Who wants to risk or aggravate carpal tunnel syndrome at a keyboard? People who suffer repetitive stress injuries, type slowly, or dictate long documents for work are among the best candidates for Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10, which types as you talk. While not perfect, it's the best consumer tool available for digital dictation and can save time and headaches for the right user.
Dragon NaturallySpeaking's maker, Nuance, estimates that built-in speech-to-text capabilities in Windows Vista are about five years behind those of this application. You could get by with such features in Windows for occasional use, but Dragon is deeper and more accurate.
Version 10 is supposed to be 20 per cent more accurate than its predecessor, both of which supposedly offer greater than 99 per cent accuracy. However, that won't likely translate to your personal experience. We found success with about four out of five spoken words. Should we blame our lisping, soft-spoken ways, the software, or the hardware?
The updates to Dragon 10 include support for people with accented English, as well as voice-command shortcuts for supported applications and Web searches. Dragon NaturallySpeaking is supposed to translate spoken words to text twice as quickly as version 9. We couldn't measure that, but did notice a speed improvement.
Set-up and interface
Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 runs only on Windows XP or 2000 SP4 or higher or on Vista, so Mac users are out of luck. (ViaVoice for the Mac, which uses Nuance's technology, is no longer updated.) It requires 512MB of RAM and 1GB of free hard-drive space. You'll also need a noise-cancelling headset microphone, a 16-bit or equivalent sound card, and a DVD drive.
If you only need a tool to type as you talk and don't want to dictate commands to software or for Web searches, then opt for the $149.95 Standard edition of Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Preferred, for $299.95, includes software voice commands as well as support for mobile devices. Preferred Mobile adds a digital voice recorder.
We tested the $999.95 Dragon NaturallySpeaking Professional 10, which adds support for forms, networking capabilities for an office, and the choice of a standard or Bluetooth headset. We wish a USB headset were an option; you'll have to buy a dongle to hook up the mic-in headset to a USB slot. The $1,590 Legal edition also helps you dictate briefs and court documents.
Make sure to uninstall an earlier version of Dragon if you have one. And if you already have the latest version on a PC, don't overwrite it with a lesser-featured version that may be bundled with a new, supported digital voice recorder.
Installing Dragon 10 on two Windows XP machines took around 20 minutes without incident. Unfortunately, Windows Vista installation was a nightmare. It took more than 10 minutes to install Visual C++ 8.0 Runtime, only to find out it hadn't fully installed. Or had it? We were caught in a catch-22 of circular commands after rebooting more than a dozen times. The issue was related to a known bug in Windows Vista. We spent what amounted to more than two hours with a polite, bright tech support representative who offered a workaround.
Once it's running, Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 adds a small feature bar that sits atop other open applications on your desktop. The well-organised pull-down menus haven't changed from the past. The text will "type" pretty much wherever a cursor appears, including word processing pages, Web form fields, and the included DragonPad.
Dragon performs a microphone check during set-up. When our volume was too low on the Windows Vista laptop, we couldn't use the software. Somehow reading our frustrated mind, it typed "I hate you I" when we said, "Type. Type!" Saying "crazy" got spelled out as "greasy". Then "greasy", spoken, translated to "leafy", then "greens fee", then "Greenstein". In fact, the included headset didn't deliver adequate voice quality to use Dragon NaturallySpeaking at all. We reverted to the same headset packaged with Dragon 9, with better results.
Training is optional, but we recommend stepping through its paces to get Dragon up to speed with your speech patterns. The software can also scan the documents and emails on your computer to look for commonly used words.
New to this update is support for accents which include, oddly enough, Teen English alongside American, Australian, Southern Asian, British, Dutch, French, German, Italian, and Spanish accents. And there's improved QuickVoice formatting. For instance, now you can utter the command, "Underline The Grapes of Wrath" to underline the book's title, which took two steps with previous versions.
In addition, Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 introduces Voice Shortcuts that enable you to look things up online quickly in your default browser. Tell Dragon to "search YouTube for Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream Speech'", and relevant results appear on YouTube. The same applies for Wikipedia, eBay, and Amazon. Dragon 10 is also built to search within Windows Vista folders and in Google Desktop.
This application supports commands in Microsoft Word, Corel WordPerfect, Microsoft Outlook Express, Internet Explorer, and AOL. Using Dragon with the Google Docs online word processor was trickier in our tests than with Microsoft Word 2003 or 2007. People with disabilities can mostly drop the mouse and the keyboard, asking Dragon to do the work for them. But if you have the choice, we still prefer manual controls to the tedious attempts at using Dragon to cut and paste chunks of text within a long document.
The more you use Dragon, correcting its errors and adding your own lingo to its vocabulary, the better it gets. It already recognises everything from "a cappella" to "smiley-face" to "ZZ Top". Abbreviations and tech slang work, too; speaking "dot ASP" spells ".ASP" and saying "smiley-face" will spell out this character: :-) Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 has the intelligence to detect words within context. For example, it knows to type "eating a carrot" instead of "eating a karat".
You don't need to speak like a robot into the mic, although enunciating helps. If you tend to mumble, then act as if you're reading a book to a child or a teleprompter for a newscast when using Dragon. Out of the box, the application does very well with long, polysyllabic words. But we've found it difficult for Dragon versions 8, 9, and 10 to distinguish between short words with similar vowel sounds, such as "a", "the", and "of".
You can plug in a variety of voice recorders for Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 to transcribe your own voice. The application supports MP3, WAV, and WMA audio files. You can create a profile of your voice for a mobile recording device, such as a Pocket PC handheld. After you record your thoughts on the go, you can feed Dragon that sound file later for transcription.
Unfortunately, the Dragon 10 licence is only good for one user. To the woe of journalists and college students, Dragon won't transcribe your recording of, say, an interview subject or a college professor.
Step-by-step set-up help and tutorials are excellent. We found the searchable online knowledge-base to be well organised. Peer support is also available online.