I'm writing this article without ever touching my keyboard. No, I don't have magical powers; I have Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 Preferred, ScanSoft's speech recognition software. The $200 application is designed to work as both a dictation tool and a means of controlling your computer by voice. My tests of a shipping version found it notably more accomplished at one task than the other.
After a brief training period with the app and its included microphone headset (which took about 5 minutes), I was ready to start talking. I found it fairly impressive right from the start. It did make mistakes, often on words that sound alike (for example, when I just said "a second," NaturallySpeaking recognized it as "the Sicilian"). The precision did improve when I took the time to go through more training--although I never experienced the 99 percent accuracy the company says is possible (my informal tests put it closer to 88 percent).
New in Version 8 is a feature called Smart Formatting, which lets you specify how the application formats certain numbers (such as dates and currency) and words you use often. In general, though, I found that talking to my computer was actually much slower than typing. I had to speak more slowly than usual, and I found myself constantly scanning the text to make sure I was correcting all of the errors. Still, I did find that the longer I used NaturallySpeaking, the more comfortable I became, and the quicker I was able to work.
At My Command
NaturallySpeaking also works in Command Mode, which lets you operate your computer completely hands-free. You can navigate through your desktop, open files and folders, and even launch applications. It was when using the Command Mode that I experienced more mixed results.
I was able to open some of my applications by voice, but others seemed to resist my commands. For example, by saying, "Start Internet Explorer," I easily launched a new browser window. But in trying to open Microsoft Outlook, I ran into trouble: After repeatedly saying "Start Microsoft Outlook" to no avail, I found I had to change the name of my desktop shortcut from "Microsoft Office Outlook 2003" to just "Microsoft Outlook" in order to open it. While that wasn't a difficult change to make, it wasn't an immediately apparent solution, and like many of the voice commands, it wasn't particularly intuitive.
Not only was it sometimes slower to speak to my computer (you often have to pause between commands), I realized that when you're using the application in an office environment, there are some things you just don't want to say out loud--whether it's your e-mail password or the text of a personal message you may be typing.
Version 8 includes new features for business users, allowing them to store their user profile (which the application uses to recognize your speech patterns) on a network server, so that you can use the application from various computers. Also new is a feature called Smart Commands, which let you change the action of a voice command, depending on where your cursor is located.
Despite its flaws, NaturallySpeaking remains a useful tool for people with physical limitations that prevent them from using a standard mouse and keyboard. Will I be talking to my computer in the near future? Probably not, but if my job involved more dictation, I'd probably give it stronger consideration. Plus, while it may not save you much time, it's always nice to give your hands a rest.
ScanSoft Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 Preferred
NaturallySpeaking works well as a dictation tool, but controlling your PC by voice can be a tough task.
List: $200 (includes headset)
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