SpeechWare TableMike 3 in 1 Review: The Most Accurate Desktop Microphone I Have Ever Used

Thanks to Speechware for sending me this microphone for an honest review – I’ll be looking at two more of their products very soon. Also, check out the video version of this review below:

Perfection. It’s the enemy of progress, right? I even make that claim in my book, believing that writers should be happy to achieve a usable first draft with Dragon software rather than worrying about whether every little phrase or area of characterisation is perfect. And yet, I find myself guilty of the same seemingly futile pursuit of perfection in one area: dictation accuracy.

I have used dozens of microphones over the years – wired and wireless, DECT and Bluetooth, desktop and headset, analogue and USB. Some have been very good, some atrocious but only a very few have been truly excellent, consistently delivering 98% accuracy or better. That figure becomes even trickier to achieve when it comes to desktop microphones, my favoured method of voice input. This is because, unlike a headset where the microphone capsule is consistently placed close to the corner of your mouth, we tend to turn our heads, sit back in our chairs and forget our positioning when it comes to these sorts of mics.

SpeechWare is a Belgian company with a formidable reputation in the speech recognition industry, although it’s a name many may not recognise. For those in the know, their microphones are consistently regarded among the very best available. When they reached out to me and asked me to review a few of their models, I was intrigued – are they really as good as I have been led to believe? Would I finally be able to achieve the nirvana of perfect (or near-perfect, as I’m a realist after all) accuracy?

The TableMike is an interesting product. The first thing that strikes you when you see the box is that this does not come from the Apple school of design minimalism. This isn’t necessarily a criticism; the design of the product mirrors its packaging – it’s unapologetically utilitarian, designed for ergonomics but also its desired function. The microphone is made up of a heavy base, a highly positionable gooseneck and a USB cable (SpeechWare insists you use the one they supply, which is a generous 2.4m/96” long). One benefit of this design is that the gooseneck is completely detachable, meaning it’s easy to take on your travels – unlike many other desktop microphones.

There are several variants of the TableMike (6 in 1 and 9 in 1 models have features such as the ability to use foot pedals to switch the mic on and off) but I’m reviewing the 3 in 1 model which most users are likely to be interested in. It costs a not-inexpensive $279 (£249), so this is a significant investment for anyone interested. But this is not merely a microphone; although it has the ability to be used for the likes of Skype and podcasting, a button on the base allows you to switch to a long-range mode. This is designed specifically for speech recognition and it’s at this point you realise what your money buys you.

If you own versions of Dragon 13 or 14 and have a North American accent, you can benefit from “Far Field” profiles which can significantly improve your accuracy at distance. In Dragon Professional Individual 15 and Dragon 6 for Mac, these algorithms are automatically included, regardless of your accent, and this is where the long-range mode built into the TableMike shines. There’s some clever processing going on inside that base, including a proprietary “de-clicking” filter that removes things like lip smacks, mouse clicks and keyboard sounds from ever reaching Dragon’s ears. Best of all, it enables you to lean back in your chair and relax your position a little when dictating at a desk, thanks to a handy Automatic Gain Control built in to the mic itself.

There is a very specific way of setting up this microphone, as I found out through experience. Like most middle-aged males, I didn’t bother reading the instructions and proceeded to set the TableMike up in the same way I would any other mic. I noticed straight away that my voice sounded very different from normal microphones through the “green light” long-range mode intended for dictation when I made a test recording in Audacity (the “blue light” mode is for normal use, like VoIP/Skype etc). After performing some initial training, my accuracy was very patchy and I immediately realised something was wrong.

Stumped, I downloaded the PDF manual and realised there is a set of instructions provided by SpeechWare to get this thing working properly. That included going against my normal practice of not using Dragon’s training texts; I used two of the more generic texts available and avoided the fiction ones (as I absolutely didn’t want to train Dragon with anything drastically different from my writing style). SpeechWare also instruct the user not to over-train the software, and I agree. After reading the two supplied texts, I dictated a number of passages of my own work totalling around 2000 words, trained a few phrases in the vocabulary and left it at that.

