Category Archives: software

Review: Sonocent Audio Notetaker, making sense of recorded interviews and meetings

Why bother taking written notes, when you can simply record the audio of a meeting or interview and listen to it later? I do this a lot, but it is problematic. You end up with an MP3 which has all the info within it, but with no quick way to find a half-remembered statement. Of course you can transcribe everything, or get it transcribed, but that is not quick; it will likely take longer than the original event if you want to transcribe it all, and even selective transcription is a slow process. You can get better at this, and I have formed a habit of noting times when I hear something which I am likely to refer to later, but standard audio players (such as Foobar 2000 or iTunes) are designed for music and not great for this kind of work.

There is also an annoying problem with application focus if you want to transcribe a recording. You have Word open, you have your recording open in Foobar, but to control Foobar you have to switch focus away from Word, which means you cannot type until you focus back. There are utilities around to overcome this – my solution was to write my own Word macro which can pause and rewind a recording with keyboard shortcuts – but it is another issue to fix.

Sonocent Audio Notetaker is an application for Windows or Mac dedicated to making sense of speech recordings. Audio Notetaker lets you create documents which include audio, text and images. If you have an existing audio recording, you can import it into a new Audio Notetaker documnent and start to work with it. The audio is copied into the document, rather than being added as a reference, so these documents tend to be large, a little larger than the original.

The primary feature is the the way recordings are visualised and navigated. When you import a recording, it shows as a series of bars in a large panel, rather than the single horizontal scrolling view that most audio players present. Each bar represents a phrase, determined by Audio Notetaker according to pauses in the speech. This is not altogether reliable since speakers may pause mid-phrase, but you can split or merge bars if needed. The length of each bar varies according to the content, but typically seems to be around 3-15 seconds. You navigate the recording by clicking on the bars, and annotate it by assigning colours to bars according to your own scheme, such as blue for a potential quote, or brown for “boring, skip this”.

If you are transcribing, you can type into either to two text panes, one of which is called Reference and the other just Text. When you are typing in one of these panes, you can use keyboard shortcuts to control the audio, such as Ctrl+Space for play/pause, Ctrl+\ to skip back, and Ctrl+/ to skip forward. The Reference and Text panes are functionally identical, but let you keep two different types of notes with one recording. There is also an image pane, which can include images, PDFs or PowerPoint presentations.

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How do you synchronise your notes or transcription with the audio to which it relates? Audio Notetaker does not do this automatically, but does allow you to insert section breaks which split the document into vertical sections. You can create these breaks with keyboard shortcuts. I would prefer it if Audio Notetaker automatically set hotlinks so that I could tell exactly what audio was playing when I made a note, but sections are nevertheless useful.

For example, if you have an interview, a logical approach would be to make each question and each answer a section. Then you can easily navigate to the answer you want.

You can use background colouring to further distinguish between sections.

A common problem with audio recordings is that they are at too low a level. Audio Notetaker has its own volume control which can boost the volume beyond what is possible with the Windows volume control.

There is also a noise cancellation button, to remove the dreaded hiss.

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Advanced features

Those are the basics; but Audio Notetaker has a few other capabilities.

One idea is that you might want to record the content of an online conference. For this purpose, you can record from any of your input or output devices (it might seem strange to record from an output device, but this is the equivalent of a “what you hear” setting).

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This approach is further supported by the ability to capture a screen and insert it into the document. When you choose the screen capture tool, you get a moveable, resizeable frame that you position over the area you want to capture.

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Another scenario is that you want to create a simple video with a PowerPoint slide show and an audio voiceover. You can do this by importing the PowerPoint and recording your speech, then choosing Export Audio and Images as Video (MP4 or WMV).

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You can also export the text and images in RTF format (suitable for most word processors).

Internally, Audio Notetaker uses Opus Audio Encoding which is an internet standard.

You can also have Audio Notetaker read back text to you using the Windows text to speech engine (I am not sure how this works on a Mac).

Final words

The best feature of Audio Notetaker is the way it lets you navigate an audio file. It is quicker to click on a bar in the panel than using a horizontal scroller or noting the time and going to that point.

