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Review: Dragon Dictate 3 for Mac delivers reliable dictation

I was anxious to test the updated Dragon Dictate, now at version 3, as I had been a steady user of the Dragon products over the years and watched them improve. The new version offers performance boosts for legacy users, along with some attractive new features that might entice customers.

Dragon Dictate (formerly MacSpeech Dictate) is a Mac application that turns your spoken words into text, in real time. You can dictate into just about any program that allows text entry, like Pages, Word, Mail or even Safari. You speak commands for formatting, like "new line" or "new paragraph" or "tab key" and your cursor will move. You can also issue more complex commands, like "search Google for NASA."

With email you can say "new message" and a message will be prepared. Tab down, by voice command, and fill in a name, subject, then start dictating. Then say "Send Message" and off it goes. You can even say "Send a message to XXX XXXXX" and that works too. As my install was an upgrade from version 2.5, I wondered if my old voice training files would work. They didn't; I had to read about a 10-minute story so Dragon Dictate could learn my voice, and match it to the microphone I use. Although the software comes with a headset mic, I hate wearing them. Instead I use an excellent Blue USB desk mic, which works perfectly, even though I am about eight inches away from it.

Dragon claims the speech recognition is faster in v3, and it seems to be, but it's not a dramatic difference. As you dictate, your words appear on screen just a couple of seconds after you say them. One thing that is definitely improved is accuracy. Although I was always impressed with the program's ability to understand words I did not expect it to get right, accuracy has been improved. I'm doing a lot fewer edits of spoken text, although that can be done by voice too. You don't need to use your mouse.

This latest version also supports wideband Bluetooth, so if you have a supported wireless headset, you're going to get good quality and recognition that way.

The help files are excellent. It's easy to find a command if you get stuck, and there are interactive tutorials as well.

One of the newest and most intriguing features of Dragon Dictate 3 is the ability to transcribe an audio file. I was quite skeptical that this would work, so I tried an old MP3 file that was an interview I did for a book I wrote. At the time, I had to pay someone to transcribe all my interviews and it wasn't cheap.

It turns out Dragon doesn't want MP3 files, but does support AIFF, MP4 and WAV, so I converted the MP3 file in iTunes to WAV. You select transcription from the Dragon menu and point to the file.

The software takes in about 20 seconds of audio and shows you the results. You can confirm the text or make corrections. The transcript was really quite solid, just needing some formatting for paragraphs and fixing a few misinterpreted words. That was very surprising. I recorded the interview with the subject several feet away from my digital recorder. It really is an astounding result, and if I had this software back when I was writing the book it would have saved me hundreds of dollars in transcription fees.

Another clever feature is that you can use the free Dragon Recorder app for iOS in the field, then send those files from your iPhone/iPad/iPod touch to your Mac where Dragon Dictate will obligingly transcribe them for you. If you want to use your iPhone as a live mic, the Dragon Microphone app (free) will do that for you.

Dragon Dictate 3 is a solid and impressive update. In fact, I used it to dictate this review. It sells for US$174.99, which is an introductory special. If you have Dragon Dictate 2.5 it is a $149.99 upgrade. Current owners have been offered a lower price of $99.00 by email. You'll need an Intel based Mac, with 4 GB of disk space, 2 GB of RAM and an internet connection to register the software.

Dragon Dictate comes from Nuance, which seems to pretty much own the speech recognition business. Apple's Siri is based on it, as is the new dictation feature built into Mountain Lion. Of course, those services require an internet connection, and simply don't have the depth of features and power that dedicated software has.

If you haven't tried dictation and computer voice control, Dragon Dictate is an excellent, reliable solution. No dictation technology is perfect, and you still will have to make some corrections, but Dragon Dictate 3 is certainly the state of the art. I think the new features and recognition improvements make it a worthwhile upgrade. I've seen scattered reports that version 2.5 does not work too well in Mountain Lion, so upgrading may be mandatory for users in that situation.

You can see some of the various functions and set-up screens in the gallery below.

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