OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion [Review]

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OS X Mountain Lion is here, and it's even sleeker than Lion.
OS X Mountain Lion is here, and it's even sleeker than Lion.

Dictation

As you can see, Dictation in Mountain Lion isn’t exactly flawless.

There are understandably a lot of people who are disappointed that Siri — Apple’s iconic virtual helper for iOS — hasn’t taken Mountain Lion as an opportunity to make her debutante debut on the Mac. Instead, like the iPad, we have to settle for Dictation.

By default in Mountain Lion, Dictation works in any text entry field and can be triggered by hitting the Function key twice. This shortcut can be changed under the “Speech and Dictation” panel in System Preferences to one of four preset shortcuts; curiously, it defaults to pressing the Function key twice even if your Mac keyboard doesn’t have a Function key, which can be confusing at first. You can also trigger Dictation by selecting it under the “Edit” dropdown in a document’s menu bar.

However you go about it, once Dictation starts,  a bubble containing an oscillating purple microphone will appear on screen, cueing you to speak. After you’re done dictating, you can hit the Function key again or click “Done” to shoot the waveform of your voice off to Apple’s servers for processing. In the matter of a second — usually instantaneously — Cupertino will crunch the recording of your voice and transcribe it into text.

In our testing, Dictation works about as well as it does on the iPhone or iPad in ideal conditions.

In our testing, Dictation works about as well as it does on the iPhone or iPad in ideal conditions. Using our 2012 MacBook Air in a quiet room, we got about the same success rate on sample phrases as we did on our iPhone or iPad.

So it works, which is no surprise: Dictation’s probably the most solid aspect of Siri right now, which is why Apple is comfortable shipping it even on devices it doesn’t think are “ready” for Siri proper. Unfortunately, under less-than-ideal conditions, Dictation seems to work more poorly than it does on iOS devices.

The problem seems to be one of distance and background noise. As we said, we got great Dictation results on a 2012 MacBook Air… but that machine is one that we were using from less than two feet away and is virtually silent thanks to its solid-state drive. The same test phrase parsed by a 2009 iMac about three feet away with spinning fans and physical hard drive gave us poorer results. Likewise, because you hold a Mac further away from your mouth than an iPhone or even an iPad, Dictation on the Mac seems more prone to errors based upon background noise than it does under iOS. That’s understandable, but it’s still a practicality to consider.

Ultimately, Dictation seems more dispensable on a Mac than it is on an iPhone or iPad. Every Mac has a a physical keyboard, and for most people, that’s going to trump dictation for speed, accuracy and convenience. On an iPhone or iPad, though, Dictation’s usually a speedier way to get your thoughts across than using the on-screen keyboard. If you’re comfortable typing, Dictation is likely a feature you’ll try a few times and then forget about until you accidentally hit the shortcut twice.

Dictation’s control panel in System Preferences allows you to change the shortcut.

 

We’re still glad to have it though. Quibbles aside, Dictation’s a lovely addition to Mountain Lion, and it’s well integrated into the core of the system. Even if you don’t use it, Dictation really is a killer accessibility feature. The physically and visually impaired will love Mountain Lion Dictation, as will those who never quite got comfortable with typing. Starting with OS X 10.7, Apple has been making a concerted effort to make the Mac more accessible to the kinds of customers who embraced the iPad even if they had never really liked using a computer before; Dictation is another lovely refinement that is helping make OS X the most user friendly PC operating system around.

Dictation really is a killer accessibility feature, and another lovely refinement that is helping make OS X the most user friendly PC operating system around.

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