In my life before the Mac I had a career in which I worked with people with intellectual disabilities. Back then it was called mental retardation. I think I like intellectual disabilities better. I spent a good part of that career in management positions and while I greatly enjoyed changing environments for the betterment of many, there is nothing quite like affecting the life of an individual because invariably it also changes yours.
I met Bobby early in my career. He was in his early 40's. He lived in an institution. In addition to his intellectual disabilities he had cerebral palsy. He could not walk, had poor motor control of his arms, and he could not speak. My job was to help him improve his communication skills.
Nobody told me I couldn't, so I got him an old typewriter and taught him to type by using a big round peg to strike the keys. When he started typing we discovered he could type in complete sentences.
For the first time in his life he could really communicate. Most of us take the ability to communicate for granted. From that point on I never did so again.
So last January at Macworld when I was introduced to MacSpeech Dictate I was interested in it on more than one level and I really wanted to try it out. I could see it as a tool for a busy professional who could use it in a work environment, such as my friend the very busy Rabbi who uses an application similar to MacSpeech Dictate to create all of his sermons. The application that my friend uses is somewhat cumbersome to use and he has to adapt his own style to the quirks of the application. I have tried that application and I agree with his assessment. Nevertheless, he has told me that for him, it is better than writing everything by hand, or typing it.
But while I am assessing MacSpeech Dictate from the point of view of the average Mac user, in the back of my mind, always, always, is the question "Will this help someone with a disability?" Not someone with Bobby's limitations, of course, but other folks who could get more benefit from a computer if they could tell their computer what to do.
I figure there are three classes of potential users for MacSpeech Dictate -- the first group (someone who likes to dictate their work and wants to make their life easier); the second group (someone with a disability who has the ability to dictate and by so doing can become more independent); and the third group (someone who fits into both group one and group two).
This is software you have to patiently learn how to use. This is software you have to train before you can use it. You have to have an Intel-based Mac before you can use it. It retails for U.S. $200. Is it worth it? The answer is "Oh yeah, it is."
Based on my experience, these are the things that I think you want to consider as you think about buying it.
It comes with a high quality, noise canceling, headset that includes earphones with an attached microphone that plugs right into a USB port on your Mac. Once you set the System Preferences for the headset you are ready to go.
MacSpeech Dictate will actually analyze existing documents on your computer to determine your writing style if you instruct it to do so. This improves accuracy because the application learns how you put words together.
The software creates a profile of you that helps it always know what you need and how you work. If others use the software on your computer it will create profiles for them as well.
There are instructional videos that you can access from the developers Web site. They are an excellent aid while you are learning to use the software.
The application works with a number of Mac-compatible applications like Microsoft Word and Adobe Photoshop. It also works with Apple's regular applications like iChat, Mail, iPhoto, and Keynote, among others. In most cases it will actually open the application when instructed to do so.
Particularly useful when you are beginning, the application will give you a work window and it is best to dictate your work into that window and then cut and paste it into your document when you are happy with it.
The built in spelling mode lets you spell words and names, and you can use the International Radio Alphabet.
I have only touched on a few of the highlights. I will just point out two last things: I dictated this column. The only word the software had a problem with was "Intel." I don't know why. Probably my accent was particularly strong when I was dictating. And, I have recommended to my friend the Rabbi that he consider trading up from his current software to MacSpeech Dictate.
The Bottom Line
I recommend this application. The quality of the finished product is superior to any like product I have seen, and it offers some advanced features not previously found in speech recognition software. The tutorials are excellent and shorten the learning curve for the average user. The interface with standard Apple applications increases its overall usability and helps justify the cost, as does the inclusion of the noise canceling headset.