Never mind fussing with a mouse: Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 Professional lets you talk to your PC to take care of all kinds of business. Dictate directly into Word and Excel; whisk off e-mail messages; create calendar entries; run searches on Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, and other sites; hop around your desktop from app to app; and search for files containing the keywords you utter. Though previous versions of Dragon's software converted speech into text (after appropriate training), this latest iteration delivers better accuracy out of the box, more-intuitive ways to format text, and additional ways to interact with your programs vocally, such as by adding an entry to Outlook's calendaring option.
Eager beavers can dive into dictation after installation by speaking into a headset or their PC's microphone (a headset is recommended; Dragon includes a basic one in the box). The company claims that you can achieve up to 99 percent accuracy using the software right out of the box. So I started yakking: I dictated a couple of thousand words (story drafts, e-mail messages) and accuracy was looking pretty good. My accuracy rate was 97.7 percent.
I then completed some training (or enrollment). This step involves reading aloud a series of paragraphs that you choose from an array of excerpts that Dragon provides; it took me about 5 minutes. I rambled on for another couple of thousand words, and the software's accuracy inched up to 98.1 percent. With my limited testing and subsequent training stints, accuracy has continued to improve ever so slightly, but it still hasn't reached 99 percent yet.
Some of my favorite bloopers: Dragon heard "caffeine" instead of "Cassie," "hurt Pfizer" instead of "her advisor," "come robbery" instead of "camaraderie," "winding dying" instead of "wined and dined," and "boxes" and "buses" instead of "bosses."
Formatting text in Dragon's dictation app, in Microsoft Word, or in an e-mail window has dramatically improved. In the past, for instance, you had to say "select 'PC World,'" followed by "italicize that," and then "go to end of document." Now you just say "italicize 'PC World.'"
I also like using the natural-language commands--a feature that's available only in the Professional version of the program. To bring up your calendar, all you have to say is "schedule a meeting"; and you can fire off an e-mail note by saying "Send an e-mail to Thomas. Go to subject. Story idea about local ergonomics clinic. Tab. Dear Thomas.... Yadda, yadda, yadda. Send."
Dragon's new shortcuts for Web searching are another winning feature, and these are available in all versions of NaturallySpeaking. For example, I tried saying "Search Wikipedia for Ernest Shackleton" and "Search eBay for iPod Nano," and both commands worked like a charm--though sometimes I had to repeat my query.
The Professional version offers a suite of administration tools aimed at multiple users on a network. You'll find user profile management options, security measures for enterprise-level installations, and support for Citrix environments. (Note: I did not test the network capabilities.)
The bundled microphone headset--the NC-91 by Andrea Electronics--does the job. It's not fancy, but it feels neither bulky nor flimsy on the noggin. The NC-91 has a comfy and cushy earpad, as well as a wide headband to prevent slippage.
The Professional version costs a whopping US$900. If you can do without the natural commands in Microsoft Outlook and the network administration tools, however, consider one of its less expensive siblings: NaturallySpeaking Standard for $100 or the Preferred edition for $200.
If you need a break from your keyboard, give Dragon a try. As in the past, it's sometimes quicker to accomplish a task by poking at the keyboard (say, when using Dragon's correction feature to fix a flubbed word) or by clicking the mouse (for example, on a link in a Google search results page), but version 10 gives you the best software yet for getting work done using your voice. That's why Dragon's a keeper.