Dictation programs, which let you control your computer and type using only your voice, aren't for everyone. But those who use them for productivity, or to write dialogue more naturally, or for accessibility reasons, will likely turn to Nuance Communication's Dragon brand of software, the leader in this category. In sampling speech recognition and voice command software, I've had overwhelmingly positive experiences with Dragon products, and the same can be said for Dragon Dictate for Mac 3.
Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 Premium for Windows impressed me like none other, and scooped our Best Buy award. I've also been extremely pleased with the smartphone apps Dragon Go! for search and other web functions, as well as Dragon Dictation for iPhone for transcribing when I am not in the mood to deal with Siri.
Having set high expectations for Dragon Dictate for Mac 3, I can't say that it hits quite the same high point as the Windows' version of the product, although it is still very good at what it does and is worthy of a Best Buy accolade.
Version 3 shows improvement in speed and flexibility, but it's still a very different product from the Windows version, Dragon NaturallySpeaking. The two are as different as their names.
Dragon for Mac is a little more rigid than the highly flexible and intuitive NaturallySpeaking Premium. I was also surprised to find the Mac app's interface looks radically different to that of its Windows counterpart.
In terms of core functionality, however, the two programs are similar. With both Dragon Dictate for Mac and NaturallySpeaking, you can control many applications and functions on your computer using just your voice, as well as dictate speech-to-text in word processing, note taking, and email applications. You can also dictate to Dragon's own notepad app, which comes with the software, although I found Dragon responded much more quickly and with less lag when used in Mac's own TextEdit program.
Setup and training
I installed Dragon Dictate 3 for Mac on an iMac running Apple OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion (you’ll find more on the system requirements below). The installation took a minute or two, and the additional setup, which involves acclimating Dragon to your voice and accent, took less than ten minutes.
Setting up is by far my favourite part of the program, as the app does a fantastic job of explaining how the software works on the most general level while also walking you through some demos of operations. For example, the app might ask you to read the following text aloud: "Pause briefly before saying a command and Dragon will instantly recognise that the command is something you want it to do COMMA rather than something you are dictating FULL STOP." While you're being told to say this or that and see the results on screen, the software is in turn learning more about how you speak, such as your accent and other characteristics of your voice.
One small difference that made setting up Dragon Dictate for Mac easier than setting up NaturallySpeaking for PC is in the script you have to read to help Dragon learn to understand you. In the PC version, you can choose to read a political speech, a few paragraphs about computers, or a few other options. In the Mac app, you don't have a choice, but the dialogue provided is an overview of how speech recognition software works, so you're effectively learning about the program while giving the software information, too. It's a minor difference, but you'll definitely have a better experience with any voice control software if you learn how it works at the most basic level.
To further help Dragon understand your vocabulary choices and things you say frequently, you can have the program read files from your computer or email app. It will learn proper names and other specialised vocabulary that it might not have stored in its database. You can perform this step at any time and as often as you like. You can also select your accent from a range of choices, such as American, British, Indian, Latino, and so on.
What's new in version 3?
Aside from being slightly faster and more accurate than the previous version, Dragon Dictate for Mac 3 comes with a few other upgrades. The tool for editing and correcting text now has a window that helps guide you through the steps for making the correction more easily, and Dragon learns from these mistakes and fixes.
There's also support for importing audio files from a digital voice recorder and transcribing them in the app, although it takes a fair amount of setup on the first go. If you don't have a digital voice recorder that works with Dragon, you can download a free app for iOS that ultimately serves the same purpose, called Dragon Recorder. There are a few more goodies in terms of having better control over your customisations on specialised vocabulary, too. So, for example, every time you say a word you've taught Dragon like "Android," you can ensure it’s always capitalised.
Dragon in action
When I fired up Dragon Dictate for Mac 3 for the first time, I relied on my past experiences with the previous version of the program and therefore didn't face as steep a learning curve as I did the first time I ever touched dictation software.
Once I had the app installed and configured appropriately for my voice, I used it to compose a few emails in Gmail and then start a draft of this very article. I've also used Dragon for Mac in the past to write scripts, which is one of the best uses for the app I've found for my line of work.
Script writing couldn't benefit more from an application like Dragon Dictate, in which you are forced to “write” as you speak. I ran into some difficulties editing, but generally caught on to the commands, like "end of line," and "new line" pretty quickly. The editing controls, for tasks such as correcting a word, are less intuitive than some of the other functions in the program, but a few on-screen menus that pop up when editing help guide you in the right direction.
In Dragon Dictate for Mac, you can manually switch between a few modes, such as "dictation" and "command," the latter being the one you use to operate your computer. For example, you can navigate a web browser without using the mouse and keyboard if you learn the Dragon commands. Similar to the editing controls, command mode comes with its own series of menus that you can display on screen to help you learn what to say.
Other visual cues that are front and centre include the microphone going into sleep mode (a picture of stars and a moon) and turning the microphone off (a red circle).
In dictating, every utterance appeared before my eyes with only a little lag, and version 3 seems a little more responsive than the previous Dragon for Mac apps. If you pause or slow down between clauses, you might find a more natural rhythm to dictating, and you'll see better results with Dragon, too.
I tested the software using both a USB headset microphone – and you need a microphone to use Dragon. Using a USB microphone, Dragon nailed nearly every word I said, even with a good deal of ambient noise around, including a pneumatic drill pounding away at the pavement outside my window. A good one is included with the shrink-wrapped software, but if you buy the digital download, you'll have to purchase a mic separately.
One final note, moving back to the voice command side of the package: Apple's OS already comes with built-in voice control called Speech Recognition, and it’s pretty powerful. If you're looking at Dragon Dictate for the controls rather than dictation, I recommend first learning what Mac OS can do. (Hey, you've already paid for it). It's very possible you'll realise you don't need Dragon. Dragon's voice control routines may be more rigorous, but you'll have to tackle a modest learning curve first.
Dragon Dictate for Mac 3 requires an Intel-based Macintosh running Apple OS X 10.7 Lion or OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, as well as 4GB of free hard disk space and a recommended 2GB RAM. You'll also need an Internet connection to register the product, and a DVD drive to install it if you buy the shrink-wrapped version.
As mentioned, you do need a microphone (which is included with the £130 boxed product). If you buy the digital download version of Dragon for Mac (also £130), plan to invest £20 to £30 more on a simple USB headset with mic because without it, you're wasting your money on Dragon. Alternatively, you can try this neat little trick with an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch (fourth generation): Download the Dragon Remote Microphone app (which is free) to use your phone's mic, or the mic attached to the earbuds, to dictate to Dragon via Wi-Fi.
Dragon Dictate 3 for Mac has the potential to transform your productivity levels if you write often, but only if you're willing to invest some time in learning the system and training the software. The learning curve isn't too bad, but you should not expect to be a pro with Dragon on day one.
The £129.99 baseline price keeps Dragon Dictate for Mac from being an impulse buy – as it should – but if you've been seeking a product for voice commands and real-time transcription, Dragon is a worthy investment. Also note that if you’re a student, you can pick up a cheaper Education version of the product for £99.99.
If a compelling use case for your work doesn't spring to mind, perhaps Dragon Dictate is not a tool you need. As I mentioned already, for basic voice controls, you can always use Apple's own Speech Recognition, which is included in the Mac operating system at no additional cost. It's really the advanced dictation that makes Dragon Dictate worthwhile, as its name suggests – and the program does a great job of ensuring that dictation is a smooth process.