After a lengthy struggle trying to install Dragon Naturally Speaking on an ordinary Hewlett-Packard laptop running Windows 10, we gave up. The next day, Joy called the company's tech support. After their expert worked on it for an hour and a half, he got it installed.
It was not a great experience dealing with what is supposed to be the world's premier voice recognition software. The idea is you load it in, speak into the microphone and the program turns what you said into words on the screen. You can then edit it -- do the rewrite. To quote the best-selling science-fiction writer Michael Crichton: "Books aren't written, they're rewritten."
So we have spent three days trying out different dictation programs. We started with the best known, Dragon, and for $60 bought Home version 13, the latest available. That was $60 down the drain. Aside from the installation problems, it was extremely slow and made more errors than a last-place ball team. The first 50 words had more than a dozen errors, some of them hilarious. We saw many irate comments on the Web. Of course the Home version is just a small part of Nuance Communications' business, so it may be low priority.
Compared with using Google's free voice recognition, Dragon was a disaster, missing every other word the first time out. Using our Android phone, Google Voice got our dictation nearly perfectly the first time and was much faster. Dragon transcribed Bob's words "Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna," for example, as "Osama, Osama, Osama." Does this even make sense? After several hours of similar drivel, we dumped it.
You might wonder why we even considered paying $60 for Dragon when Windows has speech recognition built in. But Microsoft's program is far from perfect. We first tried it on a Windows 8 machine. (Go to "Settings" and type "speech recognition.") It worked OK but not great. In Windows 10, it was a total failure, sputtering the same words over and over, like it was having a dictionary fit. By the way, Cortana, the built-in voice assistant, doesn't do dictation, just Web searches and other simple queries.
Another alternative is those free programs called extensions that can be installed in your Web browser. We liked the Chrome extension, Voice Dictation. The Chrome Web store, by the way, has oodles of free extensions in the form of games, productivity tools, graphics, spreadsheets, etc. Even Open Office, nearly identical to Microsoft Office, is a free extension. To use the one we liked best, search for "Voice Dictation in Chrome," and when it comes up, just click "add to Chrome." To use it, click its icon in the upper right of your screen.
A few other ways: If you own an iPad or Android tablet, try voice typing in Microsoft Word, a free download. On an Android device, start by enabling "Google Voice Typing" in settings, then just tap the microphone in Word, or "Pages" for iPhones. On an iPad, it's already set up. Just tap the microphone and start talking.
A couple we met said they only use Amazon's Alexa to tell them a daily joke. We use her mainly for music and weather. Here are some more ideas a reader sent in.
Babysit the kids. Tell them to ask the Echo or the Google Home digital assistant to play games with them, answer their questions or play children's songs. Google Home will talk like Yoda or sing to you if you ask. The Amazon Echo or Echo Dot can play Jeopardy and a rhyming game, among others.
We said, "Hey Google, play a game," and she gave us several choices. Her Mad Libs was fun, and got funnier with practice. If you don't have a Google Home, go to MadTakes.com for something similar. On your phone, try the free Mad Libs app for Android and iPhones. You can find games for Alexa in the Amazon Skills section of Amazon.com. Click anything that interests you and then click "enable." She didn't do well in our Mad Libs test, but Silly Sentences is fun.
Google Home can be a travel agent. Say "Find me nonstop flights," adding the date, airline and destination. This also works if you have Google Assistant on your phone or Siri on the iPhone or iPad. For Alexa, enable the Flight Deals skill.
For meditation, say to Google Home, "Talk to Headspace." There are three choices: wake up, take a moment or wind down. On the Echo with Alexa, enable a Meditation skill. Or you could just download the Headspace app on your phone.
Find more ideas for Google Home at Domino.com, or by searching on "9 Things Your Personal Google Assistant Can Do." For the Amazon Echo, search on "Things Echo Can Do."
• EurAtlas.com has lots of interesting maps, some for different time periods.
• OpenTheBooks.com is a nonprofit database that tells you where taxpayer money is spent. For instance, the Ivy League colleges received $41.5 billion in taxpayer-funded payments and entitlements over six fiscal years ending in 2015. Yet their endowment funds are already big enough to spend $2 million on each undergraduate student.
• "17 charts and figures that show the U.S. is not as developed as you'd think." Search on that phrase to find some surprising statistics. For instance, 11 developed countries have more hospital beds per 1,000 people than the U.S. does. Japan has more than 13 beds per 1,000 people; we have fewer than three.
• "10 incredibly beautiful and eco-friendly places to visit." Live with reindeer herders, for example. Our dentist said they had the best steaks he ever ate.
Bob and Joy Schwabach can be reached by email at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
SundayMonday Business on 07/24/2017