Speech to Text - Dictation Software for OS X

Speech-to-Text: Dictation Software for OS X

Speech-to-text software, sometimes known as dictation software, is something that lets you talk to the computer in some form and have the computer react appropriately to what you are saying. This is totally different to text-to-speech software, which is software can read out text already in the computer.

In this article you’ll learn about different types of speech-to-text software for Mac OS X, and what your options are if you want to use it to control your computer, dictate text, or both.

In this article:

Dictation Software

There are really only two options for dictation software when you are using Mac OS X. There is basic dictation software built into OS X, and there is a program developed by Nuance called Dragon Dictate for Mac. Dictate is the successor to a program named iListen which MacSpeech used to produce.

All dictation-capable text-to-speech products work very well for some people and fairly badly for others. Whether it will work for you depends on many things including:

  • How much effort you’re willing to put into learning it
  • How good your microphone is
  • Your age, as text to speech usually works less well for children
  • How much your accent matches the “standard” accent the program expects
  • Whether your disability affects your speech
  • Whether your voice changes a lot through the day, for example when you are fatigued

These types of speech-to-text dictation programs have made huge improvements in the last few years though, so even if you have tried to use dictation software before and given up it is worth trying again.

The Free Option – Built-in OS X Dictation

OS X’s free built in dictation requires OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion or later and can be accessed via the “Dictation and Speech” panel on System Preferences.

OS X Mavericks' System Preferences pane for Speech and Dictation.
OS X Mavericks’ System Preferences pane for Speech and Dictation.

OS X Dictation with Mountain Lion and Mavericks

Under Mountain Lion and by default in Mavericks dictation functions by listening to up to 30 seconds of speech and sending the speech to Apple’s servers for processing – the same way that Dictation to Siri on your iPhone works. If you have a stable and reliable broadband connection this is fine, but those with slow or metered internet connections may have trouble. For those users who want local speech processing, under Mavericks you can turn on Enhanced Dictation which allows continuous speech recognition (no waiting) and offline processing.

Here are some articles to get you started with Dictation if you’re using Mountain Lion or Mavericks:

OS X Dictation With Yosemite

Dictation functions were greatly upgraded when Apple brought out OS X 10.10 Yosemite – dictation is now available in forty languages, fifty editing and formatting commands have been added, and you can use Automator to create new dictation commands yourself.

Enhanced Dictation mode also allows real-time dictation and dictation when you’re not connected to the internet.

To start you off with OS X’s dictation, here are some Apple support articles:

The Ultimate – Nuance Dragon Dictate

Nuance’s Dragon Dictate for Mac version 4, the current version, requires the requires Intel-based Macintosh hardware and requires Mac OS X Mountain Lion 10.8.3 or higher and a Nuance-approved noise-cancelling headset microphone.

Dragon Dictate icon

Nuance’s Dragon is a much more complete product than OS X’s built in dictation, allowing you to mix dictation and commands without needing to use the keyboard or mouse. For those who find keyboard or mouse use extremely difficult or impossible and wish to do as much as possible by voice, Dragon is still the only functional solution.

Dragon also allows for transcription of recorded files, provided they only contain a single speaker and that person has already set up recognition. There is an iPhone/iPad app called Dragon Recorder specifically for recording files for later transcription.

The speech recognition engine which powers Nuance’s Dragon is the same as that powering NaturallySpeaking, the premiere speech recognition program for Windows, and it is continually improving. Since 2008 when it was released, Dragon has made enormous improvements in speech recognition and it is much more forgiving and usable than it was then! I hope that improvements continue just as fast in the future – it’s a great thing for all users.

For those just getting started, we have:

For those who are further advanced, make sure you subscribe for our email updates as there will be cheat sheets of Dragon Dictate commands available very soon.

– Ricky

Dragon Dictate for Mac: Simply smarter speech recognition

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34 thoughts on “Speech-to-Text: Dictation Software for OS X”

  1. Ricky, what voice-to-text software could be used for recording-and-transcribing lectures? The lecturer would not “train” the software in advance to his/her voice. Is this even possible?


    • Cindy: Unfortunately it’s not really possible to transcribe untrained speakers, especially if you are recording them in a situation where the microphone is far from their mouth. Microphones for speech-to-text really need to be just an inch or two away from the speaker, recording from where a student would sit in a lecture hall is very dicey unfortunately. You may have to wait a few years for technology to catch up with this need, I’m sorry.

  2. Hello,

    is it possible to feed this speech recognition software with line-in audio instead of the microphone input? For instance to transcribe a recorded speech which is on CD.


