IBM ViaVoice for Windows Pro USB 10.0 costs a bundle: $190 for new users; $90 for a ViaVoice upgrade; and until February 15, 2003, $115 for an upgrade from competing speech apps, such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking. But if you want the best that money can buy in speech recognition, ViaVoice is it. The program's improved speech-recognition engine records dictation accurately more than 96 percent of the time and reacts to voice commands faster than the competition does. So if you're serious about consumer-targeted voice recognition, upgrade now. If you're new to speech recognition, plunk down the bucks for this best-of-breed speech engine. It's worth every penny. IBM's ViaVoice has always been a breeze to install and set up, and version 10.0 is no exception. All you have to do is put the software on your PC, plug in the included USB microphone (the excellent noise-canceling Plantronics DSP 300, a $90 value), and talk your way through a 15-minute training session. That's it.
ViaVoice 10.0's VoiceCenter control bar can now be set in Floating mode so that you can drag it into position anywhere on the desktop.
Since version 9.0, ViaVoice's interface, called VoiceCenter, hasn't changed. This thin, toolbarlike strip features just one menu (to access the program's commands and options) and one button (to turn the microphone on or off). There's only one new feature here: you may now opt to float the VoiceCenter rather than docking it to one of the screen edges, letting you position the VoiceCenter anywhere on the screen.
ViaVoice's disk space appetite is as hearty as ever, too; you'll still need half a gigabyte for this program--510MB in our test installations. But that's par for the course among speech-rec apps.
Like most consumer-priced voice-recognition applications, ViaVoice 10.0 offers the usual complement of tools and functions, including voice dictation, a text-to-speech engine, and voice-enabled applications control.
This year, version 10.0 also lets you create voice macros--voice-activated shortcuts, in essence--that work with any Windows application that's installed on your machine. We created one of these always-active macros to pop up any program's Help window whenever we said "show help." Impressive.
ViaVoice dictates directly into a host of apps; in its Options settings, you determine the programs you want.
SpeechPad, the basic writing tool that comes with ViaVoice, is adequate for short jobs, but to get the most from this application, we recommend using it with Microsoft Word 2000 or 2002. Within Word, you can use plain-English phrases, such as "select this paragraph" or "make this 12-point Arial bold" to maneuver through documents, make editing selections, format, and edit. ViaVoice remains the best speech-recognition program for Word users. Try to dictate foreign words and phrases, however, and you'll end up with some odd translations. ViaVoice no habla español--or anything else but U.S. and UK English, for that matter. ViaVoice 10.0 also dictates into virtually any other Windows application.
ViaVoice excels at navigating the Web through spoken commands. Within Internet Explorer (ViaVoice also supports Netscape and AOL 7.0's browsers), you can call up favorites, scroll through pages, navigate using Back and Forward commands and even "click" links by saying the first few words of the link. We had excellent luck here; ViaVoice rarely failed to recognize a link.
As before, ViaVoice includes text-to-speech skills that can read documents aloud in a robotic voice--handy when you want to hear a playback of what you've written or dictated. Version 10.0 adds some new tricks, too: it now supports digital recorders from Olympus and Sanyo, letting you talk into these recorders, then upload the audio file to your PC, where ViaVoice turns it into typed text.
Though its interface hasn't changed much, under the hood ViaVoice 10.0 has changed for the better. Version 10.0's much improved speech engine significantly increases its speed and accuracy.
Thus, even with just the briefest training, ViaVoice 10.0's transcription abilities impressed us. ViaVoice took dictation on our test jobs--business-style letters, news stories, and short memos--with a 96.5 percent accuracy rate. In a short, 140-word letter, the program made just five mistakes. Although that number may seem high, remember that ViaVoice 9.0 performed impressively with an accuracy rate of 92 percent. This version's 4 percent boost means 10 fewer errors on an average page of dictated text. Kudos to IBM for pushing the accuracy envelope.
When we dictated with ViaVoice 10.0, our accuracy rate was higher than 96 percent. (Errors in red; words dictated in blue.)
ViaVoice isn't perfect, of course--no speech-recognition program is--and its errors can rate high on the Unintentional Comedy meter. When we dictated the phrase "thousands of queries I receive annually" several times, it once came up with this howler: "thousands of Koreans received annually." Ouch.
In addition to its improved accuracy, ViaVoice 10.0's dictation speeds have increased significantly. The lag between saying a word and seeing it on the screen is much shorter than in earlier editions. In our tests, ViaVoice 10.0 generally kept pace with our voice, and when it didn't, words appeared within a second at most. It also recognizes and implements commands more quickly. Of course, we tested ViaVoice on an 800MHz Pentium III system with 256MB of RAM. Slower systems will get slower results.
Version 10.0 also makes it easy to navigate and control your PC and its applications with your voice. ViaVoice pauses only slightly as it recognizes that you're switching from dictation to application control. A little hint: In our tests, we got faster results by prefacing such commands with the code word computer, as in "Computer, file open," which popped up the open file dialog.
There's a good chance that you'll never need ViaVoice's tech support; the program is amazingly straightforward. But if you do, you can scan the extensive online FAQ, submit questions via e-mail, or call the help desk weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT. Phone support is a free toll call for the first 30 days, after which you'll have to pay $35 per incident or $3 per minute. When we called to ask about ways to improve our recognition rate, we got through to a tech almost immediately, and he gave us several smart suggestions.
If ViaVoice doesn't recognize a word, the included support tools and wizards let you "train" the program to improve its skills.