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ViaVoice Millennium Edition, released nearly a year ago, was a big event for the Mac crowd, who had never before enjoyed real-time dictation software ("Listen Up," June 2000). The program was obviously a first stab-it was quirky, and it limited you to brain-dumping into a SimpleText-like text editor called SpeakPad. But it was irresistibly inexpensive, and IBM pledged to continue working on it.
The more expensive second version, ViaVoice Enhanced Edition (VVEE), isn't limited to the SpeakPad application: you can use it to dictate into Microsoft Word 98, Internet Explorer 4.5, and Outlook Express 4.5 and AppleWorks 6. Never mind that most of those are outdated software versions; being able to speak directly into those programs would be a thrilling stunt. But VVEE is hampered by some serious limitations.
As before, the program comes with an elegant, comfortable headset microphone, now equipped with a USB connector instead of a miniplug.
The manual (which is skimpy and riddled with typos) directs you to begin your VVEE experience by reading into the headset mike as many canned book excerpts as you can stand. The more you read, the better the software gets to know your voice and the better its accuracy.
Now you're ready to attempt dictation in the SpeakPad application. This is likely to be the highlight of your VVEE experience; using SpeakPad, you enjoy noticeable improvements in speed and accu-racy over the original ViaVoice.
SpeakPad transcribes your words almost as quickly as you can say them, and it offers smoothly integrated vocal formatting and error correction. If you say "operation," but the program hears "aberration," you say, "Correct aberration ." The program highlights the erroneous word and displays a list of its closest guesses (in can't-miss, 24-point type); if you see the word you intended, you can select it from this suggestion list by saying its number ("pick 3," for example). SpeakPad instantly corrects the error and learns not to make it again.
When you've finished dictating, you can speak commands such as "Transfer to Word" or "Transfer to Eudora"; SpeakPad copies what you've dictated, switches to the program you named, and pastes in your words -- just as it did in the original version. This copy-and-switch process is surprisingly fast, and it's not as clunky as it sounds.
The most delicious promise of the Enhanced Edition, however, is that you can dictate directly into your programs, thanks to a new background application called Direct Dictation.
Unfortunately, the Direct Dictation feature is much more limited than SpeakPad. In Outlook Express, for example, you can't correct errors by voice; you can dictate only a rough draft, and then you make corrections using the keyboard and mouse. In AppleWorks 6 or Word 98, you can correct mistakes by voice, although it's slow going in AppleWorks, and VVEE's Read Me document warns you to keep your documents under a few pages. Also, when I attempted to make spoken corrections in Word, ViaVoice often highlighted the wrong word. Another limitation with Word is that you're restricted to opening one document at a time. In Internet Explorer you can jump to sites by voice, but it's far faster to choose from the Favorites menu.
Direct Dictation is also more unstable and unpredictable than SpeakPad: it makes more transcription errors, such as putting extra letters into the text when you're dictating into Microsoft Word, and even omitting words entirely. In Outlook Express, it sometimes leaves insertion-point cosmetic glitches on the screen. In all programs, it often leaves the insertion point in the wrong place, and if you correct the last word in a sentence, it adds a space before the period. It causes Word 2001 to crash on startup (by putting an alias in Word 2001's startup folder), and it can lock up your machine if you switch applications before it's finished processing your words.
The most crushing disappointment is Direct Dictation's glacial pace in Word 98. The sluggishness varies, but ViaVoice can easily take more than a minute to process a 20-word paragraph on a 450MHz Power Mac G4. In short, the program is nearly unusable in Word. You'll get much more work done by dictating into SpeakPad and using the "Transfer to Microsoft Word" voice command after each paragraph.
A Speedy Rival?
Erik Sea, ViaVoice for Mac's lead programmer, told readers of the Mac Voice mailing list that the next version is already in the works -- a Mac OS X edition that will "knock our socks off." Until then, you might want to look to MacSpeech, which finally released its long-delayed iListen,1.0.1 ($100; www.macspeech.com ) in November. iListen also promises direct dictation into Word and many other programs, and the preview version delivers with speed that makes ViaVoice look positively poky.Text Macros: ViaVoice lets you create new pronunciations for existing words, and you can teach it entirely new words. It can also handle text macros -- long stretches of text that appear when you say a much shorter phrase.Take One: My first pass at dictating a fairy tale looked like this. At right: the Correction window, showing a wrong word in the process of being fixed.