Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 Premium review: Accurate voice recognition

If you prefer to dictate your documents or use voice commands, this is the place to go.

You decide what you want to say. You say it. The words appear on the screen.

Forget the frustrating months it took you to learn typing. In fact, you can forget that writing involves any particular effort. Today's powerful, multi-core computers, combined with the latest speech recognition software and a good microphone, can produce results that are, frankly, startling.

The technology has gotten so good, in fact, that the weak link in the system appears to be the user's ability to dictate. While this may sound like a trivial point, dictation turns out to be a distinct skill that involves factors that are not intuitive. But once the skill is mastered, keyboarding seems painfully primitive.

Dragon NaturallySpeaking corrects a dictated sentence from Shakespeare's Hamlet: The word "town" is changed to "tongue." In this case the correct alternative is second on the list and can be designated by saying "Choose two."

While newer speech recognition mobile apps such as Siri and Google Now have grabbed most of the headlines, one of the longest-running and most well-known speech recognition software packages is Dragon NaturallySpeaking from Nuance.

There are a variety of versions available. For this review, I tried out Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 Premium for Windows PCs, available for $199.99 in Australia. Other versions include a Home Edition for $99.99, which does not integrate with spreadsheets or support off-line dictation and has no playback facility; a Professional Edition with enterprise-level administrative, customisation, and multi-user features for $599.99; and a similar Legal Edition with a law office vocabulary, also for $599.99. There is a version for the Mac called Dragon Dictate ($199.99), along with specialised Mac products for legal and medical workers.

Dragon also has several apps for mobile devices, including Dragon Dictation for iOS devices and Dragon Go, an audio search app for iOS and Android.

A bit of background: I'm not new to speech recognition. In fact, I've been using PC-based speech recognition on and off for nearly two decades to alleviate the stresses of keyboarding. At first, speech recognition packages were more like frustrating toys with maddening limitations, but they have steadily improved over time.

The crossover point was probably NaturallySpeaking version 8 in 2004, when the utility of speech recognition finally outweighed its limitations. But limitations remained: speech recognition was still more reliable with long words than with short ones (making it popular with doctors); misinterpreted words were often rendered as commands with random and startling results (Bill Gates himself was the victim of this at a live demo in 2006); the software's demand on the hardware was nontrivial (so that switching between documents could be painfully slow); and the software could get confused to the point that it stopped listening.

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