Do you ever struggle to type out your thoughts as quickly as they come to you?
Do you get tired of sitting hunched over your laptop for hours on end? Or is spelling a bugbear that sucks all the pleasure out of your writing?
Have you ever dreamt of being able to talk to your computer and watch the words magically appear on the screen? Would you love to stroll about your office dictating to your digital PA?
Ladies and gentlemen, the future is here and it’s called Dragon NaturallySpeaking.
A few weeks ago I mentioned that RSI had forced me to explore speech recognition software and promised you a fuller review.
So this is the first of two articles about Dragon – in this one, I’m going to review the software’s functionality and how to use it. In my next article, I’m going to suggest how speech recognition software can boost your creativity, especially if you’re a writer.
Type as fast as you talk
Dragon does what it says on the tin – you can type as fast as you talk. One of the biggest initial hurdles I had was simply trusting that I could speak at my normal speed, instead of slowing down for the software. Counterintuitively, Dragon actually works better the faster you talk. I’m a reasonably fast touch typist, but there’s no way I could type as fast as I can generate text with Dragon. Even allowing for mistakes (see below) and corrections, I can still churn out text much faster than before.
So I can’t imagine going back to typing articles. Even writing a short e-mail, I often find myself switching to Dragon out of impatience because I know I can do it much faster via voice.
It doesn’t take long to learn
Several people had warned me that speech recognition software involves a significant ‘learning curve’ before you know it well enough to use it effectively. But this wasn’t my experience, at least as far as drafting articles was concerned. I had to learn a few basic commands, but the process of speaking and seeing the text on the screen was remarkably smooth.
It can probably handle your accent
Dragon is made by Nuance in the US, but it handles my British accent no problem. Here’s a video demonstration from Delhi, with Dragon responding perfectly to the user’s Indian accent. I guess the ultimate test would be to challenge it to understand some of my relatives from Glasgow – I’ll keep you posted if that happens! 🙂
It improves with time
Oddly enough, it feels as though Dragon is doing more of the learning than you are. And the more you use it, the more it gets used to your accent and vocabulary, so the better it gets. When you set it up, I recommend allowing it to scan files on your hard drive to pick up unusual words and names that you use frequently. Right from the go, it was almost uncanny to see Dragon recognise words such as ‘Iggy Pop’ and ‘Tyler Durden’ from having scanned my documents.
You can stroll around the room
If you buy Dragon, make sure you get the wireless edition, which comes with a Bluetooth headset, otherwise you’ll miss out on one of the coolest features of the software. Using the wireless headset means you can literally get up and walk away from your computer, dictating text as you stroll around the room. Or simply stand up and stretch, or recline in your chair. This brings an incredible sense of freedom and ease, when compared to the endless hours I’ve spent sitting typing.
EDIT: Scott Skibell has put together a great video on Dictating with your iPhone and Dragon NaturallSpeaking – which allows him to write while strolling in the countryside.
Some very cool web features
Suppose you’re working on an article and want to check when the Mona Lisa was painted. Without leaving your word processor, you just have to say ‘search Wikipedia for Mona Lisa’ – and (almost) before you can say ‘search Wikipedia for Mona Lisa’ Dragon has flipped to your web browser and opened the relevant article. Ditto Google searches – just say ‘search the web for Mona Lisa’ and the search appears almost instantly. It’s similarly easy to dictate the names of websites into the browser address bar and tell Dragon to ‘go there’. So some aspects of browsing the web are mind-bogglingly good.
It’s not perfect
In my experience Dragon is about 90% accurate when taking dictation. But it does make mistakes – so you need to watch it carefully.
Dragon never makes a spelling mistake – but it does make ‘word mistakes’, i.e. inserting the wrong word entirely. So you can end up with a text littered with what look like Freudian slips. This can be particularly embarrassing when writing e-mails! I used to work as a proofreader and pride myself on being able to pick up spelling errors at 40 paces – but I’m having to learn a completely different style of proofreading, to pick up rogue words instead of typos.
It refuses to learn some words
In spite of Dragon’s phenomenal learning capabilities, it has a few annoying sticking points. In my experience, there are some words or phrases it simply refuses to learn. E.g. I have a friend and regular e-mail correspondent called Jacqui, yet Dragon persistently uses the spelling ‘Jacquie’ every time I write her an e-mail, even after being corrected hundreds of times. Ditto punctuation, which doesn’t seem to be included in the learning process. Dragon persists in giving me the words ‘will stop’ about 50% of the time I say ‘full stop’ (‘period’ to my American readers) – again, even after being corrected countless times.
Performance varies in different applications
The really stellar word processing performance seems to be limited to DragonPad – Dragon’s own version of WordPad. When using other software, it doesn’t seem to run as smoothly and not all the functionality is available. I don’t find this a big problem – I tend to write articles in DragonPad and copy and paste them elsewhere. Plus Dragon’s pop-up Dictation Box can be used within other applications and does a pretty good job. N.b. I haven’t tried using Dragon with Microsoft Word, as I had already paid enough for Vista (see below) and didn’t fancy buying Word for Windows when I have the Mac version – so would be interested to hear from any of you who have tried it in Word.
Surfing the web can be a pain
The one aspect of Dragon that I found disappointing was surfing the web. I’ve pointed out that some aspects of the web functionality are amazingly good. And really simple webpages work fine – e.g. I can use Twitter quite easily without ever having to touch the screen.
