Dictating to your computer and having the words typed for you seems like a great way to work, doesn’t it? You could just sit back, put your feet up, and blab away, instead of hunching over your keyboard and typing. If you’re a fast typist, dictation could be more relaxing; if you use the hunt and peck method, you’d save a lot of time and energy.
There are two powerful dictation solutions for OS X: The dictation tools built right into OS X Mountain Lion and Nuance’s Dragon Dictate. There’s a big difference between the two in price: Mountain Lion’s dictation feature is free with the OS, while Dragon Dictate will set you back $200. But that isn’t the only difference.
The Mountain Lion method
Dictating in OS X Mountain Lion is simple: Open System Preferences, open the Dictation & Speech pane and the Dictation tab, then click On. That done, you can start dictating by pressing the Fn (function) key twice; you can change that shortcut if you wish from the Shortcut menu of the Dictation pane.
To insert dictated words, you click wherever you want them to appear, then press the keyboard shortcut and start talking. When you’ve finished, you either click on Done or press the Return key. Mountain Lion then sends your speech to a remote server, which transcribes it and sends it back to your Mac to be entered as text. (It’s important to note that you need Internet access for dictation to work, and that sometimes the servers just don’t respond. I use iOS’s dictation often to reply to emails, and I’ve had transcription fail enough times to not count on it always being available.)
There are some limitations to OS X’s dictation tool. First, if you use your Mac’s internal microphone, the sound quality of your voice won’t be great. Since speech recognition depends on picking up on some subtle vocal distinctions, you might find that your results are not ideal. Second, you can only speak for up to 30 seconds at a time using Mountain Lion’s dictation feature. Finally, the OS X dictation feature doesn’t learn from your corrections: If the text it returns is incorrect, you can manually edit it, but these edits won’t help it avoid those mistakes in the future.
If you have a noise-canceling microphone, you can use that with the OS X dictation feature, and your results will be much better. The more you dictate, the more useful it is to have a good microphone.
The Dragon Dictate method
Dragon Dictate has a number of advantages compared to the OS X dictation feature. First, you “train” the program by reading about five minutes of text the first time you create a voice “profile.” This helps the program understand the way you say words.
When you dictate using Dragon Dictate, all of the processing occurs on your Mac, and, if the program makes a mistake—misinterpreting one or more words that you say—you can not only correct this mistake, but Dragon Dictate will learn from this so future recognition will improve. Over time, working with Dragon Dictate, your voice profile will refine and you will have fewer and fewer mistakes.
There is no limit as to how long you can speak with Dragon Dictate. While it’s helpful to pause from time to time—I generally pause after clauses, or after sentences—you can speak continuously, and your natural pauses will give Dragon Dictate the time it needs to process your speech.
While Dragon Dictate can work with your Mac’s internal microphone, Nuance recommends that you use a standalone mic. You can buy Dragon Dictate with a USB microphone which offers noise reduction to greatly improve recognition, or you can buy any number of microphones, both wired and wireless, that work well with speech recognition.
What they have in common
With both methods, you need to speak certain words to indicate punctuation and other special characters. Apple’s Mac 101: Dictation document shows you how this works. You say “cap” before a word to capitalize it, you say “comma” and “period” to have those characters typed, and so on.
So what about accuracy?
Depending on your needs, and how you use dictation, you may or may not be satisfied with the results of Mountain Lion’s dictation feature. If accuracy is too bad, you’ll be spending more time correcting mistakes than you would have spent typing your text.
The problem with Mountain Lion’s dictation feature, as I mentioned above, is that it doesn’t learn from your speech. In general, in a quiet environment, with a good microphone, both types of dictation give decent results. However, start talking into your Mac’s internal microphone, and the results can be different.
Dragon Dictate learns not only the way you speak but also the words you use. You can, for example, have the program examine some of your files to see the type of language you use in the documents you write. This helps Dragon Dictate figure out what you mean when you speak by seeing which words you use in which contexts.
I did a test, using a text that is fairly technical (the Wikipedia article about diabetes) , to see how each of the solutions worked. I tried Mountain Lion’s dictation feature twice, once with the internal microphone of my Thunderbolt display and once with a microphone that is very good for speech recognition. I then read the same text with Dragon Dictate, using just the microphone.
The original: Diabetes mellitus, or simply diabetes, is a group of metabolic diseases in which a person has high blood sugar, either because the pancreas does not produce enough insulin, or because cells do not respond to the insulin that is produced. This high blood sugar produces the classical symptoms of polyuria (frequent urination), polydipsia (increased thirst) and polyphagia (increased hunger).
Mountain Lion with internal microphone on Thunderbolt display: You know, simply diabetes, is a group of metabolic diseases in which a person has high blood sugar, either because the body does not produce enough insulin, or because sales did not respond to the insulin that is produced. This high blood Sugar produces the classical symptoms of polyurea (frequent urination), polydipsia (increased thirst) at polyphagia (increased hunger).
(Note that, several times Mountain Lion’s dictation tool just plain failed. When that happens, the dictation icon moves from side to side as if shaking its head, then goes away. I had to re-read a couple of these sentences several times.)
Mountain Lion with Plantronics Savi 400 microphone: Diabetes mellitus, or simply diabetes, is a group of metabolic diseases in which a person has high blood sugar, either because the body does not produce enough insulin, or because sales do not respond to the insulin that is produced. This high blood Sugar produces a classical symptoms of polyurea (frequent urination), polydipsia (increased thirst) and polyphagia (increased hunger).
Dragon Dictate with Plantronics Savi 400 microphone: Diabetes mellitus, or simply diabetes, is a group of metabolic diseases in which a person has high blood sugar, either because the body does not produce enough insulin, or because cells do not respond to the insulin that is produced. This high blood sugar produces the classical symptoms of polyuria (frequent urination), polydipsia (increased thirst), and Polly Fangio (increased hunger).
You’ll note that, while both do a pretty a good job, that last Dragon Dictate sample has fewer errors than the two before it. It’s worth pointing out that the single mistake Dragon Dictate made wouldn’t (in theory) recur, because I would correct it, and Dragon Dictate would observe and learn from that correction.
The last word
Mountain Lion’s dictation feature can be very useful if you to dictate occasionally. It’s great for dictating emails, instant messages, tweets, Facebook posts and the like. If you don’t mind editing your texts frequently, you can do a lot with this feature, and save time. However, a good microphone will deliver far more accurate results.
If, however, you want to dictate regularly, for more than short, occasional texts, Dragon Dictate is the way to go. The program learns from what you say and from your corrections, improving its accuracy over time, and also allows you to edit text using your voice, to control applications and much more.
Nevertheless, using Mountain Lion’s dictation feature may give you a first taste of speech recognition and show you what the future could be like. Once you’re convinced that dictating could be better than typing, then you could move up to Dragon Dictate.