    • Martin: You can transcribe pre-recorded audio, provided the speaker has been trained with the profile you will be using – that means you have to have trained the system with the same speaker using the same microphone, which sounds unlikely if it’s on a CD. If you want to record something for later transcription in future, check the Nuance website for what recorders are recommended.

    • @P W Whiteaker: Sure! You can use voice commands to copy and paste graphics into a document wherever the cursor is at the time you do the paste. I’m not sure about completely adjusting the sizing and positioning in a 100% handsfree way but it should be at least partially possible using the ‘Arrange’ tab of the inspector – handsfree access of inspector is the part I’m unsure about.

  3. The best navigation control is found in NaturallySpeaking for Windows, in their “mouse grid” command. This allows you to position the mouse anywhere on the screen. Awsome, but Dragon Dictate 2 has a limited version of this and is much clunkier. Has there been an improvement in later versions? Looking at other forums and videos, I think not.

  4. Ricky, I have recorded audios of my own presentations stored on my computer. I’d like to “play” them for transcription by the Enhanced Dictation feature but the system does not seem to recognize the audio being played. Any workaround?

    If I have a new text document open, with the mic icon showing, then click on – say – an .aif file, the mic closes down.

    From one of the above comments, it appears I might use the audio-in jack (on my MacBook) from the digital recorder to deliver the speech/audio, but that’s a hassle: I’d have to reload recordings from my computer back to the voice recorder.

    Hope there’s a Better Way.


    • @Phil: There’s definitely a better way for that! In Dragon, go to the Tools menu and select “Transcription”. That should guide you through training the transcription audio source and then transcribing into Notepad. Then you can copy and paste the text wherever you want.

      If you grab the Dragon Dictate 4 User Manual from Nuance, the description is on page 100.

  5. Great Article, Thanks!

    Is there a way to “train” free dictation in OS X or have it remember new words and corrections?

  6. Hi, due to nerve damage in my hands, I am unable to use them for typing, and I want to go back to college to complete my degree. Is there any program that I can use to do my online work, as well as type research papers through dictation process since I am unable to use my hands in this manner. If anyone has anything please let me know. I need something that is affordable, yet good. Any insight will be appreciated.

  7. I am interested to buy a Naunce speech recognition software in Malayalam for dictation. Can you please recommend one.

  8. I’ve never used a dictation software before. If I’m understanding correctly, it sounds like you have to speak any punctuation or spacing commands, is that correct? If the user is just rambling off content, would the software capture the language? I’m assuming this would just mean a more intensive editing process to form sentences, add punctuation and adjust spacing and formatting.

    • Cami: Yes, that’s correct. If you just speak the content you will get essentially one enormously long sentence with no punctuation or new paragraphs in it but othewise it seems to work fine – just more editing, as you said.

  9. Can I train both software to recognise my speech? Im a radiology resident and I would like them to recognise medical terms. And Im from Malaysia so our “english” accent a bit different. I am willing to train them from the start if needed. lol. Thanks.

  10. We are looking for a way to transcribe interviews (one person and the interviewer). They will be long, over an hour. Would we need to have each interviewee train Dragon Dictate at the beginning of their interview? Is that a long process? What will happen to the interviewer’s voice? Is this the best software for these interviews (for Mac OS Maverick)?

    • Barbara: It’s not possible to automatically transcribe interviews with no intervention, unfortunately. Dragon can only cope with a single user at a time. The most efficient way to get it done is probably to set up a Dragon user who’s familiar with the program and play an audio recording of the interview to them through headphones, then they can “re-speak” all the words and punctuation, etc., and Dragon can transcribe their voice.

  11. Thanks for a solid informative article.

    Mac users who are considering buying from Nuance should check the Mac section of Nuance’s forum prior to purchase.

    I won’t summarize here, and suggest user’s visit the forum, investigate for themselves, and come to their own conclusions.

  12. Thanks for being an expert on these issues Ricky, very helpful.

    My very inexpert impression is that Dragon Dictate is working considerably better on Windows than the Mac.

    I’d be interested in your opinion on this if time permits, thanks!

  13. I dictate something to the mac however, it does not type what I said. I then have to go back and type out what I just said. For example if i want to say “I will dictate something whilst you write” it will type something along the lines of “I will did he whilst right” its really annoying, how can I solve this problem?

  14. Hi Ricky, Thanks for your article. I’m new to using Dragon Dictate for Mac 4 and having difficulty “training” the software. On previous versions you would say “spell that” and then “train that” however I can’t find training command after the word has been spelt. Does the new software automatically train itself after a spelling correction has been made? Thanks

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