I have now been using Nuance’s Dragon Dictate for Macintosh for about one week. In that time I have gone back and forth several times between being absolutely in awe and utterly fed up with its many glories and glitches. The program is nothing short of astounding when it works, but is more frustrating than being a Toronto Maple Leafs fan when it doesn’t.
First, accolades have to be given to the text recognition. It is incredibly accurate and intuitive, not only understanding what you’re saying but even knowing which form of word to use in different situations. There? Their? They’re? Two? Too? To? Dictate will almost always know, based upon the context each time. It’s very impressive. In fact, it’s astonishing.
It’s also bipolar.
I can speak paragraph after paragraph without a single glitch. Then, suddenly, Dictate no longer recognizes even the most familiar commands or words. All at once, it refuses to understand “Safari,” thinking for some strange reason instead that I said, “Said so Harry’s” or any number of similarly unlikely phrases. No matter how I try, speaking quickly or slowly, loudly or quietly, putting the emphasis wherever I may, I can no longer get it to understand some common word that it had easily recognized a paragraph earlier but now suddenly blocks from its memory. Vital commands to select or scratch a word can stop working for no apparent reason, leaving me with the unfortunate option of having to start using the keyboard, or else quitting Dictate, restarting it, caching the document again, and hoping things have gotten better.
The command to “Go to beginning” or “Go to end” will often result in a virtual immediate jump to that point in the text. However, other times it chooses to laboriously track back through each letter one at a time to get to that destination. If the document has several paragraphs of text, this can be an absolutely maddening wait. The obvious alternative is to simply click one of those spots with the mouse. But no, that can’t happen. First, once that trek has started I have found no way to stop it. It just won’t listen to any command or notice any click of the mouse. All I can do is watch and wait. Second, using the keyboard or mouse at any time to select text or an insertion point will cause Dragon Dictate to lose sync with its place in the text, resulting in it no longer being able to navigate through the content. Yes I could tell it to “Cache document,” but that will result in the same unstoppable slow parade through the characters. Problems like this only have to happen once or twice before I really begin to wonder whether Dragon Dictate is worth it. But then I hit a stretch where I can dictate an entire blog post like this one virtually without a glitch of any sort, and I start to believe that all our problems are behind us.
Some commands such as “Move up one paragraph” or “Move to end of line” are wonderfully helpful, but they are only reserved for an application like Apple Mail. If I am trying to dictate a WordPress blog post like this one in Firefox, the commands are not available to me. Similarly, there are some commands in Safari that allow me to scroll up or down somewhat satisfactorily (but woe to me if I have a long page to scroll through!), but these commands are not available at all if I’m surfing in Firefox. Why can’t these be global commands instead of being application–specific? There may be a perfectly sound programming reason why this has to be, but for the life of me I can’t imagine one.
I mentioned earlier that I was able to dictate this entire blog post virtually without a glitch of any sort. Now, poetically, Dictate is suddenly moving at a snail’s pace. It quickly understands and types three or four or five words, but then pauses literally for 10–15 seconds (I counted!) before moving on to the next group of three or four words. The incredible pace that I was able to work at for the first two thirds of this blog post is now a distant memory. One sentence takes well over a minute to write. Needless to say, this sort of problem won’t last long before I resort to turning off Dictate and finishing the rest with my trusty keyboard and mouse. But now, just as I resigned myself to doing that, Dictate mysteriously has started working again at full speed, and our friendship is renewed.
I understand that Dragon Dictate is the Mac version of Nuance’s Naturally Speaking, so these glitches and frustrations may prove to belong only to Macintosh users. I imagine that that must be the case, or else these programs would never have attained the following that they have. Or does this sound all too familiar to Naturally Speaking users as well?
Overall, I can’t help but feel that using Dragon Dictate for the Mac is not unlike being stuck in a very bad relationship with someone whom you unfortunately just happen to love. When it’s bad, you can’t help but logically conclude that it’s not working and that you have to get out. But when it’s good, oh it’s so good that you could never imagine leaving.
Dragon Dictate for the Mac… it’s a remarkable piece of software.
But one very bad date.
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