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.
Command and Control Software
There are two types of speech-to-text software available. One type is called “command and control” and it lets you speak commands to your computer to control it; hence the name. For example, a command that the computer understands might be, “go to the Apple website” or, “tell me the time”. Each command is pre-programmed and the computer will only recognise those commands it’s been programmed for; you can’t use this software to write an email or use iChat for example.
Command and control software for the Mac – known as “Speakable Items” (or sometimes, confusingly, “spoken commands”) – is already built into every OS X computer and can be accessed via the Accessibility panel. Although this software is less capable than dictation software, it is more helpful for people with some types of disabilities.
To you up and running with Speakable Items, check out the Apple Support article for your version of OS X:
- OS X Mavericks: Use spoken commands to control your Mac
- OS X Mountain Lion: Use spoken commands to control your Mac
- Further Apple support articles about Speakable Items
The other type of speech-to-text software is usually called “dictation” software. This is the type that lets you use your voice write an article like this one, type stuff to your friends in iChat, or type an email.
There is 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 (text to speech usually works less well for children), how much your accent matches what the program expects, whether your disability affects your speech, and whether your voice changes a lot through the day.
These types of speech-to-text dictation programs have made huge improvements in the last few years though, so even if you have used dictation software before and given up it is worth trying again.
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.
Under Mountain Lion and by default in Mavericks it 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, as it’s essentially the same thing. 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 and offline processing.
To start you off with OS X’s dictation, here are some Apple support articles:
- Mac Basics: Dictation lets you speak text instead of typing
- OS X Mountain Lion: Use Dictation to create messages and documents
- OS X Mavericks: Use Dictation to create messages and documents
- Further Apple Support articles about dictation and OS X
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-canceling headset microphone. It will set you back approximately US$200 plus the cost of a microphone.
Nuance’s Dragon is a 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 for Windows, 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.
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