A fresh look at Dragon voice recognition software
Something different about this blog entry then my usual ones is that I'm dictating it instead of typing it. Every so often my mouse hand and wrist bothers me for a week or two. The last time this happened, I decided to get a copy of Dragon Naturally Speaking software and try it out. Coincidentally, a couple weeks ago, in the middle of all this miserable snow we’re having in the Northeast, a friend and colleague tore a tendon in in his elbow. I convinced him to try out the software. He needs to write all the time, and he has been using it almost exclusively and successfully. This in turn got me using it again. I have to say--it works.
Installing it was much easier than I thought. After running a standard installer, I went through a pretty easy and intuitive start up process. I spent about ten minutes to read in a few sample passages to let the software get used to my voice.
And then I just get started. The software pretty much keeps up with you as I speak, and it is indeed very accurate. I can intersperse you dictation with intuitive voice commands, such as “comma,” “period,” “scratch that,” “new paragraph”, “bold this,” and so on. The commands are intuitive, and there is a pop-up tip guide.
There are some things to get used to. I had to fight the tendency to say one word at a time and wait for it to show up on the screen. Instead, the software listens for the phrase or sentence, analyzes it and puts the whole thing on the screen. I found that part pretty slick: In the start up process, you let the software analyze all your documents mathematically for frequently used words and phrases, it can process dictation in whole phrases and sentences. It not only keeps up better, it also is less likely to mix up words in English that sounds alike but have different spellings and meanings. Going too slow and staring at the screen not only is distracting from the writing, but also undermines the accuracy of the software. Trusting the software takes some getting used to. Once you do, the software is useful and even fun
The big pluses are first, it's hands-free, which means that you can give your wrists and arms a rest, and sooner or later we all need to do that. If you’re not the greatest typist, it's definitely got a be faster than typing. Though I can type pretty fast, my friend with the tendon injury says that he is now writing a lot quicker than when he was typing, and with fewer typos. The manufacturer (Nuance) claims close to 100% accuracy, and that has been my impression.
Drawbacks are that there are a lot of different versions and it's not the cheapest. Windows 7 has built-in voice recognition for dictation and it apparently works for basic stuff. I suspect that you get what you pay for. Dragon has been around a really long time, and has put a lot of effort into optimizing this product. If you shop around, you can get the home edition for well under $100. As with other things, the Professional Edition adds more features. And for such things as the esteemed right to use a Bluetooth wireless headset, you will surely pay a big premium. But for your work, you may be fine with the basic version. And you certainly do not need a really fancy mic. I’m using it tonight with my standard $30-$40 Plantronics USB DSP400 headset, nothing exotic or special -- the same one I would use for Skype. You can look at the version comparisions on the Nuance site, http://www.nuance.com/, and then shop around.
Another possible drawback is that, even though you really don’t have to go slow, you do have to speak precisely. You have to pay a special attention and starting and ending sentences. And if you work in a busy office and your writing is subject to interruption, you have to be ready to give the voice command to stop the dictation if someone comes over and asks you a question or you answer the phone. That can take some getting used to. These things mean that at least in the beginning, more causal writing, such as answering emails, may work more “naturally” for you than writing something more formal. But that's about it.
Also, you need to be aware of the software resource intensiveness. When Naturally Speaking checks your computer initially, it lets you know how ready your system is to keep up. My laptop has 4 GB of RAM and it clearly needs it. In order for it to do all this complex recognition, it's using up resources even faster than the video or graphics editing software package.
Still, in sum, for either your health or to speed up your typing, Dragon could be a great new utility. I’m going to keep using it.
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