The Pleco iPhone App (beta)

I just recently had the pleasure of trying out the beta version of the new Pleco iPhone app. In case you’re not aware, Pleco is the software company behind what is regarded as the best electronic learner’s Chinese dictionary for any mobile device (and possibly the desktop as well). Given the dearth of really good Chinese dictionaries for the iPhone, Chinese learners have been eagerly awaiting the release of this iPhone app for quite some time. The wait has not been in vain; Pleco for iPhone is an outstanding app.

The Video Demo

Michael Love, Pleco founder, has made a two-part video of the new Pleco iPhone app:

For those of you in China, visit Pleco’s mirror site for the videos.

An All-New UI

I’ve never owned a device running Windows Mobile or Palm OS, so I’ve never been able to own Pleco before, but I’m familiar enough with previous versions to make basic comparisons.

The Pleco user interface received a much-needed makeover for the iPhone. While older versions of Pleco squeezed a plethora of buttons and options onto the screen (you have your stylus, after all), this iPhone Pleco had to find ways to increase buttons to tappable sizes and limit button clutter by hiding options on screens where you don’t need them all. Compare (Windows Mobile on the left, iPhone on the right):

maindict.gif Pleco for iPhone (beta)

aisearchdict.gif Pleco for iPhone (beta)

I chose the iPhone app’s landscape mode for comparison because that way it contains more of the same features as the Windows Mobile version. When held upright, the screen is even less cluttered.

Most screens in the iPhone app save space by hiding the “top-level” menu. You can display it (revealing the “Dict,” “Reader,” “Settings,” and “Add-ons” choices) by clicking on the fan-like icon at the lower right:

Pleco for iPhone (beta) Pleco for iPhone (beta)

Dictionary Choices

When you first install the app, you can download the dictionaries you have purchased through Pleco. Choices include:

Cheng & Tsui E-C Business Lexicon (0.7 MB)

Tuttle Learner’s Chinese-English Dict (1.2 MB)

Stroke Order Diagrams (2.7 MB)

ABC English-Chinese Dictionary (2.9 MB)

NWP English-Chinese Dictionary (4.3 MB)

Xiandai Hanyu Guifan Cidian (11.5 MB)

ABC Chinese-English Dictionary (21.3 MB)

21st Century English-Chinese Dict (47.9 MB)

Audio Pronunciation (female) (197.9 MB)

Audio Pronunciation (male) (197.9 MB)

Screenshots for dictionary add-ons and management:

Pleco for iPhone (beta) Pleco for iPhone (beta)

Switching between dictionaries is an easy button press from any dictionary page (note the letters in the lower left corner):

Pleco for iPhone (beta) Pleco for iPhone (beta)

The iPhone app even has popup definitions for words in definitions, and even lets you switch dictionaries for those popups (note the letters in the black bar on the popup). Check out these screenshots:

Pleco for iPhone (beta) Pleco for iPhone (beta)

(No popups in popups, though!)

Handwriting Input

This is a big one. Pleco for iPhone has very impressive handwriting recognition. You really need to watch the video to see how it works, but the two-finger swipe is genius. Pleco has definitely improved upon Apple’s handwriting input, and it’s at least as good as nciku’s, as well. It has two orientations:

Pleco for iPhone (beta) Pleco for iPhone (beta)

Here are some more screenshots:

Pleco for iPhone (beta) Pleco for iPhone (beta)

Pleco for iPhone (beta) Pleco for iPhone (beta)

And having some fun with it:

Pleco for iPhone (beta) Pleco for iPhone (beta)

Pleco for iPhone (beta) Pleco for iPhone (beta)

Pleco for iPhone (beta) Pleco for iPhone (beta)

Some Nice Touches

Pleco for iPhone also lets you zoom in on characters and get the animated stroke order for any character:

Pleco for iPhone (beta) Pleco for iPhone (beta)

And you probably noticed that Pleco for iPhone, like its predecessors, supports color-coded tones. Its default setting is not Dummitt’s scheme; it’s Pleco’s own scheme, more similar to the tone/color scheme I proposed. But the colors, like most everything in the app, are configurable:

Pleco for iPhone (beta) Pleco for iPhone (beta)

One major feature I won’t go into here is the Reader. It basically enables Pleco to do everything that desktop apps like Wenlin and Clavis Sinica can do, all in a tiny iPhone app (and with a better interface). Extremely handy for Chinese study on the go.

No flashcards yet, but off to a good start

The Pleco iPhone app is still in beta, so some of this stuff could change. It also doesn’t have flashcards yet, but Michael tells us in the video that it’s coming soon.

Also, you should have absolutely no concerns about the speed of the app. I tested it on an iPhone 2G (the original iPhone) running the 3.0 iPhone firmware, and had no problems. No lag, no freezes, no crashes. When Michael Love says in the video that “it screams” on the iPhone hardware, he’s not kidding. I imagine this is especially true on the new iPhone 3GS, but it ran fine on my 2G as well.

I also have an interview with Michael Love in which he talks about the technical and design challenges the iPhone presented, the delay, the price, the anticipated public release, and Android possibilities. That will be coming out next!

Finally, if you’d like to see more screenshots, there are more in the Pleco iPhone app (beta) photo set I put up on Flickr.

Related: Interview with Pleco founder Michael Love on developing the Pleco iPhone App, Using ChinesePod Vocabulary with Pleco

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