Dictation for the Rest of Us — Built by Apple, Not the Government

I composed this column using what might as well be a new computer.

It really isn't new at all. In fact, it's only a few months away from the expiration of its extended warranty. Incredibly, a $20 system upgrade has transformed it into a heretofore unimaginable powerhouse.

It's likely that most readers here don't know that I have been a big fan of Apple's Macintosh for 27 years, going back to before the things even had hard drives. Back then, Arthur Young, where I worked, was the only one of the then-Big Eight CPA firms using Macs for anything meaningful (it might have had -- cough-cough -- something to do with the fact that Apple was a client). Those who have known me for a long time certainly remember that many years ago I was often a pain in the rear end about how technologically superior Macs were at the time (because they were).

My preference for Macs is by no means the same thing as saying that I'm a big fan of Apple itself, or even a blinders-on acolyte of its late founder Steve Jobs. As a company, it seems that Apple has been too quick to claim full credit for things others largely developed, and far too eager to legally harass and intimidate critics and "leakers." Al Gore's continued presence on the company's Board of Directors is more than a little disturbing. As much as one can't help but be impressed to the point of awe with the development, marketing, and commercial success of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, I've never been crazy about and don't own any of them, and am among the few holdouts who believe that phones should primarily be for conversation.

Until Saturday, I had begun to think of my current Mac as a nice machine that does a serviceable but insufficiently swift job of helping me get things done -- quite a bit better than most Windows-based machines ever could, but not really cutting edge. Then I installed Mountain Lion.

Somehow, even on a clunky old MacBook like mine, virtually every task moves far more quickly than on any Mac I've ever owned, even brand new ones straight out of the box. That alone was easily worth twenty bucks and an hours-long download on a pretty fast Internet connection. (Confession: Part of my reaction to the speed improvement was the spoiled user's lament: "Where the heck have you guys been the past two years?" Users -- can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.)

The speed improvement is really nice. But, at the risk of being seen as applying for readmission to the cult, Mountain Lion's dictation program is truly transcendent and insanely great (there I go).

Using it is ridiculously simple. First, make a one-time selection to enable dictation in System Preferences. Then, with your cursor appropriately placed in a program or form's entry area, press the Function (fn) key twice. A small dictation icon pointing to where your text will begin when you start speaking appears. To interrupt dictation after speaking for a while to collect your thoughts, press the Function key once; what you've said thus far will appear. Press the Function key again when you're ready to resume. To end dictation, press the Function key twice or click "Done" in the dictation icon. That's all there is to it.

Compare that to what one must do to get dictation working (sort of) in Windows 7: Select speech recognition; set up microphone; take speech tutorial; and train your computer to better understand you.