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The Beginner's Guide to Dictation Software: Write Without Typing

Emily Esposito
Emily Esposito / April 14, 2016

Perfect ideas don't wait for you to sit down at your desk. They come during hikes, while you're walking your dog, and in the middle of lunch. Shouldn’t you be able to save those thoughts at any time, no matter where you are or what you’re doing?

That’s what voice dictation is for. It lets you record your ideas hands-free, even if you're folding laundry, walking to the grocery store, or making dinner.

Voice recognition software can translate hundreds of thousands of words in dozens of languages, all in real time. You can “talk” to your devices and tell them to open new apps, send an email, or even tell you a joke. These tools translate your voice into text much faster than you could ever type, improving your productivity.

We wanted to find out exactly how much a voice dictation tools impact efficiency. So we tested free, built-in speech recognition software and paid apps on desktop and mobile to see which ones were best at comprehension, accuracy, and ease of use. The result? A guide to our favorite voice dictation apps, along with tips for finding the right microphone and creating detailed speech-to-text notes. Plus, you’ll find out if voice dictation is right for you.



How to Successfully Dictate Text

sound

Do you, like, speak with a lot of, um, filler words? Or, do you tend to speak in very long sentences because you have so many details you want to convey and you always remember new things you want to add as you start talking?

Dictation apps are impressive, but they aren’t perfect. You won’t be able to to talk to the app in the same way you talk to your best friend, with mile-a-minute stories or slang. Keep these pointers in mind when you're chatting with a dictation tool:

  • Have a plan: Create a mental outline of what you want to say. Make sure you understand the main message you want to communicate before starting dictation. It's not that you have to spend hours fleshing out your idea, it’s just easier to structure and organize your piece if you’ve spent some time thinking about the end goal.
  • Talk like you write: We tend to write far more clearly than we speak. Some of that comes down to editing, but speech includes more slang, half-sentences, pauses, and incorrect grammar. Your dictation app will jot down exactly what you say, so unless you're writing example conversation, you'll need to talk far more like written text.
  • Speak like a newscaster: Almost everyone slurs words together or softens the “t” or “d” sounds at the end of sentences. With a dictation app, you need to enunciate much more clearly than in normal speech. You don’t need to speak like a robot; instead, pretend that you're reporting the news.
  • Use short sentences: Some apps—including Apple’s dictation feature—can only listen for 30 to 40 seconds by default. If you tend to ramble, your sentences could get cut off. Try to speak in short, concise sentences. You can always go back and add more detail if necessary.
  • Avoid filler words: Try not to use words like, “you know,” “like,” or “um.” If you forget what you were going to say or don’t know what to say, just take a quick pause. It’s better to wait quietly than to have to edit out all your filler words. Alternately, if you do have to pause, just pause dictation so you won't have to edit out the filler words.
  • Remember to punctuate: Dictation tools won’t be able to interpret your pauses as periods or commas. Instead, you’ll have to say “comma,” “period,” “hyphen,” and so on. If you’re worried about forgetting to say the punctuation aloud, write them down on Post-It notes and hang them up around you.
  • Practice: It takes some time to adjust your speaking style for voice dictation apps, but it gets easier the more you practice. At first, write down what you want to say and then read it to your dictation app. This will let you see what the app does and doesn’t understand, and allow you to make tweaks as you go. As you get more comfortable, you can transition to dictating from memory (rather than reading aloud) and eventually speaking spontaneously.

My Experience with Voice Dictation

I write thousands of words every week, and I'm embarrassed to say that I had never tried voice dictation tools before this year. You can imagine my pleasant surprise when I realized I could dictate an introduction paragraph in half the time it would take me to type.

After evaluating more than a dozen desktop and mobile apps, my favorite was Google Docs Voice Typing. Google Docs had the best accuracy without forcing me to talk like an android. It also has the most extensive list of voice commands for editing and formatting text—and it's free. Anything you want to do in Google Docs, you could do with your voice.

For mobile, my favorite dictation app was the built-in iOS dictation. From opening new apps to texting a friend to quickly recording an idea, I knew I could always count on Siri. The dictation works in any app or browser that has a virtual keyboard, so I didn’t have to jump around in different apps. I also like how easy it is to get up-and-running: Once you turn Siri on, there's little to no learning curve.

I also experienced all the standard benefits of a voice dictation app. I saved time and energy, I was able to multitask while dictating an outline to a new post, and I could safely add something to my to-do list while going on a bike ride.

Plus, there was an unexpected benefit: using a voice dictation app silenced my internal editor. With dictation, I was able to do a pure brain-dump of ideas and, as a result, had more material to work with. Dictation lets me focus on ideation instead of prose.

But my favorite tools might not be for you. Here are some different options to check out over multiple platforms.

