The iPhone can read the on-screen text, and there’s a wide selection of voices to choose from in Apple‘s collection, covering several languages and accents. Early computer voices sounded quite robotic to the degree that it was laughable. Also, machines didn’t understand human speech well enough to have proper emphasis and cadence. That has improved dramatically, and the iPhone has several reading voices that sound natural.

Synthetic speech has been a topic of fascination for hundreds of years, but the most amazing progress came with the invention of computers. The Speak & Spell toy was among the first mass-produced devices to put this technology to use in a practical application, making it fun for kids to learn to read and spell. Apple included speech synthesis in its first Macintosh computer, which launched in 1984. Of course, speaking machines are commonplace now with every smartphone and smart speaker, listening to verbal requests and speaking the answer.

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Apple gave the iPhone the ability to read the on-screen text to the user with a simple gesture, making it possible to turn any article or ebook into an eyes-free experience and enable the user to look elsewhere or even close their eyes and visualize the scenes described. Being able to look away is something that’s quite necessary when driving, riding a bike, or jogging. The toggle to enable the ‘Speak Screen’ feature is found in the iPhone’s Settings app under the Accessibility tab, in the ‘Spoken Content’ section. There are several customizable options. ‘Speak Screen’ is the most useful, allowing a two-finger swipe down to trigger the iPhone to read aloud. The ‘Highlight Content’ toggle makes it easy to see what portion of the screen is being read, so the user can switch back to reading if preferred. Finally, under the ‘Voices’ option, a wide variety of languages and accents are available, some better than others, so it’s essential to take a few minutes to find one that is pleasing.

Is iPhone Speech Useful?

Apple Books iPhone Screen Partially Dim Dimming

The iPhone’s speech synthesis has advanced enough to become a passable reader. However, this accessibility feature doesn’t entirely replace audiobooks since the computer still isn’t as good of a reader as a human. Actors, in particular, put extra effort into making a story come to life. On the other hand, some books aren’t available as audiobooks and most articles require reading. For websites, it works best to switch to Reader mode by tapping the ‘AA’ button in Safari’s search bar and then Reader, hiding content that would cause problems for the Speak Screen feature, such as video and website menus.

When reading a book in Apple Books, the iPhone will turn pages and continue reading, but some other apps require a touch of a button that appears on-screen when reading to continue to the next page. When the screen has content that’s divided into sections, the iPhone might not read in the order that a human would and doesn’t understand which portion is the actual content and which are controls or suggestions for additional reading. That’s why Reader mode is vital in Safari. Not every app has an option to hide extra content, however, and the iPhone won’t handle reading as well in those cases. While not ideal, there is an option to select text to read to help with more complex documents. Overall, the iPhone’s ‘Spoken Content’ controls are very nice and a good choice for listening to books and articles while driving, biking or walking.