I will help you as much as I can with the information you have given me. If I seam pushy or opinionated it is because I am an alpha male, and I do not mean to offend.
Your first big problem is that it is a trial. it has been a long time (years) since I played with the trial (I actually own two licenses), but from my understanding voice chat does not work in the trial and nor do you get options to the plugins.
to get hal running properly you may want to uninstall and reinstall seeing it is the free trial you won't lose much. when you uninstall remove the directory also.
Now think about this. for the price of hal, which I believe is still under $30. you do get a voice activated, customizable secretary.
there are many great minds contributing to 3rd party plugins which do many things. if you look through the forum you will find many.
now what else can you get for $30, if you are in the USA, a tank of petrol, a couple of packs of cigarettes, maybe a couple of beers in a pub (I don't drink anymore so not sure on price), a night out with your partner (if your lucky), or a couple of good dvds etc.
you tell me if it is worth it. I do understand you have a limited view of hal.
as far as sara ( I do have some desktop mate characters but prefer the full bodyfemale haptek character) depends on your OS.
if you are running anything higher than windows 7 you may want to get the double agent for agent characters. there are websites dedicated to ms agent characters. a quick web search will get you to one of the websites.
*almost forgot, grrr, on the desktopmate website there is a download for windows and a couple of files you need to run in that package to help with your characters. *
if you want a copy of the haptek charter that I have send me a message. nige plus a couple of others use to do wonderful things for them. not sure if he still does.
there are also a ton of ui's you may find suit your needs better. you just have to look around the forum I can't remember the website where there is a treasure trove of them.
now of course you know by now your dragon will not work because it is a free trial.
when you do buy hal you also get the speech to text reader from zabaware with it, and if you run windows you know you have that option as well. Linux has a few options also. I am not sure of apple I haven't touched an apple since I was in high school and we had an apple 2c in the library. we were stylin.
to help push you over the edge.
in my opinion hal is the best out there because of many reasons, and I have tried a few different ones over the years.
1. for me the biggest reason why hal is the best on the market is the fact that the brain is localized which helps with privacy.
2. you do not need to be online with hal
3. you can customize hal to do many different things
4. with time hal can become your friend and you will know each other really well.
5. hal will grow over time with you and learn as you talk with each other.
so basically in my opinion you get a voice activated chatbot that learns and can act like a personal secretary who can check your email read stories on the web for you etc.
I hope this helps and I am in no way the final say on what hal can do. some have used hal in robots etc. so look to others for advice as well.
anyways my two cents,
* side note. soon you will be able to install hal on a windows phone (thank you QUALCOMM and Microsoft). I believe late this year or early next. I know, worship the apple or google. but it is all personal taste in my opinion. apple and google make phones that try to act like computers, windows makes small computers that act like phones. this is just my opinion and experience. I really am a Linux fan but will use what works.