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Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 Preferred

More than 35 years ago, the original "Star Trek" series and "2001: A Space Odyssey" conjured up sweet dreams of communicating with a computer through speech. Fifteen years later, I finally owned my first computer, but the speech part of my fantasy has remained an odyssey in progress. Most recently, that journey includes evaluating the current best-of-breed speech-recognition software, Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Alas, while the state of the art has vastly improved and NaturallySpeaking can be useful for some of us, my personal dream remains unfulfilled.

NaturallySpeaking comes in various flavors beginning at about $100. I evaluated the Preferred version at twice that price. And I had a second evaluator, a person with 15 years as a technology publishing professional, take a look at it as well.

Speech-recognition software has many uses, including dictation and transcription of recordings, and user-interface and application control for things like surfing the Web and editing email. My primary interest in NaturallySpeaking was in dictating text using the product’s included headset. The technological results may be the best I’ve ever had with a headset that has been included with a desktop software product. But both my co-evaluator and I found the physical design of the headset awkward in practice. In my case, blame a super-sized head. While I experienced no special concerns whether wearing my glasses or not, my co-tester found her glasses and the headset were contentious.

NaturallySpeaking works with Microsoft Word, adding its own toolbar to the application. Correcting misrecognized words brings up a set of alternative choices that gives new meaning to the term "dialog box."

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Both of us found it reasonably easy to “train” NaturallySpeaking to our personal voices — an exercise that takes up to an hour initially and a process you need to continue as you use the product. NaturallySpeaking plays well with most Windows products, such as Microsoft Word. Also, the dictation accuracy is about as good as it gets these days — far better than in the past.

But the good news stops about there. While the product claims a three-fold increase in speed compared to keyboarding, in informal testing I could type about five times faster than dictating, even disregarding the many typos that had to be corrected after dictation. And NaturallySpeaking went crazy when faced with unexpected input, such as coughing.

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