Five free voice-recording iPad apps compared

Two let you e-mail short voice messages and upload the sound files to Dropbox, Wi-Fi or ftp servers. One coverts speech to text ready to be e-mailed or pasted. But two fall short.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
8 min read

People have been looking for ways to improve on the iPad's onscreen keyboard since day one. The constant screen-shifting and other shortcomings of the iPad key layout have led many people to use apps that let you communicate with minimum typing. Say "hello" to voice-recording apps.

Of the five free voice-recording iPad apps I tried, only two--Audio Memos Free and Smart Recorder Lite--let you record short sound bites and attach the resulting sound files to an e-mail or transfer them via Wi-Fi, ftp, or an online file-storage service. Dragon Dictation coverts the words you speak into text that you can copy, cut, e-mail, or post to Twitter or Facebook.

Dragon Dictation is the only one of the five apps I tested that doesn't have a fee-based version with more features. Unfortunately, the free version of AudioNote Lite doesn't let you export your recordings, and (Ohm) Recorder's free release has been dumbed down so much it's nearly useless.

Note that all five apps are also available for the iPhone and other mobile devices; some also have PC equivalents.

A multi-talented free audio recorder
Audio Memos is a versatile voice recorder that saves your recordings as WAV files, so they're easy to transfer and play on a variety of devices. The ad-supported Audio Memos Lite offers the same recording features as the $.99 version, including three quality levels, a normalizing filter to give all your recordings a consistent average volume, and detailed information about each recording. A $9.99 Audio Memos Pro version offers more options for editing and processing your recordings.

The paid versions do away with the Lite app's 3MB limit for recordings sent via e-mail; they add the ability to add bookmarks to recordings, send and delete multiple recordings, and record in stereo. Also available in the paid releases are the ability to upload recordings to any ftp server and to access recordings as remote drives via Windows Explorer and Mac Finder.

The voice recordings I made with Audio Memos Lite were easy to attach to e-mails, and they played back without a hitch on a Mac and a PC. The program's interface is simple: a list of recordings is on the left, and large Send and Play buttons are at the bottom of the main window. The rotating ad in the middle of the free version's main window is a minor distraction.

Audio Memos Lite voice recorder for iPad
The free Audio Memos Lite voice-recording app for the iPad makes it easy to record short voice messages and send them via e-mail as WAV files. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

Press the settings button in the bottom-left corner of the screen to change the master volume, the default file-naming convention, and the master quality setting. The paid versions of Audio Memos let you access your recordings on the vendor's site. Touch the information icon at the bottom of the left pane to view the server address for your recordings.

Free app compresses audio recordings for easier transfer
The free Smart Recorder Lite has all the features of the $4.99 Smart Recorder but adds a small advertisement to each screen and limits audio-file export to three minutes. The program lets you insert tags in your recordings to make it easy to jump to specific sections. Multiple playback speeds allow you to move quickly through a recording, or press the forward or back button to skip ahead 30 seconds or replay the last 30 seconds, respectively.

The app's main window lists categories in the left pane and all your recordings or those in the selected category in the main window. The two preset categories are Meetings and Memos; to create a new category, press the New Category button at the bottom of the left pane. Other options in the main window let you change the sort order of categories, activate the program's automatic pause feature that stops recording when no sound is heard, import recordings from Box.net or "MAPI Paste," delete a recording, or make a new recording.

Press one of the recordings in the main window to open it in the program's playback window. The recording start and stop points are listed in the left pane along with any tags you've inserted in the recording. Controls in the main playback window let you choose one of five pitches: slow, normal, fast, faster, and fastest. You can also adjust the volume, scroll the audio playback via a slider control, append a recording, insert a tag, export a recording, or delete the recording.

Smart Recorder Lite main recording window
Adding tags and appending new sections to an existing recording is simple in the free Smart Recorder Lite voice-recording app for the iPad. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

The recording window has an option for adding a picture to the recording, but when I tested this feature in the Lite version a pop-up appeared stating that there was no camera.

Smart Recorder Lite's export options are impressive: you can send a MAPI copy, sync via Wi-Fi, e-mail the recording, send it to a DropBox or Box.net account, e-mail it as a ringtone, or post it to a Facebook or Twitter account. The program also works with the $20-per-year SyncDocs service for uploading your audio files to Google Docs. I tested only the app's Wi-Fi sync and e-mail features, both of which worked without a hitch.

When you select Wi-Fi sync, Smart Recorder converts your audio file to the WAV format and opens a window showing the URL to enter in your browser's address bar to access the file. When you exit the screen the server link shuts down. Likewise, choosing the e-mail export option attaches the file to an e-mail as a WAV file.

