Nuance Communications has updated its leading speech-to-text application Dragon Dictate for Mac to version 3, and Gizmag goes hands-on to investigate whether it can finally offer software-based dictation which is both practical and appealing, when compared to manual typing.
Dragon Dictate 3 for Mac commands a hefty price tag, and though it's available in both boxed and digital versions, Nuance offers no discount on the latter, despite it not including the documentation and wired headset which comes with the boxed version. This review is based upon the digital version, which should be identical to its boxed counterpart, except for the lack of headset.
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Following a painless installation process which requires a download of roughly 1.8 GB, Dragon Dictate then presents a series of texts to be read aloud in order to calibrate the software to the user's voice. This step is very much recommended, and I noticed a marked improvement in voice recognition after returning again later and slogging through another calibration text comprising a couple of children’s stories.
Without a headset, I simply spoke into the built-in microphone on my 2011 MacBook Pro, and this was activated by clicking on a floating icon which is also present in the menubar. Despite my initial concerns, the internal mic of the MacBook Pro is up to the task of picking up my voice, though a headset would probably perform better in a noisier work environment.
When dictating, it’s important to speak as clearly as possible, and articulate all necessary punctuation, such as “comma” and “exclamation mark." Perhaps stronger regional accents could give the software fits, but for what it’s worth, Dragon Dictate handled my own Welsh accent very well on the whole, even converting the words into U.S. English spelling without demanding U.S.-centric commands like “period” in place of my own preferred “full stop.”
While testing Dragon Dictate 3 over the course of a few days, I found the most difficult part was altering my own habits and getting used to speaking thoughts out loud, rather than tapping fingers on a keyboard. There are also a few eccentricities which are bound to pop up when using any speech to text software, such as Dragon’s occasional inability to decide whether I wish to say “for,” “four,” or “4." Issues like this can be worked out in Dragon Dictate's expansive options, but they slow down the initial adjustment period.
In the Dragon Dictate promotional material, Nuance boasts an increased accuracy to a level of 99 percent, but this was definitely not the case when testing the software with a microphone built into a computer. However, it was still impressively accurate and required relatively little hands-on editing compared to earlier versions I've tried. As always, your mileage may vary.
Dragon Dictate does take a stab at offering voice-controlled editing facilities and these are about as good as one could reasonably expect. However, editing by voice is still clumsy and time-consuming compared to keyboard input, and involves the user making use of commands like “correct [word],” which Dragon Dictate then searches for and offers alternatives to.
Dragon Dictate will insert text into the simple built-in text pad which comes with the software, in addition to word processors such as Apple’s Pages and Microsoft Word. Emails can also be dictated, as can text in a web browser, such as Firefox or Safari.
Beyond simple dictation, there are several other useful features in Dragon Dictate, like system commands, for example. Saying “open Firefox” or “open Mail” will cause those applications to duly launch, and there’s some further interaction possible too, as saying “new email” also performs that task. Increased integration with third-party apps in this regard would be most welcome, though presumably Nuance are at the mercy of developers here.
To enable easier proofreading, Dragon Dictate can be ordered to read back the previously entered text, and this is done so with the usual “Alex” voice, which will be familiar to anyone who has heard OS X’s built-in voice.
Though I spent relatively little time testing it, I came away impressed by Dragon Dictate’s transcribe feature and hope to put it to the test in the future with longer dictaphone recordings. To use this, one simply points the software to the relevant audio file, and Dragon Dictate does its thing.
Finally, there's also an iOS app tohat can be used to configure an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch as a Wi-Fi-connected microphone. Using the iOS app in this way, I was able to speak into Apple's bundled iPhone earbuds as a basic external headset. The system performed well and there was little noticeable lag.
ConclusionWhen one considers that Nuance doesn’t offer a demo or trial version of any kind, it’s a big leap of faith to take in order to see whether or not Dragon Dictate for Mac 3 will fit into your workflow, especially when there’s already a built-in dictation feature within OS X Mountain Lion. But in this case you get what you pay for, and Dragon Dictate is far more advanced than Apple's software.
Dragon Dictate does sport a steep learning curve, which can seem overwhelming at first use, but once this is surmounted, it eventually does work much like you would imagine, and could well be a boon for those who wish to cut down on the risk of Repetitive Strain Injury, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and other related conditions, in addition to computer users with accessibility challenges.
The high price of the software (currently US$179.99, and that's reduced) prevents me promoting it as a definite solution for everyone, but providing you have the required funds and patience, Dragon Dictate for Mac 3 could well prove an invaluable addition to your computer setup.
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