Matthew Kyte, IT systems and communications manager at multidisciplinary consultant AYH, gives his verdict loud and clear on a revolutionary dictation suite from Philips.
At AYH, staff were becoming frustrated with traditional dictation systems. Tapes sometimes broke, went missing, or suffered from poor quality through overuse, and they had to be passed by hand to a secretary to type. This could be time-consuming and costly to transfer if you were out of the office.

Divisional director Ian Smith was particularly frustrated. What he wanted was to use his laptop computer out of the office to dictate, then e-mail his work to his secretary for typing and sending out the same day. Three months ago, he found a way to do this using the Philips Speechmike digital system, which works with a PC instead of a hand-held tape recorder.

The Philips system comprises two separate components: a dictation unit for recording and a transcription unit for turning speech into text. The dictation unit includes a microphone, speaker and a handheld trackball. Closer inspection reveals buttons that control the dictation process, including rewind, play/pause, record and fast forward. Connecting the unit to the PC requires one free serial port and an inbuilt soundcard.

We installed this on to an IBM Thinkpad 560E laptop computer with 40 MB RAM running Windows95. Hardware installation was straightforward, although we did have to change the configuration of the laptop to recognise the serial port on the back of the machine.

Software installation was possible only from CD, which proved slightly more cumbersome as the machine did not have a built-in CD player. We used a portable player that plugs into the laptop's PCMCIA socket. A reboot activated the trackball unit which could be used instead of the mouse – the left and right buttons lie underneath the unit.

The weight and feel of the trackball was good and did not take long to adjust to. The handset is on a fairly long, sprung cable, which enables the user to sit back comfortably rather than too close to the screen.

The software emulates a traditional tape dictation unit. Press the record button on the SpeechMike to move the software into pause mode; press the play/pause button to start recording, and again to stop. Then you are free to review your speech. The rewind and fast forward buttons enable you to jump to any part of your dictation. When playing back, the sound comes through the unit so you can listen to what you have said without informing the whole room.

Now comes the interesting part. As your speech is recorded on to the computer's hard drive, you are free to insert and delete chunks of your speech – a capability not available with tapes. These functions can be controlled from the handset, so once familiar with the operation, you do not have to look at the screen to see what you are doing. When you have finished dictating you can either save on to the hard drive (to edit later, say), or e-mail it out.

Here, AYH encountered a slight problem. Normally, staff use Microsoft Outlook to send and receive e-mail, but the Philips system automatically defaults to the standard Microsoft Exchange program and cannot be used with Outlook. Although Exchange is easy to use, it could be unfamiliar territory for some.

Philips claims that one hour's speech can be compressed into a 3 MB file – important if you are out of the office and e-mailing back dictations. We could not find this setting, so compressed an hour's speech into 6 MB.

The second part of the system is the transcription unit. Out of the box it is like a traditional system, complete with foot pedal and headphones. It needs both a sound card and a joystick port to connect to the PC. The headphones plug into the sound card's speaker socket, and the foot pedal unit into the joystick port. Software is supplied only on CD but is easy to install.

Starting the software brought up a screen identical to that used for dictating but with foot pedals to control the actions. A sample dictation e-mailed from the laptop to this desktop machine appeared as an attachment to the e-mail in a wav format. Unfortunately, when we double-clicked on the attachment, it started up the default sound player for this type of file, and nothing could be heard.

After manually changing the file association to the transcription program, we were able to start the program directly from the e-mail and use the pedals to play back and control the speech. We did have to spend a couple of hours adjusting the sound quality and volume to a level that was acceptable to both the speaker and recipient, however.

In terms of initial capital cost, the dictation unit is more expensive than a traditional tape system. However, you do not have to buy tapes on an ongoing basis, which reduces costs. The transcription unit is about the same price as a good tape-based system.

Overall we were impressed with the ease of use and performance. E-mailing the dictation proved to be quick and easy, and the system really comes into its own when you are away from the office and need letters or reports to be typed and sent out in your absence.

However, this does mean you need to keep a laptop with you. Another disadvantage is that, while AYH has several tape-based systems, it only has one system like this, which limits its use.

There will probably always be times when tape will be the most practical solution, but if the Philips system proves to be of long-term benefit, we will extend its use to other employees who regularly work away from the office.

Pros and Cons

Pros Cheap running costs No danger of losing tapes Useful for e-mailing on the move Easy to insert and delete blocks of text Cons Must have a good soundcard Must have access to e-mail Installation not necessarily straightforward File associations may have to be changed manually before dictations can be played back Uses only Microsoft Exchange to send dictations System requirements Pentium processor, 16 MB RAM for Windows95, 32 MB RAM for Windows NT4.0, Soundblaster compatible soundcard with gameport outlet (for transcription unit only). One free COM (serial) port for SpeechMike, SVGA monitor and 10 MB free for system files. Disk capacity for storing speech files. Philips SpeechMike Executive LFH 6175 Dictation System, £299 Philips SpeechMike Executive LFH 6177 Transcription Unit, £269

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