Talking to your computer, as opposed to swearing at it, has been a tricky process. It was only last year that software appeared that could actually transcribe speech as you spoke it, but it required tedious setup procedures--to get the software to work, you'd have to read to it for an hour. Now, though, the latest advances in speech recognition improve both learning time and reliability--and add portability.

We looked at (and talked to) two new products: Dragon Naturally Speaking 4.0 and L&H Voice Xpress 4. Both come with quality lightweight microphone headsets that plug into the microphone jack of your sound card. Both companies also offer mobile versions that allow you to dictate into a pocket-size digital recorder, then convert the speech files to text when you get back to your computer. Both work well--not only do they keep up with a natural rate of speaking, they allow quick and easy editing with natural voice commands ("undo that," "change this sentence to Garamond" and so on).

L&H has an easy install, rapid setup--the training session took less than 10 minutes--and reasonably high accuracy. More practice helped the software: After only one session, it heard the "brought forth on this continent a new nation" as "brought forth a less confident and new nation," but four training sessions enabled it to get the Gettysburg Address mostly right. Dragon is much more accurate after a single training session. It typed the Gettysburg Address with nearly flawless accuracy, stumbling only when it hit anachronistic words. (It just got "anachronistic" right, too.)

Both of these programs demand some computing horsepower in exchange for their impressive performances. L&H requires at least a Pentium II, while Dragon stipulates a 200 MHz Pentium MMX processor; both want 48 megabytes of memory and 200 to 250 megs of disk space. But to get the performance I got, you'll really need a processor at 300 MHz and up. Beware of sound-card issues: Many low-end and mid-range computers save a few bucks by wiring simple audio hardware directly onto the motherboard instead of installing a real sound card, which these programs strongly prefer. Again, Dragon was stronger at getting high performance out of the low-end audio systems, but a better option is probably ponying up the extra cash to buy the $60-ish universal serial bus microphones these firms sell to remedy the situation.

These programs come in a bewildering variety of versions aimed at the consumer and business markets. L&H Voice Xpress Standard version 4 ($50) has the complete dictation package, the Advanced version ($80) adds voice control for Microsoft Word, and Professional ($150) adds voice control for hundreds of additional programs. In addition, the Mobile Professional version ($230) adds a pocket recorder for dictating on the go; this recorder demands four training sessions, not one.

Dragon Naturally Speaking 4.0 comes in seven versions of its own, starting with Essentials ($59); Standard ($109) adds voice controls for Microsoft's Office 97 and 2000 and many other programs; and Preferred ($199) adds text-to-speech playback, multiple user support and the ability to use portable recorders. While both the Dragon and L&H products have been Windows-only to date, Dragon also has Mac versions of its product coming out this winter. IBM has also announced plans for a Mac version of its competing ViaVoice product. In both cases, expect to see a G3 processor as required hardware; tell your iMac to get in shape now.