A Survey of Voice-to-Text Options on the Mac, iPad, and iPhone

A lot of folks have been asking me what I'm doing about voice-to-text dictation now that Nuance has officially pulled out of the Mac and appears to have relatively abandoned iOS. If this is news to you, Nuance, the makers of Dragon Professional Individual for Mac, speech-to-text software, announced back in October that they would no longer support the Mac. It was disappointing news. Nuance has always been the leader in voice-to-speech dictation, and I have been a customer of theirs for years on both the Windows PC and Mac platforms. 

If you already bought Dragon for Mac, you will find that it still works. I have no idea how long that will continue. If I had to bet a nickel, I would bet installation of macOS Catalina as the day that Dragon dies on my Mac. But at least for now, you still have working software.

Over on the iPad and iPhone, the story gets even weirder. Nuance says they are still supporting those platforms. Their product Dragon Anywhere is, in my opinion, the best dictation solution on the iPhone and iPad. For years I gladly paid $14.99 a month to have that service because it was so useful on the iPad. Specifically, I had a workflow where I would look at a PDF and then dictate comments about it at the same time using the Dragon Anywhere software. It worked great, particularly with split screen.

That all came to a screeching halt when Dragon Anywhere just stopped working on my iPad Pro. The software went from being the best in class to complete garbage. It would drop entire sentences and generally not work. I looked into this a bit further and discovered that the problem is with the iPad Pro, where I did all of my mobile dictation with Dragon Anywhere. (I find Siri dictation just fine for short emails and text messages. Dragon Anywhere is what I need for the big jobs, which all occur on the iPad.)

For whatever reason, however, Dragon Anywhere no longer works on the iPad Pro. This is a known issue and has been for months. Dragon Anywhere is getting destroyed in the reviews in the App Store because of this failure and has, at least to my knowledge, not made any public comment or commitment to getting its software working on iPad Pro. Dragon Anywhere does, however, work on the iPad mini and iPhone just fine. Like I said, weird.

If Nuance has abandoned the Mac and seems only very slightly interested in the iPad and iPhone, what are we to do? The answer is … complicated. 

Solving This Problem on the Macintosh

There is no clear successor to Dragon Professional Individual for Mac. Siri dictation has made great strides recently, but it still has a long ways to go. Two critical elements for any voice-to-text dictation system are the ability to keep an open mic and the ability to store custom dictionary values. If I have a client with a unique name, I should be able to teach that name to the software so I can dictate it without having to go back later and fix it. If the software doesn't support that, I have to use some silly name, like "Tiger”, and then go back later to do a search and replace on that unique name. That's more work. I don't like more work.

Siri dictation on the Mac ticks off only one of these boxes. It can indeed leave an open mic, but it has no custom dictionary. Moreover, it just isn't as good as Dragon for the Mac. It's close. Indeed, it is much closer than it used to be. But if you are used to Dragon, you will notice a difference. I demonstrate this in the attached video.

Another solution would be to install a local instance of Windows and then run the Dragon for Windows on your Mac. Don't laugh. I have heard from many listeners and readers who have done this. Frankly, I don't blame them. If you spend a lot of time dictating to your Mac to get your work done, you need the best possible tool, and, as the attached videos demonstrate, Siri dictation just isn't there yet.

You could also hire it out. There are a lot of good solutions now with web-based dictation. Some use robots, like Temi, and others use humans, like GoTranscript. The robot-based systems are not, in my experience, any better than Siri dictation and often worse. The human-based services are deadly accurate and can be quite expensive, but depending on how you charge your time, it may be the best solution for you.

The point is that I'm just not happy with any of the alternatives to Dragon Professional Individual for Mac. I have been whistling past the graveyard for the past several months as Dragon continues to work on my Mac. One day in the future, probably September with the release of Catalina, that will end. At that point, I may seriously consider doing a Windows install just to have the Nuance software on my desktop. Another alternative I will seriously consider at that time, assuming Nuance hasn't completely abandon Dragon Anywhere, is to dictate on the iPad and iPhone. I find Dragon Anywhere almost (but not quite) as good as Dragon for Mac.

Solving This Problem on the iPad and iPhone

Apple has made continued strides with Siri dictation on the iPhone and iPad. I find it very useful. The trick is to be precise when you speak to it and not mumble your words. You also have to understand the limitations of the application. There is a timer. After about four sentences, it's going to end. If it ends midsentence, you are going to have a grammar crash on your hands and have to spend time fixing things later. You always have to be aware when you hit that third sentence and stop the dictation, and then start again. The Drafts application gets around this, sort of, but even it sometimes stumbles when the dictation timer resets during a dictation session.

If you are voice-to-text curious, Siri dictation on your iPad and iPhone is a great place to start. You can use it anywhere that you are using the keyboard. Just tap the microphone button and start talking.

If you want more serious dictation tools, like dictation without a timer and a custom dictionary, Dragon Anywhere is probably still best, provided that you are only using it on an iPhone or a non-iPad Pro. But it is hard for me to recommend this product at this point because it seems like the developer isn't entirely convinced it wants to continue to support it. Just like on the Mac, it is still working for me (sort of) and I'm still using it.

Also, just like the Mac, there are third-party services that can transcribe your voice via robot or human for a fee with varying degrees of success, but as I explained earlier, quality can get expensive.

A Murky Ending

The reason I have delayed publishing this article is that I kept thinking I would find the magic solution and, frankly, it doesn't exist. Everything I have discussed in this article requires some sort of compromise, whether it be money, quality, convenience (like installing Windows on your Mac), or all of the above.

Ultimately, the solution to this problem needs to come from Apple. Specifically, Siri dictation needs to be just as good as Dragon Professional Individual for Mac. It needs to support a custom dictionary, and it needs to be as reliable with its dictation engine. I understand this doesn't happen overnight. I also suspect Apple is spending quite a bit of money to try and bridge that gap.

Meanwhile, however, there is a gap. Switching to Siri dictation is not going to work as well as Dragon for Mac or Dragon Anywhere. So for the foreseeable future, the battle carries on.

I have made a video to go along with this article comparing Dragon Anywhere and Dragon for Mac with Siri dictation on both platforms. Watch the video to get a better idea and hear some more of my thoughts on the state of voice-to-text dictation.