Walt Mossberg

Take a Note: Typing With No Hands

I am writing this paragraph on an iPhone. But I am not typing it on the phone’s virtual keyboard. I am dictating it using a little-known feature that allows you to employ your voice instead of your fingers, wherever text entry is possible on the device.

And now, for this paragraph, I have switched to an Android phone. Once again, I am composing these words using only my voice, and not typing them on the virtual keyboard.

Those two paragraphs, dictated as emails and then cut and pasted into this column on a computer, required far fewer corrections than you might think, given the bad reputation for accuracy that voice input on digital devices has acquired. I only had to add a comma I’d forgotten to specify in the first paragraph and capitalize the word “Android” in the second paragraph.

For me, a daily user of virtual keyboards, the process was quicker and more accurate than typing would likely have been, even for the relatively short blocks of text typically composed on phones.

So, on the suspicion that dictation on smartphones might prove useful for others as well, I’ve been testing it heavily over the past week. I used a top phone with Google’s Android software, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, and an Apple iPhone 4S. In general, I found that, while dictation could occasionally fail badly, it worked surprisingly well in a wide variety of environments and applications.

On both leading smartphone platforms, I found that relatively short dictation—such as emails, texts, tweets, Facebook posts and notes—was at least as accurate, and often more, as typing on a glass screen. It was better in quiet environments, but did OK even in most noisy places like grocery stores, coffee shops and carwashes. It was also faster, since, as long as you don’t have to correct numerous errors, speaking is usually faster than typing on glass.

For this review, I am not mainly referring to Siri, the widely publicized, voice-controlled feature on the new iPhones, which can do things like tell you the weather, or stock prices. Nor am I discussing the “voice actions” on Android, which can perform Web searches and other tasks. Both can also help with some text dictation. I concentrated on a much simpler feature of both platforms: a small microphone key that’s included right in the phones’ on-screen keyboards.

PTECHjump1-alt

Apple’s dictation system did better at capitalizing proper names.

Android phones have had this microphone key for a couple of years, and Apple added it to the latest iPhone, the 4S, last fall, and to the new iPad, when it came out last month. But I’m guessing that many users of these phones either haven’t used this special key, or haven’t even noticed it.

While the microphone keys work a bit differently on the two platforms, they are basically similar. When the keyboard appears, ready for you to type, you can instead hit the microphone key and simply dictate what you want to say. The phones then send your spoken words to a remote server, which rapidly translates them into text and sends them back to the phone’s screen. If corrections are needed, you make them by typing, though both platforms make this easier by indicating the likeliest errors, and suggesting alternatives.

A couple of caveats are in order. I didn’t compare dictation to typing on a phone with physical keys, whose devotees are often speedy and accurate. Instead, I thought the apt comparison was with a virtual keyboard, which is becoming the norm on phones, but is still a source of frustration for many users.

PTECHjump1

But Android was more reliable.

I also didn’t try dictating a long document, like this column, because phones are rarely used for lengthy composing.

I found that both platforms’ dictation systems worked well enough for me to recommend them. In case after case, both phones got it right, or close enough to require little correcting.

But there are differences. Android has an advantage in that, in the newest version of its operating system, it displays the dictated text almost in real time, lagging just slightly behind your spoken words. On the iPhone, the system only reveals its rendering of your dictation after you’ve tapped on a “Done” button.

Android’s dictation system also supports many more languages than Apple’s—40 languages and dialects, including Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Hebrew. On the iPhone, only English, French and German are currently supported, though Apple says Chinese, Korean, Italian, and Spanish will be added later this year.

However, I found the iPhone 4S worked better than the Galaxy Nexus in noisier environments. For instance, in a crowded shopping-mall food court, while neither phone was perfect, the iPhone understood me to say: “I am dictating this email from the very noisy Court at Montgomery Mall on the iPhone”—missing only the word “food” and capitalizing “Court.” The Android phone mangled a very similar sentence as: “I am dictating this email on droid phone from the bearing noise for it montgomery mall.”

Google notes that, unlike Apple, it supports many phones, and that the results might have differed on another model, with better noise cancellation. Apple says the iPhone 4S does have noise cancellation. And, in any case, the two phones’ results were more comparable in quieter settings.

Apple’s system also did better at capitalizing proper names, like Stradivarius, or Red Sox, or even Google (which my Android phone, ironically, always rendered in lowercase). But Google says it will be updating its dictation feature in weeks to better handle proper names.

On the other hand, I found that, when Android did err, it had a more extensive and easier to use manner for correcting those mistakes than the iPhone did. Android was also more reliable; sometimes the iPhone returned no text at all.

Still, I found these differences less important than the fact that, for me, the results on both platforms were impressive. On both, if you say words like “period” or “comma,” you generally get the punctuation mark (though both try to make the distinction when you actually want a word like “period.”)

And, in test after test, both did a good job. Errors were generally fewer than if I had typed the words quickly.

Both have a downside: Because they do the transcription on their servers, and they are anxious to improve, they do retain some information about what you’re saying. Both companies say they respect your privacy, but, if you worry about transmitting your messages or notes to Apple or Google, don’t use dictation.

Otherwise, especially for those who find typing on glass clumsy, the microphone key on Android and the new iPhone is something you might want to add to your arsenal of ways to use your phone.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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