Bill Hicks reviews MacSpeech Dictate speech recognition software
MacSpeech DictateThis review was written from the comfort of a sofa, with a glass of red wine in one hand and a fat cigar in the other.

OK, the cigar’s a lie, but the rest is true. It was written without anyone’s fingers touching a keyboard, and with hardly a glance at the laptop screen, using MacSpeech Dictate, new software which brings the dream of reliable and accurate hands-free composition several steps closer for Mac users.

As close, in fact, as PC users have been able to enjoy using Nuance’s Dragon software – since MacSpeech uses the same Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition engine.

MacSpeech has already enjoyed some rave reviews, with claims of near 100 per cent accuracy. On the basis of this trial I’m almost ready to agree. From opening the box to a first attempt at dictation took less than half an hour.

The two discs (the application itself, and a dictionary disc) installed themselves swiftly. A MacSpeech tutorialMacSpeech microphone icon appears on the desktop: click on it and you’re swept into an efficient set-up and training process that’s not merely pain-free, but positively enjoyable. And online tutorials are available on the MacSpeech website.

First, you’re told to read some text to optimise microphone levels. The headphone/microphone combo supplied felt a bit flimsy, but it fits well and is so light you soon forget it’s there. You have to position the microphone at exactly the right distance from your mouth. The instructions suggest you adjust it so that you can still just about bring a drink to your lips. This worked a treat.

Next you set up your profile – remembering to select “UK English” if you’re not American. And now the real fun starts – the training. At first I’m not sure whether the software is training me or I’m training the software. Basically, you’re prompted to read an article, which is presented in small chunks. As you read the text changes colour – red if the software hasn’t understood what you’re saying, and green when it has. After a few sentences you’re getting more green than red – you’re learning to pace your voice and feeling very pleased with yourself.

While the software gets used to your voice, you are learning the basic punctuation and formatting commands, most of which are dead obvious (“comma” for a comma, “full stop”, “open quotes”, etc).

The article you have to dictate is all about speech recognition, and was just getting really interesting when it cut me off and announced that I had done enough training.

And that is it – you’re ready to start dictating. The big surprise is how quickly it writes. MacSpeech really does prefer you to speak at normal speed – long gaps between words don’t help, as it relies a lot on context. And, as with English tourists abroad, it really does not help to speak very loudly, one word at a time.

Clear enunciation is another matter. You quickly get a sense of just how slack spoken English can be, and how little difference there is between consonant sounds such as “v’ and “f”.

Difficult to catch out - and few limitations

Again though, MacSpeech usually gets what you’re trying to say through context – and its dictionary is impressive. I tried to catch it out with obscure place names, classical Greek philosophers, and mathematical terms and it knew them all, as well as when to put in caps.

MacSpeech is more than a dictation programme, though: with more practice, I could have used it to correct and edit and reformat the article, save it and print it. The editing commands do take a lot of getting used to – though the latest version (v1.2) is said to include easier and more precise commands for moving the cursor around.

In command mode, you can use the software to control many other functions of your Mac, to open and close applications, even to write and send emails. It’s quite hard to think of limits to its professional uses, while its educational potential is perhaps even greater – whether as an encouragement for reluctant writers, or as a lifeline to anyone who, for whatever reason, cannot easily operate a keyboard and mouse.

MacSpeech Dictate
System requirements: Intel-based Mac
Mac OS X 10.4.11 or greater (Tiger)
Mac OS X 10.5.1 or greater (Leopard)
Price: £179.95

UK distributor: Softline UK Ltd
Tel: 01293 827900

Further information on MacSpeech can be found at