Dragon NaturallySpeaking 7.0 may not be a new choice in the speech-recognition market, but it's one of the best in the biz. Version 7.0 of DNS Preferred ($199.99; $99.99 upgrade) wowed us by scoring a 97 to 98 percent accuracy rate when taking dictation. It also provides some new features, such as an autopunctuation tool and expanded application support for the full Microsoft Office System suite and . Unfortunately, the autopunctuation tool wasn't reliable. Upgraders who are happy with their current setup should stay put, but newbies looking for a speech-recognition program will find DNS 7.0 Preferred a solid choice. Dragon NaturallySpeaking 7.0 is easy to install and configure. We were up and running within about 15 minutes, a span that included a quick training session. The software gives you several training options (Adult Easier Reading, Adult Medium, Adult Harder, Children, and Teen) that require you to read text so that the program can analyze your speech patterns. You can choose to read short or long selections, with the idea that the more you read, the better the accuracy.
Microphone setup is a snap. A wizard walks you through configuring the mike's volume and tests the quality of the overall audio (an Emkay microphone headset is included in the box).
The interface remains unchanged from previous versions. All that appears onscreen is a toolbar with several menus: NaturallySpeaking, Tools, Words, Sounds, Help, and a button for turning on the microphone. (You can also turn the mike off simply by saying, "Microphone off.") As in the previous edition, you can dock this toolbar at the top or the bottom of the screen, let it float on the display, minimize it to a single icon in the Windows system tray, or attach it to the active application window. This last option is particularly useful, as it keeps the toolbar prominent without taking up too much desktop space.
Dragon NaturallySpeaking 7.0 works with Windows 98 Second Edition and up and requires about 300MB of space for a typical installation. We tested it on a Windows XP system with a 1.4GHz Pentium 4 processor and 512MB of RAM and had no problems. Dragon NaturallySpeaking 7.0 Preferred offers improved accuracy and several new productivity tools designed to ease the chores of dictation and control. One such tool is an autopunctuation feature that automatically inserts commas and periods instead of requiring the user to say "Comma" or "Period" at each point. Unfortunately, it's a little unreliable. It was better at inserting periods than commas, but even after we repeated a two-sentence test half a dozen times, the program never got it right. You'll get better results if you stick to the old-fashioned way of saying "Comma" or "Period" to note punctuation.
Once NaturallySpeaking is active, you can dictate text into most Windows-based applications. We tried it with everything from and Outlook Express to AOL and Intuit's and never encountered a problem.
The accuracy of DNS 7.0 is amazing. We read two newspaper articles and a business letter into Word, and the program scored an impressive 97 to 98 percent accuracy rate. We dictated more than 100 words for the business letter, and the program churned out the document with only three typos.
In addition to dictating text, you can control menus and dialog boxes with your voice. For example, you can open an app's File menu with a simple "Click file" voice command. Version 7.0 adds several new programs to its list of speech-enabled apps, including AOL 6.0, 7.0, and 8.0 (but not the newest AOL 9.0); ; and . These additions to already supported apps such as Word, Lotus Notes, and Excel mean you can use plain-English commands to operate the software. Unfortunately, the Preferred edition doesn't support dictation into Outlook or PowerPoint. For that, you'll have to upgrade to Professional, which costs a hefty $695. The good news is that you can edit text in word processors such as Word and WordPerfect. For instance, you can highlight a section in Word by saying "Select" and repeating a string of text; from there, saying "Bold" will boldface it. But editing by voice is more gimmick than graceful; most users will find it much faster to edit with mouse and keyboard.
Web navigation with Dragon NaturallySpeaking 7.0 is a real winner. You can run Internet Explorer 5.0 or later (we used 6.0) by microphone, scroll through pages, enter URLs, or call up a link by saying its first few words. We dictated commands such as "Start scrolling down" and "Page up," and the program recognized them in every instance. Unfortunately, we didn't have as much success entering URLs and ended up spelling them out most of the time. Dragon provides support for NaturallySpeaking 7.0 via phone, e-mail, and an online knowledge base.
The knowledge base is the only free option. It is easily searchable and offers tons of help with problems others have already encountered. (ScanSoft also maintains user-based forums but, unfortunately, not one for NaturallySpeaking--strange.)
E-mail queries cost $9.95 per incident, and ScanSoft promises a 24-hour turnaround. Phone support costs double, at $19.95 per incident, and the call isn't toll free. Phone and e-mail support are available Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. PT. You do get one free phone-support call, however. In our tests, a support technician was on the line within seconds and was able to solve our problem.