Voice Recognition Review: MacSpeech Dictate and RevoLabs xTag Wireless Microphone

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(Originally published on Colorado Social Security Law)

I recently added MacSpeech Dictate, a voice recognition software package for Macs to my technology arsenal. Many readers may be familiar with NaturallySpeaking, a robust voice recognition software package for PCs. I was previously a NaturallySpeaking user, before switching to the Mac. If you are a PC user, NaturallySpeaking Preferred, is a great program for dictating and controlling your computer.

Unfortunately, if you were a Mac user, the voice recognition software options were not as good.

Many users continued to use NaturallySpeaking on a Mac through various workarounds; either through Boot Camp (which allows you to run Windows directly on Apple hardware), or by virtualizing a Windows machine via a program such as Parallels or VMWare Fusion. The advantage to virtualization is that you could run both operating systems, Mac OS X. and Windows (XP or Vista) side-by-side.  But, the dictation was limited to the Windows side: you could not select a Macintosh window, and dictate into it when you were virtualizing NaturallySpeaking.

My, how times have changed! MacSpeech has recently released Dictate, a voice recognition software package utilizing the NaturallySpeaking voice recognition engine. This is a native OSX program that finally lets Mac users easily experience what Windows users have had for years.

I am currently using it to write this post and a Revolabs xTag wireless microphone. The xTag is a is a two-piece unit (microphone and base) which attaches to your computer through USB. the base is approximately the size of a box of Altoids mints, though a bit taller. The microphone, is about the size of a tube of lipstick, and can either be clipped to your shirt, or worn with a lanyard (included). The xTag also includes a ear loop speaker with a cable that can be attached to the wireless microphone. This can be useful for VOIP applications, such as Skype, as you can channel sound to the ear loop rather than through to your computer speakers (which might otherwise get picked up by the microphone).

The xTag can either be purchased separately for approximately $249, or directly from MacSpeech when purchasing Dictate. if you buy both dictate and the xTag microphone together, you save approximately $100 compared to what you would pay if you buy them separately.

The voice recognition is really very good. And it is wonderful not to be tied down to the computer by a cable, or have a headset strapped to your head.  Regarding battery life, I have had no problem keeping the microphone active (though not dictating the whole time) for six or more hours.

One nice surprise was being able to dictate into Windows XP programs running virtualized through VM Ware Fusion. Presumably, this would also work with programs virtualized using Parallels.  I can dictate into both Mac or PC applications just using MacSpeech Dictate.

However, if you’re coming to voice recognition from NaturallySpeaking, you may feel that MacSpeech Dictate has one hand tied behind its back.

At present, May 2008, voice correction is very limited.  You can tell Dictate to select certain words, and then dictate them again, but you did not get a pulldown menu of possible alternative choices.  Nor can you simply tell Dictate what word you were trying to say by typing it in. In practice, this means that you may select a word, repeat it, Dictate gets it wrong again, and you can repeat the entire process four or five times and Dictate still may never get the word you want.

Also, Dictate has a nasty bug that occasionally causes it to forward delete the next several lines of text, and then insert a word or phrase you previously dictated in its place.

You can view an example of this problem in the video below.  The error shows up around 3:40.

When I contacted MacSpeech about this problem, I received the following e-mail in response:

This will occur if you manually edit something, or use the Do Select command, and don’t delete the selection before continuing. The workaround when this occurs is to exit Dictate, then restart it, then continue dictating in the application you’re using.

NOTE: If you have TextExpander, please remove that application, as this can also cause this problem to occur.

I was previously using Typeit4Me, an abbreviation expander program similar to TextExpander. however, even after removing that program, the bug continued. The critical factor seems to be whether you manually edit your text, while dictating, or use the “Do Select” command.

This is a serious problem. I am rarely simply dictating. I’m often switching applications, viewing medical records, reviewing PDF documents, and looking up information on websites. This means that when I return to the dictation window, the cursor is often moved to a new location. Or, I will move the cursor position simply because I want to rephrase, add or remove text. Having a program go wonky when this occurs is a showstopper. The solution of closing and reopening dictate, is also unacceptable as a long-term solution. You would not accept a car whose windshield wipers turned on automatically from time to time and the only solution was to pull over, turn off the engine, and turn it back on.

As a result, when I dictate, I am not using the “select” and correct option. instead, I simply dictate, and then I either manually correct errors, or I manually select the word and re-dictate it.

Again, the quality of the voice recognition is the best feature of MacSpeech Dictate.

However, the paucity of supporting features hobbles what may become a five-star program. At present, I would rate MacSpeech Dictate three stars out of five. I recommend it, but you need to know its limitations going in.

One last note, since March 2008, there has been a problem with Dictate crashing when you try to create a new profile.  Basically, you could install the program, you were not able to use it because you could not create a profile.    A batch of bad discs was blamed for this problem.  I was surprised that when I purchased dictate directly from MacSpeech in late April 2008, more than a month after this problem began to be reported on the web, I still had same problem. I can understand receiving a bad disk from a third-party vendor, but I was surprised to have potentially received a bad disk directly from the developer.

I contacted MacSpeech and was told that there was a patch, however, they could not e-mail it to me until higher level tech support approved sending me the file. Since I called on Friday, I was frustrated to hear that I would not receive the file until Monday.  Fortunately, there was an e-mail in my inbox the following day, Saturday, with a link to the file.

Since that time, MacSpeech has posted a link to the file on their website. This program checks the integrity of the various data files for corruption, then downloads new copies if needed.  So, if you have a problem with your Dictate installation, you may be able to solve it quickly, on your own, and without waiting for MacSpeech to get back in touch with you.

Overall, I think MacSpeech Dictate is quite good. The voice recognition is excellent.  However, the lack of a full-featured correction system (as is available on the PC side with NaturallySpeaking) and the occasional bug are pretty big problems.

I am still happy with the purchase, and I would recommend Dictate — but you need to know the current limitations.

JULY 10, 2008 UPDATE: Since writing the review, the lack of a “correct” command in Dictate has proven quite maddening.  When the program works, it is a joy.  But, when it misrecognizes a word, sometimes no amount of repeating that word will help.

I recently tried to get Dictate to correctly understand the word, “phone.”  Now, i know it can recognize me saying “phone,” but this time it was determined not to.  Even repeating the word dis not help because, without the ability to train how you say words, Dictate just makes its best guess every time.  So you get the same errors ad nauseam.

You can have it review prior documents to “train” the program, but that is just not good enough. Dictate must add a feature to correct and train words/phrases; and not as a $150 upgrade to an already $200 program.  Whether MacSpeech likes it or not, Dictate will be compared to NaturallySpeaking, and correction is a feature NaturallySpeaking has had for years.  Since MacSpeech is already charging more for Dictate than the the current price of the  Preferred version of NaturallySpeaking, it must offer a comparable feature set.

Until MacSpeech does this, Dictate is a Ferrari engine in an AMC Pacer.  Every once is a while, the power is exhilerating, but ultimately the total package is disappointing.