Burney's Gadgets for Legal Pros - Reviews: Dragon Speaking Naturally 9 and Adobe Acrobat 8

By Brett Burney, Published on November 12, 2006
Brett Burney is the Legal Technology Support Coordinator at Thompson Hine in Cleveland, Ohio. He regularly reviews products for Law.com's Automated Lawyer and Law Office Computing Magazine. Feel free to e-mail Brett with your legal technology questions.

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Dragon Naturally Speaking 9

At least once a month, I get a question about voice-recognition software. Usually someone has read a recent story about software that will hear and understand everything you say and dutifully respond to your every wish. They imagine a computer that actually does exactly what they command, types every word that comes out of their mouth, and opens or closes applications when they ask. They imagine a Star Trek scenario where they walk into the office and their computer responds to the sound of their voice. They envision never having to peck out another brief on their tacky keyboard, but simply dictating it to their PC, and printing out a beautifully formatted document.

That reality is not quite upon us, but I can confidently recommend Dragon Naturally Speaking version 9 to anyone who asks me today about voice-recognition.

Just understand that it's more of a complement to a keyboard and mouse, and not a full replacement.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Voice recognition software has actually worked for several years. The most popular product has always been Dragon Naturally Speaking, now owned by Naunce, which used to be ScanSoft. And when I say that it worked, that was only for the very small percentage of folks that labored many hours to train and customize the software. I have witnessed so many failed attempts at using voice-recognition software only because the users did not set aside enough time to learn and train the software. It was always just so much easier to go back to typing.

For that reason alone, I rarely recommended voice-recognition software to any attorney or legal professional. What attorney do you know has the time and patience to painstakingly train the application for use in their daily computing lives? Granted, there are some attorneys I know who have mastered the skill of using voice-recognition on their computers, they are just rare indeed.

When Nuance released version 9 of Dragon Naturally Speaking, I saw enough good words about the application to give it a try, and I'm glad that I did. It still takes a lot of patience to truly incorporate the application into your normal routine, but the improvements in accuracy and intuitiveness bring voice-recognition to a new level of reality.

Training is for the Birds

The biggest improvement that Nuance is touting about Dragon version 9 speaks to my main point above - the application no longer requires training.

If you've tried using voice-recognition software in the past, you probably remember sitting through a 45 minute session where you read a prepared piece of text. Whatever magic was going on inside the computer helped it to recognize your speech patterns. Theoretically, this meant the computer could better understand you because it had analyzed your voice.

This was not always successful and usually resulted in many mistakes and deformed sentences. The software would almost always confuse "too" with "two" etc. and you would spend any time that you saved dictating your text correcting the whole document afterwards.

Dragon version 9 boasts that you don't even need to go through a training process, although it is still strongly recommended. I guess it was just habit for me, I clicked yes to go through the training and started reading. Surprisingly, the training session did not take as long as I thought it was going to, and the wizard was very helpful.

As soon as I was done with training, the "DragonBar" popped up at the top of my screen, awaiting my next command or dictation. This DragonBar allows you to access commands for the application, including turning off and on the microphone. Fortunately, almost every version of Dragon Naturally Speaking has included a headphone with a microphone attached, and version 9 is no different. I slapped on my headset, opened up Microsoft Word and started dictating a letter.

Listen to Me Now, and Hear Me Later

I was immediately extremely pleased with how accurate and efficient the software transcribed my words. As usual, there is a slight hesitancy between the words you speak and the appearance of the actual text on the screen while the computer "thinks" about what you said, but it was pleasurably fast.

And some of that "thinking" is where the application is most improved. Dragon Naturally Speaking doesn't simply record your voice word for word, it also analyzes the text before and after each word to see if it needs to put "where" or "wear."

I was also very pleased with how Dragon version 9 allowed me to correct mistakes. At the simplest level, I simply told Dragon to "select word" and then dictated the corrected word in its place. If I needed to spell another word, I could simply say "spell that" and a small drop-down box appeared, waiting for me to spell my word letter by letter.

