Dragon Dictate for Mac Review
Is Voice Dictation on the Mac for Everybody?
Can you use voice dictation on the Mac? Is it for everybody? Who can make best use of it? What software packages are available? Is there a demo version? If you buy such a package, how will you know it will truly work for you? Will it speed up your writing?
These are a few of the questions you may have when considering purchasing voice dictation software for the Macintosh. This lens is designed to help you answer all of these questions. I have tried to write this lens in a totally honest, no-nonsense, no-holds-barred fashion, weighing the pros and cons to help you determine if voice dictation software for the Mac is right for you, and what you should know before you invest in it. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to post them in the comments section.
You've been booby-trapped all along
Did you know the standard QWERTY typewriter keyboard was designed to slow typists down? It's true!
The inventor of the first commercially successful typewriter, Christopher Latham Sholes, found that the keys on his new machine would jam if they were placed in the arrangement at first deemed the most optimal and efficient. So he rearranged the keys, the main goal being to avoid jams rather than to put them in the most efficient order.
This was in 1873, and over a century and a quarter later In the computer age we are still using the same arrangement.
I mentioned this once in casual conversation and someone questioned this. "The keys seem to be laid out in a pretty logical arrangement to me," he said.
Look at the home row, the one that contains the keys A, S, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, the one on which your fingers rest and where they return after each keystroke. How many vowels are on the home row? Only ONE. Yet there is a vowel in every word of the English language! So you have to reach to type nearly every English word.
You may think that because you are a fairly fast, accurate typist, this is not a problem for you. Not so! Even the fastest typists are slowed down and make more mistakes due to the inefficient arrangement of the keyboard. Less talented typists are hamstrung still further, but everyone is affected.
In this computer-dependent age, because people need to spend more time at the keyboard than they would otherwise need to due to the inefficient key arrangement, countless millions of hours are wasted every year and society doubtless suffers from hundreds of needless cases of repetitive stress injury annually.
A bit more history
Fortunately, while the computer and our reliance on it magnifies the problem, it also provides our salvation In the form of its voice dictation software. On the Mac, the only currently viable choice for Intel machines is Dragon Dictate for Mac. Fortunately, it's a good one.
My name is Tim Arends and I am a veteran of voice dictation software on the Mac. I started out with IBM ViaVoice back in the OS 9 days. Then I upgraded to the OS X version of ViaVoice, graduated to iListen, and finally moved on to MacSpeech Dictate for Intel Macs. I have witnessed a steady progress of voice dictation systems on the Macintosh, albeit with a few steps backwards from time to time.
There were two big drawbacks to the old voice dictation software: 1) less than optimal accuracy and 2) the time it took to train it. Unlike most software, which requires a learning curve on the part of the user, voice dictation software requires a learning curve on the part of the computer, as it learns to understand what you are saying and learn how you speak.
This requires the user to read training stories that are provided with the program into the computer. With most of the older voice dictation software, you were required to read 10-20 training stories to get the most accuracy, each story taking 10-20 minutes to read. Add all this up, and you can see that a considerable amount of time was invested in training the software, before you could even start being productive.
All the time it took you to read the training stories invariably meant that you were terrified of losing the voice profile that you had so meticulously created due to some corruption, a hard drive failure, user error, or becoming obsolete thanks to a software update. Invariably, when the software did go through a major transition, such as the move from OS 9 to OS X or the transition from PowerPC to Intel, it meant that you needed to retrain the newly-updated software all over again.
Even after training the software, and due to less than ideal accuracy, you had to continually correct the software's recognition errors, usually by selecting the correct choice from a list on a correction palette. Each time you corrected the software, it became a bit better at recognizing your voice, but the process took a long time!
The Macintosh: Forgotten orphan of voice dictation
The Mac for years lagged behind the PC in voice recognition technology. Many Mac partisans had to use a PC just to get decent voice dictation accuracy.
