How to use voice recognition in Mac OS X

This page explains step-by-step how to set up and use Speakable Items, the built-in voice-recognition function in Mac OS X. This provides voice recognition for hands-free control of a computer. However, it is not for speech dictation and lacks the advanced functionality and integration that commercial software can offer.

Areas in this guide:

Note: The following abbreviations for keys on the Mac are used: Ctrl is used for the Control key, Apple is used for the Command key, and Alt is used for the Option key. For keyboard access, make sure 'Full keyboard access' is turned on - you can turn it on or off by pressing Ctrl + F1 at any time.

Video how to guide

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Using voice recognition in Mac OS X

Using voice recognition (OS 10.4 & later)

Step 1: Open the 'Speech' window

Make sure you are in 'Finder'. If necessary, press Apple + Tab to cycle through the open applications until you return to 'Finder'.

Click on the 'Apple' icon on the menu bar or press Ctrl + F2.

Click on 'System Preferences', as shown in Fig 1, or press the down arrow key to highlight it and then press Enter.

Fig 1'Apple' drop-down menu

In the 'System Preferences' window (shown in Fig 2), click on the 'Speech' icon, or press Tab repeatedly (you might need to press Ctrl + F7 first) to cycle through the icons until the 'Speech' icon is highlighted and then press the Spacebar.

Fig 2'System Preferences' window

Step 2: Turn on and use Speakable Items

In the 'Speech' window, make sure the 'Speech Recognition' tab is selected, as shown in Fig 3. If it is not, click on it, or press Ctrl + F7 to highlight one of the tabs and then press the left or right arrow key to select it.

Fig 3'Speech' window showing the 'Speech Recognition' tab

Click the 'On' radio button next to 'Speakable Items', or press Tab to highlight the 'Off' radio button and then press the left arrow key to switch Speakable Items on. This will open the Speakable Items window, which looks like a round microphone (shown in Fig 4).

By default, you need to press and hold the Esc key while speaking. However, you can change this by clicking on the 'Change Key' button, or press Tab until it is highlighted and then press the Spacebar. If you'd rather not use the keyboard, select the radio button beside 'Listen continuously with keyword' and change the settings below to customise this feature.

Speakable Items can recognise a number of commands, which are listed in the 'Speakable Items' folder. To look at them, click on the bottom of the small, round Speakable Items window, as shown in Fig 4, and select 'Open Speech Commands window' from the drop-down menu.

Fig 4'Speakable Items' window

When you are happy with your settings click the red close button at the top of the 'Speech' window, or press Apple + W to close the window and return to the desktop.

Using voice recognition (OS 10.3 & earlier)

Step 1: Open the 'Speech' window

Make sure you are in 'Finder'. If necessary, press Apple + Tab to cycle through the open applications until you return to 'Finder'.

Click on the 'Apple' icon on the menu bar or press Ctrl + F2.

Click on 'System Preferences', as shown in Fig 1, or press the down arrow key to highlight it and then press Enter.

Fig 1'Apple' drop-down menu

In the 'System Preferences' window (shown in Fig 2), click on the 'Speech' icon, or press Tab repeatedly (you might need to press Ctrl + F7 first) to cycle through the icons until the 'Speech' icon is highlighted and then press the Spacebar.

Fig 2'System Preferences' window

Step 2: Turn on and use Apple Speakable Items

In the 'Speech' window, make sure the 'Speech Recognition' tab is selected, as shown in Fig 3. If it is not, click on it, or press Ctrl + F7 to highlight one of the tabs and then press the left or right arrow key to select it.

Fig 3'Speech' window showing the 'Speech Recognition' tab and 'On/Off' subtab

Below the 'Speech Recognition' tab, make sure the 'On/Off' subtab is selected. If it is not, click on it, or press Tab to highlight one of the tabs and then press the left or right arrow key to select it.

Click the 'On' radio button next to 'Apple Speakable Items is:', or press Tab to highlight the 'Off' radio button and then press the up arrow key to switch Speakable Items on. This will open the Apple Speakable Items window, which looks like a round microphone (shown in Fig 4).

By default, you need to press and hold the Esc key while speaking. However, you can change this. Click on the 'Listening' subtab, or press Tab to highlight one of the tabs and then press the left or right arrow key to select it. Click on the 'Change Key' button, or press Tab until it is highlighted and then press the Spacebar. If you'd rather not use the keyboard, select the radio button beside 'Key toggles listening on and off' and change the settings below to customise this feature.

Apple Speakable Items can recognise a number of commands, which are listed in the 'Speakable Items' folder. To look at them, select the 'On/Off' subtab and then click on the 'Open Speakable Items Folder' button, or press Tab until the button is highlighted and then press the Spacebar. Alternatively, click on the bottom of the small, round Speakable Items window, as shown in Fig 4, and select 'Open Speech Commands window' from the drop-down menu.

Fig 4'Apple Speakable Items' window

When you are happy with your settings click the red close button at the top of the 'Speech' window, or press Apple + W to close the window and return to the desktop.

Third-party voice-recognition software

Although there is voice-recognition software built into Mac OS X to control basic computer functions, there are also widely used packages for sale that offer excellent accuracy for dictation and even complete 'hands-free' use. For example, Nuance's Dragon Dictate (formerly MacSpeech Dictate; for information, see the software producer's Dragon Dictate webpage) and, formerly, IBM's ViaVoice (no longer supported).

These, and similar software packages, can be very powerful options for people who are not able to use a physical keyboard or mouse, or who just want to speed up their text input. The systems take time to 'train' to recognise the speaker, but with practice it is possible to input text faster than the fastest typist.

Note: Older versions of some voice-recognition software packages will not work on newer (Intel chip-based) Mac computers or with newer versions of Mac OS X. Likewise, newer versions of the software may not work on older machines or operating systems.

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