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Mavericks Dictation vs. Dragon Dictate: How good is OS X's built-in tool?

David Sparks | Nov. 25, 2013
One of the features in OS X Mavericks that I was most looking forward to was offline dictation.

One of the features in OS X Mavericks that I was most looking forward to was offline dictation.

Back in OS X Mountain Lion, Apple added the systemwide Dictation tool, similar to Siri in iOS. You pressed a key combination (by default, the Fn key twice) and started talking to your Mac, and it recorded and transcribed what you said. But this feature required an Internet connection and worked for only brief periods of time--about 30 seconds--before your Mac stopped listening to your speech and headed off to Apple's servers to have your words transcribed.

My biggest complaint about this implementation was that it didn't give you any feedback about your dictation until your transcribed text returned to your Mac. If something went wrong, you had no idea until you were (a) done speaking and (b) OS X had finished transcribing what you said.

OS X transcription 2.0

That's no longer the case. In OS X Mavericks, you now have the option of downloading a file that supports offline dictation. To set it up, you go to the Dictation & Speech pane in System Preferences and tick the Use Enhanced Dictation box. That causes the file to download. (Note: It's a big one--785MB.)

Having this transcription-support file on your Mac dramatically improves the functionality of OS X's built-in Dictation feature. Now, when you press the Fn key twice and start speaking, the words appear on screen as you speak. The feature works anywhere on the Mac that you can enter text, no training or customization necessary. Just press the key and start talking. In fact, it's how I'm adding this very text.

Overall, I really like the feature. With my Retina MacBook Pro, the two microphones are so good that I can even dictate without first donning a headset microphone (a traditional requirement for dictation). I find myself using it throughout the operating system and in places that I'd never thought of using dictation before, including online forms and annotations to PDF files. It's great.

But Mac dictation isn't new to Mavericks. I've been dictating to computers for a long time. (When I first started dictating, you ... had ... to ... talk ... like ... this ... leaving ... a ... space ... between ... each ... word.) My usual tool is Dragon Dictate for Mac. So when I heard that Apple was improving the Dictation tool in OS X, my first question was: How will it compare to Dragon?

(Note that, while Apple has never stated publicly where it got the technology behind Siri dictation, I strongly suspect it is Nuance, the same company that publishes Dragon Dictate.)

And so I decided to put the two dictation systems to the test. I took a single passage of text and read it aloud to my Mac, first using Mavericks's built-in Dictation tool and then using Dragon's. The differences were striking.


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