Speech dictation software presents a considerable challenge. In fact, it is one of the most processor intensive tasks a computer can perform. It was not until Apple made the transition to the much faster Intel processors that speech dictation on the Mac seemed to become truly viable again.
Mac OS X probably presented speech dictation software with a new set of challenges. Perhaps it was the additional overhead of a new operating system, but speech dictation software for the Mac seemed to fall by the wayside. IBM had problems making the transition from OS 9 to OS X, and its acclaimed ViaVoice became sluggish and slightly buggy in the transition. IBM eventually stopped updating the program.
Even MacSpeech's own product, iListen, specially developed by the Mac-only company and optimized for OS X, gave poor speech recognition. Recognition errors were numerous and the software seemed to run more slowly and with more bugginess as time went on, as if it was becoming overburdened by its own expanding voice profile.
In fact iListen gave me such poor performance that I would not recommend it. The only advantage it has it that it will run on older PowerPC Macs, but I would frankly recommend getting a new Intel Mac over purchasing iListen.
Enter MacSpeech Dictate (now Dragon Dictate for Mac)
Then MacSpeech made a brilliant move: it partnered with Nuance Communications, the makers of the legendary Dragon NaturallySpeaking technology, to bring the same level of voice recognition accuracy to the Mac that PC users have enjoyed for years.
To clarify, Apple has long offered a form of speech recognition, called PlainTalk, but PlainTalk is what is called a "command and control program;" it does not allow dictation or the writing of articles and other documents by voice. It was mainly limited to allowing one to free the hands of the mouse so as to concentrate on keeping the hands on the keyboard. Voice dictation for the Mac has always relied on third-party companies like Nuance.
Voice dictation is a far more challenging problem then command and control. The number of things that one can command a computer to do is limited (and must be phrased according to strict rules) while the number of things that can be dictated into a written document is infinite. Command and control can usually be accomplished without any training of the computer whatsoever by people with a wide range of voices and accents, while voice dictation always requires at least some training (although not a whole lot in the case of Dragon Dictate for Mac).
Installing Dragon Dictate for Mac - A Cinch
Installing the software could hardly be easier. The installer program comes on two CDs. You merely insert the first CD into your disk drive and drag the Dragon Dictate for Mac application icon from the CD to your applications folder. Then you insert the second CD to run the installer and update necessary system files. That's it!
The software requires a headset microphone. You cannot use your Mac's built-in microphone -- that is, not if you want decent recognition accuracy. The headset also positions the microphone at the optimal distance from your mouth.
Selection of the headset microphone is important to speech dictation software. An older headset, For example, the one once included with IBM ViaVoice, or one that is not made specifically for voice dictation may not work.
Older versions of the MacSpeech products included the Audio 400 DSP Stereo Headset/Microphone, which is still available for use with Dragon Dictate for Mac, and which is made by Plantronics, a company that specializes in lightweight headsets.
The all plastic construction of this headset struck me as being a little flimsy, but it has held up reasonably well. I did add a little tape to the ratchet mechanism that is part of the size adjustment -- not as a repair, but simply to hold it in position at the right setting.
The full Dragon Dictate for Mac package now comes with the wireless Calisto headset, which is a joy to use. The receiver plugs into a USB port on your Mac while the small headset earpiece that contains a transmitter fits over your ear. This gives a wonderful freedom of movement, with no cords to get in the way. You can pace about the room as you dictate, if that helps you to think, without fear of tripping over a cord. There are no wires that can get snagged when the headset is not in use.
I highly recommend this headset. However, if you want to save money, you can buy the version of Dragon Dictate for Mac that comes without a headset and either provide your own or buy one of the less expensive wired headsets from the MacSpeech website. Headsets included with the old I listen will also work with Dragon Dictate for Mac. (In fact, I found the iListen headset to be the best thing about that particular software package!) If you purchase a headset separately, just make sure it is supported by the software. MacSpeech lists supported headsets on its website.