The Best Dictation Software

I evaluated dozens of dictation apps and tested them for comprehension, accuracy, and ease of use. Here are our top four dictation tools for desktop.

App Icon:  Best for: Accuracy Price Languages
Apple Dictation Apple Dictation Continuous, real-time dictation 250 words, 2 inaccurate Free 31
Windows Speech Recognition Windows Speech Recognition Navigating computer hands-free 200 words, 30 inaccurate Free 7
Google Docs Voice Typing Google Docs Voice Typing Long-form writing 200 words, 1 inaccurate Free 89
Dragon NaturallySpeaking Dragon NaturallySpeaking Hands-free workflows 250 words, 1 inaccurate Free mobile; from $99 7

Apple Dictation (iOS, Mac)

Apple Dictation

Look no further than your Mac, iPhone, or iPad for one of the best dictations app. Apple’s Siri-powered, built-in Dictation feature is available in all versions of OS X and iOS. It lets you dictate up to 30 seconds at a time when you’re connected to the Internet, using Siri’s servers to detect and translate what you said. It’s great for dictating something quickly on the go, but not the best choice for composing an essay.

If your Mac is running OS X 10.9 or later, or you have an iPhone 6s or newer, you can use Enhanced Dictation. Enable it from the Dictation option in System Preferences, and your Mac will download a file with advanced dictation tools. Then, just press a hotkey (or in El Capitan say a dictation keyword phrase) and you’ll hear that familiar Siri ding prompting you to start dictation.

This is when Dictation is at its best. You can dictate continuously, with no time limit and without being connected to the Internet. The text will appear in real time in almost any app, aside from Google Docs. There’s no need to touch your mouse at all; you can say commands like New Line to start writing on a new line; just stop talking to pause the dictation.

Accuracy: Of the 200 words I dictated using standard Dictation, only three were inaccurate. Of the 250 words I dictated using Enhanced Dictation, only two were inaccurate.

My Recommendation: I would only recommend using Apple’s pre-built dictation feature if you can use Enhanced Dictation. The standard Dictation is just too annoying and inconvenient for anything longer than 30-seconds. On the other hand, the enhanced option makes dictation as easy as possible: it’s free, you don’t have to use your mouse, and you can work offline in a number of different languages.

Languages: 31, including English, Arabic, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese

Dictation Commands: Click here for a full list of dictation voice commands.

Price: Free

Windows Speech Recognition (Windows XP and newer)

Windows Speech Recognition

Windows also offers free, built-in voice dictation with Speech Recognition. Available on all versions of Windows since XP, Speech Recognition lets you type and use simple commands with your voice.

Enable Speech Recognition by clicking on the Start button and selecting All Programs > Accessories > Ease of Access > Windows Speech Recognition. You can then choose to activate Speech Recognition with your mouse (manual activation) or with a voice command of Start Listening (voice activation mode).

Then just open a browser, program, or web application to start dictating. You can also use voice commands when working with text—they let you speak commands that do things like delete sentences, go to the end of the current document, and put a cursor after a specific word.

If you have Windows 10, you can enable Cortana for a more powerful hands-free experience. Microsoft’s personal assistant can be activated by saying “Hey Cortana” and you can use voice commands for things like searching, opening different apps, or finding directions.

Accuracy: The first time I used Speech Recognition, I dictated 200 words and 30 were incorrect. However, Speech Recognition needs to be trained and the accuracy will improve the more you use it. If your PC has a tough time translating, click on the microphone widget and select Configuration > Improve Voice Recognition. You'll be sent to a voice training where Speech Recognition learns your voice and accent.

My Recommendation: Cortana and Speech Recognition together offer a strong dictation package. You can use voice commands to control and type almost anywhere, and can start and stop dictation without your mouse. But don’t judge Speech Recognition’s quality after the first go-round—you'll need to use it a couple times to see its full potential.

Languages: Speech Recognition is available in English, French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Simplified Chinese, and Traditional Chinese. Cortana is available in English, Simplified Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish.

Dictation Commands: Click here for a full list of voice commands.

Price: Free

Google Docs Voice Typing (Web)

Google Docs

Google Docs takes voice dictation to the next level. It not only lets you type with your voice, but also helps you select text, add formatting, and move around your document. All with a few phrases.

Only available in Google Chrome, Voice Typing is a free Google Docs feature. Enable Voice Typing in the Tools menu and you’ll see a microphone appear on your Doc. Simply click that microphone to start and stop dictation, and the translated text will appear in real time.

The real magic of Google Docs Voice Typing comes from its voice commands that let you format and edit as you go. You can say Create Bulleted List to make bullet points, Select Word or Phrase to edit, italicize, bold, underline, or delete, or Go to End of Paragraph to move around in your document. With more than 100 commands, you can do almost anything in Google Docs without using your hands.

