Seasonal affective disorder has gotten me again. Illness (including looking forward to two surgeries, oh boy) hasn’t helped. I’m sort of keeping on writing, but I haven’t made the progress I’d like. (A big surprise. Again.)
I’ve been using handwriting input to make what progress I’ve made. Handwritten input jumpstarts my writing, although it doesn’t help me proceed with speed. Next post, for sure, I’ll put up an article about the current state of iOS handwriting input, both keyboards and standalone apps.
In November, I wrote about giving your older Mac laptop a “Retina” screen by enabling it with SwitchResX. Well, I just upgraded my MacBook Air 11 to Mojave (MacOS 10.14.2) via a “clean install”, and it took away my beautiful high-resolution, pseudo-Retina screen! As an obsessive nerd, I could not possibly let that one stand.
It seems that years and years ago, I installed Apple’s dev tools, which enabled HiDPI (pseudo-Retina), unbeknownst to me. When I did a clean install of Mojave, I wiped out both the tools and the HiDPI capability. Oops.
Start from an account for which you have admin privileges.
Open the Terminal app (you can find it in Applications/Utilities)
Copy and paste the following command: sudo defaults write /Library/Preferences/com.apple.windowserver.plist DisplayResolutionEnabled -bool true
Press return. Terminal will ask for your admin password. Provide it and press return.
Restart your Mac.
Now HiDPI (AKA “Retina”) resolutions should be available in the SwitchResX menu, assuming your laptop screen is capable. Enjoy!
N.B.: This works because of two effects: SwitchResX enables you to go to a scaled resolution larger than the largest “native” resolution on many monitors (AKA “stretched” resolution)—including the MacBook Air 11 built-in monitor. Enabling HiDPI enables you to use a “half-resolution” or HiDPI. Thus, the text is four times sharper because it uses four times as many pixels to render text. With both these effects in place, I can get a 1280×720 “Retina” resolution on my old MacBook Air 11. If a monitor can’t display a stretched resolution, the best it can do for a HiDPI is half the resolution of the maximum native resolution. For example, this doesn’t do much of anything for my LG Ultrawide, which can’t display a stretched resolution. So results are entirely dependent on what SwitchResX can do with your display hardware.
I swear before anything sacred you care to mention: I will never attempt to dictate fiction again. If my hands become too arthritic to write, I’ll just have to give up writing.
There are writers who find that dictation frees their inner creativity better than any form of writing. I’m happy for them. On the other hand, I look at the words I dictated during November—
and I feel no connection to them. Nothing. It’s as if someone else had written them.
It’s not that, as raw words, they suck much worse than any other writing I’ve ever done. They’re just not my words. I don’t connect to them.
My own theory is that it’s because I use a different area of my brain to speak rather than to handwrite or type. A part that isn’t as fluent in English as my fingers. Certainly I can’t speak extemporaneously, and any attempt to engage in spirited intellectual debate comes to a dead stop when my brain refuses to produce a word that my mouth can form. My family are accustomed to thirty-to-sixty second pauses while my brain—which knows darn well what concept it wants to express—struggles to come up with English words in spoken form to express it.
And there those pauses are, on tape.
I hear thirty to sixty seconds of dead air in the middle of a phrase—not at the beginning of a paragraph or the start of a sentence, when I might be planning the writing to come, but in the middle of a freaking phrase I’ve already started—during which my brain must have been desperately scrabbling for verbal sounds to go with an idea I was trying to express. When the words come out, they’re… feeble. I listen and I know they’re wide of the mark. Not only that, but they’re also not what I would have written. The idea was processed by a different system.
I like the words I write much more than the words I dictate. I feel connected to the words I write. Speech, if it has a place in my workflow, will come after I write, pointing out awkward phrasing. It’s a QA tool, not a manufacturing tool.
And yes, I’m still processing the bloody dictation. Dammit.
I had to do it. I had 15,000 words to go to finish my NaNoWriMo commitment on-time, and two days to produce them. There was no physical way for me to type that fast, even if I was just transcribing from paper and didn’t have to think. So I dug out dictation.
