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The best dictation software in 2021

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14 min read

The best dictation software in 2021

By Chris Hawkins · December 14, 2020
Best text dictation apps hero

When the first modern version of dictation software arrived on the scene, Titanic was the top-grossing movie. It was 1997, and a Massachusetts company had released dictation software called Dragon NaturallySpeaking, a big improvement over their previous version where you had to pause after each word. The idea, as the name implied, was that you could speak naturally.  

But even this much-refined software left a lot to the imagination. I was an early adopter, filled with hope that I could talk and let the software effortlessly capture my words. It didn't quite work out that way. I spent hours "training" my voice, only to still have every third or fourth word either missed or mistranscribed.   

Fortunately, today's dictation software is more Tesla than Model T. Accuracy is above 90% right out of the gate, it's fast, it supports multiple languages, and most dictation apps include commands that boost productivity. The technology is so prevalent, it's even built into your favorite devices and apps.   

Here, I'll walk you through the different types of speech-to-text software, why you should give them a try, and provide tips on getting the best results. And, of course, I'll provide a detailed review of our top picks for the best dictation software.

The best dictation software

What is dictation software?

As you search online for dictation software, keep in mind that it can include all different types of apps and services. The terms dictation software, speech-to-text, voice recognition, voice-to-text, and speech recognition can all mean a program that converts your voice to text on a screen in real-time. But sometimes lumped into a search for these terms are products that provide something else entirely.

For example, some products will transcribe audio files to text, but they do not transcribe your voice to text in real-time. Others market themselves as personal AI assistants (performing all computer tasks using speech) and may include a dictation component. And you may run across companies that provide transcription services—using humans to transcribe your voice files to text. 

Then there are those AI assistants built into many of the devices we use each day: Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, and Microsoft's Cortana. These are fine for scheduling meetings, playing music, and finding a place to eat, but they aren't designed to transcribe your articles, meetings, and other documents.

For this review, we've focused on software, whether standalone or embedded in a device, meant for transcribing speech to text.     

Why would you want to do that? For starters, dictation software provides accessibility to those with disabilities—both physical and language-based—to access technologies and be more productive. For example, if you're unable to use your hands, you can still operate a computer, create documents, and access the web with dictation technology. And those with chronic conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome can prevent the repetitive stresses that come with typing, simply by using their voice. 

But as the technology has improved over the last 20 years and costs have come down, dictation software is now accessible to everyone as a tool to increase productivity almost instantly. Look no further than the changed working environment in the wake of COVID-19: more working from home means more opportunity to do things like dictate emails.

Students can write papers and transcribe lectures into notes depending on the software's capabilities. And the casual user can dictate notes, a shopping list, a text, or a reminder while performing other tasks, making multi-tasking a reality. Think: taking a walk while "writing" your next novel.

What makes a great dictation app?

It's amazing how far dictation software has come in the 20-plus years since I first tried it. I wouldn't have recommended it back then for the casual user—it was too much work for too little reward. But now, it's actually enjoyable to see your words skip across the screen like you're dictating to your own personal assistant. And with the use of artificial intelligence that recognizes your speech with more accuracy the more the apps are used, it's hard to go wrong—no matter the platform. 

For my tests, accuracy was the first element I looked at when deciding which software to choose. This was followed by ease of use, including the availability of voice commands. For example, does the software require the user to say, "insert period" vs. just "period"? The latter, while maybe less intuitive at first, soon becomes second nature and saves time in the long run. Other considerations were the number of languages and dialects supported and the versatility of a given app (e.g., can it be used within different apps for dictation?). 

Tips for using voice recognition software

Though dictation software is pretty good at recognizing different voices, it's not perfect.  

1. Speak naturally (with caveats). Dictation apps learn your voice and speech patterns over time. And if you're going to spend any time with them, you want to be comfortable. Speak naturally. If you're not getting 90% accuracy initially, try enunciating more.  

2. Punctuate. When you dictate, you have to say each period, comma, question mark, and so forth. The software isn't smart enough to figure it out on its own.

3. Learn a few commands. Take the time to learn a few simple commands, such as "new line" to enter a line break. There are different commands for composing, editing, and operating your device. Commands may differ from app to app, so learn the ones that apply to the tool you choose.

4. Know your limits. Especially on mobile devices, some tools have a time limit for how long they can listen, usually around 30 to 45 seconds. Glance at the screen from time to time to make sure you haven't blown past the mark. 

