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 Dear Mr. Pogue:

My hearing is atrocious in a number of ways, one of which is called “word discrimination.” Mine is zero. I can hear people talk but not understand what they say. You can imagine the trouble this condition causes me at work (I’m a librarian) and in my personal life. Hearing aids are no help at all. People have to write down what they want to say to me.

But recently a friend showed me that he can talk into his smartphone and the phone will pretty accurately convert what he says to text. The amazing thing to me was that it could do that for me, too, even though I had never even seen the phone before.

Have these programs become so sophisticated that they can do this without being trained in the speaker’s voice, as used to be the case? If so, it would be a very great help to me, as its not my own voice I need to see in text but the voices of others. Can you direct me to the programs and the tablets that can do this?

Greg Gallagher


Hi, Greg!

Yes, smartphones can do that (iPhones and Android phones) — with three caveats:

1. It’s not perfect — not at all. There are lots of errors. Usually you can get the gist, though.

2. The talker has to speak into the phone. These phones tolerate a surprising amount of background noise. But it’s not like you can park the phone in the center of a restaurant table to get a transcript of everything anybody says. 

3. No punctuation appears unless you speak it (“period”).

Otherwise, yes: These phones can type what they hear without requiring any training. No app is necessary. Just open up any spot where typing is allowed, like a blank email, tap the little microphone button on the screen, and have the person start talking.

Hope this is the beginning of a great new transcription adventure for you!


David Pogue reads every message readers send him, and answers as many as he can before collapsing in exhaustion. A few, he answers here, in Pogue's Inbox. You can email him here.