Thursday, 18 March 2010

A Bit of MacSpeech Therapy

Well, it's taken about a month, but, I'm pleased to report that this posting on the Apple Harvest blog is being brought to you through the power of speech. In my last post, I wrote about the problems I had been having trying to get my copy of MacSpeech Dictate registered and licensed after purchasing it second-hand through eBay. Last night just as I was contemplating returning the software to its original owner and asking for a refund, I decided to have one final attempt at re-registering the software. As usual, the registration process itself failed. However, I had another look at my account on the MacSpeech website and lo and behold, there was an entry under my license details with a license key zip file to download.

I quickly downloaded the file, before anyone had a chance to change their mind, and booted up the MacSpeech Dictate program on my iMac. The program asked me to select a license key file, and that was that. A quick check in the About box showed that the software was now finally registered to me.

Of course, nothing can be that straightforward, and my first attempt to actually dictate something proved futile. Although I had set up a profile during the first four days of being able to use the software without a license, and although the program appeared to be accepting input through the headset, nothing was actually appearing on the screen. It was getting late in the day, and I did not fancy messing about trying to find the cause. Instead I decided to try to install the software on my MacBook Pro. Luckily the license agreement, which has caused me so much grief previously, allows me to install the software on multiple computers as long as it was only being used on one at a time. Given that I only have one headset, this was not a problem!

Installation only took a few minutes and I also had to create a new profile for the laptop, taking another few minutes. This time, when I tried to use the program there were no problems at all. However, in my rush to get the software operational, I had not thought carefully enough about the location of either the license key file or the profile. I decided to create a new folder under my existing documents folder, where I could store all the related MacSpeech Dictate files in one place. I proceeded to copy the relevant files into the new folder and restarted the program. I had the same problem as I'd had on the iMac; the headset appeared to be receiving correctly but nothing was appearing on the screen. Despite the fact that it was now dark (not to mention time for dinner), my curiosity was now aroused, and I had to investigate further.

I decided to reinstall the software having first deleted the original installation using AppZapper. Although MacSpeech Dictate needs 2 discs for installation, on this occasion I was not asked to load the second disc, so this installation was even quicker than before. When I launched the program following installation everything worked perfectly. It would appear that the program had merely lost sight of its configuration and reinstallation fixed the problem. I did the same thing on the iMac with similar success.

In this post I'm not going to write a full review of the software. I'll save that for a later date, when I have had more experience of using the package. But my first thoughts are very positive. I'm not sure that a novice will be able to achieve the creators estimates of 99% accuracy especially in a normal home environment. However, I would suggest that in the creation of this small entry I achieved a good 85% accuracy and this was boosted by having automatic spelling correction switched on in the target software, in this case MarsEdit. Because MacSpeech Dictate is more than just a dictation package - it also allows voice control of the computer - there are a lot of commands to learn and become familiar with. All the built-in commands are described in the comprehensive user manual which runs to over 150 pages. I did find a useful website which has a PDF file describing all the MacSpeech Dictate global commands. This runs to just 16 pages and is more accessible and easier to use, especially for the beginner. There are a lot more resources available here also.

I guess at the end of the day I'm just relieved to have the software successfully installed, registered, and working properly. My investment has not proved to be the white elephant it was looking like a few weeks ago. It would have useful if MacSpeech could have let me know that the problem with the license had finally been resolved - a Tweet or email doesn't take too much effort. Perhaps they consider that I'm not really a genuine customer as they have had no direct revenue from me, but there does seem to be a common theme about their less than stellar support on the user forums. And they are getting free publicity from me even if it's not all good. But the tide is changing in their favour...

Thursday, 11 March 2010

A License to Frustrate

Regular readers of the Apple Harvest will have become aware that I try to be positive and maintain a glass half full attitude. Many of the previous posts have been about finding workarounds to frustrating problems that I've been unable to fix. You'll also be aware of how much I value good service. But I have to admit I'm currently being crushed by the lack of customer service by the makers of MacSpeech Dictate.

I've been toying around with the idea of purchasing MacSpeech Dictate for some time, but the asking price of £150-170 has been too much for my currently beleaguered bank account and budget. Years ago I played around with IBMs VoiceType Simply Speaking software for Windows 95. The novelty wore off very quickly as I felt like an idiot talking to my computer in my home office, and I seemed to spend an awful lot of time correcting the mistakes that the software was making.

A good few years later I'm old enough not to care about feeling like an idiot at home (or anywhere else for that matter), and I've been reading some amazing reviews of MacSpeech Dictate 1.5.x. I've also had some problems with bursitis in my elbows recently and the doctor has put this down to RSI. It doesn't stop me typing or using the mouse, but it can be a bit painful and uncomfortable at times. I'm also doing a considerable amount of writing at present, and I really like this way of getting my ideas onto paper.

So when I saw an advert on eBay for a genuine copy of the software, including the headset, in original packaging, with the original disks for a bargain price of £102 including delivery I jumped at the chance.

Two days later on February 23rd, the package arrived and I had the software loaded onto the iMac within minutes. I went through the voice training process, which only took a few additional minutes, and I was ready to "rock and roll" so to speak.