The sections work OK but I would personally like some way of embedding notes that are hotlinked to points in the audio with a finer granularity than sections.

I am not sure of the value of features like importing PowerPoint slides, adding audio, and exporting as a video, when PowerPoint itself has support for narrations and export to video. I would prefer it if the developers focused on the core proposition in Audio Notetaker: making it easy to index, annotate and navigate speech recordings.

I would also like to see integration with a transcription service. Automated transcription would be great but does not usually work well with typical field recordings; more realistically, perhaps Sonocent could integrate with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk or another service where humans will transcribe your recording for a fee.

Nevertheless, Audio Notetaker is nicely designed software that addresses a poorly-served niche; well worth consideration for journalists, students, secretaries, takers of minutes, or anyone who uses audio recordings as part of their workflow.

You can find Audio Notetaker on the Sonocent site, and obtain it as a free trial, or by subscription for a period, or with a perpetual licence. For example, six months for an individual license is £29.99; a perpetual licence is £95.99 (including VAT).

It is available for PC or Mac.

Something Microsoft has never fixed: why Windows is slow to start up

One of the most common complaints I hear about Windows is that it is slow to start up. Everything is fine when a machine is new (especially if it is a clean install or purchased from a Microsoft store, and therefore free from foistware), but as time goes on it gets slower and slower. Even a fast PC with lots of RAM does not fix it. Slow boot is one of many factors behind the drift away from PCs to tablets, and to some extent Macs.

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As far as I can tell, the main reason PCs become slow to start is one that has been around since DOS days. Some may recall fussing about TSR – Terminate and Stay Resident – applications that would run at startup and stay in memory, possibly causing other applications to fail. Windows today is generally stable, but it is applications that run at startup that cause your PC to start slowly, as well as having some impact on performance later.

I install lots of software for testing so I suffer from this myself. This morning I took a look at what is slowing down my desktop PC. You can view them easily in Windows 8, in Task Manager – Startup tab. A few of the culprits:

  • Adobe: too much stuff, including Service Manager for Creative Suite, Creative Cloud connection, Acrobat utilities
  • Intel Desktop utilities – monitors motherboard sensors
  • Intel Rapid Storage Technology – monitors on-board RAID
  • Sync applications including SkyDrive, Dropbox, SkyDrive Pro (Groove.exe)
  • Seagate Desktop, manage your Seagate NAS (network attached storage)
  • Google stuff: Google Music Manager, Google update, some Chrome updater
  • Plantronics headset updater
  • Realtek HD Audio Manager
  • Fitbit Connect client
  • SpotifyWebHelper
  • Microsoft Zune auto-launcher
  • Microsoft Lync, famously slow to start up and connect
  • Roccat Gaming mouse settings manager
  • Flexera “Common software manager” (InstallShield updater)

Many of these applications run in order to install a notification app – these are the things that run at bottom right, in the notification area of the taskbar. Some apps install their own schedulers, like the Seagate app which lets you schedule backup tasks. Some apps are there simply to check for updates and inform you of new versions.

You can speed up Windows startup by going through case by case and disabling startup items that you do not need. Here is a useful guide. It is an unsatisfactory business though. Users have no easy way to judge whether or not a specific app is doing an important or useful task. You might break something. When you next update the application, the startup app may reappear. It is a mess.

Microsoft should have addressed this problem aggressively, years ago. It did put great effort into making Windows boot faster, but never focussed on the harder task of bringing third-parties into line. A few points:

  • If Windows had a proper notification service, many of these apps would not need to exist. In Windows 8, it does, but that is little help since most applications need to support Windows 7 and even in many cases Windows XP.
  • The notification area should be reserved for high priority applications that need to make users aware of their status at all times. The network connection icon is a good case. Printer ink levels are a bad case, aside from reminding us of the iniquity of printer vendors selling tiny ink cartridges at profiteering prices. In all cases it should be easy to stop the notification app from running via a right-click preference. The Windows 7 idea of hiding the notification icons is counter-productive: it disguises the problem but does not fix it, therefore making it worse. I always set Windows to show all notifications.
  • Many tasks should be done on application startup, not on Windows startup. Then it is under the user’s control, and if the user never or rarely runs the application, no resources are grabbed. Why do I need to know about an update, if I am not running the application? Have the application check for updates each time it runs instead.
  • It is misguided to run a process on start-up in order to speed up the first launch of the application. It may not be needed.
  • If a background process is needed, such as for synchronisation services, why not use a Windows Service, which is designed for this?
  • Windows has a scheduler built in. It works. Why write your own?