5. Practice. It takes time to adjust to voice recognition software, but it gets easier the more you practice. Some of the more sophisticated apps invite you to train by reading passages or doing other short drills. Don't shy away from tutorials, help menus, and on-screen cheat sheets.

Advice on microphones for dictation

With dictation software, your voice is captured by a microphone, which is included on your device (computer, tablet, mobile) or as part of a specific software suite (e.g., Microsoft Office). For the occasional dictation user capturing notes and shopping lists, the built-in microphone should work fine. But if you're using it more intensely—consistently writing content, dictating meetings, sending emails—consider something that more effectively nabs the sound waves from your voice. 

For under $100, there are lots of options for headsets with mics or external microphones used by podcasters and YouTube interviewers. For this test, I used a relatively inexpensive ($36) USB headset from MPOW. It's lightweight and has reasonably good sound/voice quality. If you prefer not being tethered to your device, wireless options like the (Jabra Elite 45h) ($99) might be more your speed. And the highly-rated Blue Snowball USB microphone ($89) has a cool retro look and its own adjustable stand.  

How we tested dictation apps

To be fair for determining accuracy, I used the same 200-word script for all tests. It has a variety of sentence lengths, a few industry-specific words, and several business names. And as mentioned, I used a mid-priced headset as a microphone. My testing space had very little background noise. 

In the initial evaluation of 14 apps, I dictated the script one time using punctuation commands, noted accuracy as a percent of words missed or mistranscribed, and recorded my thoughts on ease of use and versatility. Once I narrowed the final list down, I retested each app with the same script, recorded accuracy, and tried out other features such as file sharing and using the same software in multiple places (e.g., Google Docs and Word).       

Keep in mind that many of these apps will become more accurate the more times you use them, so the accuracy numbers mentioned will likely improve with continued use. 

Best free dictation software for Apple devices

Apple Dictation (iOS, macOS)

Apple Dictation

Look no further than your Mac, iPhone, or iPad for one of the best dictation tools. Apple's built-in Dictation feature, powered by Siri (we'd be unsurprised if the two merged one day), ships as part of Apple's desktop and mobile operating systems. On iOS devices, you use it by pressing the microphone icon on the stock keyboard. On desktop, you turn it on by going to System Preferences > Keyboard > Dictation, and then use a keyboard shortcut to activate it in your app.

By default, Apple Dictation requires the internet to work and has a time limit of about 30 seconds for each smattering of speech. To remove those limits, enable Enhanced Dictation, which requires OS X v10.9 or later or iPhone 6s or newer. Enhanced Dictation adds a local file to your device so that you can dictate offline.

You can format and edit your text using simple commands, such as "new paragraph" or "select previous word." Tip: you can view available commands in a small window, like a little cheat sheet, while learning the ropes. Apple also offers advanced commands for creating custom ones.

Apple Dictation price: Included with macOS and iOS devices

Apple Dictation accuracy: On the 200-word test, 11 words were inaccurate. 

Recommendation: I recommend Apple Dictation when using Enhanced Dictation. The standard version is a bit annoying and inconvenient for anything longer than 40 seconds. For short messages on mobile devices, it works fine. Enhanced Dictation is the way to go for continuous dictating. 

Apple Dictation supported languages: Enhanced Dictation supports 20 languages. Apple's default Dictation supports 31 languages: Arabic, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese.

Best free dictation software for Windows

Windows 10 Speech Recognition (Windows)

Windows Speech Recognition

If you're a Windows 10 user, included on your PC is Microsoft's Speech Recognition feature—nothing additional to install or download. To dictate, open an app (for this test, I used both Word and Google Docs), and on your keyboard, press the Windows logo key + H. A microphone icon and gray box will appear at the top of your screen. Make sure your cursor is in the space where you want to dictate. 

When it's ready for your dictation, it will say Listening. You have about 10 seconds to start talking before the microphone turns off. If that happens, just click it again and wait for Listening to pop up. To stop the dictation, click the microphone icon again or say "stop talking."  

Included are about three dozen dictation commands, such as punctuation where you simply need to say "period," "exclamation point," and so on. Somewhat surprisingly, in dictating the same 200-word passage in both Word and Google Docs, commands for a period resulted in the word and not the punctuation mark several times. 

There are also commands for moving your cursor within a document, deleting words, and selecting a particular word, but dictation commands are only available in U.S. English.  

