I know I know, that headline is embarrassing. But you only had to read it — I had to say it out loud. See, I’m not typing this text, I’m sitting at my computer speaking these words into the iA Writer app using a macOS feature called Dictation. It’s not something I’d normally use because I consider myself a fairly fast, if hopelessly inaccurate typist. But today’s not a normal day. Today I’m eating finger lickin’ good fried chicken while seated at my keyboard — a surface that’s at least 20,000 times grosser than a toilet seat.
Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, and earlier I needed to quickly correspond with my colleagues in Slack without further soiling my germ-ridden keyboard. Fortunately, I remembered that I had setup Dictation when it was first introduced in OS X way back in 2012. Mountain Lion’s Dictation wasn’t up to the task back then. But desperate and no napkin in sight, I double tapped the function (fn) key anyway to once again turn my old iMac computer into a speech-to-text device. A lot has improved since 2012 — notably, the accuracy. Dictation can even be used without an internet connection now. The included screenshot is part of an actual Slack conversation I had using Dictation exclusively (no keyboard edits were made and I sent each line of text by saying “press return key”).
Technically, dictation isn’t the same as Siri, though it’s powered by the same natural language processing at the heart of Apple’s voice assistant. Using my Mac’s built-in microphone I’ve found it to be as accurate as using Siri on iOS to make notes, set alarms, or schedule reminders. It’s certainly capable of capturing short punchy sentences, requiring only the occasional edit from the keyboard. Dictation struggles, however, to keep up with longer paragraphs of spoken text. But it’s not like I’m Jack Kerouac, capable of spitting out fully coherent paragraphs for pages on end.
Dictation is also limited by its ability to enter punctuation. For example, it doesn’t know that a pause at the end of sentence is a cue to enter a period — it just waits for more text. If you want a period you have to say “period” as if dictating an old-timey telegram. It does, however, let you say things like “smiley face” instead of “colon,” “dash,” “close parenthesis” :-). Apple says that the more you use Dictation, the more accurate it gets as it adapts to the nuance of your voice.
Truly hands free
Even with Dictation enabled, eating fried chicken at your keyboard requires at least one clean finger to mash the Dictation keyboard shortcut. My poker of choice is my left pinkie, which I keep extended while gnawing my quarry down to the cartilage like some overrefined carnivore. If that’s too effete for you then you can always go truly hands free with some tweaking of the Accessibility options in the System Preferences. Just check the box to enable a dictation keyword phrase. I chose a very Apple-y “Hey” instead of a Google-y “Okay.” Now I just say, “Hey, start dictation” followed by a “stop dictation” when the session is done. I’m still exploring all the dozens of Dictation commands that give you hands-free control over apps, navigation, and documents — if nothing else, it’s been fun. I even hacked together a “Hey Siri” setup just for the hell of it.
This might all seem like overkill to some of you, but you probably don’t eat half of your meals at your computer like I do. And tonight I’m having ribs.