Text-To-Speech showdown

Last week I posed the scenario that you were in a rush and didn’t have time to read those emails, or that article, or that report. The solution was to use Mac OS X’s in-built text-to-speech technology to convert those words to an audio file that you can throw on your MP3 player and listen as you go.

The problems is that solution required using the somewhat intimidating Automator software, so this week I present a user friendly way of achieving this using purpose-built applications for the job, both for Mac OS X and Windows.

 

Windows — Expressivo ($49 USD)

I tested many Windows text-to-speech apps, and most of them were clunky and ugly. Of all that I tested, Expressivo was the most professional looking and feature rich.

1. Installation

Easy to install, in fact it literally talks you through it by utilising the voice even during the install wizard. This was a nice touch, though I could have done without “please wait, Expressivo is being installed” being said over and over and over during the install.

2. Interface

A nice interface, though somewhat un-windows like. To get started, you can click the Open & Read icon at the far right of the toolbar (curiously, represented by an eject icon?).

Once clicking this, you will be asked to locate a text file to convert to speech. You can change the speed at which it reads by using the volume slider, and can select the voice using the drop-down.

3. Voice

Only 1 English voice is available — an American female voice named Jennifer — which is a big issue. However you can use the built-in Windows voice. If you have XP, then the built-in voice is terrible, but Vista has great built-in voice synthesis, so you may prefer to use that (though, again, this leaves you with one choice — in this case American male). The Expressivo voice was easy to understand, though I did find it read through list items too quickly.

4. Features

You can customise pronunciation easily using the Pronunciation Exceptions editor.

expressivo exceptions editor

Expressivo has a feature whereby it allows you to give it RSS feeds for it to automatically read for you. This would be cool, however you can only have it read out RSS news directly from the application. There doesn’t seem to be a way to automatically generate an audio file from the articles. If you have to be in front of your computer in order to listen to the RSS articles, why would you need Expressivo at all? What is handy, though, is the Expressivo buttons that are added to Explorer and Firefox, which allow you to quickly convert a webpage to an MP3.

Windows — NaturalReader Professional ($39.50 USD)

NaturalReader was one of those clunky, ugly applications I mentioned earlier, but what is lacks in style, it makes up for in voice options. And after, it’s the quality of voice that matters most.

1. Installation

No problems here. No fancy voices like in Expressivo, but very easy.

2. Interface

The interface is unattractive, but simple and easy to use. Paste text in the large area or bring it in from an external file (DOC, PDF, RTF, TXT). Then it’s just a matter of clicking the MP3 button to generate the audio file.

NaturalReader

3. Voice

Unlike Expressivo, NaturalReader offers a wide range of voices, from American to British. When purchasing the Pro version, you can choose 1 voice of your preference.

4. Features

As with Expressivo, you can customise the pronunciation, but there is no RSS support. You can add a toolbar to Word, Outlook and Powerpoint, but not a browser like Explorer or FireFox.

Update

UPDATE: Ken in the comments has pointed me to TextAloud for windows. This looks to be similar to the others in that it’s UI is ugly as hell, but it has some very nice features. Namely, a wider array of voices to choose from (however these are sold seperate from the applciation), and companion packages NewsAloud, WeatherAloud and StocksAloud which voice synthesise news, weather and stock information respectively. These companion packages are all sold as separately for $19.95, or you can get a bundle with TextAloud for $49.95. I haven’t tested this one as I have the others, so I would recommend Downloading the trial. Can I also say that the website is horrible and had me convinced it was spyware at first because of the shear ugliness of it. Windows developers: please take a look at ConvenienceWare’s site to see how it’s done. Here’s a review of TextAloud.

 

Mac OS X — Automator (free)

Using built-in software that comes with OS X, you can generate an audio file from text for free. You can even set it up to automatically turn your RSS feeds to MP3 files. But rather than repeat myself, I will link to the article I posted last week.

Mac OS X — GhostReader ($39.95 USD)

GhostReader makes turning text to MP3 files as easy as possible with a beautiful, easy to understand interface. However, it is missing one big fat feature that defies all logic.

1. Installation

Drag the GhostReader folder to your Applications folder. Couldn’t get any easier than that!

2. Interface

When opening GhostReader, you are presented with a simple floating pane with a number of buttons. Clicking Open Reader will prompt you to choose a file to convert to speech (RTF, PDF, DOC, HTML, TXT).

GhostReader interface

Once you select a file, you will be presented with a Reader window with a number of playback controls across the top. You can have it read the text aloud from this window, or save it as export it as an audio file from the File menu. You also have a handy iTunes button which will send it directly to your library.

Reader window

3. Voice

The standard version of GhostReader allows you to choice 1 voice to download. AS with NaturalReader, there are a wide variety of voices available to you — French, Italian, American, British, Czech — you name it…no Australian though :(

All the voices are excellent, as good or better than any offered by Expressivo or NaturalReader.

4. Features

OK, so far GhostReader is my favourite choice, but here’s where it falls down. Although the interface is great, and voices excellent, GhostReader is missing one of the most fundamental features of a text-to-speech application — pronunciation.

As good as the voices are, they will fall apart when they come across acronyms, product names or surnames. Ordinarily (by ordinarily, I mean EVERY OTHER TEXT-TO-SPEECH APPLICATION OUT THERE) you can simply set an exception so that when the synthesiser comes across that word, it replaces it with your pronunciation (eg. replaces iPod with “eye pod”). You can’t do that in GhostReader, which impacts its usefulness.

To be fair, ConvenienceWare claim this functionality is coming, and will be a free upgrade to existing users, but that was months ago now, and nothing has happened. And I should point out that GhostReader is not a new product — it was originally called TextParrot and has been around for years. Unacceptable, ConvenienceWare.

Until they figure out this issue, I would recommend sticking with the free option.

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8 Comments

  1. Posted March 2, 2008 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    You left out TextAloud
    http://www.nextup.com

    It is by far the most used application of this type, and nobody offers the variety of voices.

  2. podwatch
    Posted March 2, 2008 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    cheers Ken, I added an update to the bottom of the Windows section.

  3. Posted May 19, 2008 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Just wanted to let you know that we kept our promise, GhostReader 1.5 was released last week and now has a pronunciation editor allowing users to edit the pronunciation of words (using plain text or phonetic transcription) and add new abbreviations. It has many other improvements too (see http://www.convenienceware.com/ghostreader/features.php for a version history).

    By the way, note that GhostReader, was not around for years as TextParrot. It was first released in December 2006 as TextParrot and in July 2007 the name was changed to GhostReader, so in total it is only 1.5 years old by now.

    David, the developer of GhostReader.

  4. Posted June 2, 2008 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    You should have tried YAKiToMe! (http://www.yakitome.com) It’s free and has the highest-quality male and female voices from AT&T that read in 4 different languages. Regional accents are supported as well, such as UK English and American English, for example. It can turn any electronic text into an audio book podcast. It has a bunch of great features for sharing and searching (too many to mention here), and will save you a bundle of $$$ since it’s totally free.

  5. Joe
    Posted September 27, 2008 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    There is a macintosh freeware option that’s better than some of the commercial options I’ve seen.

    http://www.manythings.org/mac/
    CKs_Text-to-Speech_to_MP3.dmg v0.9.2 (285 KB) (April 17, 2008)

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