Windows 10 Speech Recognition price: Included with Windows 10; Speech Recognition included in older versions of Windows

Windows 10 Speech Recognition accuracy: For the 200-word transcription test, Speech Recognition flubbed 16 words the first time and 12 the second. As mentioned, it confused the period punctuation command with the word itself. Windows Speech Recognition was one of the worst out-of-the-gate for accuracy, but it does get better the more you use it. 

Recommendation: It worked in any app or browser I tried, which makes it a handy tool to have around. If you're a Windows 10 user and don't mind a voice "training" period, you'll get good use out of this feature.  

Windows 10 Speech Recognition languages supported: Not counting different dialects separately, Windows Speech Recognition supports these languages: Mandarin (Chinese Simplified and Chinese Traditional), English, French, German, Italian (Italy), Japanese, Portuguese (Brazil), and Spanish.

Best customizable dictation software

Dragon by Nuance (Android, iOS, macOS, Windows)

Dragon software

In 1990, Dragon Dictate emerged as the first dictation software. Thirty years later, we have  Dragon by Nuance, a leader in the industry and a distant cousin of that first iteration. With a variety of software packages and mobile apps for different use cases (Dragon Legal, Dragon Medical, Dragon Professional), Dragon can handle specialized industry vocabulary, and it comes with excellent features, such as the ability to transcribe text from an audio file you upload. 

For this test, I used Dragon Anywhere, Nuance's mobile app, as it's the only version—among otherwise expensive packages—available with a free trial. It includes lots of features not found in the others, like Words, which lets you add words that would be difficult to recognize and spell out. For example, if you live on Eichhorn St., Dragon will hear this as "I corn." To avoid this, add it to Words and say the word (into the microphone) so you train the software. 

It also provides shortcuts. If you wanted to shorten your entire address to one word, go to Auto-Text, give it a name ("address"), and type in your address: 1000 Eichhorn St., Davenport, IA 52722 and hit Save. The next time you dictate and say "address," you'll get the entire thing. Press the comment bubble icon to see text commands while you're dictating, or say "What can I say?" and the command menu pops up. 

Once you complete a dictation, you can email, share (e.g., Google Drive, Dropbox), open in Word, or save to Evernote. You can perform these actions manually or by voice command (e.g., "save to Evernote.") Once you name it, it automatically saves in Documents for later review or sharing. Accuracy, as expected, is excellent. In my second test, it flubbed just six words out of 200, and it was the only app that correctly capitalized IT (information technology). 

Dragon by Nuance price:  $14.99/month for Dragon Anywhere (iOS and Android); from $150 to $500 for desktop packages

Dragon by Nuance accuracy: Dragon Anywhere had a 97% accuracy rate on my second test for the 200-word script. 

Recommendation: Because Dragon is a relatively large investment, you should be seriously committed to using dictation regularly. We recommend trying Dragon Anywhere for a month to see how you like it. 

Dragon by Nuance supported languages: Dragon Anywhere is available in English and German. Dragon desktop products are available in several languages, which vary by version, and include Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish.

Best free mobile dictation software

Gboard (Android, iOS)

Gboard for iOS inside Apple Notes

Google's excellent Gboard app works with both Android and iOS—and includes dictation. To use it, go anywhere you can type (email, browser, text, document), and the keyboard will pop up. Tap the microphone icon at the top right of the keyboard, and start speaking when prompted. It will very quickly capture your voice into text as fast as you're able to talk. It's scary how fast it transcribes. Not only that, it's highly accurate. If you stop speaking for about 10 seconds, the microphone turns off, so you'll have to tap it again.  

You have the option to personalize the app, which allows Gboard to recognize your voice usage patterns and improve on them, increasing accuracy over time. I've dictated texts in the car with the radio on, and it's still nearly perfect. It's also good at detecting and not including stammers, likely as a result of learning my speech patterns. 

Note: I've been using Gboard for about five years, so it has learned my voice and speech patterns. It's not surprising that it was the most accurate in my test.  

Gboard price: Free

Gboard accuracy: In transcribing a 200-word passage, Gboard made just two errors. 

Recommendation: Gboard spits out your words on screen as fast as you can say them. For faster talkers, that will feel just right, but for others, it may take getting used to. If you want to dictate texts, emails, or any other short note, use Gboard.  