Learning Dragon Dictate for Mac - A bit harder
While becoming an advanced Dragon Dictate for Mac "power user" requires some effort, learning the basics of the software is not at all difficult. In fact, Dragon Dictate for Mac is one of the few software programs where you can achieve 95% efficiency with the software just by learning 10% of its functions!
The basics of using Dragon Dictate for Mac is not much more than a matter of installing the software, plugging in the headset, adjusting the sound input portion of System Preferences, and reading a short training story. In fact, the software usually interrupts you before you finish reading the first story. After that, you can start dictating away! Most users can expect 90-95% accuracy right out of the box.
Using some of the advanced features of Dragon Dictate for Mac, however, is a different story. The program can be used for a largely hands-free Macintosh experience -- switching among different applications, launching programs, loading websites, sending mail messages and so on. In other words, the software can be used both as a command and control and as a dictation program. This makes it extremely useful for physically impaired users. However, it also greatly increases the learning curve of the software.
Non-physically impaired users who simply want to increase their writing speed and efficiency can ignore 90% of the program's capabilities and they won't miss a thing.
This is a good thing, because the manual included with the software in the form of a PDF file on the disk leaves something to be desired. The instructions in the chapter on dictation assume that the user is going to make all commands and edits by voice; it does not tell how to do the same thing with the mouse using the various menu commands, which is a far more familiar interface for most people. The software makers don't seem to realize that some people want to use the software as a dictation package only, and not mess about with the command and control features.
The manual could also be written in a more step-by-step fashion, for example in the section on handling misrecognized words in the chapter on dictation. No extensive quick reference card is included with the software; instead, the commands you can say are scattered throughout the manual.
I usually find it easier simply to do most things with the mouse. Dragon Dictate for Mac actually makes it easier to use a mouse, as you can keep your hands free of the keyboard while dictating. Since the software saves you from having to make thousands of keystrokes in the creation of a lengthy document, occasionally using the mouse or keyboard to issue commands is no big deal.
Using Dragon Dictate for Mac - A few caveats
Dragon Dictate for Mac can be used to dictate in virtually any application -- in chat room windows, in mail messages, or in your favorite word processor.
This is both an advantage and disadvantage. While the software allows you to dictate virtually anywhere, it only knows where your cursor is in third-party programs based on the words that you have just dictated. If you use your mouse or the keyboard to make corrections, it will throw the software off.
This is because the software cannot see what you have typed in a third-party program, it only knows where the cursor is based on the words last dictated or the last voice command. If you make edits to the document by hand and then tell the software to fly to a particular word, erase that word and replace it with something else, the software will not be able to do so, because the word will no longer be in the same place as it was when first dictated.
The Notepad program included with Dragon Dictate for Mac will not even allow you to type in text by hand. It will allow you to paste in text, under the assumption that you might want to work with text that you have previously created. I find the Notepad program, however, to be buggy, and I don't use it. Fortunately, it is not necessary since the software will allow you to dictate anywhere.
Correction Features? We don't need no steenkin' correction features!
In addition to shunning the command-and-control features of the software, I also avoid using the correction features, instead preferring to make all my corrections by hand.
Remember earlier that I said you can make all of your corrections by hand or all of them by voice, but not by using a mixture of the two methods. As an able-bodied person, I simply find the voice correction features clumsier and far more difficult than simply using the mouse and keyboard.
Part of the reason for this is the design of the software, especially the correction palette. While the correction palette in the old IBM ViaVoice listed individual words that may have been misrecognized, the Dragon Dictate for Mac palette lists entire phrases. That means that, instead of individual words, you must search through lenghty phrases to find the one you want.
Visually searching for whole phrases on a palette is much more difficult than simply finding individual words. It's kind of like a game of "how is this phrase different from all the others?" If you pick the wrong phrase, you may correct one error but add a different one. And of course, sometimes none of the phrases are correct.
Fortunately, the software is so accurate right out of the box, especially if you are a native English speaker, that you can disregard the correction features entirely and still get 95% accuracy. Feel free to dictate long passages and then, in proofreading, make all of your corrections by hand using the keyboard. Just remember that by doing so, it you will not be training the software to improve its accuracy. Fortunately, the software is so accurate to begin with, this is not a big deal.
