AMITIAE - Monday 28 October 2013

System Preferences in OS X 10.9, Mavericks: Dictation & Speech

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By Graham K. Rogers

With the latest release of OS X, 10.9, Mavericks there are a number of changes to System Preferences. The Dictation & Speech Preferences panel is for producing text from speech, and speech from highlighted text. The latest version of OS X sees a slight, but important change in these settings.

The Dictation & Speech panel has two sections: Dictation and Text to Speech.


The dictation feature can be used in any application where typing is normally required, although there are limits to output. To the left of the panel is a microphone icon. This indicates input levels with mauve and black coloring. As the sound increases, the mauve rises.

Below this icon, the currently selected input method is shown, for example, "Internal Microphone." Clicking on this reveals a small menu. By default, it is set to Automatic. Other items are "Internal microphone and Line in". This will change if other devices are connected to the computer. The automatic setting chooses the most suitable input method, although the menu allows input to be specified.

There are two radio buttons in the center top of the panel: On and Off. Below a short text description of the features are two buttons for Language and Shortcut.

A new check box below is marked, "Use Enhanced Dictation". When this is pressed, a download of software that will allow offline use and continuous dictation takes place (see below).

  • The Language button showed English (US) and English (UK) in my settings. Using a Customize option there are another 17 languages to choose from. These are grouped in sections (Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Spanish). Results may vary with user input. While I had better success by changing Siri to a UK English voice, selecting "English (United Kingdom) did not provide the accuracy I wanted until I turned on Enhanced Dictation.

  • Pressing the Shortcut button reveals a small menu with a number of options for starting Dictation. Keys that may be specified include Fn (on some computers), Command keys and the Option + Enter combination. In the menu revealed by the button, shortcuts may also be turned Off, or a user may select Customize: a text box appears for the user's own choice(s) to be entered.

    I was able to use the F6 key (F11 and F12 were already allocated). If a key or combination cannot work as a shortcut, a warning triangle appears below the button. If a Shortcut is deselected, Dictation may be started by an item in the Edit menu of suitable applications.

Dictate When Dictation is started, a small microphone icon appears on the screen with a button marked "Done" which is pressed when dictation is completed. There is a limit to the amount of dictation a user is able to do in the basic setup. I found that with the standard settings, the input was stopped at about 30 seconds. "Done" then changes to "Cancel".

However, when Enhanced Dictation was selected, a download of almost 500MB took place and the text was then changed to remove mention of the download. There were a number of improvements eventually. When I tried the microphone, I was first asked to confirm the language. Adding another language later, needed that to be downloaded.

Initially, despite being online, the microphone icon showed all black (no levels indicated) and did not produce any text output. On occasions, the levels showed, but there was still no output. Using the Edit menu in an application, gave me the levels; using the shortcut did not. I was able to change the language used with a menu item on the microphone icon.

When Enhanced Dictation was off, the feature worked in the limited way that it had before.

Once the second language was installed things were far better. The improvement was significant. I switched back to the United States English in case that were the problem. When I went back to the UK settings it then worked perfectly. Feedback was instant and words were typed almost as soon as I spoke. Accuracy was also much better (but not perfect): the system may need to be trained. This may take several days as the servers learn an individual's particular style, but there was editing on the fly and accuracy improved as this was used.

At the bottom of the screen, is a button marked, "About Dictation and Privacy". This opens a panel which has a text explanation of the use of online access and the storage of data on remote servers.


Text to Speech

The features available in this panel may be useful for those with limited eyesight, for second language learners, or for those whose time is limited. It allows highlighted text to be read out by the System Voice.

The main button at the top of the panel is marked System Voice, with the default being Alex. This voice has had considerable work done concerning its output and is perhaps the most natural voice available in OS X.

Several other voices are available, including those that may be downloaded. I had already installed two: Fiona, which is a female voice with a Scottish accent; and Narisa, female with a Thai accent. The voice has some interesting "errors" some of which are close to how some Thai speakers read out English. There are a number of inaccuracies, however, that are not simply down to accented speech.

Below the voice selector button is a slider to adjust the rate at which the voice speaks any text. The Fast setting is perhaps only understandable by a native speaker but even then is too fast for full understanding. The Slow setting is almost painfully slow but may well be useful for those learning to read, or for non-native speakers of English. The Normal setting produces output at a reasonable speed for a native speaker. Adjustment using the slider is easy and users should experiment to find the output that suits them best.

Beside the slider is a Play button which produces an example of the voice selected at the set speed.

In the middle of the panel is a horizontal line Below this are features that work with the System.

  • The first is a checkbox that allows Alerts to be announced (for example when the battery is low). A button alongside allows options to be set. Options are:

    • Voice: this reveals all voices installed. Others may be checked and data for these will be downloaded;
    • Phrase: this is what the voice selected will announce when there is a need for user attention. If the application name is used, the voice will announce something like, "Aperture needs your attention". There are other phrases (e.g. "Excuse me") and users may create their own using an editing panel available.
    • Delay: this uses a slider to provide a delay of from 0 to 60 seconds between the need for action and the announcement.
    • Below the slider are three buttons: Play (to test the voice), Cancel and OK.

  • A second checkbox is used for announcing selected text using key commands. Alongside is a button to change from the default. Some keys may not work as they are already allocated to other functions (e.g. F12 - speaker volume or Dashboard).

    Text to Speech may not work successfully with some non-Apple applications. However, Services (in the application's main menu) may provide an alternative by adding the highlighted text to iTunes.

There are two other options available that use the System Voice, but these need to be activated by other System Preferences: Have the clock announce the time; and Change VoiceOver Settings. Buttons beside these options open Date & Time Preferences or Accessibility Preferences respectively.

See Also:

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.



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