Gboard supported languages: Not counting different dialects separately, Gboard supports 47 languages: Afrikaans, Arabic, Azerbaijani, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hausa, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latvian, Macedonian, Malay, Maltese, Norwegian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Turkish, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, Welsh, and Zulu.

Best dictation software for typing in Google Docs

Google Docs voice typing (Web on Chrome)

Google Docs

Google Docs includes a dictation feature that's both highly accurate and easy to use, called Google Docs voice typing—but you have to be using Chrome to access this feature. Just go to Tools > Voice typing, and a microphone icon will appear on the left. Click on it, and start talking. If you're idle for about 30 seconds, the microphone automatically stops. Click on it again to resume.  

If you need help or you want a list of commands, click on the question mark within the microphone icon. Help will pop up on the right where you can scroll or search to find voice commands such as punctuation, text formatting, editing, and even moving around your document.     

Google Docs voice typing price: Free

Google Docs voice typing accuracy: Out of 200 words dictated, six words were incorrect. It incorrectly captured a few words that others also missed, but did correctly capitalize the name of a business.  

Recommendation: If you're a Google Docs power user and want dictation capability, voice typing is an excellent choice for its accuracy and many voice commands.   

Google Docs voice typing supported languages: Voice typing works in these languages and includes many dialects: Afrikaans, Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Bahasa Indonesia, Basque, Bengali, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Farsi, Filipino, Finnish, French, Galician, Georgian, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian, Italian, Japanese, Javanese, Kannada, Khmer, Korean, Laotian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Malayalam, Malaysian, Marathi, Nepali, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Slovenian, Serbian, Sinhala, Spanish, Spanish, Sundanese, Swahili, Swedish, Tamil, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Vietnamese, Zulu.

Google Docs integrates with Zapier, which means you can automatically do things like save form entries to Google Docs, create new documents whenever something happens in your other apps, or create project management tasks for each new document.

Best free dictation software for occasional use

SpeechTexter (Web on Chrome, Android)

SpeechTexter screenshot

SpeechTexter is supported only using the Chrome browser or with the Android mobile app. Many free dictation sites have an annoying number of ads, but this one keeps it to a manageable one or two. And they do have a privacy policy that states that, while they don't store any of your text, it is processed by Google's servers. Just keep that in mind.

To start, select your language in the top left corner, click Start, and begin talking. Your speech is captured in a window above the edit ribbon that includes a spinning Result Confidence wheel, showing a perceived percentage of correctly transcribed words. Then, a few seconds later, the text appears in the main edit window with a word count at the bottom right. 

Voice commands are placed handily to the right of the main window. You can edit your speech like you would in any basic word processing program, then save it as a .txt or Word file. Enabling the Auto-save feature prevents you from losing work if your browser or window is closed inadvertently. If that happens, just bring the site back up, and your previous dictation will appear on the screen.    

SpeechTexter price: Free

SpeechTexter accuracy: In a 200-word passage, SpeechTexter had seven inaccuracies, which makes it one of the most accurate of those we tested. 

Recommendation: If you use Chrome and occasionally need dictation, SpeechTexter is a good choice for its accuracy and ease of use. 

SpeechTexter supported languages: SpeechTexter supports speech to text in 63 languages, plus dozens of dialects: Afrikaans, Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Basque, Bengali, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Filipino, Finnish, French, Galician, Georgian, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Javanese, Kannada, Khmer, Korean, Lao, Latvian, Lithuanian, Malay, Malayalam, Marathi, Nepali, Norwegian Bokmål, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Sinhala, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Sundanese, Swahili, Swedish, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Vietnamese, Zulu.

Is voice dictation for you?

While not perfect, the accuracy of most dictation software is excellent. That and the already free versions packaged with so many devices and apps make using the technology—at least for quicker tasks like note taking—an easy decision.  

If you spend a lot of time writing for work or even fun, it makes sense to try dictation just to get the feel of speaking the words that normally come through your fingers. This may be the hardest part for many users—old habits die hard. Once (and if) you get used to dictating your thoughts, you may find it hard to go back to typing. 

Originally published April 14, 2016. Previous versions had contributions by Emily Esposito and Jill Duffy. Most recent update in December 2020 by Chris Hawkins.

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Chris Hawkins

Chris is a writer and business professional with 25 years of experience in a variety of roles. He likes books, bikes, brews, birds, and travel. He and his wife live in an old mining town north of Denver.

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