NaturallySpeaking dictates performance

Software developers for decades have been trying to convert speech reliably into computer commands. Despite the progress they've made, all such programs do require some training.

Dragon NaturallySpeaking 7 strikes a good balance between accuracy and ease of use.

My past experiences with dictation software haven't been good. I've seen such programs freeze, conflict with other apps, or demand a large chunk of processor speed and memory.

That wasn't the case with NaturallySpeaking 7. Multitasking with it was effortless on a Pentium III notebook PC with 128M of RAM.

But dictation software tends to be a space hog, and this one was no exception. It occupied a whopping 273M of the notebook hard drive.

Installation was straightforward and took about four minutes. More difficult was the training, which required me to construct a profile and give the software lots of experience at interpreting my voice in that profile.

Dragon can accept multiple profiles so several impaired users can access different machines. But the multiple training sessions tend to take a long time, depending on the users' voices.

I trained NaturallySpeaking by reading a series of program-selected passages for about 20 minutes until it recognized me with almost 85 percent accuracy, which a few years ago would have been amazing. The last package I tested gave only about 65 percent accuracy after two hours of training.

Users with impaired vision need help during the enrollment and training. There are hotkey shortcuts that let a visually impaired user navigate the enrollment, but support is still necessary.

A good microphone is essential. I used a high-end Universal Serial Bus headset from Logitech Inc. of Fremont, Calif., to reduce ambient noise. Many users are tempted to try a free-standing microphone, but I don't recommend it. Headsets give better results and are more comfortable.

Once enrolled with a good microphone, I could do things'for instance, navigate around the desktop interface'that I've never been able to do with other dictation software.

On my first attempt to press the hotkey that initiates the microphone and software, I said, 'Open Microsoft Word' and it immediately opened.

Dictation in Word gave me a little trouble at first but became easier as I learned when to pause and how to give commands.

For example, I first dictated, 'I work at Government Computer News.' I couldn't manage to capitalize 'computer' until I found the command, 'Cap that.'

Likewise, I had to remember that when giving the computer a command for which I would normally use the mouse, I had to start the command with 'Click' followed by 'Close' or 'Maximize.'

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