Talk That Talk

Smartphones make it easy to get the news headlines, weather forecasts and updates from your friends on social media where ever you are, but what if you don’t have time to read? Over the past couple of years, apps that read for you have been popping up all over. Like Apple’s Siri personal assistant, which can talk back and bring you info, some of these apps respond to voice commands. Some, however, are literally just read-only.

Many apps use the text-to-speech function built into the phone. Granted, some of these are better than others and the technology has come a long way since the Mac’s text-to-speech robot voice. But as the need for decent accessibility programs has increased to help people with vision impairments use the technology, the speech has gotten better.

winstonSo what’s out there? The Winston app for iOS is one example. Once you install it on your phone and tell it what you want to hear, Winston delivers an audio briefing any time you want.

The app recites a few of the more recent status updates from your Facebook and Twitter feeds and also reads an RSS-style summary of new headlines in your favorite categories. This sort of thing can be useful when you’re busy doing other stuff, like trying to get out of bed, making coffee or cooking breakfast.

Winston, shown here, uses a male voice with a British accent. (You can pretend it’s Alfred, but the folks behind its Twitter account told me they were big fans of Carson and Bates from Downton Abbey.) But it does have a nice, classy sound to it as it reads Facebook updates about the idiot things your friends did last night. It’s free and you can stream it over AirPlay-connected devices.

An Android version of Winston is said to be under development. Until then, if you have an Android phone, the iHear app for Android can read Facebook and Twitter updates.

Now, it you want more of a dedicated talking-alarm clock for your phone, you have plenty to choose from in your app store.

There’s a $3 iOS app called Wake Smarter that responds to voice commands for things like reading your Twitter feeds or Facebook updates. It also has programmable alarm clock and sleep timer functions, plus relaxing photos for wallpaper.

On the Android side, there’s Wakeful, the Talking Alarm Clock, which updates you on weather, stocks and the latest headlines. BedBuzz has similar powers but that app says it does not use the built-in text-to-speech function and sounds more natural. The $3 WakeVoice app is another option that responds to your voice and can read RSS feeds out loud. Senti Wayk is yet another similar Android app under development.

Cars have been getting into the voiceover action the past few years as well. The Chevy Cruze with the special OnStar service (remember that commercial?) is one attempt at bringing social media to the driving experience. The Ford Sync software is also adding Facebook integration, in case you just can’t bear to miss what’s going there. But since Facebook seems to influence moods, do you really want to have that distraction while driving?

Yeah, perhaps it’s best to stick with your favorite road-mix playlist there, and leave the read-aloud updates for those more stationary moments at home in the kitchen.

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