Though not everyone cares to admit it, we all talk to our computers. Much of the time these conversations are quite short and comprised of ejaculations of joy or, when things aren't going swimmingly, a grumbled #$%&@!! Regardless of what you say to your Mac, it always responds in the same way--with stoney silence. But it needn't.

And it needn't because Mountain Lion includes a dictation feature that lets your computer transcribe your spoken words in an impressive way. And if you'd care to have your Mac do the talking, another speech feature allows it to read selected text back to you with one of a group of human-sounding voices. The power to do each is found in the Dictation & Speech system preference.


Given how capable dictation can be, you'd think that the Dictation pane would be full of arcane settings and demands that you spend an hour training the Mac to understand you. But no, it's very straightforward. You have the options to turn Dictation on or off, select a keyboard shortcut to engage dictation, choose the language you'll be speaking, and select an audio source (which, if your Mac comes equipped with a microphone, is the internal mic).

You'll also see an About Dictation and Privacy button at the bottom of this pane. When you click it you'll learn something of how this technology works. I'll save you the trip by explaining that when you use dictation, the words you say are sent to Apple's servers where some powerful technology is applied to the job of quickly turning those words into text (so yes, your Mac needs to be connected to the Internet for this to work). When you finish speaking, your words appear within the application in which you initiated the dictation command. Apple keeps a copy of your words to help improve dictation's performance. If you're uncomfortable with that, simply turn off dictation in this preference. When you do, your stored data and words will be deleted from Apple's servers. The few controls found in the Dictation preference

Dictation isn't one of those features that works with applications specifically written to allow it. You can use dictation with any application that supports text input.

To use dictation, place the Mac's cursor in a text field, choose Edit > Start Dictation (or, by default, press the Fn key twice in succession) within the application you're using, wait for the microphone icon to appear, and start speaking.

Regrettably dictation isn't capable of discerning where your sentences and paragraphs begin and end based on the way you speak. Nor can it automatically insert punctuation. In each case you need to speak the punctuation and formatting. For example, if I open TextEdit and want my Mac to write:

Hey Jojo, it's great to hear from you! Sounds like you've been very busy with the circus. I hope the cream I sent has helped with your complexion. Talk to you soon, Chris

I'd have to say:

Hey Jojo comma it's great to hear from you exclamation mark sounds like you've been very busy with the circus period new paragraph I hope the cream I sent has helped with your complexion period new paragraph talk to you soon comma new paragraph chris

So, not only do I have to speak the punctuation, but also the formatting, which in this case is "new paragraph." Doing so plants an empty line between paragraphs.

Note that while all applications understand punctuation, not all will respond to formatting commands. For example, Apple's Mail respects formatting commands but Microsoft's Outlook doesn't.

And what command does dictation understand? Apple provides a comprehensive list on this page.

Dictation does a remarkably good job capturing your words. And on the occasions when it doesn't, it will often underline those words that it believes it might have missed. In such cases, hold down the Control key and click on the underlined word. You'll be offered appropriate alternatives. Just select the one you want and it will be inserted. If no alternative is offered, just highlight the word and type in the correct one.

Text to Speech

Text to Speech is another easy-to-use feature built into Mountain Lion. Again, launch System Preferences, choose Dictation & Speech, and click on the Text to Speech tab. In the area below you'll find options for choosing a voice (Alex is selected by default in the United States) and adjusting the speaking rate. You can additionally choose to have system alerts announced, have your Mac tell you when an application needs your attention, and speak selected text when you press a particular key combination (Option-Escape is the default). If you like, you can also ask that your Mac to announce the time.

The one area of interest here is the Speaking Voice pop-up menu. Alex is the default because, for those in the U.S., it's the most natural sounding voice. Just click the Play button to hear a sample. If you click on the Speaking Voice menu you see that you can choose from a number of different voices. Both the Bruce and Fred voices sound very "computery" as does the Kathy voice (the Vicki and Victoria voices are better, but not entirely natural sounding).

But you're not limited to just these voices. Click on the Customize command at the bottom of this menu and you'll find a long list of voices. Select one and click the Play button at the bottom of the sheet to audition it. You'll find, for example, that the Samantha voice sounds quite natural. If you'd like something with a more international flair (again, assuming you're living in the U.S.), try the Serena voice found under the English (United Kingdom) heading.

Once you've selected those voices that you'd like to add to your Mac, just click the OK button. The voice files will be downloaded to your computer and you'll be able to access them within any application that uses text-to-speech.

Text-to-Speech is supported throughout the Mac OS, but very few applications have a Speech command (you'll find one in Text Edit by choosing Edit > Speech > Start Speaking). But you already know how to make your Mac talk to you even without such a command. Just select the text you'd like your Mac to speak and press the key combination you set for the Speak Selected Text When The Key Is Pressed option. The Mac should start talking. To shut it up, just press that key combination again.

And that's it, two drop-dead easy features that--if you remember to use them--can make your computing life easier.

Next week: Diving into Mail

See also:

Mac troubleshooting: What to do when you can't connect to the internet

Mac troubleshooting: How to handle freezes and crashes

Mac troubleshooting: What to do when your computer won't turn on

Mac troubleshooting: What to do when your computer is too slow

Troubleshooting Mac OS X startup problems