The reviews were spot on. In those early hours I was genuinely impressed. Everything I threw at the software was faithfully transcribed, regardless of the package I tried, Pages, Word, MarsEdit - I was gobsmacked (even that came out correctly). I started playing around with the command mode. It's very empowering having your computer obey your every spoken command, including going to sleep at night.

And then the problem started.

The MacSpeech registration process requires that you submit your registration code and it then generates a license key file as part of the process. I had my registration code but no license key file. I couldn't actually complete the registration process because the software was already registered to the previous owner. I got in touch with the seller via eBay and asked if they could send me the license key file or at least unregister the software. At this point, I'd like to mention that the seller has been very helpful throughout the process, but in order to protect ourselves we have only been able to communicate via eBay.

The software worked for four days without a license key. It no longer works. Every day I try to register it and every day it fails. The seller has been doing his best at his end. I have been in touch with the support staff at MacSpeech via email and Twitter DM. Initially it looked like they may be able to help, but they no longer respond to my direct messages, and my last email, which included copies of all communication with the eBay seller, simply invoked an automated response saying:

Thank you for contacting MacSpeech. You are a valued customer and we appreciate you taking the time to contact us. We are currently experiencing higher than normal volume. Your questions are important to us, and we do apologize for any delays you may experience. Thank you for being a MacSpeech customer.

I understand the company wanting to protect its revenue stream, but it must be one of the last businesses on the planet to use archaic DRM for a software product. Apparently the convoluted de-registration and re-registration process is to protect both me and the seller - from what? From either of us being able to use the software or so it would seem.

I genuinely hope that I can get this resolved, without having to return the software to the eBay seller, as it's something I want to use (and he clearly doesn't). I would love to be able to post an entry on the Apple Harvest in a few days written using MacSpeech Dictate and extolling its virtues. In the meantime I've spent a hundred quid on a box, a headset and some disks.

I am really disappointed in MacSpeech - so it's Customer Service Turkey of the Month Award for them.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Niggles and Annoyances

I thought about starting this entry with an apology, or at least a warning, to the Apple faithful who blissfully believe that the company can do no wrong. But then I thought about the people that I hope read these posts, and decided that most of them are simple users like myself who realise that no software or hardware from any manufacturer is every completely without fault. It's just that some folk try harder than others to make the user experience better.

As a user from a technical background I may be more unforgiving in my expectations, or it may be that my expectations are higher. It may simply be that my demands are more excessive, as I spend a very significant part of my day (my life) on the machines I use.

There is no doubt in my mind, however, that my experiences with the Mac are considerably more positive than with all the other operating systems and hardware that I've used and abused over the years. I've not yet tried Windows 7, but something inside tells me suggests that it wouldn't really change anything.

All these factors make the little problems I occasionally suffer from all the more irritating and irksome (of course, having just turned 48, grumpy old man syndrome is also now kicking in).

Spotlight Failure

My current bugbear is Spotlight (OS X 10.6.2). Since the failure of the internal drive on my iMac I've rigged up a 750Mb Seagate FreeAgent Pro Firewire drive as the bootable partition. It works well enough, and although there is a speed lag on some things compared to a proper internal drive, I can live with it until I have enough spare cash and time to get a new internal drive installed. That, of course, is the downside of the iMac; if something internal dies, you have to take the whole machine into the repair shop. I wish that Apple would let us access the internal drive in the same way that we can get to the memory banks. But that's not the point of this whinge.

I don't really use Spotlight very often so I don't know when my current problem started but I'm guessing that it is related to the drive configuration. I've installed a number of new utility and productivity applications recently and I sometimes forget to refresh my application launcher, TigerLaunch. So when I want to launch one of these new tools, for example MacUpdate Desktop, I'd sometimes use Spotlight as the launcher. Only it doesn't seem to be able to find many of my applications. If I type in "MacUpdate", it locates and displays various versions of the MacUpdate-Desktop .dmg install files, but there's no sign of the application. Similar things happen for other applications. "Launch" locates the Applet Launcher but fails to find LaunchBar. Selecting the Show All also fails to reveal the LaunchBar or the MacUpdate Desktop application in the previous instance.

Because I use TigerLaunch or QuickSilver as my normal application launchers this isn't the end of the world. But the problem is that I now have less confidence in Spotlight and that bothers me a lot.

I have tried just about everything to resolve the issue - I've re-indexed, deleted plist files, and even run Spotless (which I couldn't find in Spotlight either!) - but it never makes a difference. I'd love to hear from anyone experiencing a similar problem, especially if you have a solution!

MacUpdate Desktop Failure

Ironically, one of the applications mentioned above was the catalyst for finding the Spotlight problem. MacUpdate Desktop 5 is a piece of software available from MacUpdate Promo which enables users to track and install software updates automatically. I have it installed on both the MacBook Pro and the iMac, and it is great for checking on those seldom used applications, or on lesser used machines. I have no problems on the MBP with the software, but on the iMac it only finds 34 applications despite there being over 300 individual applications installed.

I can't help thinking there is a correlation between this problem and the Spotlight problem. Perhaps the only course of action is to get that internal drive installed once and for all. Who knows, my on-going networking problem may even vanish as well, although I think that's pure wishful thinking.

These two problems are not show stopping issues, but it is frustrating to have a system that doesn't do some of the simple things in life properly. Especially for a perfekshonist like me!