Smart Recorder Lite exports files in three formats: CAF, WAV, and AAC. You can choose one of three export sampling rates: 8000, 22050, and 44100 (lower for smaller file sizes, higher for better recording quality). By default, your recordings are stored as AIFF at a sampling rate of 16000, which can be adjusted via options available through the program's listing in the iPad's Settings app.

You can also adjust the number of seconds the forward and back buttons move through the recording, the action of the tag button, the sampling rate (from 8000 to 44100), and pairing for Bluetooth headsets, among other options.

Smart Recorder Lite is the most versatile of the free voice-recording apps I looked at. It's a handy program for students recording lectures, office workers recording meetings, or conference attendees recording presentations. And for only $4.99 you can export recordings longer than three minutes--to the size limit of your e-mail or online-storage service.

Convert your speech to text, with some manual editing
The first name in speech-to-text software offers the free Dragon Dictation app for the iPad and other mobile devices. The program couldn't be simpler to use: press the plus sign in the top-right corner to create a new note, tap in the main window to begin the recording, tap again to stop the recording and begin the text conversion. The text is then shown in the main window and the first part of the dictation becomes the note's name. Unfortunately, there's no way to rename the note.

As you speak, you can insert punctuation and paragraph breaks by saying "period," "at sign," "new line," and other commands. Press the information icon in the bottom-right corner of the screen to view tips for more precise recordings and a list of common commands and punctuation.

Even when you speak carefully and directly into the iPad's microphone you'll likely need to touch up the transcription errors. To do so, tap the keyboard icon at the bottom of the main window. You can select some or all of the text by tapping and dragging, after which the option to delete the selection appears.

Once the text is corrected, press the down arrow in the top-right corner of the window to view options for cutting and copying the text, adding it to the body of an e-mail, or posting it to a Facebook or Twitter account.

Dragon Dictation speech-to-text app for iPad
The free Dragon Dictation app for the iPad lets you convert speech to text that you can send via e-mail, paste into other apps, or post to Facebook or Twitter. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

You can also choose the settings icon to add a Facebook or Twitter account, choose a language, deselect the option to recognize names automatically, and select the option to detect end-of-speech automatically.

Even with some background noise Dragon Dictation did a serviceable job converting my speech to text, but its accuracy improved when I spoke directly into the iPad's built-in microphone and made an effort to enunciate clearly. (Note that any voice-recording app would likely benefit from use of a headset that allows precise positioning of the microphone, but even with no extra hardware, the five apps I tested generated recordings that played back clearly--or transcribed relatively accurately, in the case of Dragon Dictation.)

Take a pass on these to free voice-recording iPad apps
Nearly every free app for the iPad, iPhone, or other mobile device has a paid version that offers more and/or enhanced features. Usually the free version's limitations don't render it useless. But one of the free voice-recording iPad apps I tested is so dumbed-down it isn't worth the trouble, and another lacks any way to export your recordings.

AudioNote Lite lets you add handwritten or typed notes to your recordings. You can choose one of four backgrounds for the notes: yellow pad, standard rule, graph, and blank white. The free version limits each note to 10 minutes of audio and total audio recording to two hours. More importantly, sharing notes via e-mail or Wi-Fi requires the $4.99 version.

That's not to say the free version is worthless--far from it. AudioNote's ability to sync handwritten or typed notes with audio recordings is a feature that distinguishes the program from the other voice recorders I tested. However, the free version's recording-size limits and lack of sharing will necessitate an upgrade to the paid release for most users.

I wasn't able to find any reason to recommend the free version of (Ohm) Recorder. You're allowed only five recordings, though you can get five more by advertising the program on your Facebook wall. Upgrading to the $2.99 Elite version removes the ads, allows you to make unlimited recordings, and lets you e-mail your recordings.

After each recording, (Ohm) Recorder requires that you type in a unique path name for the file, with no spaces. The recording is then shown in your list of recordings with the default name "New Recording." To rename the file, you have to select it, then choose the option at the bottom of the screen to change the name, then type the new name, and press the Change Name button (or Done on the keypad).

Last but definitely not least, (Ohm) Recorder doesn't switch to landscape mode when you turn the iPad sideways, with the exception of the program's help screen. There you'll find instructions for deleting recordings and transferring them to your computer via iTunes. Since landscape is my preferred iPad viewing mode, testing the program was literally a pain in the neck.

Considering the voice-recording features offered by the free versions of Audio Memos and Smart Recorder, I'm hard-pressed to come up with a reason for choosing either the free or paid version of (Ohm) Recorder.