...And now some tips
Speech dictation software does present a new set of challenges in editing. Since the software never makes a spelling mistake, finding and fixing typos cannot be done using the standard procedures. Using a spellchecker will be to no avail. All of the errors the software makes are homonym errors, that is, using a word or words that sounds to the ear like the correct word but is not. For example, "check her" instead of "checker," "selecting the" instead of "selectively," "hour" instead of "our," "boy's" instead of "voice," "width" instead of "with," "max" instead of "Macs," etc.
I find that using a combination of editing and correction techniques and an eagle eye is needed in proofing a dictated document. First, it is useful to read the entire document, and then use the Mac's excellent built-in text-to-speech voice, "Alex," to read the document back to me once again.
The visual inspection finds 90% of the errors, but I find that, when reading long blocks of text on the screen, my eyes start to glaze over and I tend to overlook some errors. Also, I know what it is I intended to write and so that is what I tend to see. The text-to-speech reading finds most of the rest of the errors, but it is less effective, because incorrectly recognized words often sound almost exactly like the intended words.
In any event, whether the document is hand-typed or dictated, I find that extensive proofing is essential, and I use virtually the same techniques in both cases.
Troubleshooting - Sometimes it has to be done
Any software, especially that as sophisticated as Dragon Dictate for Mac, will require some troubleshooting from time to time, and this software is no different. Just a few months after getting my Intel iMac and installing Dragon Dictate for Mac, the software suddenly started crashing. All the standard troubleshooting techniques, reinstalling the software, running TechTool and Disk Utility on the iMac, starting up the Mac in safe mode, and even reinstalling the system software were to no avail.
The remaining explanation was that some corruption had entered into one of my system files. This can happen to the Mac system over time as a result of power outages, previous system crashes, hard restarts and other difficulties. Of all of the thousands of files in the Mac system software, some of them invisible, most of them never seen by the user, it is not surprising that some corruption may enter after a while.
System file corruption is insidious and is impossible to eliminate by normal means. A totally clean install of the system software, without the use of the migration assistant, is a good idea from time to time anyway.
This is not to say that a clean reinstall the system is a trivial matter, because it requires preferences to be reset, system enhancements to be reinstalled, Software Update run, Internet settings reestablished, and more. However, Dragon Dictate for Mac is such an essential program that I knew it must be done to resolve the problem. After a clean reinstall of the system software, Dragon Dictate for Mac was up and running again.
Who can use Dragon Dictate for Mac?
Dragon Dictate for Mac can be used by many different people in virtually every field. Anyone who expresses themselves in writing, which includes most computer users, can benefit from hands-free writing. Below are just a few examples of people and professions that can benefit from Dragon Dictate for Mac.
Physically Impaired Users
Although Dragon Dictate for Mac, as well as the Mac itself, require some use of the hands in setup and day-to-day operations, the software can be used by physically impaired users for a more hands-free experience. They can switch among applications, surf the web, write and send e-mails and do many other things completely by voice. In this sense, Dragon Dictate for Mac can be used strictly as a "command and control program."
The software will not give every physically impaired user total independence, but it is important to remember that many physically impaired people have at least some use of the hands, it is just more difficult for them than for able-bodied persons. Dragon Dictate for Mac can ease such persons' workflows and allow them greater independence. Using the full capabilities of the program, however, will, of course, require more extensive training and setup then using the software for dictation only.
Legal work generates an enormous amount of text. Lawyers and legal assistants can use Dragon Dictate for Mac to lighten the workload. MacSpeech offers a special version of Dictate for the legal profession that includes over 30,000 legal words and terms.
Doctors and Medical Transcriptionists
The medical profession also generates an enormous amount of information, and it is also a field with its own specialized vocabulary. Dragon Dictate for Mac Medical supports and fully understands over 54 medical and dental disciplines and specialties, such as Addiction Psychiatry, Cardiac Surgery, Dermatology, Family Medicine, Hematology, Neurosurgery -- and 48 others.
