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.