Of course it is too late now for desktop Windows. Microsoft did rethink the matter for the “Metro” personality in Windows 8, which is one reason why Windows RT is such a pleasure to use. Apple does not allow apps to run on startup in iOS, though you can have apps respond to push notifications, and that strikes me as the best approach.

Update: I should mention a feature of Windows 8 called Fast Boot (I was reminded of this by a commenter – thanks Danny). Fast Boot does a hybrid shutdown and hibernation:

Essentially a Windows 8 shutdown consists of logging off all users and then hibernating.

This is almost another subject, though relevant. Microsoft has for years sought to address the problem of slow boot by designing Windows never to switch off. There are two basic approaches:

Sleep: the computer is still on, applications are in memory, but in a low power state with screen and hard drives off.

Hibernation: the computer writes the contents of its memory to disk storage, then powers off. On startup, it reads back the memory and resumes.

My own experience is that Sleep does not work reliably long-term. It sometimes works, but sooner or later it will fail to resume and you may lose data. Another issue on portables is that the “low-power state” is not as low power as it should be, and your battery drains. These factors have persuaded me to shut down rather than sleep.

My experience of hibernation is better, though not perfect. It usually works, but occasionally fails and again you lose data.

Fast boot is a clever solution that works for some, but it is a workaround that does not address the real issue which I have outlined above: third-party and Microsoft applications that insist on automatic start-up.

Bing Maps app on Windows 8: rubbish compared to Bing Maps on the web

I have been looking at the Bing Maps app on Windows 8 and 8.1 (it is the same).

It is surprising how poor it is. The web version is better, which is odd because you would have thought they used the same data.

Here is what I get from the app if I search for public transport between Derby and Birmingham (on a direct rail route):

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Bing Maps on the web has no problem with this:

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Here is another random example. Bing maps app cannot find Dubrovnik airport. A search only finds Dubrovnik.

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Oddly, if you know where the airport is, it is in fact marked on the map.

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Web app: no problem:

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If Microsoft wants Windows 8 tablets to succeed, glaring problems like this need fixing. Before the release of Windows 8.1 later this year.

A big ball of Bluetooth at Microsoft Build

At Microsoft’s Build developer conference in San Francisco the company is showing off new features of Windows 8.1, now in preview, a major update to Windows 8.0.

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In a session on the Windows Runtime, the platform behind the tablet platform in Windows 8, there was a dramatic moment when a huge black ball rumbled onto the stage and threatened to destroy the “Lemonade stand” which the presenters were using to showcase how a very small business might use Windows 8.

The significance of the ball (a custom Sphero) is that Windows 8.1 has Bluetooth APIs built in, so that app developers can easily control a Bluetooth device from code.

Robotics is an obvious application, but with increasing numbers of Bluetooth devices out there, this is a smart move by Microsoft.

Windows in Xbox One: a boost for Windows 8 apps?

What if the just-announced Xbox One runs Windows 8 apps? Could this be the boost that Microsoft’s store and app platform needs?

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Microsoft has yet to describe the app story for the One in detail, but it would make sense. Here is what we know, as I understand it, though it is no doubt an over-simplification.

Xbox One is described as having three operating systems: a virtualisation host, a Windows OS for general purpose use (including web browsing, Skype, and I would guess the management app), and a dedicated games OS. The games OS runs in parallel, so you can do instant switching between a game and other activities like watching TV, or have a Windows 8-style snapped view where both are visible.