After saving my profile and restarting Dragon, my results were astonishing – 99.3% accuracy; that’s just two words wrong in roughly every 320. The total amount of training needed to achieve this was approximately two hours and, interestingly, it noticeably improved throughout the training process. That’s something that a lot of microphones struggle with; it’s often a battle to keep accuracy high and stop your profile degrading over time. With over a dozen sessions with the TableMike since that initial training, the accuracy has stayed consistent.

What’s even more interesting about this result is that I think it could be even higher if I had a North American accent. My voice is a strange mishmash of Welsh, Northern English and mangled pronunciation of certain words that I’m sure confuses Dragon on a consistent basis. So one unexpected upside of the TableMike’s accuracy is that it could even benefit those whose accents have resulted in inconsistent results in Dragon in the past.

I achieved these results using Dragon Professional Individual 6.0.7 for the Mac, a product that uses the new “Deep Learning” engine with Far Field algorithms. This is the same engine used in version 15 of the PC product, so the results should be consistent or even better given the greater ability to fine-tune corrections in the Windows software. But one unexpected upside of this microphone is it makes the Mac version far more useful and accurate. If you are using Premium 13, and have a North American accent, it will benefit you too (for everyone else using this version, you can switch to the “normal” setting on the TableMike).

Is this microphone for everyone? Of course not; if you are achieving, say, 98% accuracy already, you may not feel the need to make these marginal gains. That extra 1.3% comes at quite a cost. But the price is the price and the TableMike absolutely does what it says on the tin. If, like me, you make a living from dictation and view good equipment as an investment rather than a cost (and you can afford it, obviously) then spending almost $300 on a microphone may not be an issue especially when the software alone can cost this much.

But, for me at least, the SpeechWare TableMike achieves the near-perfection in accuracy that I crave (especially as I’m not a fan of wearing headsets). It’s the most consistently accurate desktop microphone I’ve ever used and, as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. When it comes to truly unleashing the potential of Dragon and simply churning out as many words with as little correction needed as possible, the TableMike is worth every penny.

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Talking the Talk: Dragon Dictation – Self Publishing Formula Podcast Interview with Mark Dawson and James Blatch

Want some more Dragon tips and a FREE cheatsheet? I’m interviewed on this week’s edition of the Self Publishing Formula Podcast with Mark Dawson and James Blatch – check it out below:

SPF-060: Talking the Talk – with Dragon Dictation expert Scott Baker

You can listen to this one, of course, or see my ugly mug in glorious technicolor via the wonders of video. Whichever method you choose, I hope you pick up some handy tips – oh, and be sure to download the FREE cheatsheet I’ve so lovingly prepared.

Big thanks to Mark and James!

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Dragon for Mac Goes from Zero to Hero – But Is It Too Late?

UPDATE Dec 16 2017: The information in this article is still valid. However, Dragon has now been updated to version 6.0.8 which also brings High Sierra compatibility. Things are still pretty stable although some quirks still remain.

Well, it took them long enough. After six updates to the current version of Dragon Professional Individual for Mac (including one that was subsequently pulled after it turned the program from a crashing, buggy mess into an even worse crashing, buggy mess), it appears Nuance may finally have delivered a stable version of the product.

The 6.0.6 update that was recently released appears to – shock, horror! – fix many of the terrible problems that have plagued this version of the software. Out of my many years of using Dragon both on the PC and Mac platforms, Dragon Professional Individual for Mac 6 has been the worst performing version of the software I have ever come across. I don’t say that lightly, by the way – the Mac version has never exactly been a bastion of well-written software. But this latest release has been nothing short of a disaster.

Something tells me that it wasn’t meant to be like this. This seemed to be the release where Nuance finally unified the branding across both versions of the software, bringing Dragon for the Mac in line with its more mature, feature rich Windows counterpart. Instead, we got a piece of software that promised much (including the new, improved “Deep Learning” speech engine) and instead delivered tear-your-hair-out frustration in spades. Even getting the thing to launch could be a challenge – keeping it stable long enough to deliver any form of accurate recognition was even more problematic.

A familiar sight for Mac users of Dragon Professional Individual 6.