But I run into serious difficulties with more complicated websites, such as Gmail, Google Reader or forums. The more links there are on a page, the more likely it is that Dragon will choose the wrong one (or none) when I speak it aloud. The other options for moving the mouse around the screen (e.g. telling the mouse to ‘move up 50 [pixels]’ or a mousegrid system) are OK in some contexts but pretty cumbersome overall.
I’m tempted to attribute this to the limitations of speech recognition per se, except that Microsoft Vista’s built-in speech recognition has a beautifully elegant solution – at any point, you just say the words ‘show numbers’ and a small number will appear over every button/link on your screen. Then you just have to speak the link’s number for Vista to click it. (Screenshot here.) So why don’t I use Vista for surfing? Because the speech recognition is so poor that rarely recognises the numbers when I say them. (Head – meet wall.) I’m assuming Microsoft must have patented this solution, otherwise I’d be amazed that Dragon hasn’t implemented it.
Dragon is Windows only
Windows is streets ahead of the Mac as far as speech recognition is concerned. Even Windows Vista’s built-in speech recognition is better than Mac O/S (though not nearly as good as Dragon). So after two years as an enthusiastic Mac convert, I had to grit my teeth, partition my hard drive and install Vista on my MacBook Pro. Which involved forking out for a Leopard upgrade (£80) and Windows Vista (£140) on top of Dragon itself (£160). Ouch! But as it allowed me to work in spite of RSI, it was worth the investment.
I’d never seen my Mac crash before – using Vista, it’s a regular occurrence. But Dragon is so good that I’m even prepared to put up with Vista.
MacSpeech Dictate – a Mac alternative
There is a Mac alternative to Dragon – MacSpeech Dictate. Last autumn I read several reviews of MacSpeech comparing it unfavourably to Dragon, so I opted for the latter. But since then a new version of MacSpeech has been released, which uses the Dragon NaturallySpeaking engine.
Having spent more than enough on speech recognition already, I haven’t taken the plunge and tried MacSpeech, so I can’t give you a personal recommendation of this product. But Linda Merrills, Nick Cernis and Rosanne Bachman have kindly provided the following comments, based on their experience of MacSpeech:
MacSpeech Dictate has revolutionised my work. I write a lot and usually found my head thinking faster than my fingers allowed. Now, I just speak what I’m thinking and it’s right there! It also saves me money, I used to send my teleclasses to be transcripted but now I do it myself as it happens during the call with Mac Speech Dictate. I can’t recommend it enough.
(Linda Merrills, Changability)
If you want to become a dictator without having to quietly raise a team of elite commandos, MacSpeech Dictate is the perfect solution.
Star Trek fans will be delighted to note that you can customise spoken commands, changing a dull request like ‘press the key enter’ to a much more satisfying ‘make it so’.
Not only does it do what it’s told; it’s trained in flattery too. The first time I spoke my name, it typed ‘Rich Journalist’. I’m not ashamed to admit that I haven’t bothered to correct it.
(Nick Cernis, Put Things Off)
I have been using the Apple voice recognition software for about a month now. I did not want to go through the process you did for your voice recognition software and decided to take my chances with MacSpeech Dictate. I did have to add another gig of RAM which had been recommend on a website. Other than adding the Ram, the download and use of the software has been a dream. The commands for the program are easy to learn and use. My favourite part of the program is the sidebar that shows other possibilities for what you just said. For instance, my name does not have an e in the middle. Initially that is how the software spelled my name. All I had to do was pick the correct spelling from the list on the sidebar and now it always spells my name correctly. The sidebar even gives options for entire phrases. It is incredibly accurate and even spells places and well-known places of interest correctly, for instance Quebec. The words show up on the document incredibly fast which helps you have a more normal flow of speaking. Frankly I could go on and on singing the praises of Mac speech dictate but I will leave it at that.
(Rosanne Bachman, Pinwheel Consulting)
If your work involves a lot of typing
Dragon will significantly boost your productivity, by making it quicker and easier to get words out of your head and onto the screen. If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll wonder how you managed without it.
If you are injured or physically disabled
If you’re unable to use a keyboard or mouse, Dragon could be a godsend for you, allowing you to do work that would be otherwise impossible. In my case, RSI has prevented me from typing for several months – without Dragon, there’s no way I could have written all my articles on Lateral Action without hiring a PA. In his review of MacSpeech Dictate, RSI sufferer Victor Medina describes it as ‘the software that most likely saved my career’.
If you are dyslexic
I’ve read several comments from dyslexic people saying that using Dragon has given them a tremendous boost of confidence in their writing, as it eliminates spelling errors. So if you suffer from dyslexia, Dragon could allow you to focus 100% on what you want to say instead of worrying about your spelling.
If you are a writer
Dragon could transform the way you write. It offers you a whole new way of generating text. You may not like it, but I’d suggest it’s at least worth experimenting with speech recognition. In my next article I’m going to describe how I believe it has made me a better writer.
If you are a designer
If your work involves image manipulation or other ‘mouse intensive’ operations, then I don’t see how Dragon can help you with this. That’s not a criticism of Dragon, but more a limitation of speech recognition per se.
Have You Tried Speech Recognition?
If so …
What software have you used?
What pros and cons did you discover?
If not …
Is it something you’d like to try?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.