The Best Digital Voice Recorder

Practically every week I receive e-mail from readers asking about digital voice recorders. Usually, they want to know which digital voice recorder is best, and which I recommend for speech-to-text conversion.

The short answer to both questions is Sony's ICD-MX20--and now for the longer answer.

The Back Story

Sony's ICD-MX20 is available in two versions. The ICD-MX20DR9 (online prices, $215 and up) comes with Nuance's Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition software for Windows--hence the "DR" in the recorder's name.

Clairification: This edition of NaturallySpeaking allows you to convert speech into text from recordings made on the recorder. You'll have to buy NaturallySpeaking Standard (list: $100) or Preferred ($200) if you want to dictate into a PC microphone for speech-to-text conversion. Go to PCW Shop & Compare for the latest prices.

The ICD-MX20 (online prices, $175 and up) is the same recorder sold without NaturallySpeaking. The ICD-MX20 works with NaturallySpeaking; it's for those who either already have or don't want the software. NaturallySpeaking is the only speech recognition software with which Sony's recorders are compatible.

The cool thing about Sony's recorder is the speech-to-text function. Here's how it works: Dictate a memo into the recorder; connect the recorder to your Windows PC via USB; open Sony's included Digital Voice Editor software; and click the Voice button to launch Nuance's Dragon NaturallySpeaking software if available.

NaturallySpeaking then transcribes your memo into text, including any formatting commands you dictated, such as "comma," "new paragraph," and such. The transcribed text is added to a Word file or to a DragonPad file. (DragonPad is a word processing/dictation program installed with NaturallySpeaking.)

The ICD-MX20 models are by no means the only recorders that perform this speech-to-text magic. You can get a list of current and older devices compatible with NaturallySpeaking at Nuance's Web site.

However, among the list of current recorders compatible with Naturally Speaking, the ICD-MX20 earned Nuance's highest accuracy rating. Based on Nuance's recommendation, and my own experience testing Sony voice recorders, I bought an ICD-MX20 (I already have NaturallySpeaking).

Likes: Accurate, Has Memory Card Slot

The ICD-MX20 does an excellent job accurately transcribing my voice into text. I've dictated entire, lengthy e-mails complete with punctuation into the recorder and only had to make a few corrections after NaturallySpeaking transcribed my recordings. It's an efficient way to compose documents and capture thoughts while away from a computer.

For the best accuracy, you should be in a fairly quiet environment when dictating. For example, if you're dictating into the recorder while on the freeway with your windows open, the background noise will make it tough for the NaturallySpeaking speech recognition engine to do its job.

The device is thin, compact, and easy to carry. The Rec/Pause and Stop buttons are clearly marked and easy to reach. The ICD-MX20 records in stereo and has a headphone output and an input for an external stereo microphone.

In addition to its 32MB of internal memory, the recorder has a Memory Stick Pro Duo slot, so you can record longer at higher quality settings. Not all Sony recorders feature a memory card slot, it should be noted, and the ICD-MX20's inclusion of one is another factor in its favor.

Though some critics complain that Sony's Memory Stick cards are expensive, you can find deals. Example: Recently, I bought a SanDisk 2GB Memory Stick Pro Duo on sale at RadioShack for $25.

Dislikes: Confusing Interface, Expensive

As with many Sony products I've used, the ICD-MX20's on-screen menus and its user manual can be confusing. It took me a couple of times using the recorder before I grew comfortable with it. A little of Apple's user interface elegance would be a welcome addition to the ICD-MX20.

For the best speech-to-text accuracy, you'll need to train NaturallySpeaking to recognize your voice using the Sony recorder--even if you've already trained the software to recognize your voice using your PC's microphone. That's because the Sony recorder is a different input device, with variations in sound quality and other factors. The good news: You can get by with just 15 minutes of training.

At $166 and up, the ICD-MX20 isn't the least expensive digital voice recorder on the market. Nor is it the snazziest: Sony's new ICD-UX70 models in red, pink, and silver (each are list price $100) are far more fashion-forward and also serve as MP3 players. However, these recorders aren't designed for speech-to-text recognition.

Who's It For?

Anyone who could benefit from dictating memos, notes, and documents away from the computer and not have to type them later should consider a Sony ICD-MX20.

The ICD-MX20 is also excellent for recording meetings and conferences. Keep in mind, however, that NaturallySpeaking isn't capable of accurately transcribing any voice other than the one it's been trained to recognize. You can't record a meeting with multiple parties and expect it to type the whole thing into text. That feature will be possible one day, Nuance has assured me, but we're not there yet.

For More Information

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This story, "The Best Digital Voice Recorder" was originally published by PCWorld.

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