Get Siri-like functionality on your Mac with Speakable Items

I love Siri on my iPhone 4S, and I’m hoping full-fledged Siri support will arrive on the Mac with Mountain Lion. Until then, however, I can still talk to my Mac to get it to take actions, and you can too—thanks to Speakable Items and the Speech pane in System Preferences. This quick screencast will help you get started with barking orders that your Mac will actually listen to.

Show Notes

In the video, I note that once you enable Speakable Items, its microphone icon must remain on-screen at all times. That’s essentially true, but here’s a bonus tip: You can actually minimize the Speech Command microphone icon by double clicking it. Then it sits patiently in your Dock, instead of on your screen. Note that the icon will sit on the right side of your Dock, where minimized document windows and the Trash appear.

Show transcript

Siri hasn’t made it to the Mac yet, but OS X already includes a way you can talk to your computer. It’s called Speech, and you can find it in System Preferences. It lacks a lot of Siri’s power, but it offers plenty of functionality. Here’s how to get started.

Go the Speech preference pane, and click to turn Speakable Items on.

When you do that, the Speech icon appears; it’s always on screen when Speakable Items is turned on. But before you start talking to your Mac, there are a variety of settings you should configure.

An important one is the Listening Method you prefer. The default method is Listen only while key is pressed. In that mode, your Mac only listens for your instructions when you’re holding down the Listening Key—Escape, by default. The Speech icon indicates which key you need to hold down, and the microphone darkens when you do. Now, I’ll hold down the Escape key and try it:

What time is it?

But the alternative option is Listen continuously with keyword. In that mode, you needn’t hold down a unique key to get your Mac to listen to you; instead, you need to address it by the keyword you provide. The default option is Computer; to be cute, I renamed mine Siri.

Now, your Mac listens to everything you say, but it only tries to figure out what you want if you call it by name first:

Siri, what time is it?

You can choose whether the computer’s keyword is required before each command, optional, or only required after a short delay from the last time you gave an instruction with the keyword.

When you first start using Speech, you may not have any idea what you can say. The good news is, you can ask your Mac. Address your Mac and say, “Show me what to say.” Up pops a window of Speech Commands. You can also click on the Microphone icon to get to those Speech Commands.

Unlike with Siri, you can’t get too conversational; Speech expects you to speak its available options pretty much word for word. But the range of functionality is extensive: You can highlight text and say “Make this into a sticky note”; you can speak the name of a menu, and then the name of an option within that menu; you can say “Set an alarm for 3 minutes” if you need to be reminded about something; you can initiate chats or emails; you can switch between or quit applications; you can schedule meetings; and plenty more. If you decide to start using Speech, it’s a good idea to spend time familiarizing yourself with all the things you can say.

Again, though, let’s stress—this ain’t Siri. You can’t ask about the weather, improvise on what you say, or expect much personality. Still, if you’ve long wished your Mac could do as you say—now you know, indeed it can.

Thanks for watching.

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