Voice commands and dictation software on mobile phones, in apps like Vlingo or the iPhone's Siri, don't represent what's truly possible with this kind of technology. Not even close. Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 Premium does.
If you've never used dictation and voice command software before, Dragon NaturallySpeaking seems almost futuristic. It translates accurately. The speed is incredible. Intelligent features allow the software to become smarter the more you use it, by looking for words in context. After spending a few days with Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 – and a fair amount of time with its predecessor, version 11.5 – I've found my workflow completely changed, particularly when writing scripts.
Dragon can also solve problems you didn't even know you had. It can make writing faster, especially if you're not fond of composing with your fingers. I've also found it revolutionised how I write scripts that are meant to be spoken rather than read silently. Anyone who suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome or other mobility issues really can't do better than Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12. Professors can use the software to essentially show closed captioning during lectures in real time. And for some people who have trouble writing, or struggle badly with spelling, Dragon can relieve a lot of their pains, too.
The hardest part of working with Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 is that it takes time to set up, practice using, and master. Very useful documentation and tips appear onscreen when you need them, but there's no denying the learning curve. Invest the time and energy needed to get started, however, and Dragon more than pays off.
Note that you do need to use a microphone with Dragon, and a very good one comes bundled in the shrink-wrapped product box. Although as the program costs £150, you’d expect it to be a decent mic.
I tested Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 on a PC running Windows XP (more on the system requirements later). The installation took less than 10 minutes (via disc), but it helps to do some additional setup to get the system accustomed to your voice and establish a user profile. In all, the full setup time could take around 45 minutes, although you don't have to do it all at once. You can continue to give Dragon additional voice feedback that will help it adjust your user profile anytime you want.
The program deals with accents and you can choose your country, such as the UK, New Zealand or Canada. However, you'll still want to do additional setup in order for the system to adjust to your style of language and speech. Another way to give Dragon information about how you talk is to let it scan your sent emails and other documents, so the software can look for words you often use in relation to other words. Clever.
I actually enjoyed the setup process with Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12, which entails reading text shown on screen that explains how computerised dictation and voice commands work. I find it helpful to know what the system is doing and how it's trying to understand what I say so that I can adjust how I speak in order to get better results from the software.
As I’ve already mentioned, at any time you can go back to your profile and further adjust it by reading additional texts that Dragon provides and uses to better hear and translate how you speak. You can choose from a list of texts that vary in difficulty, length, and content. For example, I read parts of a business book that was coded for medium difficulty, but other options included humorous writing and children's books.
The very first time I used Dragon last year, I found it bizarrely intuitive. Version 12 is even more so, in part because of a new tutorial that's offered during setup.
This tutorial gives you a thorough walkthrough of how to use some of the basic functions and features.
The minimalistic interface consists of little more than a grey toolbar at the top of your screen showing when the microphone is active or asleep, and offers a few menu options, such as profile, tools, vocabulary, modes, audio, and help.
You can reveal additional menu options but even these don't take up much screen real estate. An optional sidebar appears on the right side of the screen the first time you use Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12, but you can close it in one click if you prefer not to see it.
Without much experience, I found it extremely easy to use the dictation portion of the software, even without reading any of the manuals or help guides. The accuracy of the translations was well above 90 per cent, with only minor errors occurring, such as mistaking "grey" for "great" when I wasn't enunciating clearly enough, and "are" for "our" when there wasn't sufficient context.
Part of what makes Dragon so intuitive is that you have options for what to say. For example, when dictating numbers you can say either "point" or "dot," so that "four point five" and "four dot five" both result in 4.5 appearing on the screen. To remove the most recently typed text you can say "scratch that," or "delete that." There's also a setting where you can change things like how dates are shown, letting you select "October 1, 2012" or "1/10/12" and so forth (see the image to the right).
Voice commands prove more difficult to use without training, let alone to master them. In my experience, I haven't gotten that much better over time with voice commands, in part because I don't use them frequently enough to remember what to say. When you buy Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 in a shrink-wrapped box (as opposed to the download version), it comes with a very handy Quick Reference Card that offers sample commands for a number of circumstances, from surfing the web, through navigating email to moving the mouse. Similar on-screen quick reference guides are available, which I would use if I was committed to learning the voice commands.
While I never felt at ease with the full range of voice commands, I did feel comfortable with basic editing in Microsoft Word as well as Dragon's own dictation box, a feature that appears any time you want to dictate but don't have a program open in which to do so. Moving the cursor around the screen works with very straightforward and simple commands, such as "go to end of line," "start of line," and "new paragraph." You can say "select comma," for instance, and Dragon will highlight every comma on the visible portion of the document, annotating each one with a superscript number (see below). Then you say the number of the comma you want to change, and it's instantly highlighted and ready for your next move.