Accuracy: Of the 200 words I dictated, only one was incorrect. Voice Typing was also able to keep up and accurately translate when I was speaking at my normal pace. Plus, it understands the context: when you say a voice command like Create Bulleted List, for example, it may start to type that out as a normal dictation, but then it soon realizes you are dictating a formatting command and will automatically delete the dictation and apply the formatting.

My Recommendation: I use Google Docs every day and found Voice Typing to be incredibly helpful. It's one of the only voice dictation apps that I could realistically see myself using for dictating a long piece. I love how hands-off you can be—the fact that you can edit and format with voice commands is a major differentiator among free dictation apps.

Languages: Voice Typing is compatible with 89 languages and accents. However, voice commands (for editing and formatting) are only available in English.

Dictation Commands: Click here and go to the Voice commands section for a list of all available commands.

Price: Free

Dragon NaturallySpeaking (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows)

Dragon NaturallySpeaking

If you never want to touch your keyboard or mouse again, Dragon NaturallySpeaking is the voice dictation tool for you. Created by Nuance Communications, Dragon is a speech recognition software that works across all programs and web browsers. It offers nine different products that range from personal to industry-specific tools—like medical or legal editions with industry-specific dictionaries.

Based on the option you choose, you'll end up paying anywhere from $100-$500. Dragon for Mac supports OS X Mavericks and newer, while Dragon NaturallySpeaking 13 for PC supports Windows 7 and newer, along with Windows Server 2008 and newer.

Once Dragon has acclimated to your voice and accent in the setup process, there is no limit to what you can do. You can use voice commands to control programs and web browsers, and dictate in any web application.

And with the Professional version, you can set custom commands for recurring tasks. When you say New Client, Dragon could open your sales management tool, log in for you, and build a new blank record.

Accuracy: Dragon does not offer a free trial, so we used its mobile app, Dragon Dictation to test accuracy and comprehension. Of the 250 words I dictated, only one was incorrect.

My Recommendation: Dragon NaturallySpeaking is a hefty investment—both in terms of price and learning curve. However, if you want to create a completely hands-free workflow, Dragon is worth it.

Languages: Dragon NaturallySpeaking is available in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and Japanese.

Price: Free Dragon Dictation mobile app; $15/month Dragon Anywhere advanced mobile app; from $99.99 for Dragon NaturallySpeaking Home; from $200 for full-featured Dragon for Mac or PC

The Best Mobile Dictation Apps

When inspiration hits, don't trust your brain to hang onto that idea until you can find a pen. Instead, whip out your phone and use it as a sounding board. Here are the best six dictation tools for mobile devices.

App Icon:  Best for: Price Languages
SiriSiriSimple dictation on Apple devicesFree21
CortanaCortanaPersonalized, interactive dictationFree7
Google NowGoogle NowThird-party integrationsFree9
Speech RecogniserSpeech RecogniserDictation and translation to foreign languages8.9930
ListNoteListNoteSearchable archive of dictationsFree13
Google KeyboardGoogle KeyboardUniversal voice-to-textFree23

Siri (iOS)

Best for: Simple dictation on Apple devices

Siri

Apple’s personal assistant, Siri, comes preinstalled on all its mobile products (iPhones, iPads, iPod touches, Apple Watches, and Apple TVs). Once you turn Siri on in Settings, hold down the Home button until you hear the Siri ding. Or, you can say “Hey Siri” to an iPhone 6s or newer, or an iPhone 5 or newer if charging.

While Siri will accurately translate your voice into text, she also has a few tricks up her sleeve: she can talk back to you and understand relationships and context. For example, you could ask Siri to check your voicemail, send a new email to a certain person, read your notifications, set reminders, get directions, make dinner reservations, or save a note. Or, you can access the same dictation features as OS X dictation, just by tapping the mic icon on the keyboard in any app

Languages: Arabic, Cantonese, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Mandarin, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, and Turkish

Dictation Commands: Click here for examples of what you can say to Siri.

Price: Free

Cortana (Android, Windows)

Best for: Personalized, interactive dictation

Cortana

Siri isn’t the only personal assistant around. Microsoft’s Cortana, included in Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 10—including desktops, and also available for Android 4.0 and up, is an artificial intelligence, hands-free helper.

Press and hold the Search button or say the “Hey Cortana” voice command to begin. Cortana can send text messages, add items to your calendar, take notes, play music, check the weather and more. You can also just chat with her about whatever is on your mind—she may even tell you a joke.

Languages: Chinese (Simplified), English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish.

Dictation Commands: Click here for a list of voice commands.

Price: Free

Google Now (Android, iOS, Google Glass)

Best for: Third-party integrations

google now

Say “Ok Google” and your Android phone is instantly listening. On Android 4.4 and later, Google’s smart personal assistant, Google Now, comes with voice commands.