The Apps element on the One will, I presume, be part of the Windows OS. There is considerable commonality between the demands of a touch UI and that of a TV UI (where you are sitting well back from the screen). A touch UI demands large targets so you can hit them with fat fingers, while a TV UI requires large targets so you can see them from a distance. It could be that the tendency towards large, chunky controls in the “Metro” Windows 8 UI is partly driven by planned support for Xbox, even though this tendency is frustrating for desktop users sitting close-up to large screens.

It is unlikely that Microsoft will introduce a completely new app model for Xbox One. Rather, I would expect to see some compatibility between Windows Store apps and Xbox One apps, with differences to account for the different platforms. No accelerometer or touch control on the Xbox One, for example, though you have Kinect which enables a touch-like interaction though hand detection.

What about the OS partitioning? This may mean that the powerful One GPU will not be available to app developers, or that game apps follow an entirely distinct development model.

If developers can easily share code between Xbox One apps and Windows Store apps, with Windows Phone 9 added to the mix at some future date, will that be enough to get some momentum behind Microsoft’s app platform?

Will you buy a Surface Pro? Here is why and why not

Microsoft has announced pricing for Surface Pro, its own-brand tablet running Windows 8. Quick summary:

  • 64GB is $899
  • 128GB is $999

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UK pricing has not been announced, but if it follows the pattern of Surface RT we can expect around £720 and £799.

These prices include a free Surface pen, but not a Touch or Type keyboard cover. Since this is one of the best features of Surface, you can add around $120 or £100 (a little more for the Type cover) to the price.

Here’s why you don’t want a Surface Pro:

  • Unlike Surface RT, this tablet runs any Windows application, most of which do not work well with touch control. So you will need that keyboard and trackpad or mouse, making it an awkward thing versus an iPad or, in some ways, a traditional laptop.
  • The spec is a long way from cutting-edge. Screen is 1920×1080 pixels, versus 2048-by-1536  on a cheaper Apple iPad. Core i5 has been around a while. Storage spec is poor – even 128GB is small by current standards, my Samsung Slate from February had a 256GB SSD – and the cameras seem no better than the basic ones in Surface RT. 4GB RAM is also minimal for a new Windows machine.
  • This thing is not cheap. With the keyboard, it is nearly double the cost of a Surface RT, and you don’t get Office 2013 thrown in – Home and Student is around $100 or £85.
  • Microsoft is including a pen. Why? It does not clip into the Surface so you will lose it, and a pen, while fantastic for taking notes or sketching in tablet mode, is less good than a mouse or trackpad for most other operations.
  • Battery life half that of Surface RT: ouch.
  • Do not compare this with an iPad. It only makes sense if you want or need to run Windows. It is even less like an iPad than Surface RT.

A failure? Not necessarily. Here is why you do want a Surface Pro:

  • It is a little bigger than Surface RT, but much smaller than the average laptop, even with the keyboard cover, and it is all you need on your trip. I find laptops bulky and awkward now.
  • Performance will be much better than Surface RT. I presume it better my existing Samsung Slate, which has an older Core i5, and that is already a zippy performer.
  • The Surface is well made and designed. The only problem I am aware of with Surface RT is fraying keyboard seams, which I hope will be fixed in later production runs. The flip-out stand works well and the keyboard covers are excellent.
  • That USB 3.0 port is a big asset.  Of course Surface RT should have had this as well. You can attach as much storage as you need with great performance, or other devices.

The question is this: what other laptop or Windows 8 slate will be better than a Surface Pro, all things considered? You will easily find a better spec for the money, but when you evaluate the complete package Surface Pro may still be a winner.

That said, we have not yet seen Surface Pro and my judgment is based on combining what I know about Surface RT with my experience of the Samsung Core i5 slate.

The internal storage limitation is my biggest concern. 64GB is hopeless and 128GB still too small. There is a microSDXC card slot, and a sizeable card will be pretty much essential, again increasing the real-world price.

Uh-oh, here come the OEM improvements to Windows 8

Reports from a Samsung event today indicate that the company is implementing its own version of the Windows 7 Start menu, which it calls the S Launcher.

