Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 Premium review: Accurate voice recognition
Dragon (except in the Home edition) automatically records your dictation as you go along, and the Playback feature allows you to listen to what you said. This was useful in previous versions for situations when Dragon committed misrecognitions so bizarre that you had to check back to see what was originally said. I never found this necessary with version 12.
On the other hand, I found the Read Back facility quite useful; its synthetic voice reads selected text aloud from the screen (as opposed to playing back your voice recorded while dictating). The software's most common mistake while you're dictating is to misrecognize or skip one-syllable words, which are then hard to spot when you're proofreading your copy. But they leap out at you when the text is read aloud.
Dragon will also transcribe audio recordings in the WAV, WMA, DSS, DS2 and MP3 formats (again, this isn't available in the Home edition). The software will work with any voice on the recording but, naturally, will get the best results with the voice it has trained with. Possibly as a result, the transcription process takes about twice as long as that of simple one-person dictation.
Dragon also lets you control programs on your computer by speaking aloud shortcuts like "Click close." But this approach requires thorough knowledge of each program's command structure. When switching between multiple programs, I found that things tended to slip out of control and that it was good to have the mouse as backup.
For fine cursor control, you can say "mouse grid" and the screen will be divided into a 3 x 3 grid, each with a number. You can then say the number of the section you want, and that section is divided into a 3 x 3 grid. Then you can do it a third time, zeroing in on a screen section only a few pixels across. After an object is selected (using spoken mouse-click commands), you can move it with spoken mouse-move and mouse-drag commands, or by selecting the destination with another mouse grid operation. This is more tedious than using a physical mouse, of course, but it at least offers the potential for full voice control for those who need it.
While I did a lot of work with Dragon NaturallySpeaking as a user, I also wanted to test its performance on a more objective level. I ran the software on a 2.6GHz four-core Athlon II PC with 6GB of RAM and 64-bit Windows 7, using the analog headset microphone supplied with the software. (Nuance recommends at least a 2.2GHz dual-core processor, and 4GB of RAM.)
I first manually typed the 268 or so words of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address without stopping to correct typos. This took 6 minutes 47 seconds, for a throughput of about 40 dictionary words per minute or 43 five-keystroke words. About 10% of the words had errors.
I then dictated the speech, rattling it off in exactly 2 minutes. (Honest Abe would've been appalled.) There were 43 punctuation marks that, in speech recognition, have to be pronounced as words; as a result, the throughput was 165.5 dictionary words per minute. Dragon made two errors, for a recognition accuracy of 99.4%.
In other words, in my case dictation proved to be more than four times faster than keyboarding, and the error rate was more than an order of magnitude lower.
The best thing I can say about speech recognition is that I miss it when I don't have it around. Does that title need to be all uppercase? With Dragon, you can fix it with a spoken command. Do some typo-ridden notes need to be turned into a presentable e-mail? With Dragon, the chore is a lot easier.
At a Glance
Pros: Improved word recognition over previous versions; easy-to-understand interface, accurate dictation
Cons: Transcription of two or more voices takes twice as long as single-person dictation; controlling applications via voice can become confusing
Over the years, I have noticed that speech recognition will usually cut by half the time required to get something written, even counting the moments of maddening frustration. With Dragon version 12 there were a lot fewer such moments.
For slower typists, speech recognition could remove an impediment between them and polished text. The process of inputting text having been made effortless (every correctly recognized word is correctly spelled, for one thing), every part of the composition and editing process is faster.
This is especially the case when speech recognition functions smoothly and reliably, and Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 Premium provides that experience.
Other paths to speech recognition
If you have a desktop PC running a recent version of Microsoft Windows -- congratulations, you have speech recognition. It's been built into Windows since 2006, starting with Windows Vista. It was also an unannounced feature in Microsoft Office 2003.
When I tried Windows Speech Recognition, my accuracy seemed to be about 95%, making it perfectly adequate for interactive text composition. There is a facility for training the software for better accuracy, but I never found it necessary.
Windows' speech recognition lacks the bells and whistles available with Dragon, such as the playback facility, the text-to-speech facility and the file transcription facility. The text editing process is clumsier, in that anytime you select and then dictate over existing text, the software reacts as if you had launched the correction process, whereas Dragon will just write over it.
On the other hand, the Windows application makes fewer system demands and there is no slowdown when switching between documents.
Speech recognition also became standard feature this year on Apple computers with the introduction of the Dictation app in OS X Mountain Lion. And both iOS and Android offer voice dictation features on their mobile devices.
Lamont Wood is a freelance writer and long-time speech recognition user who lives in San Antonio.
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