You heard it here first: IBM ViaVoice wins the speech-recognition battle by default, but we'd like it no matter what. Perennial competitors NaturallySpeaking and Voice Xpress face an uncertain future, since Lernout & Hauspie, the owner of both, is in serious financial trouble (though the company recently announced a new corporate version of NaturallySpeaking). Thankfully, ViaVoice Pro 9.0 has what it takes to stand alone: it boasts high (if not perfect) dictation accuracy, works better within Word thanspeech engine, and lets you surf by speaking. The downside? Its $220 price tag.You heard it here first: IBM ViaVoice wins the speech-recognition battle by default, but we'd like it no matter what. Perennial competitors NaturallySpeaking and Voice Xpress face an uncertain future, since Lernout & Hauspie, the owner of both, is in serious financial trouble (though the company recently announced a new corporate version of NaturallySpeaking). Thankfully, ViaVoice Pro 9.0 has what it takes to stand alone: it boasts high (if not perfect) dictation accuracy, works better within Word than speech engine, and lets you surf by speaking. The downside? Its $220 price tag.
Say it's the same
ViaVoice 9.0 is not revolutionary; rather, it barely departs from version 8.0. As with 8.0, all of our test installations went smoothly and typically took just under 30 minutes, including the short training session that involved reading text aloud. Likewise, ViaVoice swills just as much disk space as previous versions, chewing up a whopping 510MB.
There's no change, either, in ViaVoice's interface. The VoiceCenter toolbar, which holds all the program's major commands, occupies a thin strip at the top of the screen and sports just a single button (to turn the microphone on and off) and one menu (to access the program's commands). You can also shrink VoiceCenter to just a single icon in your system tray, turn it into a cartoon-character "agent" that rests on the screen, or even dock it against an application window (smart if you dictate mostly into Word, for example).
ViaVoice 9.0 works under Windows 98 (Second Edition only), Me, and 2000. We tried it under Windows XP as well, and although dictation worked fine, we weren't able to use voice commands within programs. (A free update to make ViaVoice 9.0, completely compatible with Windows XP, will be available for download from the IBM site in early November.)
ViaVoice works with the spoken word in three ways. First, it dictates your words into every application that accepts text input; second, it lets you command and control most Windows applications (and the desktop) by speaking commands; and third, it reads text back to you. The first way is the most impressive, the second is the most useful, and the third is the most reliable.
With just a click, you can start dictating in any Windows application. We used ViaVoice to talk to scores of programs, from Outlook Express to Quicken and Excel. All worked swell. Of course, accuracy varied, depending on what we read--a generic memo with short words and little specialized vocabulary turned in the best scores--but, on average, ViaVoice puts down the correct word 92 percent of the time, a substantial 5 percent improvement over last year. (We give credit to the first-rate Plantronics USB microphone headset, a $110 device bundled with the Pro edition.) Still, be prepared for embarrassing errors. Once, when we said, "Fetch our slippers," ViaVoice wrote "Fetch Christopher's."
ViaVoice comes with its own stripped-down word processor (SpeechPad) for dictation, but the speech software works best with Microsoft Word 2000 and 2002. Within Word, you can dictate and even edit using your voice, with plain-English phrases such as "Delete this paragraph." Even Office XP's own speech engine can't do this; and ViaVoice 9.0 seems to take dictation faster than the previous version, too.
Surf by spouting off
ViaVoice is better than ever at operating your computer and particularly excels at guiding the browser. Unlike the speech engine bundled with Office XP, ViaVoice navigates the Web--through Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator, or AOL 6.0--guided by voice commands such as "Back" or "Scroll down," and the first few works of a link. The program rarely stumbles here; occasionally we had to say a link twice. Want to switch from dictation to program control? If you're in the middle of dictating to, for instance, Word, ViaVoice needs only a short pause to recognize that "File open" means you want to open a file, not stick those words in your document. (Office XP's own speech-recognition mode makes you manually switch between dictation and program control, either with a voice command or by clicking a button on the toolbar.)
Finally, ViaVoice will read, in a robotic voice, any text in any open document or dialog box. Click the Begin Reading command in VoiceCenter's menu to start this tool, which is a boon to anyone with a visual impairment. Although it sounds a bit stiff, ViaVoice's text-to-speech voice is always understandable, even when it reads names and places.
Best...but at a price
If you already own ViaVoice 8.0, there's no need to upgrade. But if you have version 7.0, you should, if only for ViaVoice 9.0's vastly improved speech surfing. Anyone who is upgrading and owners of other speech recognition software get a $75 rebate, bringing ViaVoice 9.0's out-of-pocket price down to around $150--a good deal.
Among 9.0's new tricks are a key-control feature that lets you toggle the microphone on and off with one key (so your muttering isn't taken for dictation) and four new specialized vocabularies--Computers, Business, Cuisine, and Chatter's Jargon--to complement the program's existing vocabulary. Naturally, we found the computer vocabulary valuable; ViaVoice renders "megabyte" as "MB." Nice.
ViaVoice's helpful tech support is just a click away. The help file is thorough and the online FAQ is quite detailed. If you can't find an answer in either of those sources, you can e-mail questions or call technical support. Phone support comes free (though it's a toll call) for the first 30 days, but after that, you must pay $35 per incident or $3 per minute.
If you need only an occasional built-in typist and you're not wealthy enough to buy pricey ViaVoice, Office XP's engine may suffice. Otherwise, ViaVoice is your best and only choice.