Dragon 9 runs only on Windows XP or 2000 SP4 or higher, so Mac users are out of luck, and it requires 512MB of RAM and 1GB of free hard drive space. (Attempting to run Dragon with less RAM will result in a sluggish system, as we discovered in our tests on several computers.) We tested the $149 Dragon NaturallySpeaking Preferred 9. Home users who don't need support for mobile devices can opt for the $99 Standard. Offices that want to run Dragon on a network should choose Professional. Legal and Medical editions are also available.
If you choose Typical/Complete installation rather than Custom, you can bypass the dictation training and shave off as much as half an hour from the setup process. Installing Dragon NaturallySpeaking 9 from its two discs took about 15 minutes in our tests, with another several minutes spent to set up the included line-in microphone and headset. You'll have to buy a supported USB or Bluetooth headset separately if your PC lacks line-in jacks.
During its installation, make sure you select the check box that lets you bypass dictation setup; we wish this were selected by default, but it's not. Otherwise, you'll be forced to read a long passage of text as required by prior versions of Dragon. When we chose Custom installation to load Dragon NaturallySpeaking 9 on another PC, we still had to do the dictation training. We couldn't quit the dictation and save our work up to that point, either; any interruption would mean starting over from scratch. However, if you don't speak clearly, it might be a good idea to read the training script anyway. If not, you may find yourself constantly correcting Dragon to help it adjust to your lisp or Texas twang.
Make sure not to talk with overbearing emphasis, like C-3PO from Star Wars, when you use Dragon, because it's built to understand your natural patterns of talking. People have caused voice damage by shouting at speech-to-text software, no joke if you already suffer from repetitive stress injuries. We recommend walking through the tutorial, which showed us, for instance, how to tell Dragon to "Go to sleep," and then say, "Wake up," to begin dictating again without having to touch the keyboard, as in Dragon 8.
Before you run Dragon NaturallySpeaking 9 for the first time, you'll have to walk through the New User wizard to select your vocabulary--either General, Commands Only, or Teens--and to allow time for Dragon to fish through files on your hard drive for words and phrases you commonly use. Dragon scans writing samples from Outlook, Outlook Express, Lotus Notes, Microsoft Word, Corel WordPerfect, and text files, which took about five minutes on our well-worn personal laptop.
Once Dragon NaturallySpeaking 9 is running, it displays as a slim toolbar on top of your screen, smaller than in version 8. Dragon 9 operates in tandem with other software you're running, so you can dictate within pretty much any text editing program, including Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect in addition to Lotus Notes, Outlook, Outlook Express, and America Online. We were even able to make selected text bold in Google Writely beta without touching the mouse or the keyboard. You can dictate e-mails, too. In addition, voice commands enable you to surf the Net by voice. Dragon handily labels Web links by number; just say the number to "click" the link.
Dragon types faster than most fingers can, at up to 160 words per minute. During dictation, we were delighted with Dragon's performance with multisyllabic words. In a flash, it even spelled "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." Dragon would probably perform better than most high schoolers in a spelling bee, except that it can confuse homophones. Dragon's intelligence often helps it to determine the context in which you are speaking, so that it won't type, say, "I like to eat chocolate, and I scream," when you mentioned "ice cream."
Still, you'll need to speak as clearly as possible to achieve the desired effect. Dragon often confused our prepositions and dropped the "ed" endings of our verbs. Dragon does take some effort to master. When the microphone was too close to our mouth, Dragon sometimes spelled "the" when we breathed. And if you don't review Dragon's command words before using the program, you might accidentally open software menus, as we did when we spoke the word "system," or highlight words when you dictate "select."
Nuance Software says that Dragon Naturally Speaking 9 achieves up to 99 percent accuracy. In our tests, we were impressed with Dragon's abilities to spell out what we were saying quickly. But its accuracy with our sometimes mumbling voice wasn't as stellar as advertised--perhaps more like 70 to 80 percent. When we said "various," Dragon typed "areas." "Dictation" came across as "to teach in." Dragon's mistakes can be funny. For example, while using Dragon to write this review, we dictated "on our personal laptop," and Dragon typed "an hour per signal laptop."
Luckily, you can command Dragon to select and replace words; its list of alternate spellings from among its 300,000 word vocabulary often showed what we really wanted. And you can add new words easily. The more we corrected Dragon over several weeks, the better it seemed to interpret our speech, a strength that we found lacking in ViaVoice, as well as in Windows XP's built-in speech-to-text tool.
You can add multiple profiles of your own voice to Dragon in order to use it at home or at work with different microphones and noise conditions, but the single-user license is not built to handle multiple people's voices. We wish Dragon 9 would allow someone else to sit down and dictate on our computer or that it could transcribe group conversations. At this point, you can't just feed Dragon an MP3 podcast and expect it to accurately transcribe what a talk show host and guests are gabbing about. A fuzzy recording of a professor's lecture won't do you much good, either.
Still we're glad that Dragon supports MP3, WAV, and WMA audio files. You can create a profile of your voice for a mobile recording device, such as a Pocket PC handheld. After you record your thoughts on the go, you can feed Dragon that sound file later for transcription.
Dragon NaturallySpeaking Preferred 9's support offerings are thorough, with an online knowledge base and user forums, in addition to the essential, built-in tutorial and performance assistant. But you'll pay dearly for personal help: $19.95 per phone call after one freebie and $9.95 for each incident via e-mail.
If you own an earlier version of Dragon NaturallySpeaking, the costly upgrade to version 9 may be unnecessary. Nuance has added some ease-of-use tweaks, and it says that Dragon 9 improves its accuracy by 20 percent. Yet we found the latter improvement hard to measure in our tests; our old version 8 seemed just as useful for typing and surfing. Overall, Dragon is the best consumer tool available for digital dictation, and we recommended it over ViaVoice. Despite Dragon's learning curve, no other software lets you ignore the keyboard so much, both to type while you talk as well as to command your Web browser.