Text to speech software - let your computer read to you

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Text to speech software - let your computer read to you

"A strawberry! Yum, yum!"

This was the mantra of an ancient video game called "Terry Turtle's Adventure". Our star, Terry Turtle, spent most of her time talking and waddling around, avoiding bad things and eating good things, namely strawberries.

The advent of Terry Turtle and similar games gave us computer-generated speech. Finally, our computers could really talk to us. No more beeps and boops and screens of text. Our computers had evolved, and would soon talk conversationally. Famous electronic actors like C3PO (Star Wars), HAL (2001: A Space Odyssey) and most of the Stepford Wives make talking machines commonplace.

But, like Vanilla Coke, it wasn't meant to be. Talking computers look great in the movies. But, in real life, they need some work. Anyone who has heard Stephen Hawking's functional but robotic-sounding speech translator knows the limits of the technology.

Despite flaws in realism and pronunciation, text to speech software is still very helpful to many people. It's great for people with vision or reading disabilities, those who can't easily read monitor screens and would rather listen to words read to them. Or, are you sick of staring at your computer? Wanna lay on the couch, eyes closed, as your computer reads you the latest news from the Internet? Can do. Just don't expect to be sung gently to sleep, as computer-synthesized voices are the exact opposite of "soothing".

Use free text to speech reader software to give your computer something to read: An e-book, a website or any text on your computer will work fine.

Deskbot is good free text to speech software for the casual listener, and is very easy to use. Install and run the software, and you'll see a customizable animated character on your screen. By default, it notifies you of the time every thirty minutes, and will read any text copied to the Windows clipboard: Highlight any text, like the full contents of a Web page, then choose "Copy" from the Edit menu. Deskbot will then start talking. It can talk in a couple dozen different voices, though just a couple are acceptable for long term use. The more annoying voices sound like a strange combination of Darth Vader and my fourth-grade teacher who never liked me.

NaturalReader is for those who use text to speech readers often, want more control over how the voices sound, or need to save spoken text for later listening. It's free, and works much the same as Deskbot, only without the animated character. But it's more customizable. Purchasing the "Professional" version for $40 gets you features like a pronunciation editor: Correct speaking mistakes in individual words. You'll also get more realistic-sounding voices. There's also a "speech to MP3" function: Convert Internet pages or an e-book into an MP3 audio file for later listening on PC, iPOD and CD.

Text to speech technology is past the "Terry Turtle" phase, but just barely. There are still software limits to good pronunciation, emphasis and the natural flow of speaking you and I do so casually. But C3PO and HAL may not be so far off. The Stepford Wives, hopefully, will take a bit longer.