Nuance Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 voice-recognition software lets you use voice commands to produce text documents and surf the Internet, thereby minimizing your typing. It fills a need for PC users who can't or won't use a mouse and a keyboard. Dragon offers intuitive speech commands and lots of hand-holding to spare you from intimidation. It can learn your speech and writing patterns in order to deliver impressive, professional results. Its transcription and networking features should serve business users and legal pros well. Dragon performs better than we anticipated, but the Professional version is painfully expensive, gobbles up memory, and charges high rates for technical support. Home users should opt for the $99 Standard edition or pay $100 more for the Preferred version, which enables dictation playback and transcribes to handhelds. All editions of Dragon share the same engine. Nuance Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 Professional is easy to use, beginning with a short and painless installation via CD-ROM. In our tests, the Typical Complete installation took about 10 minutes. The Custom Installation option lets you choose features to install, which can save substantial disk space. This program has a high memory requirement of 256MB of RAM (512MB recommended).
After installing the program, you must activate it online. We spent another 10 minutes following the New User Wizard, which explained how to create a personal profile and train the software to recognize our voice (using the included microphone for the latter task). You can add another half-hour to the installation by letting Dragon scan documents on your hard drive, which allows it to learn more about your writing and speaking style. Next, Dragon steps you through a thorough tutorial.
Once you've finished installation, a discreet DragonBar toolbar appears at the top of your Windows desktop, with five pull-down menus to manage multiple users, improve speech-recognition accuracy, handle files, transcribe recordings, and seek help.
We reviewed the full-featured Dragon NaturallySpeaking Professional 8, which costs a hefty $795, or $349 if you upgrade from version 7. Dragon's speech-to-text offerings include $1,099 Medical Solutions and Legal Solutions editions, each with industry-specific vocabulary files. The $99 entry-level Dragon 8 Standard provides most features a solo user would need, including the microphone, but it lacks the Smart Formatting and Smart Commands features, as well as support for multiple users and handheld devices. Like Standard, the $199 Preferred edition doesn't allow multiple custom vocabularies. However, unlike Standard, Preferred supports dictation for Pocket PC and Palm PDAs.
Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 Professional works with Windows XP Home and Professional (SP1 or higher), 2000 (SP4 or higher), or Me. You'll also need a 16-bit, 11KHz sound card installed on your computer and an Internet connection to activate the software. Does speech-recognition software really work well? Nuance Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 Professional claims up to 99 percent accuracy and a 25 percent improvement over version 7. Our tests found closer to an 80 percent accuracy rate, but Dragon still performed exceptionally well. Unlike with ViaVoice, we didn't have to stop and repeat sentences. Since Dragon interprets the natural phrasing and pauses of human speech, it has an uncanny ability to distinguish voice commands from straight dictation. Once you've trained Dragon to recognize your speech patterns, it can accurately transcribe your spoken words. Plus, you can further tweak performance with the software's Accuracy Center tool.
Dragon did well with standard business phrases and language, such as, "Will you attend the conference in Miami?" You'd need to train it to better understand more industry-specific words. You'll also need to train yourself to memorize and use the voice commands effectively. Luckily, they're intuitive. For example, you say "Select" to select a word, "Spell that" to spell a word, "Scratch that" to erase text, "Click" to click the mouse, and so on. To help you learn the long list of commands, a Command Browser is just a click or a voice command away. You can also verbally "press" any key or combination of keys as well as edit, select, and drag text. For more complex, command-driven functions, such as clicking and dragging items on a screen, the longer verbal process--and the occasional speech-recognition glitches--might tempt you to grab the mouse and do it by hand. With patience, however, you can learn to mouse with voice commands. You can also train Dragon to recognize your voice in different settings, such as noisy or quiet environments.
Dragon's ability to surf the Internet knocked our socks off. Its voice commands can open a browser, type in a Web address, and even "click" on text and image links. You can use Dragon with word processing software, including WordPerfect, Dragon's bundled DragonPad, and Microsoft Word 2000, XP, and 2003. Except for the Standard edition, Dragon also works with forms and spreadsheet programs, such as Excel, and with AOL up to version 8. Only the Professional edition works with Microsoft Outlook, PowerPoint, Lotus Notes, and InfoPath.
Dragon Professional also lets you customize commands and exchange them with other users. The new Roaming User networking feature lets you store and update your unique speech files on a central computer and access them via a number of supported handhelds. Dragon can also transcribe recorded speech to a supported PDA. A Playback toolbar within the DragonBar lets you listen to text you've dictated or saved, and the Text-to-Speech option reads text out loud in a computerized but intelligible voice.
These advanced features come at a price, however. Dragon's memory requirements can be considerable; for example, one minute of saved dictation (available only with Professional) can eat up to 1.5MB of hard drive space. Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 arrives with a thorough and useful printed user guide, in-program and online help, and a quick-reference card listing common voice commands and training tips. These sources can answer most questions for free, which is good because further help will cost you. Nuance offers training programs for Dragon Professional's extensive features at a whopping $1,500 per day. Telephone support, available weekdays from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT, includes one free call. After that, each incident will set you back $19.95. E-mail support costs $9.95 per incident.