First of all: The Razer Hammerhead BT microphone doesn’t do well for dictation. I love the headset for its sound and its noise isolation. It would be OK for game chat—when I tried recording, I could always understand my recordings. But Siri couldn’t understand me. Me: Skeuomorphism Siri's transcription: Skewer more fission
My progress when dictating to the screen was to be laughed at. I would do better typing with eight of my ten fingers taped to my palms. Yes, with two index fingers I could type faster than using Mac or iOS native dictation-to-screen with Scrivener, because of all the transcription errors when using my best enunciation. This was true with the Hammerhead mic, with my iPhone mic, and with my MacBook Air’s mic. Further, I had to correct them Right. Freaking. Now. I knew that a week later I’d never remember that “manager” was how Apple/Siri dictation had transcribed “murder.”
I finally found a record/transcribe app for iOS, Just Press Record($4.99 USD on the Apple App Store).
Ease of use
Sound file export
Transcription file export
Just Press Record (JPR) worked reasonably well, both to record, and to transfer the resulting transcription to Scrivener. First, recordings could be saved to iCloud—thus, I could listen to them on any Apple device—Mac, iPhone, iPad. If I had a Windows machine and were willing to sully my OS with iCloud, I could listen to them there, too. So far, so good.
I exported each transcription into the Dropbox folder1 in which I keep my Mac Scrivener Scratch Pad notes. Thus, I had an easy workflow to drop the transcriptions into Mac Scrivener. In this way, I was able to meet my word goal, and win NaNoWriMo.
Ah, if only it were really that easy.
Many transcription apps charge you for human transcription. Some offer digital transcription at their lowest price rung (I saw prices varying from $0.10 to $1.50 USD per minute of recording.) JPR does not charge for transcription.
Of course, it uses Siri.
OMG, those transcriptions are horrid. Typical accuracy is 75%-80%. There are areas where I get 50% accuracy, and I’m being generous. Siri assumes that you’re writing a business report, not a fantasy murder mystery. Its vocabulary is very much centred on the mundane. “Dear heavens!” it thinks. “This woman can’t possibly be using terms like murder, human sacrifice, or eviscerated!” And my words get transformed into something innocuous and business-like, or at least less unfamiliar—to Siri.
If Siri were human I’d strangle it. No jury would ever convict me.
It may be that Siri meets your transcription needs. If so, I heartily recommend Just Press Record, for its ease of getting both your recordings and your transcriptions where you need them. As a simple voice recorder, it’s great. As an interface to Siri—well, it’s Siri. JPR has a good interface, it’s Siri that doesn’t meet my needs. I hope that Apple will continue to improve Siri for things other than phone commands and simple internet queries.
Meanwhile, please excuse me. I have about five hours of “manager” to correct to “murder”, and “shit farm” to correct to “shift form.” At least I have my original recordings thanks to JPR, and can listen to them at 1.5x speed. But that won’t help much in the really crummy passages.
Next time I’ll just lose NaNoWriMo. I’ll finish my 50,000 words faster.
Yes, I could have put them in iCloud if I chose. I loathe iCloud more than many people loathe Dropbox. I use either Dropbox or Google Drive whenever practical. ↩
If you’re a Mac Nuance customer you may have gotten an email last month entitled Product Discontinuation Notice. This email gave you the sad news that Dragon Professional Individual for Mac (the only Mac product Nuance had) was discontinued as of 22 October 2018 (two days before the email was sent.)
Now, I had my problems with Dragon Pro (The Demise of Dictation) but people commented on my “I give up!” post saying that I just hadn’t used it correctly. That’s as may be, but Dragon Pro for Mac had other problems besides my dictating ineptitude. For some time, it’s been having problems with applications using Apple’s 64-bit text toolkit (Dragon on Scrivener 3 has gone haywire.) Nor has it ever been the stellar performer that Dragon Pro on Windows has been—in fact, one noted writer on the subject, Scott Baker, frankly suggests in A Writer’s Guide to Training your Dragon that Mac users get a cheap Windows machine or use Boot Camp on their Macs in order to use the Windows version of Dragon. Nor did his recommendation change when Dragon Pro for Mac version 6 was released, although he conceded that the software was reported to be more usable.
Why would Nuance discontinue Dragon Mac? They aren’t talking, but the problems with 64-bit text apps are definite. Further, MacOS won’t support 32-bit apps past the current major release (Mojave.) My own speculation is that Nuance, looking at a product that has never been up to its (Windows) standards and is (probably) not especially profitable for all its absurdly high price, was not willing to dump “good money after bad” in order to update it for the 64-bit text kit plus addressing any other problems it may have.
