Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 gives you hands-off computing

Nuance's software lets you enter text and work with applications by just using your voice

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You can also give commands. Dragon has a predefined set of command words and phrases, and you can also create your own. For example, saying "Cap" capitalizes the first letter of the next word, "Open paren" starts a parenthetical clause, and "Scratch that" deletes the previous word. Dragon also has commands to navigate around the screen, select text and more. There are keyboard overrides to force or avoid something being interpreted as a command.

I found it a bit difficult to use (and remember) Dragon's voice-actuated commands -- and to get the hang of Dragon's pacing. I spent around 10 hours with Dragon NaturallySpeaking -- enough to verify that the software does, as claimed, enable you to perform voice entry and editing of text and voice command of Windows and applications. But I'm far from proficient and productive in it. The documentation acknowledges, "We've found that it can take some users about 4-6 weeks of regular use to reach the highest levels of accuracy with Dragon."

Aside from the technical challenges of converting analog sound to text, there's the human aspect. You've got to train yourself to speak in a clear, evenly paced fashion that's oriented toward phrases and sentences (Dragon can be set to autopunctuate). You've got to learn and remember the commands -- and have them at the tip of your tongue. It's easy to become frustrated -- for example, when you make a mistake and blurt out "Oops," instead of saying, "Scratch that." You then have to delete several words -- and "Scratch that" won't work if Dragon doesn't interpret it as a command.

Why? Because timing is important. Dragon is sensitive to micropauses in trying to decide whether what you said was literal text or an attention-getting command. You also need to learn to speak in medium-long phrases, since Dragon's recognition engine is trying to guess words in part by context, e.g., to determine if you meant "to," "too" or "two."

In my own trials, Dragon's recognition of my dictation and commands (or, arguably, my mastery of Dragon) ranged from fair to poor. Many words and sentences came out near-perfect; many were nowhere near what I was saying. Forcing literal text with the Shift key worked sometimes but not all the time; in particular, successfully entering the words "new paragraph" involved practice and luck.

Bottom line

Something to keep in mind: Windows Vista and Windows 7 include speech recognition (and it's available for XP, although you may need to find and install it). You won't get as many features as Dragon NaturallySpeaking offers, but since Nuance doesn't offer a free-trial version (although there is a 30-day money-back guarantee), you may want to start there.

In addition, the company offers a lot of bundled and online resources; if you're committed, you may also want to consider working with one of its partners for help with installation, customization and training.

Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 does turn speech into text, lets you voice-control the dictating process, and works with other apps, such as Firefox and Windows. But expect a long learning curve. For me, typing is still faster -- but I'm going to keep practicing, and also continue exploring more of the features and options. And, of course, I have the option of typing. People who, for whatever reason, can't type are likely to find the hours needed to properly master Dragon NaturallySpeaking are well worth the effort."

Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 can work with a number of popular applications like Firefox.

Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology writer based in Newton Center, Mass. His Web site is www.dern.com and his technology blog is TryingTechnology.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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