Most of us spend a lot of time reading content on computer displays. Whether it’s Word documents for work, ebooks for pleasure, or social media and news feeds to leave us blinking in utter disbelief, words are everywhere.
But for some people this medium isn’t the best way to convey information, especially if they have a visual impairment, dyslexia, or simply too many other things to do.
That’s where text-to-speech software comes in. These useful tools can automatically convert a page of prose into spoken word to which you can listen at your leisure. We show you the best free packages currently available for your PC.
Those who want to convert in the opposite direction should also take a look at our Microsoft Dictate 5.0 review or how speech recognition can help you work anytime, anywhere.
It’s worth knowing that you don’t need to download any extra software to experience text-to-speech on your PC. This is because Windows comes equipped with its very own Narrator which can handle a variety of tasks.
To launch the feature, press the combination of the Windows key+CTRL+Enter on Windows 10, or Windows key+Enter on previous versions such as Windows 8.1 or Windows 7.
Once enabled Narrator lets you select an entire page to be read from start to finish, or instead you can opt for a certain paragraph, sentence, word, or character to be the focus. It can even tell you which font is being used, the page margin settings, and read punctuation.
Narrator works with rows and columns from spreadsheets, emails, web content, and can translate from one language to another.
Microsoft should be applauded for including such a detailed and capable service within Windows. If you want to experience text-to-speech for the first time then there’s no better place to start. It is complex though, so you’ll want to read the Get Started with Narrator guide on Microsoft's Support site first.
Easily one of the best free text-to-speech programs available right now is Balabolka. This diminutive download taps into the existing Microsoft Speech Program that is included in Windows. Using the Microsoft Speech API (SAPI) it’s able to harness the conversion software already present and take it to new level of usefulness.
Any text on the screen can be converted to WAV, MP3, MP4, OGG, or WMA formats, which can then be saved and listened to on a number of devices.
Supported text formats are extensive, with AZW, DOC, DOCX, EPUB, HTML, MOBI, PRC, PDF, and RTF just some of the options available. The program can even insert MP3 tags that will display text simultaneously as it’s read out.
Balabolka is compatible with a vast array of languages, and with all Windows versions back as far as XP.
For older versions of Windows (8.1/ 7/ XP) Audiobookmaker a good option. This freeware package utilises the narration capabilities already present in the operating system, but gives it a simpler user interface and a few additional features.
The most obvious of these is the ability to create audio files from text documents. These can be outputted in either WAV or MP3 formats, giving users the option to listen to their correspondence while out and about with their smartphones, or save them for a later date.
There’s also an interesting setting that can shut down your PC once a document has been read. Ideal for turning your device into a night-time reading device that will help you get to sleep.
Add to this a variety of reading voices, controls for adjusting speed, pitch, and volume, plus the ability to add new dictionaries, and it’s a very decent package.
Read the Words
This interesting service uses a web-based approach to convert text to speech. Users sign up for a free account (there are also tiered, paid subscriptions for additional features) and then enter text into a dedicated box on the website. This is uploaded and converted on the Read the Words servers, creating an MP3 file that can be downloaded and stored locally on your PC.
The site estimates that it takes around a minute to create an hour’s worth of audio, but these times can be longer if lots of users are online at the same time.
You can choose from fifteen different reading voices, and three different languages – English, French, and Spanish. Read the Words doesn’t offer a translation service though, so whatever text you enter will be the language that’s read out.
The Bronze account is free, and allows the creation of up to 30 seconds of audio per conversion. This grows to an hour if you move to Silver and pay around £30 per year, or eight hours if you stump up £55 for a Gold account.
Another excellent offering is Natural Reader. This package boasts a clean, simple interface that makes it very easy to use. Natural Reader will happily convert standard text files, including DOCX, PDF, TXT, and ePUB, all with a minimum of fuss.
There’s also a Floating Bar widget that means you can highlight text in other applications then hit play and the text will be read out – great for web pages and emails. As you would expect there are controls for changing the reading voice and its speed.
If you’re willing to pay for the enhanced version then Natural Reader has some pretty impressive features on offer, not least of which is its OCR reading capabilities. Scan a book, article, or letter into your PC and the software will be able to decipher the text, read it out, and also create a text document.
It can work with screenshots from eBooks, such as Kindle, as well, and sync audio files to an app on your iOS or Android smartphone. Like we said, impressive.
Natural Reader also has a web version which allows free conversions for up to 20 minutes per day, or unlimited for £4 per month.