Nuance is constantly updating the software and now supports more than just English speakers. Dragon Dictate for Mac International fully understands English, French, German, and Italian so you can dictate in your native or your new language.
Research papers, term papers, reports, even doctoral dissertations can all be made easier with Dragon Dictate for Mac (I wish I had the software when I was in school).
When using Dragon Dictate for Mac, you'll find that the bottleneck to writing speed is no longer your hands: it is your brain. The software can literally transcribe almost as quickly as you can talk, making the big challenge knowing your topic.
Finding a quiet place to dictate is essential. If you share a dorm room with someone else, you may need to time your dictation sessions for when you will be alone. If you have a Macbook however, you could use a private room at the library or one of the other campus buildings. In the summertime you could even dictate outdoors! Dragon Dictate for Mac allows for the creation of different voice profiles for dictating under different background noise conditions.
Writers, Authors and Researchers
This use of Dragon Dictate for Mac is obvious. Perhaps some writers prefer banging away at the keyboard with their hands, just as some preferred banging away at the old Underwood typewriters before the age of computers. Others, however, will want to give their hands a break and simply let their computer do the typing.
Aside from website creation, writing has to be the backbone of Internet marketing. The Internet is called the "information superhighway" for a reason. People are looking for information, and they make millions of searches for it every day. Internet marketers must generate an enormous amount of information in order to be noticed in the crowd.
People want information! Website creation, blogging, twittering, social networking, ebook creation -- all of these are forms of the dissemination of information.
Web marketers are largely information marketers, they need to share information in the most efficient way possible. They need to create websites, blogs, and ebooks on a regular basis. Whether it be writing from scratch or rewriting PLR, the crux of Internet marketing is writing. The whole information industry revolves around creating useful content in the most efficient way possible.
Any Internet User
Anyone who uses the Internet can benefit from Dragon Dictate for Mac -- users of forums, chat rooms, MySpace members, bloggers -- anyone who ever writes a sizable amount of text at one time. Forum administrators can also make good use of the software. It can even be used in chat rooms, since it can enter text virtually anywhere, for a more natural chatting experience. Of course, the software works best when you speak in whole phrases so it can get better accuracy through the benefit of a longer context. And of course, Squidoo lens creators can benefit greatly from Dragon Dictate for Mac (this lens was created almost exclusively using Dragon Dictate for Mac). About the only major service I can think of not benefiting from Dragon Dictate for Mac is Twitter (who needs voice dictation when you're only writing 140 characters at a time?)
The Bottom Line
Does the software make errors? Of course it does. But don't forget that we make errors when we type by hand also. Even though Dragon Dictate for Mac is not perfect, you have to factor in the amount of time it takes you to correct hand typed errors.
Speaking as a far more natural action than typing. Creating documents word-by-word is so much easier than creating them letter-by-letter.
But can using voice dictation software strain your voice when used for an extended length of time? Yes, but the best use of voice dictation software is the flexibility it gives you. You can alternate between hand typing and dictating to avoid straining either your hands or your voice. You can have a remarkable freedom to write in the way that best suits you at the moment.
What's more, dictating allows you to lean back in your chair and assume a more relaxed, natural and comfortable position, relieving back strain and other problems. Even if you think you can type as fast as you can talk, varying your work routine is a key to maintaining your well-being.
Purchasing Dragon Dictate for Mac
You can order MacSpeech Dictate right now by clicking the button below:
(Clicking the above image will open a new window)
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Simply click the above image and enter one of the codes below into the coupon code box when you place your order
Note: I'm currently checking the validity of these codes as the software makes the transition from MacSpeech to Dragon Dictate, but they are believed to still be valid. Worth a try!
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Questions or comments about Dragon Dictate for Mac? Did you find errors in this lens? I'm just one guy, so errors can happen, and I welcome your feedback. Post it here!