- Initial training is fast and easy
- very good speech recognition after initial training
- fast conversion of speech to text
- good voice-driven system command and control
- Poor integration between the bundled digital voice recorder and Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 Preferred
- no batch conversion facility between the voice recorder format and WAV
ScanSoft’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking is a recognised leader in speech-to-text software. The product is now at version 8 and has recently been released in a bundle with a digital voice recorder, the idea being to provide the mobile professional with a complete solution in one box. If you don't want the mobile bundle, there are various other versions of Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 available: Standard (£79.99 inc VAT), Preferred (£149.99 inc VAT) and Professional (£467.00 ex VAT). Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 Mobile is based on the Preferred version of the software.
Installation and features
Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 Preferred is straightforward and quick to install. Once the software is installed here's a five-minute training programme that involves reading out some text while the software analyses your voice. Then you can begin to dictate. The bundled Philips Digital Voice Tracer 7630 recorder has its own software for managing downloads, and this is equally simple to set up. The device comes in its own box with a printed manual. Once you are dictating via a headset direct to your PC, a command bar in a stripe across the top of the screen provides access to various Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 Preferred tools and settings. As you become more proficient you'll discover that many useful features are accessible from this bar. For example, you can set up single commands that can automatically feed chunks of text, complete with formatting, into a document. This is particularly handy if you often need to use 'boilerplate' sentences or paragraphs. Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 Preferred offers a lot more than converting the spoken word into editable text. You can also control applications using the software and do all those niggling things like maximising, minimising and resizing windows. You’ll need to learn a number of commands to get the most out of the program and we don’t have space to cover the full range on offer, but here's a flavour. There are two options to for getting the software to read text out loud. Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 Preferred records your voice and will play that back; it can also deliver speech in a synthesised voice. Listening to your own voice is useful when checking through text you've written: misrecognition is often due to lack of spoken clarity and listening to yourself can help you to improve in that department. The computer-generated voice is potentially useful for reading out texts you have not dictated -- from a Web site, for example. However, it would not read directly from Firefox -- we had to cut and paste into Word first. Like all synthetic voices we have come across, this one is sterile, lacking in inflection and distinctly American in accent. ScanSoft inherited a curious system for pinpointing a location on the desktop when it bought NaturallySpeaking from Dragon, and this system has been retained. Called MouseGrid, it involves breaking the full screen or current window into ever smaller blocks to allow you to home in on a particular spot. It's a little tedious to use, but it does work. An alternative is to call up the pointer by saying 'Mouse', and then order it around the screen with commands like 'Mouse up 10' and 'Mouse right 6', finishing with 'Mouse click', 'Mouse right click' and so on.
Not so long ago, it took tens of minutes to train speech-to-text software to recognise your voice with acceptable accuracy. We spent literally five minutes training Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 Preferred; thereafter, ‘on the job’ training was given as needed. Not a lot of this was required, and it didn't significantly affect our productivity. Indeed, we were able to dictate with a good level of accuracy without having to worry too much about pronunciation, enunciation or our rather less than BBC English accent. More of an issue was the need to learn commands for punctuation, mouse control and menu selection features. The Quick Reference Card covered most of what we needed at first, but it lists only a subset of the bewilderingly large array of spoken instructions available. Speech recognition speed is very good. We could talk at pretty much a normal word rate without needing to pause for the software to catch up. According to Scansoft, a 500MHz Intel Pentium III system with 256MB of RAM should be fine. Speech-to-text software needs to understand context in order to get things right. The example the software gives during training is the difference between ‘I scream’ and ‘ice cream’, which sound the same when spoken. Our experience illustrates this point neatly. Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 Preferred worked extremely well when instructed to insert a new line or new paragraph amid a stream of dictation. However, when dictating this paragraph, the words 'new line' and 'new paragraph' were only recognised as words rather than formatting commands if we said them slowly. That's one example of how you need to modify the way you speak to make the most of NaturallySpeaking. Managing applications is relatively straightforward once you learn the program's conventions. For example, to run software you simply say 'Start' and the name of the program as it appears under the Start menu. To use menus within applications you say the name of the menu followed by 'Click' and then the name of the relevant menu option. To select from tabbed menus you say 'Click' and then the tab name. For some reason, NaturallySpeaking wasn't happy making selections from menus in Firefox, but we had no problems with any other software we tried.
Philips Digital Voice Tracer 7630
The Philips Digital Voice Tracer 7630 is a compact and usable dictation machine. It has four folders, each capable of storing 99 voice clips. You can record up to 17 hours 20 minutes at the lowest voice quality setting, 10 hours 50 minutes at medium quality, and 1 hour 25 minutes at high quality. Although you can copy files from the Windows file browser to your PC, you need to use the supplied software to convert them from their proprietary format to the WAV file type that NaturallySpeaking requires. Unfortunately, there's no batch-conversion facility, which makes this a tedious job. It's irritating that none of the four versions of the desktop software provided by Philips are for the model bundled; the version we were instructed to install via a slip of paper inside the product box is for a more advanced model that acts as an MP3 player and USB key -- features not offered by the 7630. There is no direct integration between the voice recorder and Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 Preferred. Once copied to your hard drive using Philips’ software, voice files need to be located using a browser that pops up when you choose to ‘transcribe recording’ within Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 Preferred. When your selection is made, transcription begins automatically into DragonPad (a basic word processor). The absence of any quick-start guide explaining how to use the Digital Voice Tracer 7630 with NaturallySpeaking gives the bundle an incomplete feel. In fact, you could just as easily use any other device that can record WAV files: Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 Preferred comes with voice recorder software for Pocket PC devices, and its manual includes a chapter on using this and standalone devices from Sony, Olympus and Panasonic (but not Philips). Despite these niggles, transcription was very impressive. You can create a separate user profile for the transcription of text from mobile devices, which trains Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 Preferred specifically to recognise pre-recorded speech. However, our first experiment, which used our original user profile, delivered remarkably good results, and we never needed to create a new profile. When we tried to transcribe text recorded by an untrained user, the results were utter gobbledygook, which shows that although the training period for the software is short, it is very effective.
Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 Preferred performs well both at its core speech-to-text task and also at voice-driven system command and control. Put in a little effort learning its various commands, and you can input text faster than all but the most proficient of touch typists. The Philips Digital Voice Tracer 7630 is relatively easy to use, and offers good battery life from its pair of AAA cells. However, integration between software and hardware is not what it could be, and at the very least a quick-start guide covering the basics would be useful -- not least because of the mismatch between Philips’s desktop software and the supplied hardware. If you already have a mobile device that can record voice, such as a handheld, you may not need this bundle. But if you want efficient speech-to-text software, Dragon Naturally Speaking 8 Preferred is definitely worth considering.