Now, I don’t feel any sorrow that Dragon Mac is gone—it means I will never again have the option of picking it up, deciding that it’s not working for me, or of spending hours with the notoriously bad Nuance tech support who tell me that it’s not working for me (duh.) Aside from the depressing feeling of getting dumped, I’m okay, but for many Mac users dictation is not optional. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, there is no other commercial third-party dictation software for Mac. So Mac-using writers who need dictation have fewer choices at this point:
Use Mac, iOS, or Android native dictation. (Free with your device.)
Use Dragon Anywhere (on iOS or Android). ($150 USD/year)
Get Windows (see above). After investing in Windows hardware and software (cost varies), buy Dragon Professional. ($300 USD)
Not an outstanding list of choices. Good luck, Mac writers using dictation.
Before anything, in order for great, lag-free sound to come out of your Mac via Bluetooth, your Mac must support Bluetooth 4.0 or greater, and your BT headset must also support it. To find out if your Mac supports this BT version, select About This Mac from the Apple menu, then click on the System Report… button near the bottom of the window that results.
Checking BT Compatibility
Click on Bluetooth in the System Information window that opens. You’re looking for
Bluetooth Low Energy Supported: Yes
HCI Version: 4.0 (0x6) (or higher)
LMP Version: 4.0 (0x6) (or higher)
Alternatively, you could check the Bluetooth version by using Mactracker, a free utility available on the Mac App Store, which holds the specifications of every Apple device ever built. Ever.
Your BT headset’s box or its website should clearly state which version of BT it supports. If it doesn’t support 4.0 or better, none of the rest of the info in this article will work.
If your Mac supports BT 4.0 and you have a MacOS released since 2015, you’re good on the Mac side. Your Mac supports both the aptX and the AAC codecs, so if your headset has either, you’re in business.
If your BT headset not only supports BT 4.0+ but also supports the aptX codec, you’re in great shape! Most headset manufacturers brag about aptX if they’ve got it, so check the manufacturer’s website to find out. Failing aptX, check whether the headset supports Apple’s AAC codec (it almost certainly does if advertised as usable with iOS.) AAC won’t get you quite as good sound as aptX, but many people can’t hear the difference.
Persuading Your Mac to Play Nice
So now, you know that your BT headset and your Mac can talk to each other fast enough and well enough to get beautiful sound. What’s the problem?
Sometimes, the Mac refuses to use higher bandwidth codecs, even though they’re available on both the Mac and the BT headset. Why, no one seems to know, least of all Apple. But you can work around this with a developer utility called Bluetooth Explorer, which you can get via a link in this article by John H. Darko. Mr Darko’s article also explains how to force use of aptX or AAC by using Bluetooth Explorer once you’ve got it.
I did this, but my MacBook Air was still downgrading to the horrid SCO codec. Now what?
After a good deal of Internet research, I found that the problem lies in Apple Dictation. Often, when you connect a BT headset, MacOS will automatically assume that you want to use the headset microphone for dictation. This is not a bad assumption in and of itself, but when MacOS selects a BT headset for dictation, it will automatically downgrade the BT codec, whether you’re actually using dictation right now or not. (You could use dictation, any time now, is its feeble mechanical rationale, so it had better be prepared…)
One solution is to simply turn off dictation on your Mac. If you’re a writer, though, this may not be practical. An alternative solution is to leave the internal microphone selected for dictation, and manually switch to your BT headset mic if needed. Here’s how to implement either possibility.
Open System Preferences
Click on the Keyboard panel
Click on the Dictation tab
Click the “Off” radio button to turn off dictation completely
OR—from the drop-down menu beneath the microphone icon, choose “Internal microphone.” (Do not choose Automatic; that’s what’s causing the problem.) The machine may whine2 about how this won’t give you best results. Ignore it.
Now music should pour forth from your Mac and sound beautiful on your BT headset. If you should decide that you want to dictate some text and use your BT headset to do it, go back to System Preferences and manually change dictation input to your BT headset. The codec will downgrade but you won’t care because you’ll be dictating and you can’t listen to music at the same time anyway. Manually change dictation input back to Internal Microphone when you want to listen to music again.
