Free Chinese-learning Apps an android beginner's guide Part 1: Dictionaries and OCR
Following the iPhone trend recent years saw an explosive development of Android applications for the Chinese learner. We tried out as many of the thousands of free apps available as we could and selected our favorites.
To download the apps listed here to a host site such as Appbrain, Androidzoom, or Play Google. For more thorough reviews of many of the apps listed here (and others not listed here), visit Chinese Hacks.
Hanping Chinese Dictionary is probably the most popular and speedy bidirectional dictionary app for Android and comes complete with simplified and traditional Chinese characters, Pinyin, Zhuyin, live search, tone markers, sample sentences for online dictionaries like Nciku, and a clipboard. It uses the free CC-CEDICT, and for RMB40, you can add on multiple dictionary support, handwriting, offline audio, and an ad-free experience.
Pleco Chinese Dictionary is another excellent dictionary app, and given the rave reviews its iPhone version has garnered over the past few years, its popularity comes as no surprise. Pros: It's advertisement-free, has a little flashcard feature, voice recognition, and supports some Android tablets. But for each extra function you might want to add on—such as handwriting, optical character recognition (see below), stroke-order diagrams, document reader, and so on—you have to pay.
A more simple approach is the Cidian Chinese Dictionary which features word lists and flashcards, but it's less complete than Hanping and Pleco and has some flaws.
Also worth a look is the much loved Chinese Dictionary + Flashcard aka trainchinese by Molatra, another rapid dictionary-flashcard combo with excellent customization, useful sample sentences, a handwriting-training mode, and thoughtfully generated, applicable-to-real-life word lists. The trial version is free, but to unlock full functionality, you'll have to sign up and eventually pay for a subscription with trainchinese.
Xiaoma Hanzi Chinese Character is another CC-CEDICT-based, advertisement-free Chinese-English dictionary with the distinct ability to search words based on radicals, which helps learners dissect characters into their basic components. You can add words to a list, run a quiz mode for review, or go through the list of most frequent Hanzi based on daily use or appearance in different levels of the HSK test.
Nciku seems to be one of the better online dictionaries as it is extremely comprehensive and provides practical sample sentences as well as excellent word lists for daily use and voice search. For offline use, you'll have to throw in RMB50 for a package that includes stroke-order animation, audio pronunciation, clipboard search, and HSK & CET tests and flashcards. For some functions you still need to be connected to the Internet.
We shouldn't forget to mention Google Translate which naturally fully supports Android and allows for text translation (with sometimes laughable results), dictionary use, text-to-speech, voice input, and Pinyin output and is compatible with 64 languages. While far from accurate it can help convey a general idea of the content of a text which can save a lot of time over manually looking up individual words.
If you want an e-book reader where you can quickly look up a word in Chinese try the Zo Reader by Raymond Ho which allows for the integration of many dictionaries in multiple languages, many different file types, and formats. You can create customized wordlist and flashcards and convert text from traditional to simplified Chinese and vice versa.
OCR (optical character recognition)
The technology looks back to hundred years of history, but only recently optical character recognition has been available for the end consumer with a mobile allowing for live translation of all the unknown characters around you. The current most-celebrated program for Chinese character recognition was released by the aforementioned Pleco, which started developing OCR for Blackberry more than 10 years ago and gained prominence with the OCR app for iPhone. The Android version will set you back almost RMB100.
A free OCR is SOSO 慧眼 (huìyǎn), which means insightful or intelligent eye). This is an offering by Tencent, the company behind popular Chinese chat (and much more) program QQ. In the "translation" mode you can point the camera at single characters, and if the software recognizes it, instantly receive a translation for that character. If you take a photo of multi-character text, it will try to translate strings of characters into words. But just as its name suggests, Soso has problems recognizing different fonts, italic and bold text, and handwriting, and sometimes it just doesn't know the word. It offers a English-Chinese (traditional and simplified) and Chinese-English dictionary, but the entries seem outdates (for example, it spells "Chengdu" in the Wade-Giles way, "Chengtu," and won't recognize the Pinyin spelling of the city name). The additional German and French translations are no better, and the name-card recognition doesn't seem to work at all.
But if the software finds the right word, you can store or copy the word for further use in other programs (alternative dictionaries or SMS, for instance). As with many applications that are meant to help it sometimes becomes more of a frustrating, time-filling toy than a productive friend. The same can be said about the beta version of OCR IME of by NTT Docomo, but there is hope that Google will soon integrate native OCR into Android.
An alternative and compromise to free Huiyan and pricey Pleco may be the OCR by Hanping Chinese for RMB30, which is Pleco's main OCR competitor on Android. Aside from the price, Hanping has some possible advantages over Pleco, including easier handling and occasionally superior functionality.
Stay tuned for Part 2, coming up!
iPhonies, check "A guide to the best free Chinese-learning applications for the iPhone"