- Accurate speech-recognition engine gets it right 96 percent of the time
- faster dictation than the competition
- voice macros now work with any Windows application.
- Requires more than 500MB of disk space
- technical support is free for only the first 30 days.
If you want the best that money can buy in speech recognition, IBM's ViaVoice Pro USB Edition 10 is it. The program's improved speech-recognition engine records dictation accurately more than 96 percent of the time, and reacts to voice commands faster than the competition does. So if you're serious about consumer-targeted voice recognition, upgrade now for £39.67 (ex. VAT; £46.61 inc. VAT). If you're new to speech recognition, put your money down (£80.54 ex. VAT; £94.64 inc. VAT) for this best-of-breed speech engine. It's worth every penny.
Setup & interface
IBM's ViaVoice has always been straightforward to install and set up, and version 10 is no exception. All you have to do is put the software on your PC, plug in the included USB microphone (the excellent noise-cancelling Plantronics DSP 300), and talk your way through a 15-minute training session. That's it. ViaVoice's interface, called VoiceCenter, hasn't changed since version 9. This thin, toolbar-like strip features just one menu (to access the program's commands and options) and one button (to turn the microphone on or off). There's only one new feature here: you can now float the VoiceCenter, letting you position it anywhere on the screen, rather than docking it to one of the screen edges. ViaVoice's disk space appetite is as hearty as ever, too; you'll still need half a gigabyte for this program -- 510MB in our test installations. But that's par for the course among speech-recognition programs.
Like most consumer-level voice-recognition applications, ViaVoice 10 offers the usual complement of tools and functions, including voice dictation, a text-to-speech engine and voice-enabled application control. This year, version 10 also lets you create voice macros -- voice-activated shortcuts, in essence -- that work with any Windows application that's installed on your machine. We created one of these always-active macros to pop up any program's Help window whenever we said ‘show help’. Impressive. SpeechPad, the basic writing tool that comes with ViaVoice, is adequate for short jobs, but to get the most from this application, we recommend using it with Microsoft Word 2000 or 2002. Within Word, you can use plain-English phrases, such as ‘select this paragraph’ or ‘make this 12-point Arial bold’ to manoeuvre through documents, make editing selections, format and edit. ViaVoice remains the best speech-recognition program for Word users, and version 10 also dictates into virtually any other Windows application. Try to dictate foreign words and phrases, however, and you'll end up with some odd translations. ViaVoice no habla español -- or anything else but US and UK English, for that matter. ViaVoice excels at navigating the Web using spoken commands. Within Internet Explorer (ViaVoice also supports Netscape and AOL 7.0's browsers), you can call up favourites, scroll through pages, navigate using Back and Forward commands, and even ‘click’ links by saying the first few words of the link. We had excellent luck here: ViaVoice rarely failed to recognise a link. As before, ViaVoice includes text-to-speech skills that can read documents aloud in a robotic voice -- handy when you want to hear a playback of what you've written or dictated. Version 10 adds some new tricks, too: it now supports digital recorders from Olympus and Sanyo, letting you talk into these recorders, then upload the audio file to your PC, where ViaVoice turns it into typed text.
Although its interface hasn't changed much, ViaVoice 10 has changed for the better under the surface. Version 10's much improved speech engine significantly increases its speed and accuracy. Even with the briefest training, ViaVoice 10's transcription abilities impressed us. ViaVoice took dictation on our test jobs -- business-style letters, news stories and short memos -- with a 96.5 percent accuracy rate. In a short 140-word letter, the program made just five mistakes. Although that number may seem high, remember that ViaVoice 9 had an accuracy rate of 92 percent. The new version's four percent boost means 10 fewer errors on an average page of dictated text. ViaVoice isn't perfect, of course (no speech-recognition program is), and its errors can rate high on the Unintentional Comedy meter. When we dictated the phrase ‘thousands of queries I receive annually’ several times, it once came up with this howler: ‘thousands of Koreans received annually’. Ouch. In addition to its improved accuracy, ViaVoice 10's dictation speeds have increased significantly. The lag between saying a word and seeing it on the screen is much shorter than in earlier editions. In our tests, ViaVoice 10 generally kept pace with our voice, and when it didn't, words appeared within a second at most. It also recognises and implements commands more quickly. Of course, we tested ViaVoice on an 800MHz Pentium III system with 256MB of RAM. Slower systems will get slower results. Version 10 also makes it easy to navigate and control your PC and its applications with your voice. ViaVoice pauses only slightly as it recognises that you're switching from dictation to application control. A little hint: in our tests, we got faster results by prefacing such commands with the code word computer , as in ‘Computer, file open’, which popped up the open file dialogue.
Service & support
There's a good chance that you'll never need ViaVoice's technical support, as the program is amazingly straightforward. But if you do, you can scan the extensive online FAQ, submit questions via email, or call the help desk weekdays from 9am to 5pm. Phone support is free for the first 30 days, after which you're charged on a per-incident basis. When we called to ask about ways to improve our recognition rate, we got through to a support person almost immediately, who gave us several smart suggestions.