Mobile Computing: Use a PDA as a Voice Recorder?

Feature: Using a Pocket PC as a Voice Recorder

Being bored once in a meeting is bad enough. Being bored twice--by the same meeting--is downright excruciating.

Yet that's what happens when, after sitting through a tedious confab, you then must listen to a recording of the snoozefest to ensure you wrote down all the key details. Why, oh why, can't you just record the meeting with a digital gadget, later connect said gadget to your computer, and then let the computer transcribe the recording while you go to a movie?

That's the question, more or less, many of you have asked me in the year since I wrote two columns about digital voice recorders: "Digital Voice Recorders" and "More on Voice Recorders." This week, having asked my computer to transcribe a digital voice recording of a meeting, I'll answer that question.

Don't Take a Meeting

Based on my experience, asking your PC to accurately transcribe a recording of a meeting is like asking Beyonce to sing like Pavarotti.

In my informal tests, I recorded a meeting with my business partner Nick. Separately, I recorded several memos on my own. I made the recordings on a Dell Axim X50v Pocket PC.

FYI: Most Pocket PCs, and some Palm OS devices, include built-in microphones and voice recording software. (You're less likely to find these features on a PDA/phone combination device, like the PalmOne Treo 650.) With a PDA, you can easily record ideas or memos while driving, walking, or doing anything else that makes writing notes improbable or unsafe. It's a cool and often underused PDA feature.

For my test recordings, I used ScanSoft's Pocket PC recording utility, which is included in the company's Dragon Naturally Speaking 8 speech recognition software. Dragon Naturally Speaking is the leading PC speech recognition software; I've used it for years and recommend it. For more information, read our review, "First Look: Voice Rec Gets Better"; you can also go to ScanSoft's Web site.

After syncing the PDA with my Windows notebook, I launched Dragon Naturally Speaking and transcribed the recordings. As I expected, the software transcribed only about 25 percent of the meeting accurately. My memos, however, were transcribed into text with an accuracy rate of at least 90 percent--and sometimes even higher.

It's Not You--It's Them

Unless you're Sally Field's character in Sybil, there are other people besides yourself in the meetings you attend. And that's a problem for speech recognition software.

For accuracy's sake, you must train the software to understand your particular way of speaking. Without that training, the software can only guess at what's being said. And when it must guess, speech recognition software--even such top-notch programs as Dragon Naturally Speaking--often gets it wrong. For example, when you say "eat," untrained software may transcribe it as "feet." All your "ands" come out as "ins," your "therefores" become "where fors," and every "but" becomes "bit." Pretty soon, you've got a lot of gibberish.

As a result, to accurately transcribe what was said in a meeting, the speech recognition software would have to be trained in advance by each attendee. Logistically, that's just not probable.

The Good News

Nonetheless, a portable digital voice recorder that's compatible with a speech recognition program still offers advantages to mobile professionals.

For instance, Dragon Naturally Speaking begins to recognize your speech after about 10 minutes of training. The more you use the software, the more it understands you, and that increases recognition accuracy.

Best of all, Dragon Naturally Speaking is compatible with a number of portable digital recording devices. In addition to working with Pocket PCs, the PC software can transcribe recordings made on most Olympus and Sony digital recorders and a few Panasonic models.

ScanSoft offers a list of compatible devices online. The list isn't up to date, however. For instance, the only compatible Dell PDA listed as I write this is the now-discontinued Dell Axim X3. But, as I mentioned, I used ScanSoft's voice recording utility on an Axim X50v, Dell's most recent model, and it worked quite well.

Palm OS device owners are mostly out of luck, for now. According to ScanSoft's Web site, the Palm Tungsten T and T2 are the only Palm OS devices compatible with Dragon Naturally Speaking. A ScanSoft spokesperson confirmed the information and said the company was working to improve its support for Palm OS devices but could not say when more such devices would be supported.

Caveats and Tips

Tweak Your Settings: You may need to adjust your Pocket PC settings to ensure Dragon Naturally Speaking transcribes recordings properly. First, on your PDA, go to Settings, System, Microphone. Use the slider bar to change the microphone gain setting to low. (Too high a setting can capture too much background noise, which decreases recognition accuracy.) Then go to Settings, Personal, Input, Options, Voice Recording Format. Select "11,025 Hz, 16 Bit, Mono (22KB/s)" for voice recording format to ensure compatibility with Dragon Naturally Speaking.

More Training Needed: If you're like me, you've already trained Dragon Naturally Speaking to recognize your voice by talking into a microphone on your PC. But for best results, you'll still need to train the software to understand your voice recordings made on a Pocket PC or other device. That means reading a training document into your portable recorder for 10 minutes or more. It's an extra step, but it's worth it.

Don't Keep Files: Delete unneeded recordings on your Pocket PC or other portable device as soon as possible, because they consume a lot of storage space. For instance, a 49-second recording I made was over 1MB in size.

Formatting Tips: Don't expect your recordings to be transcribed into fully formatted text. Unless you take certain steps, your transcription will be one long paragraph. For example, if you say the word "period" at the end of a sentence, Dragon Naturally Speaking will add a period there, and the phrase that follows will be capitalized. Similarly, if you say "New paragraph" during your dictation, its text will be formatted accordingly when transcribed.

Requests to Readers

I've got a couple questions for you.

First, do you use speech recognition software? If so, do you use it to transcribe recordings made on a portable digital recording device? Send your experiences, tips, and insights to me via e-mail.

Second, do you have notebook insurance? Two years ago, I asked readers who had insured their notebooks with Safeware, which specializes in notebook insurance policies, to report on their experiences. Unfortunately, to date I've only received two replies. Both were favorable, however.

Since then, I've had countless e-mails from readers asking if I've heard from other any Safeware policy holders. So I'm asking you, dear readers, to once again speak up. If you've insured your notebook with Safeware or any other company, and you've had to file a claim, please e-mail me about your experiences. Were you satisfied with the outcome? If so, why? If not, why not?

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