RIP, Dragon Dictation for Mac #amwriting

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.)

Dragon Professional Individual for Mac is no more

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:

  1. Use Mac, iOS, or Android native dictation. (Free with your device.)
  2. Use Dragon Anywhere (on iOS or Android). ($150 USD/year)
  3. 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.

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MacOS v. Bluetooth Headsets—How to Get Good Mac Sound Output #amwriting

I praised my Razer Hammerhead BT headset last week for its superb sound output from my Mac. I’d like to say it was easy—but I had to do some digging to make it so.

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.

Checking Codec1 Compatibility

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.

Mac Dictation can sabotage your headset sound

  • 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.

Tooth Fairy makes controlling your mic more convenient.

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.


  1. 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. 
  2. Display a yellow triangle warning message. 

The Demise of Dictation #amwriting

The first flush of dictation enthusiasm! How little I knew….

Yeah, dictation didn’t work for me.

I still have the gaming headset and I’m glad I got it. But I wish I had the money back for Dragon Professional for Mac.

This venture into dictation… it sucked another six weeks of production time, and I have almost nothing to show for it.

Let’s start with the obvious: the Fool Proof Dictation method included 55+ minutes of warm-ups every single dictation session. Hello! ADHD here. I never made it all the way through. Not one. Single. Time. Without. Distraction. I don’t know why I thought I could.

It was mind-numbingly boring to read aloud ten minutes from a “best-seller in my genre” with punctuation in. Then dictate five minutes of “session goals.” Then do forty minutes of fiction dictation exercises (with punctuation in) not including five minute breaks in between.

The last was my downfall. A five minute break from one of the more boring things I’ve ever done? It was never five minutes, even if I remembered to start a timer. No, I didn’t start other apps, but so what? A half-hour of daydreaming later (or maybe an hour or more), I’d come back to this planet and realise that I’d lost momentum and I was no longer “warmed up.”

Sometimes I’d cheat and go ahead and dictate my scenes anyway. But there was a problem. I’m writing a historical-fantasy-mystery set in 19th century London. I want British spelling. My native accent is South Texan (perhaps it’s even a separate language.) Dragon Professional for Mac does not allow for the possibility that someone who speaks with a Texas accent might want to produce output with British spelling. It’s even worse with a speaker who inadvertently slips into bad British accents while dictating dialogue.

When it came time to transcribe the recordings I’d made (at last!) not even the simple exercises were transcribed correctly, not even to the level of typos I’d have made in typing it. I’d go back through the recordings, and yes my speech was clear. No background noise at all. But when I tried to train Dragon in transcription mode, it still made the same horrible transcription errors time after time.

I also had a problem with the lack of visual feedback using this method. I read very fast, so that reading is almost the only way for me to take in information without getting distracted. I really missed seeing my words appear on the screen. So, for about a week, I tried to dictate directly to screen.

In my favour, I’d largely gotten over the hesitation problem while dictating (the interminable reading from Conan Doyle did some good!) and Dragon is much more forgiving about pauses than the Mac’s built-in dictation. But the transcription errors persisted. I finally tossed in the towel last week.

Yes, it’s back to typing for me, or when the words are coming hard, back to a stylus and a handwriting keyboard. If I ever get carpal tunnel syndrome, I guess my writing career is over. Or I’ll use Mac dictation, because it’s too frustrating to use the best and get minimal traction.

The Gaming—Writing—Dictation Connection: The Making of a True Dictation Believer #dictation #amwriting

The awesome HyperX Cloud II gaming headset in a fierce dictation session. Zap those adverbs!

It’s all my fault that I’ve been silent on this blog so long. The most damaging incident was two months of being missing in action with CPDTFG (Can’t Put Down The F___ing Game) syndrome.

(I won’t name or link to the game—you’ll have to find your own addiction.)

I’m over it. I had to deal with withdrawal symptoms for a while. And I learned some stuff about human nature which will make its way into my writing (Thank you, D4rk W4rriors Guild: Capidava, Cajocu, Funnie808, MoonCat546, Boberg, et. al.) But it has led to a new set of writing productivity tools—which, thanks to CPDTFG, I desperately need.

I’ve looked over dictation software in the past; in particular I even bought a book about dictation for writers (The Writer’s Guide to Training Your Dragon (Scott Baker)), and gave the Mac/iOS versions of dictation a try (why not? After all, they’re licensed from the same people who make Dragon Professional Individual for Mac 6.0, Nuance. Right? Even though Mr Baker recommended against it…)

Each time I came to the conclusion that

  1. I pause in the middle of composing to think up what comes next. The Mac/iOS dictation software figures that I’ve stopped talking and it’s time to transcribe. Aaauuuggghh!

  2. The more I try to correct the software’s understanding of my speech, the worse its transcription gets. I got more stressed, my childhood accent came back, and Mac dictation became yet more confused. (You do not want to know what happens with Mac dictation when it tries to transcribe rural Oklahoma pronunciation, especially when it started transcribing a voice speaking decent Californian. It’s not pretty.)

But thanks to CPDFTG syndrome, I became desperate, so when I got an email from Scott Baker recommending Fool Proof Dictation (Christopher Downing), I downloaded it. This book is saving my writing life.

Mr Downing starts from the concept that talking to a computer and expecting it to take dictation is an unnatural act—and that just as we need practice to handwrite and we need practice to type well, we also need practice in order to become good at dictation. He details a training regimen—for the writer—to use computer dictation and use it well, emphasising the mental rather than the technical side of dictation.

