How To Dictate Writing On Your Mac: Apple’s Dictation vs DragonDictate

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mac dictation softwareFor a long time if you wanted or needed to use a speech-to-text dictation program on your Mac, your only choices were MacSpeech Dictate (now defunct) and Nuance’s DragonDictate. But with the release of Mountain Lion, Apple has for the first time built text dictation into the operating system.

This feature allows you to actually speak sentences into your Mac’s microphone and see them typed out for you, a lot faster than you could type what you say. Apple’s Dictation feature works similarly to how it does in the iPhone 4S.

However, while the Mountain Lion Dictation feature is a welcome addition to the upgraded OS, it does have limitations you should know about, especially if you’re curious about using text dictation for longer pieces of writing. This article explains how to use Dictation and what its limitations are.

How Dictation Works

In OS X 10.8, you can call up the Dictation feature in any text application on the Mac by pressing the Fn (Function) button on your keyboard. When prompted to do so, clearly speak a sentence or two of text (say the word, “period” at the end of your sentence) and then hit the Fn or Return key after you’re finished. In a second or two your words will be typed, Star Trek style, faster than you could type them manually.

mac dictation software

To add more text, just press the Fn key again. Each of your sentences will automatically begin with a capital letter. And if you speak clearly and directly, the Dictation feature can be pretty accurate most of the time. Also, you can pause and think about what you’re going to say before you say it, and Dictation will wait. So don’t feel intimidated into speaking quickly.

mac dictation

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If you open System Preferences > Dictation & Speech, you can change the shortcut for activating Dictation, as well as turn it on and off. You can also choose the mic (if you have more than one connected to your Mac) for listening to your dictation.

mac dictation

However, make note of what it says in the About Dictation and Privacy. In order to use Dictation, your Mac must be connected to the Internet. If it does not work, it’s probably because your Mac is experiencing problems with the router connection.

mac dictation

One of the drawbacks with using Dictation is that you must be connected to the Internet, and what you say will be recorded and sent to Apple, including other information in your computer, including the contact names (first names and nicknames) in your Address Book (renamed Contacts in Mountain Lion). Apple says that:

“All of this data is used to help the dictation feature understand you better and recognize what you say. Your User Data is not linked to other data that Apple may have from your use of other Apple services.”

You can disable Dictation, but when you do so, all your user data on Apple’s side will be deleted, as well as your recent voice input data. You can read the rest of the privacy policy for yourself, but apparently collecting this data makes the feature over time more accurate. Nevertheless, there should be a way to use the feature without an Internet connection.

When To Use It

Apple’s Dictation feature is highly welcomed, especially for those of us with poor typing, spelling, or hand disabilities. However, because you can’t see what you dictate until after you click the shortcut key, the Dictation feature is most useful for writing short emails, comments, tweets and notes. It’s not useful for long pieces of writing.

The most widely used dictation program for the Mac has been Nuances DragonDictate and Dragon Express. With these programs, your dictations get typed immediately after you pause or come to full stop in a sentence. You can also verbally edit your dictated text as you “write.” This cannot be done with Apple’s Dictation feature.

Dragon Express does not seem to be updated yet for Mountain Lion. DragonDictate does appear to be stable on the new operating system, however.

How Accurate Is It?

Compared to DragonDictate, the OS X Dictation program is just as accurate, and even more so because it’s built into the operating system. Below is a screenshot of a few test sentences. The feature will recognize proper nouns and names, but it will have trouble with words that sound the same but have different spellings. I dictated “Micheal Wood,” and it kept typing “would.”

mac dictation app

If you speak too fast, the feature misunderstands what you say, as when I dictated “I write for.” However, notice that in terms of accuracy, the Dictation feature will always correctly spell words. It can misinterpret what you say, but it uses the dictionary to correctly spell words based on what it thinks you said. Even “Rhineforte” in the screenshot above is actually a street name.

Dictation Commands

Another limitation with Dictation is that you can’t train it to use the words you want. Unlike with DragonDictate, I can’t for example train it to recognize and type “MakeUseOf.com“, as you can see in the screenshot above. Notice, also, as with the Dictation program in the iPhone 4S, when a blue dotted line appears under one or more words, the program may give a suggestion for what it thought you meant. When you put your cursor at the end of those dots, alternative suggestions will appear, and if one is correct just click on it, and the correction will be made.

You can also use some limited quotation commands with this Dictation feature. The most common command you will use of course is “period,” or “full stop” at the end of your sentences. You can also dictate other punctuation, including “question mark,” ”explanation point,” “open parenthesis,” “close parenthesis,” “quote,” “new paragraph,” and “new line.”

Even when you use these commands correctly, the program still may misinterpret what you meant (as in the example below.)

mac dictation software

Also, if you dictate, “I owe her ten dollars and forty-six cents,” the Dictation feature will type “$10.46.” Since Dictation is based on Nuance technology, part of which Siri diction is based, you can use this list of Dragon Dictation commands found in iSource.com. However, Dictation is not as advanced as DragonDictate – at least not yet – so don’t expect it to accurately do all your typing for you.

Learning Dictation

If you’ve never used a speech to text dictation program, doing so can almost feel like learning how to write again, because the difference between typing and dictating is that you have to think about what you say before you say it. So one way to develop diction skills is simply to use the program everyday. You might use Dictation for daily journal writing, or posting tweets. Use it regularly, and carefully re-read and edit what it types out for you.

Let us know what you think about the new Dictation feature in Mountain Lion. Also, if you want to boss your Mac around in other ways, check out this article on other Mac speech commands.

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Comments (27)
  • Tom Buckman

    What is time limit for DD? Only 30 sec for Mountain Lion…

    • Bakari Chavanu

      There’s no time limit on DD. When you pause during dictation, it will immediately type what you say.

  • Seth

    Question: should I also purchase Dragon?

    I have been using Dragon for many years… And they finally nailed in version 11.5. I use Dragon for responding to emails to employees — but not to clients, since Dragon is still prone to errors that could confuse the reader, but which I may not notice before I hit send.

    Dragon is also great for dumping hand written notes into the Word to be sorted out later.

    I turn off the Command feature to improve accuracy.

    So… I’m just now (Nov 2012) buying a new Mac Air – moving from a ThinkPad PC. Should I install Dragon on the Air?

    • Bakari Chavanu

      Seth, Dragon for the Mac has gotten much better with each update. It’s not perfect, but if you want to rest your fingers from typing, it’s worth using. It works fine on my MacBook Air using the built-in mic or the mic on a pair of iPhone earbuds.

  • Rob Stark, King of the North

    I really like your mustache.

  • Rob Stark, King of the North

    I like your mustache.

  • Kofi Agyeman

    i can’t use dictatiOn.it says it’s nOt available in sOuth africa and tO chOOse anOther language, but even when i chOOse US english, it still dOesn’t wOrk…

    • Bakari Chavanu

      Hmmm, Kofi, it sounds like the app is not universal as it should be. I would try to write Apple and request your language be added.

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This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.