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Nuance and MacSpeech's Spoken-Word Performances

The optimistic read of today's column would be something like "computerized voice dictation software is here and it works. It's now available for Macs and PCs." The pessimistic spin would be "but it's still impractical for most people."

I lean a little more towards the second reading, but that's because typing is such a strong habit to try to break. The two programs I tried out, Nuance's Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 and MacSpeech's MacSpeech Dictate, both cost enough and require enough adaptation and training to make switching to them a non-trivial proposition. You need to have some preexisting condition that makes typing a bothersome or outright painful practice in comparison.

Plus, there's the issue of voice dictation's incompatibility with shared office settings -- not because the software will get confused by conversations in the next cubicle, but because the human being in the next cubicle will find it utterly exasperating to listen to you chatter away at your computer in the curious syntax demanded by these applications: "plus, COMMA, there's the issue of voice dictation's incompatibility with shared office settings, DASH," and so on.

Attentive readers will notice that my competitor David Pogue at the New York Times had a much more positive take on NaturallySpeaking 10 a couple of months ago. For that matter, I think I was more positive in my 2006 review of Dragon NaturallySpeaking 9.

Am I being too hard on these applications this time around? I'd like to hear from you about that -- especially if you've bought your own copy. How long did it take for you to give up the keyboard for daily use?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 6, 2008; 10:24 AM ET
Categories:  Productivity  
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VRS has real potential, especially for folks like me who have RSI. But Dragon isn't there yet. They also need to retrain their tech support people, to help them realize that aiding the customer is THEIR JOB not just a cross to bear. Also, the program needs to be simpler and quicker to learn. Software is meant to work for us, not the other way around. (I can't speak to Mac since I use Windows)

Posted by: musket1 | November 7, 2008 9:16 AM | Report abuse

Agree about their support. When I questioned why recognition should be so much better using an older Panasonic voice recorder (RX-361) than with the enclosed headphone set (or several other sets I've tried, my comments were totally contradicted. I was told to get a better voice recorder, or, preferrably, buy a more costly version ( I was using "Professional").

They've done a good job of buying out the competition, but they've integrated features very poorly -- also true of OCR software.

Posted by: joemurphey | November 7, 2008 10:15 AM | Report abuse

My use of MacSpeech Dictate has dropped off to almost never because the keyboard is faster overall. I was in that part of the learning curve for readily knowing the commands for punctuation and replacing a word with another. I have a friend who does all e-mail and professional dictation with Dictate. I can understand that a person might be committed to avoiding the keyboard whenever possible. The MacSpeech technical team is very customer-friendly and helpful. MacSpeech is "teachable" and amazingly accurate.

Posted by: WaldoPepper1 | November 7, 2008 10:25 AM | Report abuse

I have used the deluxe version of Natspeak 9 for a couple of years. I write better with my fingers than I do orally. But I greatly appreciate the program for transcribing written material, such as printed articles, hand-written letters, etc., for a Newsletter I produce. It recognizes big words and technical words, but stumbles on words like "edition" and "addition". Overall, the program is worth the money. I work at home so do not have to worry about the next cubicle. Thanks for the tip about waiting for Version 11.

Posted by: jerryarch | November 7, 2008 1:49 PM | Report abuse

I started using dictation software years ago -- when you would have to speak one word at a time, with a pause between each! What we have now is a massive improvement over that.

For good or ill, dictating to a computer is a skill that has to be learned, and user expectations are very high -- people want the computer to understand in the same way a person does when listening to someone speak. People grow up speaking, not touch typing. Eventually typing becomes second nature for people who use computers a lot. Then, when faced with dictation software, the fact that talking is easy leads to the expectation that dictating will be easy also. In many ways, dictating is no more natural than typing. (Marketing for these products is partly to blame for setting the unrealistic expectation, by presenting dictation as a magic replacement for typing. It isn't there yet.)

Probably very few people take the time to learn the skill, other than people with RSI's (like me). Then they write reviews and say that the software is full of problems, but the other view is that maybe the reviewer didn't really learn the skill well enough to evaluate how productive the software can be in the hands (pardon the pun) of an experienced user.

Rob is right to point out the areas where these packages can improve, so in that sense I have little to disagree with in the review. But it should also be said that over a period of months/years, it is possible to adapt to the software's requirements and get very good use out of it. This might not be evident with just a few hours' use.

Incidentally, in my job I've gotten very good feedback about my communications being very thorough, possibly because there's less physical effort in my fingers to write longer e-mails.

Posted by: jamshark70 | November 7, 2008 3:04 PM | Report abuse

I have used Dragon speak 9 , and currently use version 10. I've found that the marketing hype does not justify the product; it still makes a lot of errors. A 99% accuracy rate means a 1% error rate.

A five-page document with 1% errors is a lot of errors. The product has an internal database that attempts to match your vocal dictations to internal algorithms. This creates overlays and insertions that may not match what you are actually saying. It has a problem with participles and articles, and many of its features do not operate consistently.

Learning to use the product is not very hard, but you need a PC with a lot of horsepower; a minimum of 2 GB of RAM. The headset that came with the product should be replaced with the higher-quality headset. That alone reduces a substantial amount of errors.

On balance, I use the product as much as possible. Colleagues of mine and teachers have told me that "it has saved their wrists". My best advice is that you must pay attention to what you are doing and be prepared to reedit anything that you type with it (you may find errors in this commentary).

Posted by: mikegautier | November 9, 2008 11:59 AM | Report abuse

I too used an earlier version of Naturally Speaking, and, after reading Pogue's column, am anxious to buy again. Some of the earlier comments are absolutely right on -- the biggest problem is that you have to re-train your brain. That's really hard, since I'm a writer and have long ago learned to think with my fingers. The typos are annoying, but must be compared to the typos you make anyway when typing. This type of software reminds me of the dog walking into the bar jokes -- it's not that they do it well, but that they do it at all. Voice transcription is incredibly tough, technically.

Posted by: nick4 | November 9, 2008 7:41 PM | Report abuse

Incredibly, the new version of Dragon Nat. is not compatible with 64 bit Vista. How this company could produce a new version at this late date that is only 32 bit compatible is beyond me. I called and was told that they would have an update within a year...Wow!

Posted by: sandal | November 11, 2008 10:28 AM | Report abuse

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