According to Peter Mahoney, senior vice president and general manager at Nuance Communications Inc., "The average consumer types about 25 to 30 words per minute." For those people -- and for those for whom carpal tunnel or other disabling factors prevent efficient typing -- being able to talk to your computer sounds like a good idea.
Nuance's Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 software offers an alternative to the speech recognition feature that comes with Windows Vista and Windows 7. (The company also offers MacSpeech Dictate, which it acquired in February, for Mac OS X users.)
Dragon currently comes in a five editions: Standard ($100), Preferred ($199), Professional ($900), and specialized versions for Legal ($1,200) and Medical ($1,600). The Preferred Wireless edition ($300) includes Plantronics' Calisto Bluetooth headset, while Preferred Mobile ($250) includes a Phillips digital voice recorder.
The various editions are supersets of the Standard package, meaning they all include dictation and voice-control capabilities. The Preferred edition adds shortcuts and the ability to translate from a handheld recorder, while the Professional version adds network administration, the ability to combine commands, and better integration with applications.
For this review, I tested Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 Professional Version 10.1. But most users could make do with the significantly less expensive Standard or Preferred editions.
All editions of Dragon include a headset. On its Web site, Nuance refers to it as "a high-quality noise-canceling headset," but given that it's included in the $99 Standard edition, I was skeptical about how "high-quality" the headset could be. But it seemed to carry my voice input adequately.
Dragon NaturallySpeaking installs quickly and easily.
Before you begin using the software, you have to calibrate it to help it work with your voice and speaking style. You start with short tasks to confirm good microphone placement and volume settings. Next, you select your accent (such as "Inland Northern U.S.," "British-accented" or "Spanish-accented English"). There are short passages you can read to help the application adjust to your voice, and different vocabulary types you can choose from, such as "General" (U.S. English), "Commands-Only" (for control but not dictating) and "Teens."
Dragon can also improve its recognition accuracy by data-mining your e-mail and contents of your My Documents folder, which helps Dragon build its list of words and phrases you use, including things like the names of people you e-mail.
Wrestling with the Dragon
When you start it up, Dragon presents a small floating toolbar. Once the microphone is active, you can dictate text, control Dragon (including telling it to "go to sleep" and "wake up") and control applications. Dragon can work with several applications, including Mozilla Thunderbird, Lotus Notes and Microsoft Word, Outlook and Excel.
I tried Dragon with samples from a variety of texts, including Green Eggs and Ham, Alice in Wonderland, Pride and Prejudice, An Outline of Science and Computerworld's own About Computerworld page.
As you speak, Dragon displays what it believes you've said in a little pop-up window, modifying the contents if subsequent words make it change its mind about what you've already said. It then drops the text into DragonPad (a customized version of NotePad) or into a field in the current application.