Siri surrogate: Voice commands with Dragon Dictation

You don't need Siri to talk to your iPhone. Dragon Dictation recognizes your voice, though it won't answer you. Still, it's a handy (and free) app for dictating e-mails, texts, and Facebook and Twitter updates.

Matt Elliott Senior Editor
Matt Elliott is a senior editor at CNET with a focus on laptops and streaming services. Matt has more than 20 years of experience testing and reviewing laptops. He has worked for CNET in New York and San Francisco and now lives in New Hampshire. When he's not writing about laptops, Matt likes to play and watch sports. He loves to play tennis and hates the number of streaming services he has to subscribe to in order to watch the various sports he wants to watch.
Expertise Laptops | Desktops | All-in-one PCs | Streaming devices | Streaming platforms
Matt Elliott
3 min read
Screenshot by Matt Elliott.

Are you feeling ignored because your iPhone 4S-toting friends are spending more time conversing with Siri than with you? If you have an older iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4, you can run the newly released iOS 5, but it doesn't come with Apple's vaguely British virtual assistant. What's a lonely, old iPhone owner to do?

One idea is to give Dragon Dictation a try. From Nuance, the makers of Dragon Naturally Speaking software (and who may have had a hand in developing Siri), Dictation is a free iPhone voice app that lets you engage in one-way conversations with your iPhone. It won't answer your queries like Siri does, but it does an impressive job of translating your spoken words into text. So, while you can't ask Dragon Dictation where you can find the best burrito in your vicinity (I'm pretty sure Siri would tell me to leave the state of New Hampshire for such an item), you can dictate text messages and e-mails as well as Facebook and Twitter updates.

When you first launch Dragon Dictation, it'll ask if you'd like to import the names from your address book. It does this so it can better recognize the names of the people to which you'll be addressing e-mails and texts. Dragon assures you that it is not capturing any information other than the names of your contacts.

Screenshot by Matt Elliott.

To test out the app, I dictated the above e-mail to my brother, asking him if I need to fly with car seats or if he will be able to provide the appropriate safety measures during our upcoming visit. After the app translates your speech into text, you are able to edit it with the onscreen keyboard that you can call up with the button in the lower-left corner. You can also add to the message by tapping the red record button and dictating more. When you are satisfied, tap the button in the lower-right corner to place the text into your text app, mail app, Facebook, or Twitter. You can also copy it to your phone's clipboard. To connect the app to your Facebook and Twitter accounts, head to Settings > Social Networking.

Unfortunately, Dragon Dictation does not integrate itself into any apps. So, instead of simply tapping the record button from your mail app, you'll need to launch Dictation, talk to it, and then place the resulting text in an app. To reply to an e-mail, for example, you'll need to copy your dictated text to the clipboard, open your mail app, and then paste the text into your reply. It's not too cumbersome a process, but it would save a step if you could simply dictate a reply from within the mail app itself.

After using the app for a few days, I found its accuracy improved. But that is probably a result of me learning to speak more slowly and enunciate clearly in order to save editing time after my speech was translated into text.

One great feature I discovered is that Dictation understands formatting and punctuation commands. You can say, "Sam comma new paragraph, when will you be home question mark" and it'll turn into this:

Screenshot by Matt Elliott.

Here is a handy cheat sheet of the formatting and punctuation commands Dictation understands.

And for another voice-recognition iOS app, check out Rick Broida's Vlingo write-up.