Do you have weeks-old scribblings from a meeting that you need to use in a report? Do you have text in an image that you would like to extract? Have an audio interview with a family member but don’t want to manually transcribe it?
If you answered yes to any of these scenarios, you could benefit from the latest apps and features — for smartphones, tablets and computers — that can do the heavy lifting for you. These time-saving tools are often baked right into your device, and you simply need to find and use them. In other instances, you’ll need to download software or visit a website.
Many of the solutions are free or close to it.
Technology that can lift words and numbers from a photo and convert it into digital text is called OCR, which stands for optical character recognition. Why go through all this trouble? Once it’s in text, you can then edit the sentences, search by keyword, and share it in an email, post it to social media or save it as a document. For example, if you take a photo of a business card someone hands you, that information can be imported into your Contacts.
Similarly, artificial intelligence (AI) can convert your sloppy handwriting into text or transcribe audio into typed words.
It’s essential to review these conversions before you share them. OCR and AI, like human beings, are far from perfect.
Change audio into text
All smartphones and tablets let you tap a little microphone, usually to the right of the keyboard, that enables you to talk instead of type. And the words are typed out in real time.
If you do this, say, while in Notes, you can lay the phone down and have a discussion with someone, and the conversation will be transcribed.
If you have an iPhone, you can say, “Hey, Siri,” followed by “Make a new note.” Talk and the words will be typed out as you speak them. But remember to say punctuation such as “period,” “comma” and “question mark.”
Computer users who have Microsoft 365 — a suite of productivity programs that includes Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint — will see a Dictate button at the top of the screen. Click that and the microphone will capture audio and translate it into text.
Similarly, if you use the free Google Docs, open it in a Chrome browser, start a new document and click Tools at the top of the screen. One option is Voice Typing. Click it when you’re ready to speak.
Even better is Otter, one of the most powerful solutions for mobile phone and computer users, which gives you 600 minutes of audio or video transcription a month in its free version. It could save you several hours of manual transcribing, and the AI is surprisingly fast and accurate. It even works with video chatting services like Zoom.
Along with tapping the microphone and transcribing audio in real time, Otter also can convert recorded audio into text. In other words, Otter can turn files that you import into digital text, including .acc, .m4a, .mp3, .wav and .wma audio files and .avi, .mov, .mp4, .mpg and .wmv video files.
Convert handwriting into text
You have a few ways to turn your chicken scratch into digital text.
Microsoft’s OneNote, which is also part of the Microsoft 365 suite, includes a conversion tool so you can change handwritten text into typed text. This is useful if you want to share your handwritten notes in a more legible format with other people.
To convert handwriting to text, start a new note, and on the Draw tab, choose the Lasso Select button. With your finger or stylus pen on a touchscreen device or a computer mouse on a laptop, press down on the screen and draw a selection around the handwriting that you want to convert; when you let go, the ink strokes in your handwriting should appear selected. Now click or tap Ink to Text to convert your handwriting selection to typed text.
Fun fact: OneNote will automatically format the converted text in the same color as the ink your handwriting was in.
Once the handwriting has been converted, you can select Edit and format the text any way you want.
Evernote is another great option for converting handwriting into text. The free version allows you to sync up to two devices with a 25-megabyte maximum note size. Like OneNote, everything is synchronized in the cloud, so all devices will always have the same up-to-the-minute notes.
Among several other features, the more robust Evernote Personal plan ($7.99 a month or $69.99 a year) includes syncing unlimited devices, 200-megabyte maximum note size, document scanning, and searching for text inside images, documents and PDFs.
Other good iPhone and iPad note-taking apps that support handwriting include GoodNotes 5, Notability, Notes Plus, Pen to Print, Text Scanner and WritePad for iPad. For Android users, the Google Play store has other handy apps for this, including Adobe Scan, CamScanner, Google Keep, Readiris and Smart Lens.
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Turn words in photos into text
Finally, your smartphone is surprisingly good at taking a photo of a paper document and converting it into digital text using OCR.
We went into detail last year about using your smartphone as a scanner, including apps like Microsoft Lens and Adobe Scan, but since that article was published in August 2021, Apple has added a built-in feature called Live Text.
Baked into the latest iOS 15 operating system, Live Text allows you to select and copy text found in almost any image in your Photos or Camera app. It could be a document, label, menu or street sign.
In the Camera app, point your iPhone camera at a photo or image with text, then tap the indicator icon that will pop up in the lower right corner of the screen once your iPhone recognizes text in the photo. From there you can tap one of the options to do things such as copy text, look it up online, make a phone call and translate.
Pro tip: To turn on Live Text for all supported languages, go to Settings | General | Language & Region, and enable Live Text.
In the Photos app, select a photo, touch and hold a word, and move the “grab” symbols to adjust the selection. Tap Copy. Or you can select all the text in the photo by choosing Select All. After you copy the text, you can paste it in another app, like Notes or Messages.
Android doesn’t have a built-in OCR scanner like iPhone, but Google Keep is a free and recommended solution, and it can be installed on computers, too. The note-taking app is simple to use. To add a new note, tap the + icon. Now take a photo to scan a document from the camera or choose image to import an image from your photo gallery.
Either way, open the picture, tap on the three-dot menu and select Grab image text. The text should be recognized and imported as raw text. Everything will be automatically synchronized across all your devices, so you can scan a document on your Android phone and edit it later on your PC, Mac or Chromebook.
Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies and Siri for Dummies.