I’ll list just two of his precepts which have made a big difference for me:

  1. Don’t live-dictate; instead, record and transcribe after. This simple step has turned me from a throw-the-machine-out-the-window hater of dictation into a dictation believer. Seriously. Not watching my words appear on the screen in real time calms me down and lets me avoid the “it didn’t understand me” frustration. Also, transcription doesn’t care if I stop for 30 seconds to think about what I want to say. Right away, my primary frustrations with computerised dictation vanished.

  2. Speak slowly—aim for a 5,000 words per hour (83 wpm) pace. Implementing this has improved both my pre-recorded dictation and my use of voice commands on my phone and tablet. Before, I’d get wound up and start speaking faster when Siri didn’t understand me—now I slow down and use simpler words and sentences. Much better.

He also details extensive exercises designed to improve both the writer’s “machine-understandability” and her ability to compose while speaking, both of which are critical to productive dictation.

One last connection with the gaming world—my technical dictation setup. I broke down and bought Dragon Professional for Mac, for its transcription capability. I can record on Mac, iPhone, or iPad using a cheap voice recording app, and transfer the file to Mac if needed for transcription. But the microphone…

Both Mr Baker and Mr Downing agree that having a good mic is critical. The mic on my active noise cancelling earbuds was woefully inadequate. It seemed like it picked up everything except my voice! The mic on the headset that Mr Downing recommended was inexpensive and worked well, but the headset had no incoming noise mitigation. There went my ability to focus while working in a coffee shop!

But my gaming, er… episode caused me to consider—PC gamers need both superb microphones to communicate in noisy environments, and headsets with excellent noise mitigation so they can hear the tiny rustle in the “bushes” to their left that heralds an ambushing enemy. They also need comfort for hours-long gaming sessions, and they need all this at a reasonable price.

I need both a superb microphone to dictate in noisy coffee shops, and a headset with excellent noise mitigation so I’m not pulled out of the “flow.” I also need comfort for hours-long dictating sessions, and I need all this at a reasonable price.

Therefore, I went to a local Best Buy and asked a nice man a third my age about gaming headsets. I am now the proud owner of a HyperX Cloud II which lets me dictate clean copy in a crowded Starbucks at 4 pm.

Dude.

Text Input Methods: Comparison

Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
One thing I was taught at dear old Mother Technology [mumble] decades ago: Always take measurements.

Handwriting recognition feels faster to me. Dictation (speech recognition) feels incredibly slow. On-screen keyboard typing feels awkward, and I find my tendency to reverse letters on output frustrating when I use a Bluetooth keyboard. But that’s just subjective impressions — Real Engineers get Facts.

I’ve therefore run a one-woman experiment: What is the best way for me to get words out of my head and onto, well, some medium readable by someone else? When evaluating these results, please keep in mind:

  • I’ve had a typing course and lots of practice, but I’m no speed demon. In a formal typing test I run about 30-50 words per minute.
  • I spent decades Before Word Processors, writing important correspondence longhand either for transcription by a secretary or as a direct communication.
  • These tests were conducted as free-writing: I was “keeping the pen moving” (or keyboard or whatever) — not pausing to think about what I was writing, but also not working from a copy. My intention was to determine the upper speed limit of getting thoughts, however disorganized, from my brain into an externally legible form. Actual writing of a story will go slower than this, as I pause to actually think about what I want to write.
  • Test conditions: For each method, I set a timer for 25 minutes, about as long as I can stand to write in an uninterrupted block. Results displayed are average words per minute. I correct spelling and punctuation as I go from long habit; therefore, speeds reported for handwriting recognition and speech recognition are net of error correction afterwards.
  • YMMV — depending on your handwriting, your typing speed, and your ability to enunciate clearly, you may get different results.

THE RESULTS:

Longhand
15.5 WPM
Shorthand
19.4 WPM
Handwriting Recognition (WritePad 3rd party keyboard in Index Card app)
9.1 WPM
Handwriting Recognition (Smart Notes app by MyScript)
Abandoned after correcting for 6 minutes with much less than half the writing corrected.
Dictation (iOS Speech Recognition in Index Card app)
18.7 WPM
Typing (Bluetooth keyboard in Index Card app)
27.4 WPM
Typing (onscreen iOS keyboard in Index Card app)
16.5 WPM

CONCLUSIONS:
As you can see, handwriting recognition stinks as long-form input for me. It can never be faster than my longhand speed, and in fact typing on a keyboard, typing on-screen, and (surprise!) dictation are much more efficient; typing on a keyboard more so than even training a human to read my home-grown shorthand and paying said human to transcribe it.

Despite my love for it, I would be wise to limit my use of handwriting recognition to short texts or emails. If for some reason I want to write and don’t have my Bluetooth keyboard with me, I should either dictate or type on the screen.

And yet, and yet — I still love handwriting recognition.

DEFINITIONS:

Longhand
Actual English cursive writing, good enough to be puzzled through by another human.
Shorthand
Not real Gregg shorthand, but the abbreviated cursive by which I take notes in meetings or classes. I can read it, if I remember what I was writing about (this is why block letter titles and scrawled illustrations exist in my actual notes.) No one else can (which is why I got Ds on handed-in notes.)
Typing
On an iPad, either via Bluetooth keyboard or by the built-in onscreen keyboard.
Dictation
Speech recognition on an iPad, using the Apple built-in dictation capability.
Handwriting Recognition
By one of the two handwriting recognition apps on the iPad which I own. I use my cursive longhand for this.