Review: Nuance Dragon for Windows offers strong voice recognition

The latest version of the pricey but powerful voice recognition software for Windows continues to improve.

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Follow the rules

Dragon has some built-in rules for how it presents what you dictate. Numbers are usually recognized as words, unless they're in a list or part of a date or measurement. If you are correcting text that has been formatted by one of these automatic rules, you'll get a large pop-up explaining this and telling you how you can change the rule; for example, if you always want to have numbers recognized as digits rather than as words or choose your preferred spelling. And again, you can make those changes with voice commands as well.

A convenient feature is the ability to save boilerplate text like your name and address for signatures, or terms and conditions you often add to an email, so you can insert it by saying a single word. You can make this much more powerful by putting variables into the text which you can fill out as if you were dictating fields into a form (by saying "next field" to jump to the next field); you can use this for mailing labels, reports and other things that need to use a specific template.

However, I had to choose the shortcuts to trigger these Auto-text entries carefully -- otherwise Dragon would just show the phrase I had said instead of inserting the Auto-text.

It is also confusing that when you create one of these shortcuts, it's called Auto-text, but when you want to edit it, you have to look for Custom commands. And if you want to add steps that cover multiple programs or need keyboard shortcuts, like creating an email and attaching a file, the feature is called MyCommands (even though it's part of the advanced section of the same dialog).

you can add custom vocabulary but it wasnt always recognized in our tests

You can add custom vocabulary to Dragon's dictionary of recognizable words.

You can also control what Dragon recognizes by adding words and phrases to its vocabulary. This ought to make Dragon more accurate when you're using names, addresses and product names -- but I found this didn't always work well. You can add words using the commands on the DragonBar, or you can open Dragon's Vocabulary Editor (also from the DragonBar) if you want to see what's already in the vocabulary and then add missing phrases. You speak the word, correct what Dragon recognizes it as and, if it's not getting it right, train the software by speaking the word several times.

However, when I tried to add OneNote to the Vocabulary Editor (it's a product name that Dragon didn't recognize) and train it specifically to recognize OneNote as a single word rather than two separate words, things didn't go as planned.

After I finished training it by saying "OneNote" half a dozen times, I tried to use it in my document. Dragon could find the instance of the word "OneNote" that I had previously corrected, but not any of the instances that I had entered into the document after it was trained. I removed the word from its vocabulary and tried again, and this time Dragon could recognize all the instances of "OneNote" in the document, but it still didn't suggest the correct capitalization for those words, and it didn't recognize the word correctly when I was dictating either. I had no more success by entering OneNote as an Auto-text expansion.

Finally, the third time I added it as a custom word, Dragon began to recognize OneNote correctly at least some of the time. So you may need to invest more time than you expect in training the system for your custom words.

Transcriptions and syncing shortcuts

Dragon learns your voice profile and should continue to improve slightly as you use it, although I didn't see a noticeable difference over the approximately three weeks of testing. You can also use it to transcribe audio files recorded with your voice or from another speaker, and you can have Dragon watch a specific folder and automatically transcribe files you drop into it.

However, it can cope only with a single speaker per file, and you need to create an audio profile for each speaker by recording at least a minute of speech and correcting any recognition errors by hand (making it less useful for meetings with other people).

I found recognition of recorded files significantly less accurate than the real-time recognition, even on the same device. However, Dragon can synchronize playing back the audio file as you edit your transcription in Word, which does make correcting less painful.

With this release, Dragon also promises to sync your voice profile and Auto-text shortcuts across multiple devices, so that if you use several computers, you should immediately get better recognition on the second machine you set up. In January, Nuance is also planning to release Dragon Anywhere, mobile voice recognition apps for iOS and Android that will share your voice profile and your custom phrases from the desktop software to get more accurate recognition on your phone.

Bottom line

This release of Dragon continues to improve the accuracy of the product and tweaks the interface to be less intrusive.

Its most interesting features are custom words and audio shortcuts (although the interface for these features is confusing), and synchronizing your voice profile and those custom shortcuts with the smartphone versions of the software, which are not yet available. Controlling Web apps is useful but doesn't work as consistently as does controlling desktop software.

I was particularly disappointed by the (small) number of occasions when I lost text whilst dictating. You will also need a reasonably powerful PC; I found the software would sometimes become unstable when system resources were low.

This version of Dragon shows that voice recognition software has become good enough to be really useful, although it still isn't completely reliable in every situation. Dictating text or controlling your computer with your voice can still be a little strange, even when it's very convenient. If you devote some time to creating your own shortcuts as custom commands rather than just using voice to control an operating system designed for keyboard and mouse, you can be very productive -- but Nuance needs to improve the interface for doing that, so that it's much clearer what you can do and how.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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