Another possibility: a little utility available on the Mac App Store, called Tooth Fairy, $2.99 USD. It will let you put an icon in your menubar for your headset (and also display its battery status). You can connect and disconnect the headset by clicking on the icon. If you right-click, you can access Tooth Fairy preferences—which let you disable the headset mic, by means of its Advanced… settings. Thus you avoid needing to dig deep into the System Preferences; leave them as they are, and just turn the mic on or off as needed from the Tooth Fairy icon.
What’s a codec? “Codec” is short for COde/DECode. A codec is simply a set of rules for compressing your sound before the Mac sends it, and then decompressing it on your headset before it’s played. The more information the codec can send and/or receive in a given amount of time, the better the sound on your headset. aptX is excellent, AAC is not bad, SBC stinks, and SCO is monaural transmission suitable only for voice calls. ↩
I can’t imagine trying to get heavy writing done without a headset of some kind. I use headsets as distraction filters, hearing protectors, telephone speaking/listening devices, and occasional dictation devices. Sometimes I even use them to listen to music. I’ve reported before on how well gaming equipment suits my writing needs (The Gaming—Writing—Dictation Connection, Long, Cool Monitor). This little lurid-green-and-black beauty is my latest acquisition:
The Razer Hammerhead BT has great sound by my standards.
I often attend live classical music concerts, so while I don’t insist on audiophile quality sound, I don’t care for artificially inflated bass either. This headset inflates the bass, but not enough to annoy; it only slightly inflates bass past compensating for the usual feeble bass of in-ear headsets. Otherwise, frequency response sounds pretty darn flat, which suits.
It sounds as good as my wired Audio-Technica ATH-ANC33iS headset with my iOS devices. The problems reported with BT headsets (lag, poor sound quality compared to wired) are not present.
It produces the best darn sound I’ve ever gotten out of my Mac. I’ve made the aptX codec active (see this article by John H. Darko for how) and the sparkling highs rival those of my old component stereo system. But even before I activated aptX it did as well as my A-T.
It does a similar job of noise isolation compared to my Audio-Technica headset. The Razer eliminates more high-pitched noise; the A-T is better on the droning low-pitched stuff (due to active noise cancellation.) (N.B. All comparisons of noise isolation were done with Comply foam eartips on each headset.)
The inline control unit contains the microphone, as customary. The unit is larger than usual, and easy to use. The microphone hangs naturally pointed at the user’s face. The controls works well with iOS and with MacOS.
It exceeds its advertised battery life of eight hours.
The Razer has a two year warranty! Even if there are durability issues I should be covered.
The flat ribbon wired connections among the components should be sturdier than the round wired connectors of my A-T.
Again, the machined aluminium earbud bodies should be sturdier than those made of plastic.
The Razer microphone. It performs well enough, but it’s neither particularly well suited nor poorly suited to dictation in noisy environments. It does OK for dictation in quiet environments. People I’ve been on voice calls with report decent call quality. I need not grab it and hold it in front of my mouth in order to be understood, as I did the A-T microphone. In short, it works well but not outstandingly so.
The magnetic shirt clip works well for thin fabric, but its grip is problematic on anything thicker than a t-shirt.
The silicone eartips are decent quality. Note that the double-flange eartips are only provided in size medium. If you have large or small ear canals, you won’t get the extra noise isolation of double-flanges with the provided eartips. (This doesn’t bother me as I replace manufacturer’s eartips with Comply foam eartips anyway.)
Not only does the Hammerhead BT have two-tone green and black cables but also the earbuds’ logos slowly pulse with lurid green light (“breathing”) while in use. This, ah, feature can’t be turned off directly, from iOS, or from Mac. It might be controllable from Android or Windows—I have no way to check.
The knurled grips on the earbuds irritate some users’ ears, but I haven’t noticed any problem.
The provided carry case is huge for the size of the headset. Yes, it has a nice custom-moulded interior; nonetheless it’s more than twice the volume of the little case I used for my A-T headset.
The charging port is in the inline control rather than the transceiver/battery compartment. Strange.