The all-in-one PCs Samsung unveiled this morning are the first Windows machines to sport the S Launcher, a simple widget that acts just like the old start button: Click, start typing (say “keyboard”) and it instantly shows you the settings and apps that relate to your term. There’s also a separate settings icon for quick access to the most commonly needed controls.

On the face of it that sounds like a good move. The general reaction to the removal of the Start button in Windows 8 has been mixed at best. Why not put something like it back?

It is hard for Microsoft to object to this. The official line is the Microsoft’s partners add value to Windows with customization and software unique to each vendor, enabling them to differentiate. There is also the matter of fees paid by third-parties such as browser or security software vendors, to pre-install their stuff and win lucrative traffic or subscriptions.

This is a big one though. Microsoft must care about its new Start menu, to have resisted all pleas from its customers to reinstate the old-style version as an option.

It is also obvious that this is not just about usability. The Start screen is the gateway to the new Windows: Modern UI, Windows Store, tie-in with Windows Phone, Windows Tablets and Xbox, and more.

Here it gets interesting. Although Microsoft and Samsung are both selling Windows, the objectives of the two companies are not altogether aligned. Samsung is a big Android vendor; and even within the Android world, it is promoting Galaxy as a brand and links to its televisions. Samsung also sells Windows Phone, but you would hardly know it.

You can think of it as two separate ecosystems, one based around Windows and Microsoft, the other based around Samsung, which happen to intersect in the area of desktop operating systems.

Samsung then does not care whether the Modern UI, Windows Store and Windows Phone are hits. In fact, when it comes to Windows Store and Windows Phone, it may prefer that they fail.

It is not even that simple. If the Microsoft and Windows ecosystem continues to decline, who can take on Apple? It is in Samsung’s interests as an OEM Windows vendor for Microsoft to succeed, as the same time as other parts of its business would prefer that it fails. Complex.

If nothing else, the S-launcher show how little Microsoft and its hardware partners are aligned when it comes to Windows marketing strategy.

What about the users though? Will they not benefit from having a more familiar way to launch their applications? Personally I doubt it. The problem I have with utilities like this is that they break the design work Microsoft puts into Windows, introducing inconsistency and often working less well than what is baked into the operating system.

I will add too that the Windows 8 Start screen is actually not the monster it is made out to be. It is richer than the old one, with its Live Tiles and large icons, and once you have learned how to organise it in the way you want, it is an effective launch manager. The fast incremental search in the Start screen works brilliantly.

It would benefit Samsung’s users more if the company focused on helping them learn how to get the best from Windows 8 and its new user interface, rather than encouraging them to avoid some of its key features.

Now you know why Microsoft is doing Surface and the Microsoft Store with its Signature PCs, tweaked (or untweaked) to run as designed.

Review: Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12. Stunning accuracy, a few annoyances

I am writing this review, or should I say dictating, in Nuance’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12, the latest version of what is in my experience the most accurate speech recognition system out there. Accuracy has got to the point where the great majority of words are recognised perfectly. There are a few intractable problems though. How is a dictation system meant to distinguish between nuances and Nuance’s, for example? The answer is generally that it cannot, but in mitigation Dragon has an excellent correction box. You speak a command to select the intransigent word, and either select the correct spelling from a list or in the worst case spell it out. After a bit of practice you can progress quickly and easily.

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First, a few quick facts about the system. Your first task after running setup is to set levels and check the quality of your microphone. Nuance supplies a microphone in the box, which is worth it because the average user is unlikely to have a suitable microphone of good enough quality. That said, I was unhappy with the quality of the microphone supplied this time around and will return to this issue later. There is a handy fold-out reference card supplied, a nice touch.

Once set up, Dragon walks you through a quick training exercise during which it sets up a profile with some knowledge about your particular voice. I remember spending ages training early voice recognition systems and it was a tedious procedure. This is no longer the case and Dragon can be set up effectively in just a few minutes.

Dragon runs by default with a menu bar across the top of the screen and a contextual sidebar which lists common commands for the particular application you are using. The sidebar also gives a quick reference to global commands such as those to wake or sleep the microphone, move the mouse, or even post to Twitter or Facebook. Once you have learned all the commands, you can close the sidebar to get your screen space back.