It’s hard not to feel like Mac users have been paying to be beta testers since its release. That’s pretty unacceptable for any company, but I wonder whether the sheer level of instability in this version took even Nuance by surprise. That’s no excuse, of course; it should never have been released in the first place. The 6.0.6 update, however, belatedly seems to fix an awful lot of the problems that have plagued Mac users this time around.

The crashes, for the most part, seem to have stopped. The whole thing now feels relatively stable and dictation into Word, Pages and even Google Docs seems a lot smoother (I haven’t yet had a chance to test it in Scrivener, however). It still seems to have the odd problem with the famous “wandering cursor” though, so I still recommend dictating into TextEdit just to be safe and cut-and-paste into your word processor of choice.

While it’s undoubtedly good news for Mac users of Dragon, I have to wonder whether Nuance have done some irrepairable damage to their reputation. The Mac community has been a pretty patient bunch of customers over the years, putting up with a consistently flaky version of the product while Windows users enjoyed everything the Mac version should have been. This time, however, the backlash seems different. It seems like Mac users’ patience has run out and some of the comments in Nuance’s own forums and the Amazon review section have been nothing short of vitriolic.

Although version 6.0.6 is now usable, it doesn’t change the fact that people paid good money to put up with six months of sheer misery from a program that simply wasn’t fit for purpose. If that’s not enough, it’s Professional Individual in name only – the equivalent PC version (and even Naturally Speaking 13 Premium, which was released in 2014) is still significantly more feature rich and customisable. The transcription functionality, for example, is incomparable between the two (the Mac version still cannot make corrections to transcribed output, never mind learn from it).

What’s a Mac user to do? Buy a separate PC just for dictation? Go the Parallels route on their Mac? Or simply accept that the software isn’t as good but is at least finally stable? If you go for the latter choice, at least you’ll be able to significantly increase your word count without worrying whether the program is going to crash on you several times an hour any more.

For those who want to give Dragon 6 another try on their Mac (and I know of plenty of people who gave up, reverted to version 5 or switched to the Windows equivalent), I recommend following Graham Snook’s excellent post here which outlines the “nuclear option” of completely removing any trace of Dragon from your system before installing version 6. Once that’s done, head to the Dragon menu and download the 6.0.6 update, cross your fingers and hope for the best.

While it’s great news that Nuance has finally delivered the version of Dragon that people paid for in the first place, it’ll be interesting to see how quick Mac users are to cough up more hard-earned cash for the inevitable release of version 7. Maybe a free upgrade would be a valuable gesture in restoring some goodwill. That, at least, would demonstrate some acceptance on Nuance’s part that they got things very, very wrong this time around.

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Using Dictation to Supercharge Your Writing Output – The Author Biz Podcast Interview

I was lucky enough to be interviewed for this week’s edition of The Author Biz podcast with Stephen Campbell. Now here’s the interesting thing – Stephen is a bit of a sceptic when it comes to dictation but, by the end of the interview, he had rushed out to buy a copy of Dragon. We had a terrific chat and he became convinced of the benefits of dictation – and transcription in particular – as a result.

Training Your Dragon with Scott Baker Author Biz Podcast interview image

There are lots of great tips for beginners and newbies alike. Check it out – and thanks, Stephen!

“The Writer’s Guide to Training Your Dragon” Has Been Updated (also now an Audiobook!)

The Writer's Guide to Training Your Dragon

OUT NOW – Revised and updated to cover the latest Dragon Professional Individual v15 for PC & v6 for Mac

I’m pleased to announce that the latest, updated version of my book “The Writer’s Guide to Training Your Dragon” has been released in ebook and paperback and is available now! For the first time it’s also finally available as an audiobook!

Want the Audiobook for FREE? Simply click this link!

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(You will receive a FREE 30-day trial to Audible. Don’t want to keep it? Simply cancel your membership within 30 days with no further obligation.)

This latest edition contains a brand-new introduction covering the differences between the various versions of Dragon currently available, including the brand-new Professional Individual releases for PC (version 15) and Mac (version 6).

The latest versions are available at Amazon and all other stores right now:

Ebook:
Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk – iBooks – Barnes & Noble – Kobo – Google Play Books – Smashwords

Paperback:
Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk – Barnes & Noble

Audiobook:

Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukAudible USAudible UKiTunes
(Get it FREE!)