The Hammerhead BT delivers on low lag, noise isolation, and good sound. It should work well for mobile gaming, and it certainly serves my humble writing purposes. At $99 USD (MSRP), it’s comparable in price to the wired Audio-Technica noise-cancelling in-ear headset, and 30% less expensive than A-T’s in-ear Bluetooth model. It’s a third of the price of Bose noise-cancelling in-ear sets. With its two-year warranty, it’s a solid bargain.
A Warning About Counterfeits:
Several reviewers on Amazon report receiving counterfeit Razer headsets. The counterfeit headsets are flimsy and perform poorly. Needless to say, Razer won’t support them, and they can’t be registered for warranty. My suggestions:
Buy from Amazon directly—be sure that the product page says “Sold by and shipped from Amazon.com” when you buy. Avoid third-party sellers.
OR—Buy from Best Buy or other major brick-and-mortar retailer.
And finally, register your warranty at http://razerzone.com/registration as soon as you receive your headset! The information you need is all on the outside of the box; you needn’t break the shrink wrap. If you can’t register it, then it’s likely counterfeit and you should return it for a refund ASAP (if you can).
I don’t know about you, but I have a severe technology envy problem. I look at tech specs of new Apple products and heave deep, heartfelt sighs. In particular, I would very much like a newer Macbook 12 instead of my older Macbook Air 11. It’s… well, it’s lighter. To a former aerospace engineer, 5.6 ounces saved is 5.6 ounces, man! Think what you can boost with an extra 5.6 ounces to spare for fuel!
Not only that, but it has that nice, crisp Retina screen. Reading on the normal resolution Macbook Air 11 with a pixel density1 of 135 DPI—sometimes I take off my glasses and look at the screen from a distance of six inches (I’m very nearsighted) in order to read something. It doesn’t always help. The Retina displays on my iOS devices show text that is more crisp, and have more detail in the graphics.
I discovered a way around the lack of a “Retina” display quite by accident. Here’s my secret:
SwitchResX is a utility designed to give its users far more control over monitors and their resolutions than Apple is willing to provide. Bluntly, it has a lot more complexity than I’ll ever need, and I’m comfortable with tech (see above.) But for $16 it gave me a Retina screen equivalent for my Macbook Air, without delving into the tech details further than an added menubar icon.
You’ll need admin privileges on your account to install it. For these purposes, you’ll only need to set two of its preferences (open System Preferences; tap on the SwitchResX icon towards the bottom of the screen.) Be sure that its menubar extra is enabled (SRX menus prefs), and that the “SwitchResX daemon” is set to Launch on login (SRX general prefs). Close the SRX prefs window and quit System Preferences.
Now click on that new menubar icon that looks like a screen. You should see a long list of resolutions that you never knew your Macbook Air had available. Select the largest one that says “HiDPI” next to it, and you’re in business! (Note that if you have a Macbook Air 13 you’ll probably want one that’s in a 16:10 ratio, and for a Macbook Air 11 you’ll want 16:9.)
For the Macbook Air 11, that’s a DPI in HiDPI mode of 253 pixels per linear inch, higher than the Macbook Pro 13’s 220 DPI in Retina mode.
Enjoy your rejuvenated Mac!
(Note that I still envy Macbook 12 owners—after all, they have Macbooks that are 5.6 ounces lighter than mine. I just don’t envy them as much.)
A note on resolution, pixel density, and what “Retina” means: Resolution, as commonly used these days, means the number of pixels horizontally and vertically on a screen. Thus, the Macbook Air 11 has a maximum resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels. This is a measure of how much information the display can present.
Pixel density, on the other hand, is a measure of how crammed that information is. 135 DPI is pretty darn crammed for a normal monitor. My LG Ultrawide 25UM58 monitor (also normal) has a maximum pixel density of 111 DPI, and the pre-Retina Macbook Air 13 has 128 as its nominal max.
“Retina” in Apple parlance is much the same thing as “HiDPI” in Windows terminology. Each means that four physical pixels are used to display each “logical” pixel. So at least in terms of how much text can be displayed at a given point size, the “resolution” is diminished by a factor of two in each dimension. That text will be far more crisp and easy to read, however.
Windows is more honest about this (IMO): Apple will describe a “2560-by-1600 (Retina)” resolution, which means the same thing as Windows “1280 x 800 HiDPI”. Both screens will display exactly the same amount of sharp Times New Roman 12 point text. ↩