Dragon Dictate for Mac Is an Expert Listener
Dragon Dictate for Mac is a reminder of how far speech recognition software has come in just a few years. The application takes mere minutes to set up and "train" to recognize the user's voice, and its ability to discern what words are being said is extremely accurate. The user has to actively dictate punctuation, and although it might at first seem awkward, one gets used to it surprisingly quickly.
12/29/10 5:00 AM PT
For many years, the speech recognition world for PCs and Macs was split between Dragon Naturally Speaking for Windows and MacSpeech for OS X. That changed earlier this year when Nuance, the maker of Dragon, bought its Mac rival. Both companies continued to produce their programs that allow spoken words to be turned into computer text until recently, when the combo released their first joint effort for the Apple market, Dragon Dictate for the Mac (US$199).
Although I don't have any past experience with Mac speech recognition products, I do have plenty of savvy with Naturally Speaking, and I can say that the Mac software can hold its own with its PC cousin.
The keystone of any speech recognition program is word accuracy, and Dragon Dictate excels in that department. Its accuracy easily tops 95 percent or better. However, the program performed sluggishly at times on my MacBook with 1GB of memory and a 2Ghz Intel Duo processor.
You Train It, It Trains You
Setting up the program was a smooth operation. After connecting the Plantronics microphone included with the software -- a two-piece affair with a USB dongle and a headset that plugs into it with conventional mini plugs -- you pop the application's CD into your Mac's optical drive and drag its program icon into the application folder. When that step's completed, you need to install the program's language data from a second disc.
Next, you launch the program and prepare a personal profile for yourself. That includes choosing audio input for the program and training it to recognize your voice. Dragon says the training takes five minutes, and it's true to its word. My training took five minutes and one second.
If you start using the program and the recognition doesn't seem up to snuff, you can perform additional training to improve it. I didn't find that necessary.
In the PC versions of the program, you're presented with a choice of texts for training. With Dragon Dictate, the training text is an explanation of how speech recognition works.
While the PC training texts may be more entertaining, Dragon Dictate's is more practical. Not only does it allow you to better understand the program, but it's written in speech recognition speak. That is, punctuation is treated as words. So the exercise trains the computer to recognize your voice, while it trains you in the somewhat unnatural way of talking to the software.
Voice Controlled Mic
After training the program, you can use it in almost any application that runs on your Mac. Similar claims are made for the PC version, but I've found that the program doesn't always behave as advertised in a number of applications that I use regularly. That doesn't seem to be the case with the Mac version. It worked effectively across a broad array of apps.
You don't even have to go hunting for a program to type in. You can say "Open Word" or "Open TextEdit" and Dictate will launch the program for you.
The microphone for the application can be controlled with your voice, too. If you want to catch your breath while dictating, you can tell the program to "go to sleep." That will put the mic in hibernation. When you're ready to start dictating again, just say, "wake up," and the mic is live again.
You can turn the mic totally off by saying, "microphone off." If you do that, though, you'll have to turn the mic back on manually.
When the program is running, a status window appears on the screen. It floats over all applications so it can always been seen. In it you can see the status of the microphone (on, off, asleep), the sound input level of the mic, what mode the program is in and the current active profile.
Read That Back, Please
With the mic on, you can talk to the program and it will turn your speech into words. The application doesn't know where to place punctuation, though, so you have to tell it where you want a comma, colon, semicolon, period and such. So the sentence "Tom, come here!" is dictated as Open Quote Tom comma come here exclamation point Close Quote. It sounds awkward, but you get used to it after a while.
If the program makes a mistake, you can correct it by telling it to select the text then dictate the word or phrase again or enter spell mode to spell the word letter by letter.
If you want to hear what you've written, you can do that too. Dictate has a proofreading mode for that.
Dragon Dictate is an example of how far speech recognition software has come from the days of discrete speech. You remember discrete speech, don't you? It required you to pause after every word after (pause) you (pause) said (pause) it. Dictate's high accuracy rate and responsiveness to verbal commands make it a winner as a productivity tool.