Jumping around the document became easy after I studied the proper commands. "Go to end" jumps to the end of a document, and saying "page up" does just that. To save a document I could say "File … Save" because all of my toolbar commands were accessible.

Dragon version 9 makes surfing the Internet a lot more fun too. When you're viewing a Web page, you can simply say "link" and small, numbered flags pop up next to each active link on that page. To click to that link, you simply say the number of the flag and you're off.

Not Free Speech

All of this good stuff comes with a price - both mechanically and financially. Everything I've mentioned above is certainly impressive, but it takes a great toll on your computer system's resources. You'll need at least 1GB free on your hard drive, and I would recommend at least 1GB of RAM as well. The official data sheet from Nuance puts your minimum RAM requirement at 512MB, but I run 1GB myself and I see a significant slowdown when I'm using the product. The software is doing what it's supposed to do, it's just that it takes a lot of resources to do it well.

I also noticed that the software stored large temporary "dra" files along with the documents I dictated. Not a big deal, but they're big and cumbersome.

There are several versions of Dragon Naturally Speaking, including a Legal Edition. Least expensive is the Dragon Naturally Speaking Standard Edition which is $99, but unfortunately only supports a limited number of applications. The Preferred Edition does a little better for $199, but the big the Professional Edition does best of all. The Professional Edition supports Citrix Thin Clients, but most notably from my perspective is that it supports Microsoft Outlook. I'm constantly responding to and composing emails so I would need the Professional Edition - which is a hefty $899. The Legal Edition weighs in at $1,199.

I would not completely discount the software just on price alone, but that's still a lot of money. If you can master the software, however, it could literally save you the dollar amount you spend on it, and improve your all-around computer experience.

I don't use Dragon Naturally Speaking for everything on my computer. I have been most successful in using it as a "complement" to my normal routine. When my eyes are too bleary to type another email, I can put on my headphones, sit back in my chair, close my eyes and dictate the message instead. That way my eyes get a break, but the work still continues. Having the headphone on, knowing it's grabbing every word, also makes me think through my sentences better. So if I'm composing a letter, I'll pace back and forth with my headset on while my words get transcribed to the screen.

Adobe Acrobat 8

It feels like once I finally get used to the latest version of Acrobat, they release an upgrade and I find even more features that I like. The latest offering from Adobe is Acrobat 8 and there are a handful of major features that appeal directly to legal professionals.

First off is a built-in "real" redaction tool. In the past, people would draw a black box around text on a PDF document and feel smug that they just redacted the text underneath. Unfortunately, they were oblivious to the fact that the recipient of the PDF could simply select the black box and delete it, thus revealing the text underneath.

For a true redaction on a PDF document, you had to use third-party software such as Redax from Appligent. Not only would the software create a black box on the document, but it would scrub away the underlying text.

Now Adobe has included a true redaction tool right inside of Acrobat 8 and I am impressed at how well it works. You select the Redaction tool under the Advanced menu and then you can select the text or images that you want to be marked for redaction. The text is not scrubbed away until you select "Apply Redactions." Acrobat 8 warns you that this step cannot be undone, and then prompts you to save the file under a new name.

In addition, Acrobat 8 also asks if you want to search the PDF file for any other information that could be dangerous if released into the wild. Acrobat searches for things like metadata, form field logic, annotations, comments, hidden layers, and embedded search indexes; and allows you to remove all of that information with a click of the button.

The second big announcement for legal professionals with Acrobat 8 is a built-in Bates Numbering tool. Again, in the past, you had to rely on a third-party application to stamp pages of a PDF document with a consecutive Bates numbering scheme. But now Adobe provides a nice built-in tool for adding a Bates numbering scheme to a collection of PDF documents. It basically works from within the header and footer tools within Acrobat, but I was impressed with how easy it was to accomplish.

There are several other impressive improvements in Acrobat 8, but those are the two biggies for legal professionals. Overall, I felt that Adobe delivered a cleaner and more intuitive interface with Acrobat 8. I would always find myself hunting around for the right command in Acrobat 7, but Adobe's re-design of the toolbars in Acrobat 8 really makes a difference in getting right to where you need to be.