Ditch Your Keyboard With Windows Voice Commands

In the not-too-distant future, children will look at keyboards and mice with a mixture of amusement and derision. Advances in speech-recognition and dictation technology have quietly made stunning leaps forward in recent years; and although it isn't perfect yet, speech recognition has suddenly achieved very good usability. Here's how to take advantage of Windows 7's built-in voice command tools and make a break from the keyboard and mouse.

To get started with Windows 7 Speech Recognition, click Start, Control Panel, Speech Recognition, or simply type speech recognition into the Start search bar and press Enter.

The first time you start Windows 7 Speech Recognition, it will walk you through some basic configuration and customization options. The Welcome screen kicks things off and explains the basic functionality of speech recognition.

Use a Good Microphone

One of the most important elements of speech recognition is the quality and position of the microphone. If Windows 7 Speech Recognition can't hear or clearly understand your voice commands, your efficiency and results with the tool will suffer greatly.

You can use any microphone as an audio input, but a headset microphone is highly recommended because it places the microphone directly in front of your mouth even as you move your head. If you're not interested in wearing a mic on your head all day, consider springing for a good USB condenser mic, such as the Blue Yeti.

Document Review

Windows 7 Speech Recognition can learn to recognize your speech patterns and common words by reviewing written documents and e-mail on the PC. The more Windows 7 understands the words and phrases you use, the more accurate and effective it will be in recognizing your speech. Of course, some people may consider it a potential breach of privacy to allow Microsoft's speech recognition to sift through files, so you can choose to disable the document-review option.

Sometimes you might not want the speech recognition turned on and listening to everything you say--there's no telling what sorts of things you might make Windows 7 do if you leave the speech recognition enabled while you're on a phone call with your spouse, for instance. You can set the activation mode to determine what happens when you tell Windows 7 Speech Recognition to "stop listening." If you choose manual activation, you must click the microphone icon or press Ctrl-Windows to start it back up. But if you set it for voice activation, speech recognition enters a sleep mode where it can still hear, and you can activate it by saying "start listening."

Windows 7 provides a list of frequently used commands to guide you through basic operations with speech recognition. Rather than using a mouse to click an icon on the desktop to highlight it, you can simply say "click." For example, you can say "click Computer" to highlight the Computer icon on the desktop. If you want to open it, you can say "double-click Computer" instead of using a mouse to double-click it. If you are at a loss for how to work with Windows 7 in a given context, you can say "What can I say?" and Windows 7 Speech Recognition will provide a list of available commands. You can print the list as a handy reference guide.

The final step of the initial setup is to determine whether Windows 7 Speech Recognition should run automatically each time Windows starts, or only when you manually execute it. You can review all of the settings that you just configured by clicking Advanced Speech Options in the left pane from the Control Panel Speech Recognition console. You can also say "Show Speech Options" to display the speech-recognition properties.

Train Your PC's Ear

The first thing you should do with Windows 7 Speech Recognition is train the software to understand the nuance of your enunciation and voice patterns. Select Speech Recognition Voice Training from the Speech Recognition control panel to begin.

Once you've completed the initial configuration and training, it's time to go through the tutorial to learn how to use the software to control Windows 7. The Speech Recognition Tutorial walks through Basics, Dictation, Commanding, and Working with Windows.

Windows, Take a Memo

Dictation is a common and useful way to work more efficiently with speech recognition. The Windows 7 Speech Recognition tutorial on dictation moves step-by-step through the process of speaking text to the computer, including adding punctuation by saying "period," "question mark," and the like wherever you need to do so.

Inevitably, Windows 7 Speech Recognition will interpret some of your words incorrectly. Fear not: Microsoft explains how to specify which word to correct and then how to use your voice to select the proper replacement word (or words), followed by saying "OK" to confirm your choice.

On occasion you might change your mind about what you've said. You can use phrases like "undo," "undo that," or "delete that" to remove the last words or phrase you spoke so that you can begin again and rephrase your thought.

You can also delete specific words by saying "delete" followed by the word you wish to remove. To delete an entire section more efficiently, you can specify a section of text by selecting the first word of the section "through" the last word of the section, and then remove the section by saying "delete that." If you make a mistake, say "undo that" to bring the text back; if you want to remove the text highlight and move on, say "clear selection."

When you're dictating a letter or a longer paper--as opposed to a simple note or a short e-mail--you need to use phrases such as "new paragraph" and "new line" to let Windows 7 Speech Recognition know where and how to end lines of text and begin new sections.

There is more to Windows 7 Speech Recognition than simply dictating text, though. The software also enables you to speak commands to open applications and work with the operating system using your voice. For example, to open WordPad you can say "Start" rather than clicking the Start icon on the Windows 7 screen. Then say "All Programs" to display the full list of applications, followed by "Accessories" to open or expand the tools within the Accessories folder. Finally, choose WordPad by saying "WordPad."

Commanding Windows 7 using your voice is a fairly intuitive process because it is as simple as speaking what you see. Rather than clicking Insert in the menu, for instance, you can say "Insert" to open that menu option. You can then choose from the available options by speaking the one you want--such as "Date and Time."

To open folders or execute programs, you need voice commands that emulate the mouse actions you would normally use. To direct Windows 7 Speech Recognition to work as a mouse, phrase the command the way the mouse action would be described. For example, say "click Pictures" to choose the Pictures folder, and "double-click Sample Pictures" to open the Sample Pictures folder.

You can hide all open windows and reach the Windows 7 desktop by saying "show desktop." To work with the context menu that you usually access by right-clicking with the mouse, you can specify "right click" when choosing the file or application you want to work with.

Release the Dragon

Windows 7's voice-recognition capabilities are relatively robust and may be sufficient for most users, but you can find third-party products that provide similar functionality. e-Speaking Voice and Speech Recognition, one such product, is available for $14. You can download it free for a 30-day evaluation if you want to test it out, but it doesn't really offer anything that Windows 7 Speech Recognition doesn't already provide at no cost.

For a superior voice-recognition product, you have to spend a few bucks. Dragon NaturallySpeaking from Nuance has performance and features that extend beyond what Windows 7 delivers, but it comes at a premium. Dragon NaturallySpeaking Home retails for $100 (you can get it for around $80 from Amazon), and the more comprehensive Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium will set you back $200 (or around $140 from Amazon).

Not all "English" is created equally, and Dragon NaturallySpeaking understands that. When you configure a personal profile in Dragon NaturallySpeaking, you can specify common accents to help the software understand you better.

Dragon NaturallySpeaking follows an initialization process similar to that of Windows 7 Speech Recognition: It tests the quality and volume level of the selected microphone source, and then walks through training to acquaint the software with your individual speech pattern. It also requests access to scan e-mail and documents on the PC to learn more about the conventions and phrases you normally use in speaking.

Dragon NaturallySpeaking Home does not offer much to justify the expense over the free tool included in Windows 7, but people with advanced needs might appreciate some of the benefits of Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium. The Premium edition adds support for USB microphones, the ability to transcribe recorded files such as MP3s, and the capacity to discriminate between multiple voices. Dragon NaturallySpeaking also enables you to establish multiple profiles so that more than one user can have the software customized to understand their specific voice patterns.

Regardless of whether you use the built-in tools in Windows 7 or a third-party application like Dragon NaturallySpeaking, voice recognition provides a powerful means of working with a PC more intuitively and efficiently. You'll encounter a bit of a learning curve--for both the software and for you--but it's worth it in the end.

This story, "Ditch Your Keyboard With Windows Voice Commands" was originally published by PCWorld.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

How to supercharge Slack with ‘action’ apps
Shop Tech Products at Amazon