Dragon NaturallySpeaking 9 Preferred review
For over 20 years, one of the leading applications in voice recognition has been Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Now on version 9, Dragon has risen from the flames of Lernout & Hauspie’s bankruptcy and is undergoing a renaissance in the hands of Nuance, the company formerly known as ScanSoft Inc. Dragon takes a somewhat different approach to many voice-recognition applications. Instead of attempting to model the way humans understand speech, Dragon uses a statistical method. It recognises words via the regularity of their occurrence in natural language rather than by their meaning.
Since it uses language patterns, which vary with context, Dragon comes in a number of versions. There are special editions for legal and medical use, since these fields have their own unique uses of language. Top of the mainstream range is the Professional edition (£499), which has a plethora of unique abilities. These include support for controlling the widest range of applications, such as Outlook, PowerPoint, Lotus Notes, InfoPath and Citrix thin clients. It also has the ability to create complex macros using VBA script. You can create custom vocabularies too and share them across installations.
The £59 Basic version, in contrast, has no macro-creation abilities and no custom vocabularies. It also only supports Internet Explorer, AOL, Word, WordPerfect and Outlook Express. In between is the Preferred edition, reviewed here. This adds support for Excel (but not Outlook), the ability to import and export user files, and allows the creation of macros for text and graphics dictation shortcuts.
There are also Mobile and Wireless versions of Preferred. The former comes with a portable voice recorder, and the latter a DECT-based wireless headset, which attaches via USB. However, just because a specific version only supports certain applications, this doesn’t mean you can’t use it with others: Dragon can input text into almost anything.
With its reliance on libraries of speech patterns matched to text, Dragon can be a big install. All of the Preferred version takes around 1.3GB, but we found we could cut this down to around 650MB by not installing US English and other dialects, leaving just the UK database. After installation, the software goes through a rather time-consuming learning procedure, where it scans your My Documents folder and email database to see how regularly you use different words. It also gets you to perform a short dictation test so it can acclimatise itself to your particular mode of speech, which takes just a few minutes. Since we all speak slightly differently, Dragon stores profiles for different users. With Professional, you can move these between installations, so you won’t need to repeat the process.
The rest of the learning process is optional. There’s a 14-step tutorial to get you used to the basic dictation features. The five-step advanced tutorial explains how to use application commands, create macros and get Dragon to type out dictation imported from any portable recorder. The dictation commands are fairly simple, but you do need to remember a few that don’t conform to regular English. For example, you say “Scratch that” instead of “Delete that”.
Commands are only supposed to work with applications that the given version of Dragon supports. For example, we found we could control Internet Explorer entirely, but the SlimBrowser variant not at all. Strangely, Mozilla Firefox didn’t appear to be controllable despite Nuance claiming all versions support it. You can still use generic menu commands to control unsupported applications to some extent, but this is nowhere near as streamlined.