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Dragon works best in applications which are supported, which includes the obvious ones like Word and OpenOffice. In other applications you can use a dictation box which lets you dictate into a Dragon window and then transfer your text in either plain or Rich Text Format. Microsoft Office support depends on an add-In. Unfortunately I am currently running the Office 2013 preview and the add-in currently causes Word to crash. No doubt this will be fixed when the final version of Office is released. As an alternative I used OpenOffice which worked fine. I was also able to use Word 2013 with the dictation box.

While the accuracy is impressive, I did find that recognition slows down on occasion for no obvious reason, which is annoying and slows down your work.

Dragon is not limited to text input. You can run your entire Windows session with speech, using it to switch between windows, move and click the mouse. I found that Dragon works well in dialogs, using the Tab command to switch between fields, and Click … to click buttons and checkboxes.

If you have the Premium edition, you can also use Dragon to transcribe recordings and to read back editable text. Do not get your hopes up too much. If you create a recording of your own voice using a high quality recorder, you can get good results. I tried transcribing a telephone call though, and got gibberish.

So what is new in Dragon 12? It has to be said that version 11.5 was already very good. Accuracy is perhaps slightly improved, but not as much as 11.5 improved over 11. You do get the Dictation Box. You also get browser extensions for the Web-based Gmail and Hotmail provided you use a supported browser, which includes IE9, Firefox 12 or higher, and Google Chrome 16 or higher. I tested this with Gmail in Chrome and it does make a big difference to usability. Go to a Google Doc though, and it is back to the Dictation Box.

Also new in version 12 is the ability to disable voice commands that you do not use to boost performance. The full list of new features is available on the Nuance website.

Now about that microphone. The headset that came in my box is called the HS-GEN-C, and include an adaptor so it can be used with the combined earbud/microphone inputs now common, especially on tablets and laptops. However I had difficulty getting this to work well. It failed Dragon’s built in microphone test at first, though with some effort and speaking more loudly than usual I managed to get it reported as “acceptable. This could be because of a poor microphone preamp on the PC, though I got the same results with another machine. I did not want to test the software with doubtful microphone input, so I used a the Plantronics Bluetooth headset that came with Dragon 11.5 instead. This passed the microphone check first time.

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I also tried Dragon NaturallySpeaking with Windows 8. The news is mixed. On the plus side, Dragon worked fine in the Windows desktop and with applications like Google Chrome and OpenOffice Writer. When I switched to the Modern UI (formerly known as Metro) though, I could not get Dragon to work at all. This does not surprise me since the Windows Runtime environment is different from the desktop. I do not see how the Dragon sidebar will ever work, for example, since all apps run full-screen. Nor is the Dragon bar available in the Modern UI. Microsoft does claim an accessibility story for Windows 8, and I am asking Nuance what if anything  is planned for Dragon NaturallySpeaking in this respect.

Do not try to use Dragon with Microsoft’s Office 2013 preview; wait for the final version and proper support.

Conclusion

Dragon NaturallySpeaking combines a high standard of accuracy with strong correction tools. If you are wondering whether speech recognition is a viable and productive technique for text input, have no doubt that it is.

There is still scope for improvement. If I can make sense of my recorded telephone call, then in principle voice recognition should be able to do so as well. It will get there.

Is Dragon now more productive than keyboard and mouse, if you have the choice? It may be in some scenarios, but probably not for expert typists. If you are in the habit of frequently switching applications, for example to research an article you are typing, Dragon can get in the way.

Is Dragon 12 worth the upgrade? From 11.5, that is doubtful unless one of the new features matters a lot to you, perhaps because you use Gmail frequently, for example. From older versions, it probably is.

I am puzzled why Nuance supplies what in my experience was a poor headset for the purpose, though you may be luckier (and the box says “actual model may vary”). I preferred the Plantronics headsets that used to be bundled, but guess that the cost was higher. If you do serious amounts of dictation, do not skimp on the headset as it soon pays for itself.