Dragon User on a Mac? It May Finally Be Time to Buy a PC

To say 2020 has been unpredictable is an understatement. One thing we all knew, however, was that Apple was planning to replace Intel chips in all Macs over the course of a two-year period. They announced this back in June and confidently claimed the first Apple Silicon machines would arrive before year end. Well, that day has come: new MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac mini models have landed sporting the new M1 chip.

While this could represent a huge leap forward for the Mac platform, it’s significantly problematic for any Mac users of Dragon dictation software.

As we all know, Nuance discontinued Dragon for the Mac platform back in 2018. Most people have been getting by with using their old copy or had made the leap to running the Windows version via a Parallels virtual machine (VM) or similar. With these new chips, both of these options may have hit a brick wall.

That’s because Apple’s M1 chip is based on ARM architecture, similar to the processors you will find in your iPhone or iPad. This is hugely beneficial for Apple – they get to take all of their chip manufacturing in-house, not relying on Intel or anyone else for supply or making progressive leaps forward in speed or efficiency. For years, razor-thin Apple devices have been hampered by Intel’s hot, power-hungry chips. With M1 (and future chip designs), that all changes. Apple can now make strides in both speed and battery life.

There’s a catch, though. The new ARM chips are not compatible with the x86 instruction set found in Intel processors. That means they can’t run your old Mac software unless it is “emulated”, something Apple states their new Big Sur operating system can do via their Rosetta 2 conversion trickery. Most of the Mac programs you use on an Intel device will continue to work just fine, they say, on an M1 chip until newer, fully optimised versions arrive.

This almost certainly won’t be the case for Dragon, though. The last version, Dragon Professional Individual for Mac 6.0.8, is now over two years old and is only officially compatible with High Sierra (although plenty of people still have it working just fine on more recent versions of macOS). Whether this can be successfully emulated to run on the new Apple Silicon, however, is a lottery. Dragon needs to get its hooks into your operating system in order to function properly; if the conversion doesn’t work, there won’t be a fix coming. (UPDATE: see bottom of this post – 6.0.8 does not work on M1 Macs.)

More alarming, though, is the inability to run a Windows virtual machine via Parallels Desktop or similar. Both Windows and the PC version of Dragon are based on x86 chip architecture. There is no conceivable way that a Mac M1 chip can run an x86 Windows VM. Parallels have stated that they are working on a new version of the software for the M1, but that will only run ARM-based operating systems.

This leaves Mac users with two options:

  1. Stay on Intel. Either stick with the machine you have or purchase an existing Intel-based Mac. There should be support for a good while yet but be aware the value of your machine is likely to drop off a cliff in the next few years (once Apple has migrated all its Macs to their own chips).
  2. Buy a PC. You may not want to switch your computing platform of choice entirely, but a good option could be a separate PC simply for running Dragon. iCloud sync is available for Windows (as well as Dropbox, OneDrive and Google Drive), so synchronising between platforms shouldn’t be a problem.

There is a possibility that Dragon for Windows could return to the Mac via emulation. Back when Mac computers used PowerPC chips, a program called Virtual PC existed that allowed users to run Windows operating systems and programs on their non-Intel machines. The downside? Emulation is much, much slower than virtualisation. If the ability to run an x86 operating system returns via this route, be prepared for a horrendous performance hit (and probable incompatibility with external devices such as microphones). In other words, it’s a solution – but not much of one.

In short, what this means is the ability to run the Windows version of Dragon is over for Mac users on an Apple Silicon device. Things will continue as normal if you are on an Intel Mac, but be under no illusion – Apple is transitioning their entire Mac product line to their own chips, so even this solution is time-limited. With so many Intel Macs out there, it’s conceivable you won’t have to worry about this for many years – but if you are thinking of buying one of the new machines, be aware of what you are getting into.

Apple Silicon is the future of the Mac, but it could also be the end of Dragon on the platform completely.

UPDATE 20th Nov 2020: A user at the Dragon Riders group on Facebook has confirmed that Dragon 6.0.8 does not work on Apple Silicon, resulting in a Rosetta 2 error.