I’ve been writing quite a bit in recent years, especially in the past two years as I’ve transitioned from part time to full time writing. A quick look at the output from last year comes in at over 500,000 words in paid content and that doesn’t count rough drafts, countless e-mails, pitches, notes and casual writing. The common element in all of these words has been a keyboard. Primarily three different keyboards, in my case. I never learned how to type properly, but I can move along at a pretty quick pace pecking away using a few fingers and thumbs in a style that makes trained typists cringe. It may be entertaining to watch, but it works… I was starting on a book late last year and began wondering if there was a way to cut down on the typing-related wear and tear, as well as a way to possibly go a little faster; if I’m going to hit one million words this year I need to either work on my technique, hire a typist or stay on the keyboards for twice as long and hope carpal tunnel doesn’t come knocking. I haven’t had much experience with speech recognition software, but my father-in-law has sworn by Dragon on the PC for years, and Christopher Null had some good things to say about Nuance’s Dragon Naturally Speaking. I decided that now was the perfect time to take Dragon Dictate 2.0 for Mac for a spin.
Dragon Dictate doesn’t have particularly heavy system requirements, just an Intel based Mac running OSX 10.6 (Snow Leopard); I installed it on a three year old iMac with 4 GB of RAM and it ran perfectly. The software works with a variety of approved headsets, although the version that I tested included a Plantronics USB microphone. Bluetooth versions are supported (and available as part of the package) for the wirelessly inclined. I found being tethered really didn’t bother me. My objective was to test the software as a dictation tool, using Apple’s Pages, which is my primary writing platform. Dragon is capable of making your computer completely voice controlled, but I didn’t get into that aspect of it. For someone with eyesight impairment or fine motor control challenges, I can imagine such functionality would be welcome and based on my experience with the dictation aspect and other reviews I’ve read, I have no doubt that the software is up to the task—so long as you are up to memorizing a sizable collection of voice commands.
Installation is quick and painless, but once the software is installed, there is a configuration process where the Dragon software is “trained” to recognize your voice and the vocabulary of your documents. Interestingly, you can choose from a list of regional accents to improve on accuracy. I chose “American – Inland Northern,” which I am guessing is the closest thing to someone living in Ontario, Canada. Note: I later tested this theory with the word “about” and it was never interpreted as “a boot,” so that must have been the correct choice. I’m more or less the opposite of a polished public speaker, so I had my doubts about how well the software would pick up on my nattering away. However, once I’d adjusted the microphone properly, reading through the prompted scripts progressed quickly and accurately. I only had to re-read one line. So far, so good and only twenty minutes invested. Next, I chose the manuscript I was working on and had Dragon scan it for vocabulary. There was a minor issue in that the document is a Pages file and Dragon doesn’t recognize that format for this particular function, so I saved a copy as a Word document (other than that, it played nicely with Pages). The document was fairly long, so I went upstairs and grabbed a coffee after waiting a few minutes for it to complete parsing through the file.
Until you become familiar with the commands, keeping track of them all can be a bit of a chore. One option is to print them out as a cheat sheet (or sheets); I have a second monitor that happens to be set up in portrait mode (I find stacking multiple reference documents preferable to viewing them side by side), so I throw up Dragon Dictate‘s Available Commands window on that second display for easy reference.
The so-called “golden rule” of Dragon Dictate is not to mix keyboard and speech commands. The software uses its own cache to keep track of past actions, so if you physically type in a word using the keyboard in the middle of a session, then tell Dragon to “Undo Last Action,” it’s going to be confused and the result likely isn’t what you were intending. This was probably the toughest part for me, because I found it inherently more intuitive to grab the mouse and whip back to an insertion point and make a change, than to instruct the software through a series of commands to do the same thing. Fortunately, it’s one command to purge the cache and start over again if you succumb to temptation and disobey that golden rule.
Other than the odd transgression back into keyboard territory, how did I fare using Dragon versus manually typing? Well, one thing I discovered is that it’s difficult to undo several decades of conditioning. My creative process seems to be tied into the keyboard to a certain extent. If I’m at a loss for words while writing, I often simply start typing away with some nonsense and either the words start flowing, or I pick up on a thought, delete what I’ve written and start over. Not exactly efficient, but that’s how I roll. I found it less natural to dictate off on a tangent and that part of the creative writing process never really caught on. I’d just clam up and stare into space rather than engage in what felt dangerously like talking to myself. But when I came in with a definitive sense of what I was writing, with Dragon Dictate I could blow past my typing speed and churn out accurate copy remarkably quickly. The accuracy of the voice recognition really was quite impressive and one of the bonuses is that so long as the software guesses the correct word, it’s going to be spelled correctly. I’d often go a page without having any typos to correct and based on several months of use, I found that the claimed 99 percent accuracy rate wasn’t blowing smoke. The only time it would trip up for me was on the occasional “ladder” versus “latter” and other close sounding words. It did remarkably well with proper names (even the uncommon ones used in the manuscript) and acronyms, which is likely because I took the time to train the software with the manuscript that already contained instances of those words and letter combos. Basically, if I sat down and spent a few hours with the software, the dictation process became more natural, the commands became more natural and it hummed. Even when I’d start rapidly spitting out long and complex sentences, I never left the software behind. And I’ve really come to enjoy being able to sit comfortably in my chair, tilted back, hands behind my head, feet up and working productively. So much more relaxing than being hunched over a keyboard.
The downside to the software is the reliance on voice controls (and given that it’s speech recognition software, one can hardly fault it for that). One of the kids brought home a helluva cold—or perhaps several of the kids each brought home their own variation—and the end result was nearly a month of speech impairment for me. I quickly discovered that Dragon Dictate doesn’t fare quite as well if the person dictating is coldy, coughing, rasping and with a voice that’s breaking. It also hurts to talk for an extended period of time in this condition. So, just like broken fingers make for a less than satisfactory typing experience, speech recognition software has no magic way of remaining spot on with a broken voice. While ambient noise is a function of microphone sensitivity, I did find that I had to be reasonable about having background music on while dictating. No blaring tunes unless I wanted to go with the headphones, and I think strapping on multiple sets of headphones (one for the mic and one for the music) simultaneously risks crossing the streams (not to mention looking really, really uncool), so I just kept the music at a low, waiting room volume. I also learned that the three hour periods during the day when the kids are off at school are the most productive with Dragon. Having interruptions, people asking you questions or shouting out for individuals to stop fighting do nothing for accuracy, especially when you forget to hit the mute button. And whenever one of the cats jumped on my desk, the software would type “th.” Not sure how to train it on that one…
I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet, but based on the success I’ve had with Dragon Dictate, I downloaded the company’s iPhone app. You can pick it up for free on the iTunes App Store, where it’s currently holding down a solid 4 star rating.
Wired: Easy set-up and configuration; speech recognition was impressive; plays nicely with Pages; nothing beats being able to work while leaning back in the comfy chair.
Tired: A tad on the expensive side; to get the full use of the software there are a whack of commands to learn; requires more than casual use to get the most out of it.
Disclosure: Nuance Software provided a copy of Dragon Dictate for review purposes.