SpeechWare TravelMike Review: If You Thought 100% Accuracy Was Impossible, Think Again

It’s one thing to sit at a comfortable desk with a powerful computer, dictating away into a desktop microphone or wired USB headset that provides terrific accuracy in that environment. Most of us, however, don’t have the luxury of low background noise and a big, comfortable chair in front of a huge monitor all the time. In fact, sales of portable computers have outstripped desktops for many years now (you only have to look at Apple’s neglect of the Mac Pro and Mac mini lines to see where their priorities lie).

Getting the same level of accuracy I achieve at my desk has been an issue for a while for me – I don’t want to take my highly accurate desktop microphone on the road with me, so I’m often lumbered with a slightly less ideal headset (and, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a fan of wearing a microphone if I can help it). When Belgian company SpeechWare sent me their Standard USB TravelMike to take a look at, I approached it with an unhealthy level of geeky excitement. This is an external USB soundcard designed specifically for speech recognition – in fact, to merely call it a soundcard is something of an insult. As I quickly found, it’s far more than that.

It shares many of the same technologies as the USB TableMike that I recently reviewed and loved – and that’s a good thing. Things like Auto Gain Control, Auto EQ and a proprietary “de-clicking” algorithm that removes lip smacks and clinking coffee cups are all welcome here – but this microphone is truly unique in that it is genuinely portable. The company provides a carry case that houses the entire setup. This includes the USB “MultiAdapter” itself (with 3.5 mm headphone and microphone inputs), a couple of extension and right-angled connectors for optional use, a windscreen and, intriguingly, a 3.5 mm cardioid pivot microphone.

In keeping with SpeechWare’s other products, the design is all unashamedly functional and to the point, underscoring the versatility and flexibility of what you are buying. If you are one of the sensible people with a standard USB connector on your laptop or MacBook, congratulations – you can just plug the MultiAdapter into your computer and get to work. There are no drivers to install, just a few tweaks recommended by the company in their instruction guide to get things up and running perfectly.

I, on the other hand, have decided to live on the bleeding edge (a.k.a. foolishly own a new MacBook Pro with no legacy ports) and required a USB-C to USB-A adapter – a $3 one from Amazon worked just fine, even if the appendage sticking out of my computer is a little inelegant, to say the least.

Welcome to USB-C hell. Thanks, Apple.

To initially train the TravelMike, I performed a single dictation session of just under 2000 words on a brand-new profile dedicated to this device (this was using Dragon Professional Individual 6.0.7 for Mac – the results should be the same in Dragon Professional Individual 15 for Windows as both share the same recognition engine). Once this initial training was over (around 30 minutes), I dictated four sessions of new, unrehearsed text totalling around 3000 words. With such little “breaking-in” and the distance from the pivot microphone fluctuating between 15 and 20 inches each time, the results were astounding.

TEST 1: 100% accurate (!)
TEST 2: 98.7% accurate
TEST 3: 98.7% accurate
TEST 4: 99.7% accurate
AVERAGE: 99.3% accurate

Once I had got over my initial shock of achieving 100% accuracy at the first go, I came back down to earth with the next two sessions – although accuracy was still incredibly high, I had maybe got a little bit sloppy with the distance from the TravelMike. After making corrections and saving the profile, I exited Dragon for the final test. This time, I wanted to reopen the program with a reload of the updated profile and, astonishingly, the accuracy almost hit 100% again, tripping up on just one phrase. With an average 99.3% accuracy over the four sessions, the recognition wasn’t just stellar – it was also remarkably consistent.

Retailing at around $259, this isn’t a cheap piece of kit. Like SpeechWare’s other products, you are paying a premium for something designed specifically for maximum accuracy in Dragon (and, at an even deeper level, using the “Far Field” algorithms in the latest versions of the software). But here’s the thing – I have never been truly satisfied with a mobile microphone in the past. I’ve tried all sorts of miniature USB solutions with varying levels of success but nothing that has ever been at the level of my desktop setup.

This changes all of that. For a truly portable solution, SpeechWare have managed to produce something that not only matches but exceeds the accuracy of a huge number of far bulkier microphones out there. You can even plug a headset into it if you wish (and they have a solution for that too, which I’ll be reviewing shortly). To consistently hit near-100% accuracy from any device is remarkable, especially with such little training. To be able to do it anywhere you can take your laptop with a device that fits into your pocket is, for me at least, a dream come true.

The Speechware USB TravelMike is, by some distance, the most accurate portable dictation solution I’ve ever used. Now if only Apple would bring back proper USB ports. I guess you can’t have everything.

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(Thanks to Speechware for sending me this product for an honest review. I do not receive any monetary compensation from the company and the links above are not affiliate links. I’ll be looking at their FlexyMike DEC very soon.)

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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Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium 13 currently $39.99 at Amazon – Is This the Lowest Price It’s Ever Been?

Dragon-13-Amazon-offer

I don’t normally post details of special offers as Dragon is frequently discounted anyway and as soon as I’ve written about it, the prices may have changed. But for anyone who hasn’t taken the plunge with dictation yet or is seriously considering upgrading from an older version of Dragon (12.5 or lower), this is an offer that simply cannot be ignored.

Thanks to a user on the excellent Dragon Riders Facebook group who uncovered this, Amazon.com is currently offering Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium 13 for just $39.99 in a bundle with McAfee software (which you can choose not to install, if you wish). This is almost $50 less than Amazon is currently selling the stand-alone version of Dragon 13 for and is over a staggering $200 less than Dragon Professional Individual 15.

This could be ideal for someone who wants an extra copy of Dragon for additional PCs (don’t forget you can install it on two machines as long as you are only using it on one at a time) or for Mac users thinking of dipping their toes into the waters of using Dragon under a virtual machine.

In other news, I’ll be reviewing some speech recognition-specific microphones kindly sent to me by Speechware over the coming weeks which I’m really excited about. Stay tuned.

(Note: The Amazon link above is an affiliate link. You don’t need to use it, of course, but if you do I will receive a small commission for which I’m really grateful.)

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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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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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