If you’ve been reading PhoneDog awhile, you know that I don’t cover a ton of iPhone apps — partially because there are so many, this site would get completely overrun with them. So I try to be pretty judicious about what I pass on to you guys here. (With our upcoming iPhone site, however, you’ll be looking at an app-a-palooza! For more on that, scroll down to the sidebar at the bottom. But, I digress...)
Let me say that I was really excited when I saw the Dragon Dictation app for the iPhone. Dragon’s maker, Nuance, is the company responsible for T9 texting, as well as the voice transcription built into many smartphones today. (It even powers AT&T's new Voicemail to Text transcription.) And its Dragon Naturally Speaking is one of the best voice-recognition/dictation desktop programs on the market. On the PC, you just speak into a connected microphone, and watch the software fill in the words. Now, with Dragon Dictation, iPhone users are going to get similar functionality for their phones.
The app lets users speak into the phone for amazingly accurate dictation for text ready to pop into SMS messages, email, Tweets, and Facebook updates, or to save onto the clipboard for pasting into other programs.
The key to using dictation software (on any platform, actually) is to speak at a natural, but steady tempo that’s not too brisk and not too pokey slow. Overall, Dragon Dictation performs really well under those conditions, even with some background noise in the distance.
Functionality works in shorter spurts that vary a bit. In my completely unofficial and unscientific testing, it seemed to hover around 40 to 60 seconds or so. So you aren’t going to dictate a novel on this, at least not all at once. But for messages and status updates, it proved very handy.
But even though I used the words "amazingly accurate” above the jump there, I didn’t say “perfect.” Dragon stumbles a bit in random occurrences once in a while. And as with most dictation software, it has some trouble with lisps or thick accents. But over time, recognition accuracy improves as it adjusts to your voice. So the more you use it, the better it gets. (To optimize the “learning” capability, avoid sharing this app with others.)
When an error shows up, correcting it is pretty simple. A single tap brings up a list of other words that it thinks you might’ve said. If it has no idea, of if the other choices aren’t right, you can tap to delete the erroneous word. (This also works by selecting whole phrases.)
Overall, this is one of the best tech-only, nonhuman-intervention solutions I’ve ever used on a phone.
I was wondering how Nuance could squeeze such a powerful dictation utility into a small footprint like an iPhone app. (The desktop version is a pretty hefty piece of software.) Turns out, the app doesn’t transcribe your spoken words onboard. It works by sending your audio to Nuance’s network servers, where it is processed by the company’s patented Dragon Naturally Speaking technology, and is returned to your phone as text. This transfer is fast, and almost feels like it’s taking place on the phone itself. But it means you need a Wifi or data connection. So if you tend to be in a low coverage area without wireless internet, this won’t work too well for you.
Another consideration is a startling notification in the EULA. When you launch it for the first time, there’s a notice that the software will upload your contacts to Nuance’s servers. This has many users understandably freaked out and upset — mostly because the company didn’t offer much explanation about why it's doing this or how much info is provided.
According to Nuance, the reason for this is so the Dragon engine can offer more precise accuracy when a user dictates a contact's name. And so it uploads only the names — not phone numbers, emails or other info. In this context, it makes some sense. But especially given all the hoopla over iPhone security breaches lately, the company should’ve taken huge pains to be more transparent about this.
I know a lot of people who use dictation software (from students and teachers to lawyers, writers and doctors) and many of them would be thrilled to have Dragon-branded dictation on their phones — that is, assuming they’re not squeamish about their contacts’ names being uploaded to the company’s server. In truth, this is the biggest hurdle with this application. That aside though, as far as functionality goes, this is a pretty amazing app that performs extremely well.
Dragon Dictation is free (for a limited time), so to learn more about it, read the user reviews or download it, click here. (Link opens iTunes.)
SIDEBAR: The PhoneDog iPhone site
Did you notice the plug for the phone dog iPhone site in the first paragraph? If you're among those waiting for word on the name of our new subsite, as well as the mini contest winner, state change [stay tuned]. Tomorrow we announce the winner, and offer you a new opportunity to participate in the next stage of our project’s development!
[By the way, FWIW, the text in italics was dictated using the Dragon Dictation app with a TV running in the background. So how'd it do?]