Thank you so much for all of your support and kind words regarding the book. I hope you’ve all got great accuracy from it and your words have been flowing accordingly.

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Should You Use a Mac or a PC for Dictating with Dragon?

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We are all grown-ups here, right?

Of course we are. The “platform war” thing has been done to death a million times with no clear victor. Some people love using a Mac, some people love using a Windows PC. That’s just how it is and how it always should be – after all, huge faceless corporations don’t care about any of us anyway, right? Why should we treat our choice of a computing platform as if it’s some kind of good or bad personality trait, anyway?

Things are a little different when it comes to using the best tool for the job, however. I’ve flipped and flopped between the Mac and Windows several times over the last 20 or so years. I’m old enough to remember when people hated Windows with a passion. I also remember when the Mac wasn’t so hot, either (I’m looking at you, OS 9). But that was a long time ago and both platforms now have excellent operating systems in the form of OS X (soon to be called macOS) and Windows 10.

But Dragon is a strange beast as, despite sharing the same brand name, the products are very different on the Mac and the PC. I highlight in some detail in “The Writer’s Guide to Training Your Dragon” how Dragon NaturallySpeaking for Windows is, in many ways, a far superior product to the product formerly known as Dragon Dictate (now simply called Dragon for Mac). I stand by that opinion still, despite currently dictating this blog post using Dragon for Mac 5.

I’m in the lucky position of being able to use both – if you have a Mac, after all, you can run the Windows version of the software in a virtual machine or via Boot Camp. If you have a PC, then you arguably already have the preferred version of the software. Really, the best option is to choose based on what computer you already own.

But Mac users do have a quandary and the last thing anyone should do is switch platforms based on one piece of software. After the last few years of being firmly entrenched in the PC camp (I tried to love you, Surface Pro, I really did), I am firmly a Mac user once again despite my reservations that Dragon is a compromised piece of software on the platform. But I simply prefer OS X and several pieces of software I use (mainly Final Cut Pro, Ulysses and the deep integration with their iOS devices) make it a better platform for me.

If you are in the market for a brand-new computer and, frankly, don’t mind whether you use a Mac or PC, then I would be inclined to steer you towards Windows if Dragon is going to be a major (if not the main) part of your workflow. If, on the other hand, you are set on owning a Mac, just know that Dragon for Mac will get the job done, despite the horror stories. For purely dictating into TextEdit, it works just fine and the recognition engine is exactly the same as the Windows version, so your accuracy shouldn’t suffer.

When it comes to tweaking and refining your profile over time, however, Dragon for Mac cannot compete and transcribing files, while convenient, is vastly superior in Dragon NaturallySpeaking as you can make corrections to the transcribed text once it has appeared on your screen. That, bizarrely, is something the Mac version simply cannot do and will result in a cap on your accuracy on the transcription side of things. You can always correct it later with the keyboard, of course, but that kind of defeats the purpose of speech recognition software that is supposed to improve over time, no?

Your other choice, of course, is to run Dragon NaturallySpeaking on your Mac using virtualisation software such as Parallels or VMware Fusion – both have modes which make it appear as if the program is running natively on your Mac desktop and Windows simply gets out of the way. This option, however, means slightly more expense – you will need a Mac capable of running Windows in a virtual machine (anything from the last three years will do, but 8 GB of RAM is probably a prerequisite and an SSD wouldn’t hurt either) and you will also have to buy a Windows license.

Neither option is right or wrong and both Mac or PC will get the job done, for the most part. But before you drop a lot of money on one or the other, think hard about both the platform you will be most comfortable with in the long run and whether you will be using Dragon purely to get words on a page or for more advanced dictation usage. If, for example, your mobility is impaired and you want to use Dragon to control your computer I can only truthfully recommend sticking with a PC and NaturallySpeaking.

There. I’ve said it. I, Scott Baker, hereby declare as a happy Mac user that the Windows fans have it best when it comes to dictation software. See? It’s not so hard to get along. After all, isn’t choice a wonderful thing?

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Should you pay for Dragon Anywhere?

