank up the reading speed until you know you can finish the reading in time. It also allows you to budget time for readings effectively. I can’t remember any other app that does this.
- Offline Use: Offline editing is available both on the Mac and iPhone, but there is a trick to figuring out how to do it. On the Mac, you can use Speechify offline for non-HD voices. You can switch to regular voices after you go offline. If you don’t change the voice, the window will just show the processing spiral endlessly. On the phone, the speechify app automatically downloads books in non-HD voices to listen to offline. If you turn off connectivity on your phone, the voices automatically switch to a lower quality voice.
Speechify has a great chrome extension and app, so I am going to break down how easy it is to listen to text in each separately.
Mac app and chrome extension:
The Mac App lives in your menu bar. If you click on it the little Speechify window pops up. You can play, pause, change speeds, change settings, change voices, etc. in this window. When it starts reading it flashes the text one word at a time, centered on the word so that you can read along at super high speeds.
On the mac you listen to text by selecting it and hitting play in your menu bar, double tapping “option” (for new users), or with “option” + “A” for those used to earlier versions. Speechify uses a whole range of useful key commands, which are all customizable. You can go up to your menu bar and hit the camera icon to take a screenshot of any text you want read aloud, or you can simply hit “option” + “X”. “Option +D” and Options” speed up or slow down the reading respectively. “Option +E” and “Option +W” skip forward and backward respectively. In addition to reading any article you want with the chrome extension, listening to any text you select, or listening by taking a screenshot, you can also simply drag a file on to the Speechify controller in your menu bar and do something even niffitier still: turn it into an audiobook on your phone to read on the go. You can actually send any text you are listening to on your computer to your phone. The Speechify app is so simple and easy to use, that I use it every time I read something on my computer. Mac’s come with a built in text to speech, but they don’t go very fast, tell you how long a reading will take, and if you want to change the speed or voice you have to go deep into system preferences. The only way you can use it is with selected text. Trust me, you want Speechify!
The chrome extension is very similar to the mac app but it makes web browsing even easier.
You have access to all the same voices and flexibility with your listening experience available on the computer, in addition to the new Beta “Cliff” voice, mentioned earlier, which sounds just like a human.
From the phone everything is organized around making audiobooks. There are several easy ways to do this:
You upload a PDF file from your phone, turn text on your clipboard into an audiobook, select any number of photos to be processed into a book (and decide the page number by clicking on the images in the order you want them), and you can take pictures of the text you want read aloud using your camera. Here is what that camera experience looks like:
You upload a PDF file from your phone, turn text on your clipboard into an audiobook, select any number of photos to be processed into a book (and decide the page number by clicking on the images in the order you want them), and you can take pictures of the text you want to be read aloud using your camera. Here is what that camera experience looks like:
One of the really cool, but less recognized features of Speechify, is web browsing. This allows you to hit the apple export button while reading an article, click on the Speechify icon, and have it immediately make the article into an audiobook. This is how you do it:
- Open the thing you want to read aloud
- Press the export button
- Follow the more graphically interesting directions below:
iPhone Reading Experience
In addition to giving you the option to have the text flashed to word by word, like the computer app, it can also select the text it is reading so that you can read along. Reading along to audio has been shown to significantly improve reading comprehension and is a great tool when you are using Speechify for educational purposes. Speechify will save your place if you want to come pack to a reading later, and tell you how much time you have left until you finish, adjusted for the reading speed. You can also copy the text of your Audiobooks or translate them into other languages. Sadly the translate feature is pretty slow. As a dyslexic, languages are very challenging, and I don’t speak any foreign language well enough to tell you weather or not it is accurate.
One of the nice things about Speechify audiobooks is that they don’t take up a ton of space on your phone. This is because they are stored as text rather than as an audio file. Unforchunetly this means that in order to read the text your phone needs internet connectivity, which leads to one of my least favorite things about the Speechify app: no offline use:( Happily I hear this feature may become available in the near future.
Here are some other con’s:
- It does not have a full mac app which allows you to edit text made from OCR, search text, annotate text, and edit audiobooks. There is some software that allows you to do this. In the past, I have used Kurzweil but that is extremely expensive and out of date. Since I don’t need this feature that often I have not found the new best software to do this. I am working on exploring some other apps and hope to make a separate blog post covering this important feature.
- It’s hard to find files and to organize your library once you make the audiobook on the phone
- You can’t read something short that you don’t need to be saved without making it into an audiobook on the phone. There is no post-it note version of reading.
- You can’t see your audiobooks on your computer even though the computer and phone apps sync.
- It’s hard to use with super long documents. In the iPhone app long documents have no organizational system (how would they?) to make them easier to navigate, and on the computer, you can only see one word of them at a time.
- Scanning text by taking a picture of each page, even though the Speechify interface is great here, is still really tedious when you have a many hundred page book. Very often you can find PDFs of text online and can figure out if they exist using WorldCat, however for dyslexics and those with vision-related disabilities, there are some other options which I plan to share in a future blog post.
- (and as mentioned above, no downloading for offline use:(
However . . .
Speechify is a startup, which means it’s software is not perfect or comprehensive, but the team at Speechify makes up for this with the best customer service. There are no call centers in India, or even dedicated customer service person, just 6 guys in an apartment, and you can text Cliff, the founder, and 2 other key Speechify people through the app. At the bottom of the app, you can access your library, the create screen, and the message screen. The message screen is dedicated to messaging the founders with feedback, questions, and problems. They usually respond promptly, helpfully, and gratefully. When I notice something wrong in the app or have an idea for how it could be better, I simply text Cliff, and so can you. Across the app, app store, and website, Speechify sets a friendly, familiar tone. The developers do not exist in a black box, they narrate every paragraph, and when you text them, they stay up late to fix whatever problem you are having. Because Speechify is a startup, working at a dizzying pace, what features you wish were on the app today, very likely will be in a month. It’s exciting to be a user, you feel like a part of something bigger than a database, or balance sheet. I hope you try Speechify and let it make your world more accessible and productive with text to speech!
How to download the Speechify Mac App, Chrome Extension, or Mobile App
On the mac… go to https://www.getSpeechify.com/ and hit the download button.
For chrome … go to the Chrome Web Store – Speechify and click “Add to Chrome”
One the phone … go to the app store and search “Speechify” or “Text to speech” and it should come up because it is the #1 rated text to speech app on the app store!! Then simply download the app and when you open it there is a well-done intro sequence showing you how to use it!