Again, there's a lot to learn with Dragon, and the learning curve is palpable, but it's not a showstopper. You absolutely can pick up the software, then use it to dictate clearly and easily on day one.
New features in version 12
Version 12 of Dragon NaturallySpeaking has a few new features, in addition to improvements in speed and accuracy. Most notably, you can use Dragon to navigate Gmail and Hotmail. Using email with voice commands and dictation is generally better, too, with improved understanding of spoken email address, like, "at IT Pro Portal dot com."
Snail mail addresses automatically reformat in version 12 as well. When I dictated ITProPortal’s office address, Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 reformatted it to fit postal code standards (with street abbreviations and so forth used) the moment I had finished uttering the postcode.
Other new features include enhanced support for Gmail and Hotmail. When you open the application in either one of those web-based email programs, you see the small Dragon icon over any of the commands that you can say. For example, the sent button has an icon and if you say "go to sent," the email application opens the sent mail page.
While the compose button in Gmail doesn't have an icon, it responds to voice commands as well. Saying "compose new message" gave me a blank message and put the cursor in the To field. Saying "tab" caused the cursor to jump to the next field, which was the subject line. In all, the enhancements in version 12 make it easier to use a full range of commands in both Gmail and Hotmail, as long as you're using a reasonably modern browser (see the system requirements below for more details).
The system requirements could potentially be a hidden cost here, if you have to upgrade, as version 12 requires a decent amount of horsepower. Note, too, that the installation process checks whether your system meets the minimum requirements; if they are not met, Dragon NaturallySpeaking will not be installed. Hence I thought it was worth detailing these requirements in full.
The supported operating systems are as follows: Microsoft Windows 7 and higher, 32-bit and 64-bit; Microsoft Windows Vista SP2, 32-bit and 64-bit; Microsoft Windows XP SP3, 32-bit only; Windows Server 2008 SP2 and R2, 32-bit and 64-bit.
In terms of memory, the makers Nuance recommend 2GB of RAM for Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Windows Server 2008 32-bit. 4GB is recommended for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 64-bit. The minimum system requirements are 1GB for Windows XP and Windows Vista, and 2GB for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008.
As for the CPU, a 2.2GHz Intel dual-core or equivalent AMD processor is recommended. The minimum requirement is a 1GHz Intel Pentium or equivalent AMD processor (SSE2 instruction set is required), or a 1.66 GHz Intel Atom processor. A faster processor will yield faster performance, of course. For the processor cache, 2MB L2 cache is recommended; the minimum requirement is 512KB L2 cache. You'll also need 3.2GB of free hard disk space (or 4GB for localised non-English versions).
Your computer must have a sound card supporting 16-bit recording, as well as a DVD-ROM drive for installation. For compatibility with Gmail and Hotmail, you'll need Internet Explorer 9, Firefox 12 or higher, or Google Chrome 16 or higher.
Aside from the computing requirements, the most important things you'll need are a headset with microphone (which comes included with the disc version of Dragon), and reasonably quiet surroundings. Dragon purports to tune out ambient noise, but I found its input to be pretty sensitive in my testing, with the indicator levels for the microphone showing it picks up opening and closing doors, squeaky chairs, and colleague’s coughing, sniffling, and throat clearing. Dragon isn't always confused by these noises, but, when they're loud enough, you'll see a distracting message onscreen prompting you to "say that again" when in fact you haven't said anything.
Is NaturallySpeaking a natural choice?
Intuitive, fast, and accurate, Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium has the potential to transform your productivity. With certain kinds of software, it's hard to imagine its uses outside your own experience, but not with Dragon. For educators, students, writers, professional speakers, anyone with mobility or vision issues, and so many others, Dragon offers a multitude of benefits.
However, no matter how you intend to use NaturallySpeaking 12, you will want to invest some time in beefing up your user profile with additional input, and learning the commands for your intended use.
If a case for usage in your line of work or study doesn't jump to mind, perhaps dictation and voice command software is not a tool you really need. Basic speech recognition software is typically built into most operating systems, so if your needs are fairly modest, it's worth learning about the capabilities of your present system first, before shelling out big bucks for Dragon.
Despite its price, you do get what pay for with Dragon – although the cost to upgrade from version 10 or 11 seems excessive. If you're happy with the performance of your older product, hold off for at least another point release. That said, Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 Premium is highly responsive and highly accurate, and well worth £150 if you're not already a Dragon user.
NaturallySpeaking 12 Premium, while not priced as an impulse buy, is easily one of the best software applications you'll find for dictation and voice command. Dragon is that rare thing: A productivity app that is actually fun to use, and richly deserving of our Best Buy award. However, Dragon users who already have version 10 or 11 will not likely be swayed to upgrade due to the high cost.