 

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I love dictation. I love how quickly it enables me to write and, in turn, the time I save to do things other than working – like being with my family or bingeing on the latest series of “House of Cards”.

As wonderful as it is, though, I find it incredible that we are still tied to a desktop application to get the best results. Obviously, if you are dictating into your PC or Mac then Dragon has the ability to learn from its mistakes and build an increasingly accurate profile of your voice and writing style. The processing power required to do this (and to physically store the large file containing all your dictation data) is beyond the capacity of most mobile devices.

Until now.

A few weeks ago, I took delivery of a shiny new 12.9 inch iPad Pro. Once you get over the initial shock of a tablet that is literally bigger than your head, you are struck by the sheer power of this thing. The A9X processor Apple has put in this device (combined with 4 GB of RAM) is desktop class and, boy, can you feel it in use. Along with its recently released smaller version, this is a tablet that I have no doubt could comfortably run an iOS-optimised version of Dragon.

So why won’t Nuance make one?

Instead, they’ve given us Dragon Anywhere. On the surface, it’s great – super accurate, continuous dictation finally available on a mobile device. But just like the long neglected (but still perfectly usable) iOS Dragon Dictation app, all the recognition processing is done remotely. It’s the same as using Siri or Google Now – you speak, a server somewhere on the planet thinks about what you said and, a second or two later, the results are whizzed back to you. The big advantage of Dragon Anywhere is that unlike all of those examples, there’s no 30 or 60 second limit on your dictation – you can just keep talking, as you would in the desktop version.

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One big upside is you can run this on pretty much any mobile device that supports it – both iOS and Android. The downside? All of that power I talked about in a device like the new iPad Pro is going to waste. The sad reality is that desktop PC sales have been declining quarter on quarter for many, many years. While Microsoft certainly doesn’t need to worry about the state of Windows just yet, there’s no question that people are moving to Macs or even mobile devices to get things done.

I love the idea of one device that can just about do everything. I’m not a gamer or too heavily into video editing, so my mobile needs are simple – I want something lightweight with a great screen that is capable without needing liquid cooling. I have a Mac desktop (also running Windows under Parallels) for the heavy lifting back at my desk. I’ve owned several Microsoft Surface devices (including the latest Surface Pro 4) and every one of them has been riddled with hardware problems, software issues or both. As ideal a portable Dragon setup it seemed, I finally gave up in frustration on that avenue recently.

The iPad Pro would be an ideal Dragon device for me on the road – it’s easily powerful enough, has plenty of storage and the screen is gorgeous. But Dragon Anywhere doesn’t take advantage of it and I think the reason for that is simple – money.

Dragon Anywhere is expensive. Really expensive. It uses the subscription model (something I have a sneaky feeling Nuance may shift to in the future for the desktop product, as well) and costs an eye-watering $15 per month or $150 per year. For a mobile app that doesn’t even interact with the desktop product (despite what Nuance claim, the synchronisation is minimal), the pricing is absurd. And this ties in to the reason why Nuance will probably never make a desktop-rivalling mobile version of the program that doesn’t rely on an Internet connection – they can’t sell it for enough.

Mobile apps are cheap. Could you see Nuance developing and selling a version of Dragon for iOS and Android that cost, say, $10? Not a chance. Not even $20 or $30 would cut it, and that would be considered expensive in the average app store.

So $15 per month it is, then. Is it worth it? It depends on how desperately you want to use Dragon on the move, but I struggle to see the value. Dragon Anywhere needs a constant Internet connection to work and, disappointingly, is little more than a dictation notepad. You can’t simply talk directly into, say, your mail app or the mobile versions of Word or Pages. Everything you say is translated within Dragon Anywhere and must be copied and pasted from there – and, of course, if the app crashes, it will take your dictation with it.

It’s also accurate, but only to a point. There’s no profile being saved, so the only thing it remembers (and syncs, if you have DNS Professional or Dragon for Mac 5) is your custom vocabulary. There’s no training of your voice or writing style going on. None.

So, it seems, the best way to dictate on the move is still to use transcription. That means having the full version of Dragon installed on a Mac or PC somewhere, but until Nuance rethink their mobile strategy, it’s probably still your best way of writing while you’re away from your desk.

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