Open the Google app and go to Settings to turn on “Ok Google.” From there you can choose activation options like making “Ok Google” available all the time, or only when your phone is active or charging. Not an Android person? On iOS devices, you can use "Ok Google" inside the Google app for its core search features.

You can use “Ok Google” on Android for almost anything, such as calls, text, email, browsing the web, locking your phone, opening and closing apps. “Ok Google” voice commands also work with a handful of third-party apps, including NPR One, WhatsApp, Viber, and Zillow.

Languages: English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Russian, Spanish.

Dictation Commands: Click here for a list of voice search and actions.

Price: Free

Speech Recogniser (iOS)

Best for: Dictation and translation to other languages

speech recogniser

The Speech Recogniser app is a dictation powerhouse. You can use it to translate your text into more than 40 languages, post directly to Facebook or Twitter, copy your transcribed text to other apps or send via email.

Once you install and open Speech Recogniser, you choose a source language on the home screen and tap the start button to activate the dictation. When you’re done, a new screen will appear with your text. You can then translate, share, or even play back your dictation.

Languages: English, Arabic, Bulgarian, Catalan, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Norwegian Bokmål, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Simplified Chinese, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Traditional Chinese, Turkish, and Ukrainian.

Price: $8.99

ListNote Speech-to-Text Notes (Android)

Best for: Searchable archive of dictations

listnote

With almost 20,000 reviews on the Google Play Store, ListNote Speech-to-Text Notes is one of the most popular speech recognition apps for Android 2.3.3 and newer.

It combines the classic notepad functionality with voice dictation, using the pre-installed Google Voice Search to enable the speech-to-text feature. Each dictation is saved as a searchable note that you can categorize and color-code. You can then share these notes via email, text, Twitter, or any other note-taking app.

ListNote also offers a handful of unique features, like the "Time to Breathe" option that lets you choose how long to wait before stopping speech input. You can also enable password protection for your notes or back up and encrypt them on an SD card.

Languages: Chinese, Czech, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish

Price: Free

Google Keyboard (Android)

Best for: Universal voice-to-text

google keyboard

Although the Google Keyboard app is not a pure voice-dictation tool, it provides one of the most accurate and reliable logs of your speech.

Available for Android 4.0 and newer, the Google Keyboard replaces your default keyboard with its minimalist version featuring voice typing. By installing this universal Google Keyboard, you can use the voice-to-text feature everywhere, in any app that requires a keypad input. To use voice typing, just tap the microphone icon on your keyboard to begin and tap it again when you're done.

Languages: English, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese , Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish, and Turkish

Price: Free

Which Microphone to Use for Dictation

While each dictation app on this list is compatible with your built-in microphone, the best option for quality and accuracy is to use an external microphone.

Here are three general kinds of microphones you can choose from, along with recommendations from The Wirecutter:

  • Wired headset: Headsets offer the ultimate hands-free experience. Because the microphone is placed directly in front of your mouth, you don’t need to worry about ambient noise. A wired headset does limit your movement because you’re attached to your computer, but it also provides for one of the most reliable, accurate dictations. Check out: The Jabra UC Voice 550 Duo
  • Wireless headset: If you want more freedom, go for a wireless headset. These are often more expensive than a wired headset, but you have the flexibility to get up and move around. Make sure to pay attention to the range on wireless headsets; some are limited to 30 feet, while others go up to 100 feet. Check out: The Plantronics Voyager Edge
  • Desktop microphone: If you don’t want to wear a mic on your head, a desktop microphone is a good alternative. This kind of microphone sits on your desk and requires you to park yourself right in front of it. If you move your head or shift positions, the accuracy will suffer. And, of course, it won't work with mobile dictation apps. Check out: The Yeti by Blue

There's no right or wrong microphone—it all depends on what you are looking for. If you're in a busy, loud environment, a headset might be better for canceling out background noise. If you like to pace around your room for inspiration, you should go for a wireless headset. Or, if you don’t want anything attached to your head, a desktop microphone might be the best choice.


Is Voice Dictation Right for You?

I started this journey as a dictation newbie. After trying more than a dozen dictation apps, I’m sold. I can save time, multitask, and silence my internal editor.

If you’re still wary of voice dictation, remember that you don’t have to use it for every single thing you do. Try it for something quick and easy, like making a grocery list or setting a reminder on your phone. As you get more comfortable, you can use it for a creative brainstorm or even composing an email. You just might get addicted.

However you use voice dictation, I guarantee this: you'll miss your keyboard or mouse far less than you'd expect.

Do you have any favorite voice dictation apps? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

Microphone photo by Antoine Beauvillain via tookapic.

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