The Tech Just Keeps Getting Better and Better
Background: Some 30 years ago, when I first read about a new technology that would enable people to dictate to computers hands-free, I was elated but skeptical. Because of my inborn neuromuscular disability — a form of spinal muscular atrophy — and my chosen profession as a writer/journalist, I was really struggling to input words. This news seemed too good to be true.
Soon I ventured to a local university lab for a demonstration. I met a polite geek who took me into a small, overly air-conditioned room filled with computer equipment and little else. In the center hung a lone microphone.
This early version of DragonDictate was a marvel to behold! If you spoke — extremely slowly … like … this — your words would appear on screen! If I wanted my own, though, I’d have to shell out $20,000 for the software, plus another $20-grand for hardware capable of running it, and have the equivalent of an extra bedroom to store it.
But within three years the price came down below $5,000, and the thing could be run on a home PC. I was one of the first customers.
Fast-forward to 2016. Nuance Communications, the corporation that now owns Dragon, released Dragon Professional Individual 15 for PCs (for Macs, it’s version 6) — the fastest, most accurate, most user-friendly and feature-rich version yet. The upshot: For those who’ve owned previous versions of Dragon products, the upgrade is definitely worthwhile. Newcomers, too, won’t be disappointed.
What’s different this time? “One of the things we’ve focused on is making sure this new release works seamlessly with an even broader variety of current applications,” explains Rick Brown, senior director of product management for Nuance. In other words, it works with Windows 10, Microsoft Office 2016, WordPerfect 8, and a host of online apps such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as most previous incarnations of those popular programs.
In addition, the improvements in speech recognition are significant. From the moment you install it, the speed and accuracy of dictation are startling, even without much prep. Nuance calls the tech “Deep Learning,” a vocabulary-searching algorithm that’s touted to deliver 24 percent greater accuracy than last year’s model, though I’m not sure how to prove that. All I know is, it’s surprisingly precise. And it’s always learning from the user’s speech patterns, word choices, and intonations. So in theory, at least, it’ll get even better the more you use it. (I wish my wife listened to me as attentively.)
“The underlying engine for speech recognition has been greatly enhanced,” says Brown. “This means that, for a larger and larger number of people, Dragon’s usability is better, easier, and more available than it’s ever been before. Loyal users will see the difference, and for those who were frustrated in earlier years, now is a good time to try Dragon again.”
Although earlier versions were more than adequate for me, this newest one really does have several unprecedented and worthwhile advantages. First, like last year’s model, Professional Individual is a kind of hybrid between the old Professional and Preferred. Specifically, it can run macros (that is, a series of commands can be put into effect with a single trigger phrase, such as “enter boilerplate contract language”). Moreover, it can save a recording of your dictation with every document. So if you’re rereading something you composed earlier and come across an odd word or two — the kind of glitch that makes you wonder, “What the heck was I really trying to say there?” — you can actually replay what you dictated and see what Dragon typed wrong, and correct it.
In earlier versions of Preferred, the recordings disappeared as soon as you changed windows, which drove me crazy! Many times I lost recorded dictation before I’d bothered to listen to it and correct the text. But now the recordings can be saved forever, or not if you’re ready to delete them. The Options menu under Tools in the DragonBar gives you a choice of whether to always save the dictation files, never save the dictation files, or “ask me” every time I close a document. I like the third option best.
Best Older Features Remain, New Improved Ones Added
Second, the latest Dragon is made for our mobile world. It syncs with the Dragon Anywhere app, sold separately for $15 a month or $150 a year, and works well on Android and iPhones. The app is basically a cloud-based version of Dragon, and it can work with your computer’s Dragon user files for improved accuracy. That is, it syncs your customized vocabulary and auto-texts, such as using “home address” as a shortcut for automatically inputting your home address.
The new Dragon also comes with commands that enable you to use touchscreens by voice. Last year’s model had a version of this, but the new one promises several enhancements for improved productivity.
Another useful tool is the “DictationBox,” which enables you to dictate text into a program or website that’s not fully compatible. A little window pops up, you dictate, and when you’re done the text automatically appears in the app. You can even set it up to automatically open the DictationBox whenever it encounters an appropriate situation.
In fact, the new software has so many features I haven’t yet been able to try them all. You can dictate into a separate recording device, then attach the recorder to your computer and have Dragon transcribe it. In my experience, this isn’t as accurate as dictating directly into Dragon, but it can be a boon for those on the go. It can also transcribe someone else’s speech, though again the accuracy isn’t quite as good. Maybe future versions will improve this.
Another complaint about the 2016 upgrade: When you close Dragon, it now automatically saves your user profile without asking whether you want to. If you think it’s saved a bad dictation session, at least you can restore a previous saved profile fairly easily.
In fairness, previous incarnations have had a few glitches. I haven’t found one yet in this upgrade. What’s more, the best features from prior versions are still there. For instance, there are still the familiar commands such as “MouseGrid” to bring up nine numbered squares on your screen. Say a number and the grid shrinks to fill that space. You can keep doing this until the cursor arrives where you want it, and then say “MouseClick” or “RightClick” or “LeftClick” or “DoubleClick.” You can also say “Mark” and “Drag” to move a mouse pointer from one spot to another.
As in previous versions, the newest has different modes — Normal, Dictation, Command, Numbers and Spell — to limit the active vocabulary to whatever task you have at hand. If you’re doing a lot of math, say, you might put it in Numbers mode so it only recognizes the numbers you speak.
A few tips: The speech recognition accuracy is so good out-of-the-box that you no longer have to spend time training it. Still, there’s a tutorial and help menu if you get stuck. In addition, you can train specific words or phrases, and the software can scan your emails and other documents already on your computer, as well as perform an extensive reevaluation of your audio conditions after a few sessions, to gain a better sense of your speech patterns and enhance accuracy. You can also add or remove words from the active vocabulary.
Dragon isn’t perfect, to be sure. It can’t always understand what you say, especially if you mumble or work in a noisy environment. The newest version can work with most built-in microphones, and it comes with a headset, but for the best accuracy I recommend buying a good noise-canceling microphone headset. Look up online reviews before purchasing. I prefer USB headsets because they have their own independent sound technology, for greater clarity and therefore improved accuracy. Good ones cost between $50 and $200.
Also, Dragon tech support is only free for 90 days. After that, save your money and search online for solutions. There are many helpful blogs; my favorite is knowbrainer.com.
No doubt next year’s Dragon upgrade will be even faster and more accurate than this one, as will the one a year after that, and so forth. But I’ve never regretted making the additional annual investment. I use Dragon every day for everything — I’m using it now — so, to me, it’s definitely worth it. The newest complete package costs $300; upgrades from predecessor versions, without a new headset, go for half that. If you want a wireless Bluetooth headset instead of the standard one, it costs an extra $100.