A: We haven't tested the new products thus far, although you could check with ZDNet's Mac Channel to see how it fared and to learn more about it. It's too bad we don't have lots of new choices in Macintosh models, now that the Mac clone business is coming to an end.
Apple's new online store itself looks pretty good. It's a convenient way to order Apple products.
Q: After reading your coverage of home PCs recently, I started struggling with the decision whether to buy a desktop or a notebook, which leads me to ask: what ever happened to docking stations? Do the leading notebook PCs still have good optional docking stations? Is much of what used to be in docking stations now in the notebooks themselves?
A: Yes, all of the major notebook vendors do still have docking stations available, and many people use them when they are in the office. Most of the major features of docking stations---such as additonal ports and video output--are now in the notebooks themselves, as you suggest. But most companies have smaller docking stations or "minidocks" or "port replicators" which are used to keep the cables for all the peripherals plugged in, so you only have to attach a notebook once. In the best of these, you can have multiple configurations under Windows 95, so that the machine understands when it's docked and when it isn't--so it can use an Ethernet connection when it's docked, for example, and a modem at other times. Also, many vendors still have larger docking stations, with additional PC Card slots or places for additional mass storage.
Q: Last week, you wrote that of all the year's technically excellent products, you really liked Dragon Systems' Naturally Speaking. But be honest. What's it really like to use one of those speech recognition systems? How long does it take to train, and is it worth the effort?
A: Well, if you're expecting the computer from "Star Trek" or 2001 you'll be sorely disappointed. No system today comes even remotely close. But I have been impressed by the continuous speech recognition features of NaturallySpeaking and by IBM's latest entry, ViaVoice Gold.
Really using either system, though, requires some getting used to. First, I've found the amount of training you do really impacts the quality of the systems. It takes patience--and a willingness to correct mistakes--to get the accuracy up to an acceptable level. In both cases, you can start working with the system after a short period of time--half an hour or less--but I've found it takes a couple of hours' use to get the systems to understand the specific words you use and the way you talk.
The other thing you have to understand is that these systems really expect dictation--not normal speech patterns. So you have to speak clearly and pronounce your punctuation. Is it worth it? That depends on what you're doing, how fast you can type, and whether you can dictate easily. There are times when I find speech recognition a good way to get my thoughts down on a particular subject, though I still haven't given up my keyboard for most routine work.
In any case, products like this are a big step forward from the discrete speech products we saw last year. They aren't perfect, but they're getting better at a rapid pace.