Dragon Notes Review: quick voice to text for Windows 8, but is it good enough?

When I saw that Nuance had released a Dragon Notes app for Windows 8 I was intrigued for two reasons.

First, I am interested in tracking the health of the app market for Windows 8, and an app from a company as well respected as Nuance is worth looking at.

Second, I have great respect for the Dragon Dictate application for speech to text. Dragon Dictate is superb; indispensable if you cannot use a keyboard for some reason, and valuable even if you can, whether to fend off RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) or to help transcribe an interview. If Notes is based on the same engine, it could be very useful.

I installed it for review and was intrigued to find that it is not a real Windows 8 app, installed from the Windows Store. Rather, it is a desktop app designed to look superficially like Metro, the touch-friendly user interface in Windows Store apps. That said, the effect is rather odd since it does not run full screen or support the normal gestures and conventions, like settings in the Charms menu.

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Still, it is mostly touch-friendly. I say “mostly” because occasionally it departs from the Metro-style user interface and reverts to something more like desktop-style – like these small and ugly buttons in the delete confirmation dialog:

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This is sloppy design; look at the lack of margin around the button captions, the childish “No Way!”, and the fact that these buttons are smaller than they should be for comfortable touch control.

In the main part of the user interface the design remains poor. The font size is too small and there appears to be no way to change it. “Settings” lets you access Help, select language, connect to Twitter and Facebook, and register the product. That is all.

The big question though: how well does it work? Dragon Notes is different from Dragon Dictate, in that there is no voice training; it just does its best with whatever voice it hears.

Notes are easy to make; just tap Record, and tap again (or stop talking) to finish. You can transcribe for a maximum of 30 seconds, though you can also append to an existing note.

My initial results on a Surface Pro tablet, using the built-in microphone, were dire. Hardly any words were recognised. Before giving up though, I had a look at the microphone settings and made a recording using Sound Recorder. The result was a distorted mess, and I do not blame Dragon Notes for making no sense of it. I changed the levels in Windows, reducing the “Microphone Boost” until the level was reasonable but not distorted.

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The improvement in Dragon Notes was dramatic. Speaking a simple note slowly and carefully I could get almost perfect accuracy.

I attached a high quality Plantronics headset and tried Wordsworth’s Daffodils:

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Not bad, but not perfect either. (I did dictate “over” rather than “o’er” as the latter is just too difficult for Dragon).

Here is one of my efforts with the built-in microphone:

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Again, not that bad, but not something you could use without editing.

And that could be a problem. In the full Dragon Dictate you can use commands like “Select Fattening” and then select a correction, or repeat the word, or spell it. The only commands in Dragon Notes are for basic punctuation, posting to Facebook and Twitter, sending in an email, or searching the web.

This last is fun when it works. Tap to record, speak a word or phrase, then when it is recognised say “Search the web”.

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Summary: simple voice to text that works somewhat, terrible user interface design but basic enough that you will not struggle to use it.

Imitating a Metro user interface is a mistake; it is neither one thing nor the other. It is a shame Nuance did not do a proper Windows Store app.

That aside, how useful is this? It all hinges on the quality of the voice recognition, which will vary according to your voice, your microphone, and the quietness of your surroundings.

In the worst case it will be useless. In the best case, I can see some value in dictating a quick note rather than struggling to type with the on-screen keyboard, presuming you are in fact using a tablet.

It would help though if Dragon would record your voice as well as transcribing it, so that if the text is not intelligible you can later refer back to the recording.

A lot of the time you will end up having to edit the note with the keyboard to fix problems, which lessens its value.

Plenty of potential here, but with sloppy fake Metro design and features that are too limited it cannot yet be recommended.

More information on Dragon Notes is here.

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