Everything You Need to Know about Dictation in OS X Mavericks

iOS is the favored child at Apple these days. Most new features in Mavericks — and, indeed, in OS X Lion before — were features that came first on iOS, and even the Darwin Kernel version in iOS is always one version ahead of its OS X counterpart. The Mac still doesn’t have Siri, the iPhone’s iconic chatty assistant, but it does have a leg up on iOS in one Siri-like feature: Dictation.

Dictation has its roots in Mac OS Classic’s PlainTalk Speakable Items introduced in the days of System 7 in 1993. That core is the tried-and-true VoiceOver and Voice Commands in OS X, but it never was perfect for dictating text. Then iOS and Siri came along, and Apple brought iOS-style server-powered dictation to the Mac with Mountain Lion. It was far more accurate, but far more limited, and required you to be online for dictation to work.

In Mavericks, Dictation on the Mac has once again pulled ahead of its iOS counterpart, with continuous, offline dictation that works as good or better than the version in Mountain Lion. And there’s still the voice commands, now in a reworked settings pane, that together make the Mac the most accessible computer out-of-the-box.

Superpowered Dictation

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If you’ve already used Dictation in Mountain Lion, you already know how to use it in Mavericks. Essentially, you click anywhere you want to type, tap the fn key on your keyboard twice, and start speaking. Then, if you’re using Mountain Lion dictation, you’ll tap Return, wait a second, and then your text will appear.

That second step is gone now in Mavericks. Instead, you’ll want to head to your Dictation preferences and click “Use Enhanced Dictation”. A nearly 800Mb download later, and your Mac will have the power of Siri-style dictation ready for you to use offline anytime. Tap fn twice as before, and there’s a new Dictation cursor that’ll type out what you’re saying seconds after you say it. And you can keep talking, using voice commands like “new paragraph” and punctuation names to fill out your text and keep going. It’s not just typing individual sentences anymore — dictation can now easily help you type a whole paragraph or paper.

Wait: it doesn't recognize "iWork", but it does get everything else.

Wait: it doesn’t recognize “iWork”, but it does get everything else. Also, talking to a Mac still feels weird.

The dictation quality is very good, at least in American English in my tests. You’ll also find support for other variants of English, along with Spanish, French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, all offline once you download the required dictation files. And, best of all, it works great with live editing — you can use your keyboard or mouse to jump to another part of your text to start writing there, or fix a typo and then go back to the end and start talking again. It simply works great.

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The original VoiceOver and Voice Command controls are still in Mavericks, thankfully, in a redesigned settings pane that makes it easy to setup any accessibility options you need. Unfortunately, though, Voice Commands seem to still be using the original voice recognition engine, not the new Dictation engine, which is sad. Hopefully next time around, we’ll see Dictation and Voice Commands merged — perhaps with a dab of Siri’s smarts — for a brilliantly accessible Mac that everyone would want to use voice to control.

Conclusion

Dictation in Mountain Lion was more of a novelty, a neat iOS-style feature to show off on your Mac. But it wasn’t terribly useful since you could typically throw only a sentence or two at it, then wait for it to digest that, and try again. In Mavericks, though, dictation is something everyone should try. It feels strange talking to a computer, sure, but it sure might save your fingers some frustrated typing.


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