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Summary:

For the most part, I remain very satisfied with the performance of most tasks I perform on my middle-aged 1.33 GHz 17-inch PowerBook G4, which I bought back in 2006. But not when it comes to dictation. Interestingly, the most dramatic performance boost I’ve realized transitioning […]

For the most part, I remain very satisfied with the performance of most tasks I perform on my middle-aged 1.33 GHz 17-inch PowerBook G4, which I bought back in 2006. But not when it comes to dictation. Interestingly, the most dramatic performance boost I’ve realized transitioning from PowerPC to Intel Core 2 Duo is with dictation software.

I’ve been partially dependent on speech recognition since the late 1990s, when chronic polyneuritis flare-ups began to make typing more than a paragraph or two painful to the point of inhibition. Not that the first speech recognition software products for the Mac didn’t inflict their own sort of pain. Articulate Systems’ Power Secretary and its successor Voice Power Pro were based on discrete speech recognition engines requiring you to pause…between…each…word, an unnatural mode of articulation that tended to put a damper on the creative flow.

Continuous speech dictation came along for the Mac with IBM’s ViaVoice Millennium Edition in 1999, and since then speech dictation software has had many incarnations with many speed, stability and accuracy improvements. But even on a fairly powerful G4, like my PowerBook with its 1.5GB of RAM, it still always felt like the computer was working hard to keep up. And that’s because it was. Speech recognition software used for dictation is more complex and demanding of hardware power than most categories of consumer software, excluding perhaps sophisticated gaming and high-end video editing, and the G4 processor was never fully up to the job.

Core 2 Duo in Its Element

However, the potent processing muscle of the Core 2 Duo, which is frankly overkill for most of my computing needs, is right in its element dealing with the processing demands of dictation running MacSpeech’s latest Dictate 1.3 software. Dictate is an Intel-only application based on the superb Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech engine and, even on my modestly powered 2.0GHz unibody MacBook and its standard 2GB of RAM, it feels like it’s keeping pace without breaking a proverbial sweat.

Effortless, Enjoyable, and Even Fun

Dictation has always been a useful and helpful tool, especially for those of us with physical disabilities, but the combination of Core 2 Duo power and MacSpeech Dictate (which is the only dictation application still available for the Mac, IBM having bailed out of the category in 2003), makes it effortless, enjoyable, and even fun — worth considering even if you can type for hours without a twinge of pain. And while dictation is Dictate’s main raison d’être, it also supports computer navigation and control by voice, which can be vitally helpful for folks with severe typing disabilities, and potentially handy for any user.

Dictate requires “training” to create a user recognition profile, but that process has been streamlined and shortened to the point where I’m finding after an initial 5-10 minute training session, I’m getting better accuracy than I ever achieved with the old iListen program. I intend to do more training using the program’s built-in voice training tools, and to upgrade the RAM on my computer as well, both of which should polish and improve Dictate’s performance even more. But in the meantime, the program is giving me amazingly good accuracy and speed virtually out of the box and on standard spec hardware.

Leap of Faith

Purchasing a dictation application requires more of a leap of faith, so to speak, than with most software categories, because free demos aren’t really practical and a high-quality microphone is a must for achieving acceptable performance. Dictate isn’t cheap, selling for $199 (that includes a high-quality Plantronics headset microphone), but I don’t anticipate that many purchasers will experience buyer’s remorse, and if you use your Mac for serious production work involving a lot of text entry, the program should pay for itself fairly quickly in terms of increased productivity. Once they get used to it, most people can enter text much quicker via voice than with a keyboard, and it’s less fatiguing.

If you’ve perhaps experimented with voice recognition software in the past and been underwhelmed, you’re in for a pleasant surprise.

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  1. While I’m glad the state of dictation has improved over the years, I find the title of this article be unfounded.

    It’s fine to compare the G4 to the Core Duo 2, though such comparisons are silly. However, comparing PowerPC in general to Core Duo 2 isn’t right. Yes, Apple happened to sell G4s (circa 1999 technology) until just a few years ago, but PowerPC is more than just the G4. How about the G5? How about IBM’s Power6 technology? I would think the Core Duo 2 wouldn’t fair so well in that contest. Of course, you’re not going to get a Power6 in a laptop either.

    Further, you’re comparing different software (IBM’s Viavoice vs. Dragon’s Naturally speaking algorithms). Software alone is capable of accounting for drastically different performances, based on the algorithm used, etc.

    Yes, the move to Intel worked out well for Apple, but that has less to do with the inherent architecture of the chips as it does with the markets these chips serve. That is, IBM has no need or interest in producing a chip PowerPC chip for laptops. But, they do make very powerful workstation / server chips that exceed the performance of Intel’s offerings.

  2. I’m glad the author’s experiences with Dictate have been a blessing. I have the good fortune of being pain-free‚ but have always been interested in recognition technology on the Mac as a way to “get things done”. While I’m impressed at Dictate’s minimal training curve and accuracy of dictation‚ I’m less impressed with the way it forces me to use speech to navigate through a dictated document. If one uses the keyboard to navigate a dictated document‚ or sometimes even switches programs‚ the engine easily loses its place in the document. If one resumes dictating in a place different than the last location a spoken command sent it‚ I get transcription errors as often as every 3rd word. This is probably not the case for people who depend on this software‚ but I find myself quickly frustrated by saying “insert before the words “this way now”” when those 3 words are one line up from the location of the cursor. It’s either that‚ re-cache the document or risk transcription errors resulting from the cursor “losing its way”.

    I’ve been content to use Dictate as a catch basin for my thoughts and the keyboard as an editing tool. Until they can incorporate the ability to navigate a dictated document with a keyboard‚ I’m afraid it will remain a niche player in my day-to-day workflow.

    Also‚ FWIW‚ when using Dictate‚ my DP 1.8 Ghz G5 gets stomped by my 2.0 Ghz Core 2 Duo Macbook. And it’s not even close. Same thing for video encoding‚ time from boot to usable desktop – every measure I can think of actually.

  3. Charles W. Moore Friday, April 24, 2009

    Hi Steve;

    I think you have inferred a much more ambitious premise than I ever intended in the title.

    My point was and is that for me, a big part of the payoff in finally making the move from a Power PC G4 Mac to a Core 2 Duo Mac has been dictation performance.

    I remain a big fan of G4 Macs, and both my 17″ PowerBook and my nine-year-old Pismo PowerBook (which has a G4 upgrade) are still in daily use and doing a great job for what I use them for. However, for dictation, the results I’m getting with my C2D Mac is in a whole different dimension, although that’s no doubt partly due to the superior Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice engine.

    Charles

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