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We've been following Dragon NaturallySpeaking for many years. In its early days the speech recognition software tended to overwhelm the average computer, and regular pauses for the system to catch up with dictation made for a frustrating experience.
Things have moved on considerably, and when we reviewed version 11 of Dragon NaturallySpeaking (NS) two years ago we found it slick in operation, if somewhat lacking in the help and support department.
When Nuance launched Dragon NS 10, it claimed 99 percent accuracy. With version 11 the claim was a 15 percent improvement on that. Version 12 boasts a 20 percent 'out-of-the-box' accuracy improvement. How soon will the company be claiming 100 percent accuracy?
In producing this update, then, Nuance has a challenge on its hands. How do you enhance an application that performs its core task well, and what extra features might attract new buyers and tempt upgraders? Nuance says there are more than 100 new features, improvements and enhancements in version 12, so it has clearly found plenty to do.
There are two retail versions of Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12: 12 Home costs £79.99 (inc. VAT; £66.66 ex. VAT), while 12 Premium costs £149.99 (inc. VAT; £124.99 ex. VAT). The more expensive option, reviewed here, includes support for Excel and PowerPoint, mobile dictation, multiple audio inputs for each user profile, wireless dictation over Bluetooth, and custom commands for text and graphics.
The first hurdle is installation and training. The setup process is straightforward and will be familiar to anyone who has used previous versions of Dragon NS. You'll need to set up a user profile, which stores information about your speech patterns. Multiple users can share the software by creating their own profiles.
The process involves connecting your microphone or headset and running through some material from which the software can learn your speech patterns. This takes about ten minutes to complete, after which you can take a new interactive tutorial that guides you through best practice for dictating, editing and formatting texts. One of our longstanding criticisms of Dragon NS is that its myriad features can be difficult to access, so this introduction to some of the software's features at an early stage is a welcome development. Of course, you can skip the interactive tutorial and work through it later if you prefer.
We used a Plantronics USB wireless headset that we tested version 11 with, rather than Nuance's provided wired headset. Setup was straightforward, and we were soon dictating into Microsoft Word.
Version 12 extends support for the Dragon Remote Microphone app to include Android as well as iOS. This app turns a smartphone into a wireless microphone that works over Wi-Fi. Nuance provides a QR code within its help files, which gives the app the profile name, computer name and IP data it needs to function, making setup relatively straightforward. There is also increased support for wideband 16KHz Bluetooth wireless headsets — if you prefer a wired headset, the bundled one in Dragon NS Premium 12 is reasonably good.
Dragon NS 12 automatically does some formatting for you — putting dates and percentages in the correct format, for example. It also handles some key grammatical points like formatting numbers correctly. How many of us know the grammar rule that says the numbers 0 to 9 should be written out in words, while larger numbers should be expressed numerically? Dragon NS 12 does, and it also puts the commas into large numbers like 9,100,027 as you speak them.
When we reviewed version 11 we found the sidebar a good idea in theory, but it was lacking in context-sensitive assistance. Nuance has fixed this to a large extent by making the sidebar intelligent enough to know what application you have active. Open Word, for example, and it gives you a series of commands for use within that program. Switch to Firefox and the sidebar offers you a new set of commands. It's a real step forward.
Error correction has had a time-saving makeover too: now, when you say 'correct that', up pops the Correction Menu offering a range of options.
Among Dragon NS 12's many enhancements is the ability to learn your preferences as you use the software. Smart Format Rules note your formatting corrections, for example, so that dictated documents retain a personal touch. This is less about understanding your particular writing style, and more about allowing your formatting preferences to override Dragon's own rules. The example given in the help file centres on whether you prefer to have units of measurement abbreviated or spelled out in full (kg or kilograms, for example).
There is improved support for users of Gmail and other web-based services with IE 9, Firefox 12, Chrome 16 and higher all supported, for example. The text to speech engine has also been enhanced with fast forward, rewind, speed and volume controls integrated, along with a more natural-sounding voice.
We've waited two years for Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11 to graduate to version 12, albeit with an interim 11.5 release in between. Nuance has certainly done more than tinker at the edges, with the improved sidebar perhaps the star feature among an array of new and enhanced capabilities. There are features in Dragon NS 12 that many people will never use, but its core dictation capability is now well and truly under control.