We road-test the latest productivity software offerings, including much-improved voice recognition software.
Dragon Dictate For Mac
Speech-recognition software has now evolved to the level where it is very easy to speak normally with the words appearing immediately on the screen – although it is a weird experience at first.
Installing Dragon Dictate on a Mac is simple. You are supplied with two DVDs: the first contains the application, which you load first, followed by the data disc. Once completed, the software asks you to speak into the microphone using your natural voice. I speak with a southern English accent and it worked remarkably well with all applications.
One of the useful additions to the latest edition of this software is the ability to speak through devices such as an iPhone or iPad. It is a lot more natural to do this, rather than speak directly to a computer screen, simply because it feels like talking on a phone.
Connecting the device, however, is not entirely straightforward. You need to make sure that your user profile is set to use the remote device or it won't be discoverable, and this is not adequately explained. Once this has been done, you simply download onto your device and use the wizard to find your profile on your home network. After you're set up, you set the microphone to live and start training the software to recognise the nuances of your voice.
This may take about five minutes or so, but once it's done you can talk in your normal voice. You may be surprised at how fast your productivity can improve ' even if you are a proficient touch typist.
Where this application will be useful is in 'lean back' applications. For example, you will be able to use it on a Mac mini device or a PC connected to a television screen for use as a smart TV or media hub ' with your device acting as the remote microphone.
I recall, 30 years ago, trying to get voice-recognition software to recognise when I said one simple word: 'orange'. It took several attempts and I had to remain calm as any hint of agitation in the voice meant that the software would stand no chance of recognising the word.
So far, the Dragon remote software has not been released on any other platform. However, an Android version is apparently on the release schedule.
Shelves is a handy cataloguing program for Android phones. Originally aimed at books, it now enables you to build a database of all sorts of things – it covers a broad spread of items you might buy, such as DVDs, software, comics, toys and clothing.
One major aim is obviously to avoid buying the same thing twice, but you can also use it to keep track of which of your friends borrowed what. It also includes a 'wish list' feature, and there are import and export capabilities.
The program links to a barcode scanner, which in turn uses the phone's camera, enabling you to scan things straight in. Alternatively, you can type items in. As well as cataloguing, you can choose to scan an item and look it up online. This, though, is somewhat limited as it appears only to link to Amazon.
Getting the scanning right takes a little practice, although this is more a function of your phone's camera and the ambient light than of Shelves. One very useful feature is 'bulk mode', which lets you scan right through a pile of books or CDs, say, at a few seconds each, and Shelves will then import the lot.
If you want what this offers, make a plan to buy the full ad-free version straight away – the free version is only fit for a quick play to make sure it runs on your phone and can indeed scan things accurately. That's because, as well as adverts, the free version has an annoying pop-up to remind you that you haven't paid for it yet, which could easily put off more potential buyers than it encourages.
If you don't like the author's somewhat aggressive sales technique, there are similar programs available on all platforms – on Android, for example, you could try PackRat, My Collection Pro or Collectionista, all of which are free – some of which include online backup. However, few others have the same breadth of coverage as Shelves, and several lack a bulk-scanning capability.
Mr Site Storefront
If you have developed or made products to sell, you might well have thought about setting up an online shop but then discarded the idea due its perceived complexity and security issues. Now, instead of taking the eBay route, for example, 'takeaway website' developer Mr Site has come up with an alternative: Mr Site Storefront.
This package enables entrepreneurs and established businesses alike to create a webstore that, it claims, can rival those of the major online retailers, but at a fraction of the price. Everything you might expect is in there – shopping carts, customer registration, private messaging, even Captcha login security to try to defeat spammers. You can even opt to hide prices from non-registered shoppers, though that could backfire if all they want is a price check.
The sign-up process is simple and offers a 14-day trial. Then you log in for a wizard-driven process to design your store, with standard themes and so on. There is a mass of other settings behind the scenes, allowing you to add discount codes, bulk prices or special rates for favourite customers, say. There is even a newsletter manager so you can email promotional campaigns to your registered customers.
You can use your own existing domain and ISP, changing the nameserver settings to forward it to Mr Site, transfer an existing domain to Mr Site, or buy a new one and have Mr Site host it for you. We did have some problems with the forwarding – it depends to some extent on ISPs all doing nameserver type things in similar ways, and sadly they don't – but fortunately Storefront also comes with comprehensive telephone support, including technical support from people who seem to know what they are talking about, which makes a nice change!
Caveats are that it does not take away the work involved in organising photos, pricing things up, and so on. Not everything is entirely intuitive, so it can take a bit of digging to find out where to change certain settings.
On the plus side, it does automate a decent chunk of the process, it provides a framework to hang it all upon, and it takes care of a lot of the back-end stuff, which would be tough work for a sole or small trader.
And while it does not exactly look cheap – ranging from £25 a month for the basic package, which allows 500 products and has a limited set of features; to the full-specification £45 a month package, which allows an unlimited number of products – that is a lot less than you could pay for a full-spec e-commerce package of your own. All the Storefront packages come with a voucher for £75-worth of Google AdWords advertising, too. Bryan Betts
Now available as an app for Android and Apple iOS, as well as an add-on or extension for pretty much any Web browser, StumbleUpon is a great way to discover stuff online that you might otherwise never have seen. It works by asking users to rate and/or recommend websites, and then trying to work out what might match your personal interests and preferences.
The result is that you get to see pages that you would probably never have found with a search – if only because you would not have thought to look for them. Not only is it a good way to lose a considerable amount of time to serendipity, it is also a great way to explore – it will probably introduce you to sites that you will return to time and again.
The company behind it makes its money by enabling advertisers to become part of the 'stumble stream', based on location, demographics, device and interests. Fortunately this works pretty well from the reader's perspective – it is certainly a lot less intrusive than the average pop-up or banner advert. Bryan Betts