Illustration: Jim Pavlidis.
BLEEDING Edge is prepared to admit our fondness for the Dragon Naturally Speaking voice-recognition program might have something to do with the fact that whenever a new version comes out, we have to spend half an hour or so ''training'' it to recognise our particular speech patterns.
We get quite a kick out of having an audience - even one that ''lives'' inside a computer - hanging on our every word as we read it a bedtime story, or pretend we're JFK, reciting his inaugural presidential address, which is one of the choices the program offers in its training module.
On that minimal exposure, and particularly if you give it permission to examine your documents and emails to enhance its knowledge of your personal vocabulary, Dragon Naturally Speaking 12 delivers a truly stunning degree of accuracy as it ''types'' your words and commands.
Ten years ago, when Dragon Naturally Speaking (DNS) was a mere infant, at version 6, we thought its exceptional talents indicated we were well on the way to achieving our lifetime goal of having a piece of software that would automatically write all our columns, claim our expenses and file our tax returns while we continued our search for the ultimate margarita recipe on the beach.
Regrettably, Moore's Law and the science of speech recognition algorithms haven't yet delivered on that dream, but DNS is getting ever closer to it.
Perhaps one of the most pleasing advances is the price. In 2002, the Professional version was $1585. It is now $599. The equivalent of today's Premium, then called Preferred, cost $499 with a headset. That bundle is now $299, and if you already have a good headset or microphone, the software-only package costs $199.
That is a pretty small investment for something likely to save your weary fingers and dramatically increase your productivity. And while in the early days you really had to invest in the Pro version to get access to its most powerful features, the average home or business user (although possibly not a legal or medical professional) might well get by with Premium, particularly given the existence of add-on utilities including KnowBrainer and Freesr and/or ShowNumbers Plus.
Before investing in Dragon Naturally Speaking, however, users need to consider some hardware facts of life.
This version improves a little on the accurate matching of what you said to what it thinks you said, and eliminates the latency issues (a slight delay while DNS ruminated before the words appeared on screen) that sometimes occurred in earlier releases. But while the developer says the minimum requirement is a 1GHz Pentium or equivalent AMD processor or 1.66 GHz Intel Atom CPU, the program makes good use of an i7 processor and we are not convinced about its performance on anything less than an i5. It also benefits from additional RAM (8GB may not be a minimum but it is certainly desirable), which makes DNS 12 a natural for 64-bit versions of Windows.
By default, the program sets its speed v accuracy setting to no more than 50 per cent, even on faster computers. Users with more grunt should definitely try turning that right up.
Hardware performance factors are likely to determine whether you can take advantage of the new BestMatch V algorithm that boosts DNS 12's performance with parallel multithreading, or fall back to earlier technology, which this version still uses more efficiently. One significant feature of this version is it gives users a comprehensive degree of choice in enabling or disabling features.
Dragon also requires a sound card supporting 16-bit recording, and a good-quality microphone or headset.
While we don't expect too many people will invest the $300 we stumped up at a US store for a Samson AirLine 77 wireless headset and transmitter (we have seen it on sale here for $449) or the Philips SpeechMike range of hand-held microphones ($339 to $699), higher-quality products such as those devices do tend to improve accuracy.
The new DNS version extends the remote microphone app developed for iOS devices to Android, although we're not impressed by the results, and it now works quite well with Bluetooth microphones. Among many useful new features, Webmail users get enhanced support for Gmail and Hotmail, and DNS 12 understands the terminology of email addresses and commands such as ''compose new message''.
The retail pack includes a quick-reference card with sample commands and other aids, and the array of pop-up aids is impressive.
Simple dictation inside a word processor or the dictation box that pops up when you don't have a target program open, and which allows you to transfer the text, is remarkably straightforward. But mastering the commands does require homework and diligent application, and some people just don't seem temperamentally suited to talking rather than tapping.