MacSpeech Dictate: A Cranky Review

My Love-Hate Relationship with Dictation Software

As a lifelong writer, I have an ongoing love-hate relationship with speech recognition software. From the early days of IBM ViaVoice and Dragon NaturallySpeaking on Windows, through MacSpeech's iListen, and now finally to MacSpeech Dictate, I have tried nearly every type of voice dictation software that's out there. For a while, I ran a speech recognition website which, sadly, included a forum that became overrun by warez spammers, despite my best efforts. And somehow a large percentage of AOL searchers were given my email address as the "customer support" for AOL's failed speech recognition offering.

Despite that, I've watched with growing interest and hope as the software has advanced from discrete recognition, which required you to. talk. with. a. pause. between. each. word. To continuous speech recognition, which allows you to speak naturally and let the words flow. I've watched as recognition rates jumped from 70 to 85%, then into the 90's.

I've concluded a few things. First, we will always need a non-vocal method for writing, particularly for those of us who live and work in spaces that are not 100% private. Second, recognition has come a long, long way.

Speech Recognition on the Mac

When I switched to using a Mac, I was sad to say good bye to my Dragon and ViaVoice options. I preferred ViaVoice, which was also available on the Mac, but it stopped being supported shortly after I bought it, and with my next OS upgrade, it was completely unusable.

I switched to iListen, which was the only speech recognition product available for the Mac.

When the Intel Macs became available, and Parallels was released, I know a number of people switched to using their Windows-native dictation software (usually Dragon NaturallySpeaking) in a virtual machine. But I also knew, from running some very resource-intensive programs under Parallels, that running anything in Parallels was like running it on half a machine-- half the memory, and a very limited amount of hard drive space.

I continued to limp along with iListen, but mostly, I got a good ergonomic keyboard and kept tapping.

I Had Bad Timing

I had bad timing in late 2006. I bought an iListen-compatible microphone and the Transcription Pak for iListen, intending to dictate into my iPod and use the transcription software to run speech recognition on it.

I was able to do that a few times, but then, ultimately, I went back to the keyboard. I simply didn't need to dictate that often when I was away from the computer. Composition-out-loud remained an elusive dream of mine. No worries, though. For me, dictation was and still is a backup option, something I know I will need someday, if, as is likely to happen, my mind outlives my hands or my eyesight.

Unfortunately, I bought the microphone and transcription upgrade to iListen just 3 months before MacSpeech announced that they had acquired the license and had developed a speech recognition program using the very sophisticated Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition platform. I searched in vain for some kind of upgrade bargain for someone who had just dumped, literally, $180 on a software upgrade I would no longer be able to use. The only option offered was that I'd continue to be able to use iListen.

But I Bought it Anyway

So, why, after that, did I buy one of the first pressings of MacSpeech Dictate to roll off the assembly line anyway? Because I knew this was it-- merging MacSpeech's Mac-savvy ease of use with Dragon's killer speech recognition engine? It had to be awesome.

And it would have been... if the danged DVD would work! Unfortunately, I had two problems. First, my DVD player in my MacBook Pro is... we shall call it "buggy" and leave it at that. My whole MacBook has problems, which I have yet to be able to fix, despite multiple visits to Apple's Genius Bar. But that's neither here nor there. The software could not be downloaded via the Internet.

Then, it turned out that several of the Dictate data discs had been shipped out with errors. Errors which, it turns out, made them corrupt and unusable. I had to download a separate program and run it to make sure my files weren't corrupt.

Unfortunately, I ended up with a defective PROGRAM disk as well-- every time I inserted it, my computer would crash. I replaced the whole DVD drive because I had the same problem with other disks, but the MacSpeech disk continued to crash. I ended up contacting MacSpeech several times to get a new disc sent out. Because they were dealing with the faulty data discs, I finally had to state, very plainly, that I was sure it was a corrupt program disk, and I only needed the disc, as I had a current serial number, but would they please please please send a disc?

All of this, in my lifestyle, where it takes me 2-3 weeks to receive mail, so each tech support instance required a long lag on my end.

You'd Think I Would Give Up

You'd think at this point I would give up, but I didn't. Even after all that. I did let my MacSpeech dreams simmer for a while. Left them alone, because I didn't want to deal. Plus I continue to have trouble speaking my unformed thoughts out to the air when my husband is present. He... mocks me. Gently, but it still annoys me, so I try not to provoke him. Plus, I know if he's mocking to annoy me, it's probably because my prattling to my computer is annoying him.

Also.... well, you know how when one kid learns they can do something that annoys the other kid?

The Love Affair Begins

In November, I participated in National Novel Writing Month, and in the course of my desperation, I turned again to speech recognition software. There is something very satisfying in being able to get another 800 words in while your hands are busy knitting. And for the month of November, I leave off caring if I'm annoying my husband with my writing quirks.

I even went so far as to start entering my daily journal pages into my novel, using dictation software. It wouldn't do to have my husband hear all my stupid little journaling observations, so I waited until he left the home, put my headset on, and started prattling to my computer. In five minutes, I would dictate the 600 words I'd written that morning, and feel better for the "progress" I was making.

A Satisfying Relationship

Since then, I continue to use my speech recognition software to dictate things I've written while away from the computer, parts of my novel that I want to try listening to first, and emails.

I'm even embarking on a project with my dad to dictate all of my grandmother's letters into the computer. Her crabby handwriting is too difficult for anything automated to read, and she had literally hundreds of letters she had written between herself and my grandfather, or to various family members throughout her life. Being able to capture her words in a project like that is a great way to use the software and give voice to her little observations and history, too.

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