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Review: Nuance Dragon Naturally Speaking 13

I have great admiration for Nuance Dragon Naturally Speaking, mainly because of its superb text recognition engine. New versions appear regularly and the recognition engine seems to improve a little each time. The recently released version 13 is no exception, and I am getting excellent results right now as I dictate into Word.

If you are still under the illusion that dictation is not viable unless you are unable to type, it may be that you have not tried Dragon recently. Another possibility is that you tried Dragon with a poor microphone. I recommend a high quality USB headset such as those from Plantronics or Jabra. USB is preferred since you are not dependent on the microphone preamplifier built into your PC, which is often poor.

At the same time, Dragon can be an intrusive application. The problem is that Dragon tries to accomplish two distinct tasks. One is to enable dictation and to some extent transcription of recordings, which is something anybody might want to take advantage of. For example, one of my uses is transcribing interviews, where I play my recording into a headset and read it back into the microphone. It is a lot quicker than the normal stop-start typing approach and even if it is a little less accurate the time-saving is worthwhile.

Incidentally, Dragon is nowhere near smart enough yet to transcribe an interview directly. Background noise combined with the variety of accents used make this generally a hopeless task. In principle though, there is no reason why software should not be able to accomplish this as both processing power and algorithms improve so watch this space.

The other task for which people use Dragon is as an assistive technology. Those unable to use mouse and keyboard need to be able to navigate the operating system and its applications by other means, and Dragon installs the hooks necessary for this to work. This is where the intrusive aspect comes to the fore, and I wish Dragon had a stripped down install option for those who simply want dictation.

I had some issues with the Outlook add-in, which I do not use anyway. Outlook complained about the add-in and automatically disabled it, following which it was Dragon’s turn to sulk:


That said, it is possible to configure it as you want. Because of this kind of annoyance, I tend to avoid Dragon’s add-ons for applications like Microsoft Outlook and Internet Explorer. If you are using Dragon as an assistive tool though, you probably need to get them working.

Dragon can be fiddly then, which is why users who dive in and expect excellent results quickly may well have a bad experience. Speech recognition and interaction with applications that were primarily designed for mouse and keyboard is a hard task; you will have to make some effort to get the best from it.

What’s new?

So what is new in version 13? The first thing you will notice is that the Dragon bar, which forms the main user interface, has been redesigned. The old one is docked right across the top of the screen by default and has traditional drop-down menus. You can also have it floating like this:


The new bar has modern touch-friendly icons, though these turn out to be drop-down menus in disguise:


There is also an option to collapse the bar when not in use, in which case it goes tiny:


Another user interface change is that the handy Dragon Sidebar, a help panel which shows what commands you can use in the current application and which changes dynamically according to context, has been revamped as the Learning Center. Here it is in Word, for example:


I like the Learning Center, which is a genuine help until you are familiar with all the commands.

The changes to the Dragon  user interface are mostly cosmetic, but not entirely. One innovation is that the Dragon Bar now works in Store apps in Windows 8. Here I am dictating into Code Writer, a Store app:


It works, but this seems to be work in progress. Dragon is really a desktop application, and I found that some commands would mysteriously bounce me back to the desktop, and others just did not work. For example, the Bar prompted me to open the Dictation Box for an unsupported application, and moments later informed me that it could not be used here.

Another issue is that the Bar sits over the full-screen app, obstructing some of the text. You can workaround this by shunting it to the right. My guess though is that you will have a frustrating time trying to use Dragon with Store apps; but it is good to see Nuance making the effort.

What else is new? Well, Nuance has made it easier to get started, and no longer forces you to complete a training exercise (training Dragon to understand you, not you to understand Dragon) before you can use a profile. It is not really a big change, since you should do this anyway in order to get good results.

There is also better support for web browsers other than Internet Explorer. In particular, there are extensions for Chrome and Firefox which Nuance says gives “full text control”.

Worth upgrading?

If you want or need speech to text, Dragon is the best option out there, much better in my experience than what is built into Windows, and better on Windows than on a Mac. In that respect, I recommend it; though with the caveat that you should work with a high quality microphone and be willing to invest time and effort in training its recognition engine and learning to use it.

If you have an earlier version, even as far back as 11, is 13 worth the upgrade? That is hard to say. The user interface changes are mostly cosmetic; but if you use the latest Microsoft Office then getting the latest Dragon is worth it for best compatibility.

The other factor is the gradually improving speech recognition. Comparing the accuracy of, say, version 11 with version 13 would be a valuable exercise but sadly I have not found time to do it. I can report my impression that it makes fewer errors than ever in this version, but that is subjective.

Frankly, if you use dictation a lot, get the latest version anyway; even small improvements add up to more productivity and less frustration.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.