With laws prohibiting the use of cell phones while driving going into effect in more and more states around the U.S., developers are working on ways to help users who still need to use a cell phone for certain tasks while driving more safely. While we definitely don’t advocate emailing or texting while driving, it is clear that voice recognition technology today can streamline some tasks to make them safer to do while driving. Enter Text’nDrive Pro by HandsFree Software, an app that will read new emails aloud to you and let you craft replies hands-free using your voice alone. We tested the app to see how well it works to let you know if plunking down $19.99 (it’s currently on sale for $9.99 as we write this review) for the app will be worthwhile for you.
To use Text’nDrive Pro, you must first set up the email accounts you want the app to check in the app itself. Most of the popular email services are a snap to set up, including Gmail, Hotmail, MobileMe, and AOL. However, corporate users and those using email accounts not with one of the major free email providers may encounter some difficulty. For example, our own AppShopper email accounts are hosted privately and Text’nDrive Pro would not accept the settings so we could test the app using a work email account. For a Microsoft Exchange account, the IMAP protocol must be enabled for Text’NDrive Pro to work with it, and your IT department may or may not be keen on enabling this for you if it isn’t already.
We tried out a personal Gmail account instead and had no trouble setting this account up in Text’nDrive Pro. Once an account is set up, the app will trawl for new email every few minutes. When a new email arrives, the app will read the email aloud to you. This function works quite well and we had no trouble understanding email content read to us. Emails are read aloud in a computerized voice that reminds us of the system voice named Alex in Mac OS X.
After the app finishes reading an email aloud to you, you are offered an opportunity to respond to the email. While you can interact with the app by touching the screen to speed up the response process, you can also just follow the voice prompts to do so completely hands-free.
When you dictate a response to an email, the app simply records your voice and replies to the email by attaching a link to an MP3 recording of your reply. While this worked just fine in our tests, with recorded replies playing back with no trouble on our computer and on our iPhone, this wasn’t quite what we were hoping for, to be honest. We had hoped that this app would reply in kind with a written email, taking our dictated message and transcribing it accordingly. HandsFree Software tells us that they have plans to add this capability in the future.
This is what an email reply sent through the app looks like to a recipient:
We could do without the tag line promoting the app and find that this reply style does not lend itself to professional use at all. We’d much prefer it if the app would use an introduction and signature that can be customized by the user with an opt-in to the promotion-oriented mention of the app.
For some reason, we found that the app took longer than expected to receive new emails in the Gmail account we used – the app would show us that no new emails had been received when our computer and even the Mail app on the iPhone showed a new message had arrived, even after several minutes. Prompting the app to check rather than waiting for the next scheduled check did not help. And if you receive an email that is mostly HTML, we found that Text’nDrive Pro simply wouldn’t acknowledge that it had been received and it wouldn’t show any new messages received until we received a text-only email afterward.
If you don’t want to listen to a new message, you can tap anywhere on the screen to stop playback. If you don’t want to reply to a new email after it’s been read to you, you can simply remain silent after the voice prompts and the app will not send a reply.
When it comes to SMS messages where we think this app could be absolutely invaluable, Text’nDrive Pro does not yet offer SMS reading and replying functionality despite what you might infer from the app’s name alone. HandsFree Software hopes to add this feature before Christmas. With the recent update to Dragon Dictation that will transcribe dictated messages and paste them directly into a new SMS message, it’s clear that this kind of functionality is allowed by Apple though addressing an SMS by voice will most likely be the tricky part to implement.
Given the difficulties we encountered with trying a privately-hosted email account and the limitations for Exchange email accounts, Text’nDrive Pro will have a difficult time meeting the needs of business users who are probably the primary target audience for this app. However, if you route your business email through Gmail, this app could work well for you. Otherwise, we are hard pressed to think that many users who only check and respond to personal email will find this app to be worthwhile unless you spend an inordinate amount of time on the road and must respond to new emails immediately.
We did wish for a few additional features to make this app even more useful. First, some sort of voice control to repeat the dictation of an email received in case we missed something the first time around would be fantastic – this could be accomplished with a simple voice menu after a message is first read asking if we want to reply or repeat the last message. Second would be some way to mark messages to be replied to later, also handled by voice controls. If you’re in the midst of navigating in a new area, you may not want to reply to a message right then and there but know that you want to in just a few minutes once you get away from a tricky intersection and it would be great if there was a simple voice menu command to “reply later” that would replay the last message in 5 or 10 minutes.
We think HandsFree Software has an app with great potential in Text’nDrive Pro. In its current incarnation with limited compatibility with Exchange and privately-hosted email accounts and without any SMS features yet, we don’t think it’s worth $19.99 for most users right now. If Text’nDrive Pro gets true email transcription and SMS features in the near future as well as wider email account compatibility, it very well could be worth $20 and we suggest you hold on to your money until that time comes.
HandsFree Software also offers a free lite version of Text’nDrive that allows you to see how the app works though you’ll only be able to hear up to 45 words of new incoming emails and won’t be able to reply.