The Death of Handheld Electronic Dictionaries?

Steven J wrote me with this question:

> I have been in china for two years and always used paperback dictionaries or the one on my computer. However, now that i will start studying it seems more handy to have one of these pocket size electronic dictionaries. However it seems that all of these machines have a pinyin function for INPUT only. When looking up a word in english, it only gives you characters. This is quite a pain in the ass for someone like me who can speak some Chinese, but is almost illiterate. Do you have any advice on where to find one of these gadgets that would suit my needs better or can you redirect me to a good place to find information on this topic?

I went through this exact same dilemma when I first arrived in China. I had my handy Oxford Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary
which I took everywhere. I noticed the Chinese students all had these little handheld electronic dictionaries, and I wanted one to help me with Chinese. But they really don’t help you a whole lot when you have no way to look up the pinyin for the characters that appear.

I had a Canon Wordtank to help me get through my Japanese studies, and it was great. Designed for the student of Japanese, it provided a “jump” feature which made it easy enough to look up the readings of any word even if the readings weren’t directly displayed everywhere. It got me through my last two years of formal Japanese study, which involved a lot of reading and translation.

But for Chinese? I’ve seen some really cool dictionaries that essentially do what the Wordtank does, but for English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese. With audio. They’re not cheap, though.

I never found a reasonably priced handheld Chinese electronic dictionary that did what I want. I ended up jotting down words and looking them up at home on Wenlin or online.

The heyday of these little handheld dictionaries is coming to an end. I know several people that use their Nokia cell phones for all their English-Chinese dictionary needs. New dictionary apps for the iPhone abound, and the iPhone already has great handwriting recognition support for Chinese built in. Google’s Android is sure to have no shortage of dictionary apps; maybe even official Google Translate dictionary functions.

If you’ve made it this far without a handheld electronic dictionary, then you should just hold on a little longer. The days of single-function handheld electronic devices are numbered. I, for one, wish this new generation of handheld devices would move in for the kill a little faster.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I was quite happy with Pleco for both my Palm PDA and Windows Mobile phone. Good handwriting recognition, and an extensive dictionary (with the ABC Dictionary). My Casio Chinese-Japanese-English dictionary is pretty good, too, though clearly biased toward people who already know Chinese.

  2. What I love about the iPhone and it’s handwriting recognition support is the ability to ‘reverse lookup’ Chinese characters that I don’t know (quite a lot as I only just started learning Mandarin). All you need is your iPhone/iPod Touch and a Chinese dictionary app (I use DianHua which uses the CC-CEDICT database). DianHua lets you search by character so you can just enter the character using the handwriting input method and then run a search for the character.

  3. John,

    Palm clearly played a role in the creation of this new generation of mobile devices, but I could never be persuaded to buy it. It was just too pricey for, essentially, a glorified dictionary (because that’s probably all I would use it for). I’ve heard lots of good things about PlecoDict on Palm, but it’s just not a mainstream product.

  4. John… as a few others have mentioned, Pleco is fantastic. I have the complete package, which includes at least four dictionaries. There are other extra dictionaries that can be purchased, such as for business or medical terms.

    You can look up words by radical, writing the character, pinyin, or English. The new version will have stroke order instruction. Also includes flash cards, which is what I use the most.

    I sound like an advertisement for them, but it really is that good.


  5. One other thing… PlecoDict is on Windows Mobile (which is where I use it). An iPhone version is in development.

  6. I’ll echo John B on Pleco, trying to restrain my enthusiasm for fear of revealing the massive endorsement fee they give me. Here’s the gist of it

    1. Very forgiving recognition of chicken-scratch characters
    2. High quality dictionaries (ABC & Oxford)
    3. Pinyin in both directions (indispensable, as Steven J mentions)
    4. Sophisticated flashcard system for studying
    5. Great support (e.g. easy to redownload software and install on a new phone after you drop your old one on a tile floor)
    6. Generous pricing policies — upgrades are free, or nearly so
    7. Exciting new version to include Ch-Ch dictionary, the Standard Dictionary of Modern Chinese (现代汉语规范词典)

    And it all sits on your cellphone, so you’re never without it. I suppose the only catch is that you have to have a touchscreen phone. But it doesn’t have to be an iPhone, and touchscreens are easier to come by in China than in the US.

    Seriously, I’m hardly the first to give Pleco rave, unsolicited endorsements. The reason is that there aren’t many products out there that really do what people want — and more! But this is one of them.

  7. It does sound like Pleco is the best thing out there. Good to hear that it’s coming to the more mainstream mobile devices. Thanks to the iPhone and Android, I think now is the time that smartphones are finally going to catch on for good.

  8. i bought one almost a year ago that would let me write on screen. this was before i knew too much useful info on stroke order and certainly wouldnt write any better than trying to draw quickly. the pinyin part was the real killer. i’ve since given it to my chinese girlfriend who puts it to much better use while i on the other hand have gone back to paper (so long as my computer isn’t handy). i use nciku or the dimsum java app a lot now.

    still have a crap 300rmb phone with no dictionary though a better one is probably my next investment.

  9. Those nokias are great. I have a number of friends who use their phone in the same way. (Plus it reinforces stroke order unlike writing recognition stuff…at least somewhat.)
    Actually, recently I’ve been thinking about how little I use paper dictionaries all together. It’s pretty interesting how far I’ve gotten without hardly using them at all.
    I have one and I use it. However, only when I’m at home and sitting down for a serious study session. If I’m working through any sort of material, it’s wenlin or nciku.
    Maybe I’ll post about it…

  10. Thanks for the walk through memory lane, John. Those Canton dictionaries were awesome. I started with a Seiko, which was designed for Japanese students of English as nearly all other similar dictionaries were. Moving to the Canon from that was just amazing. The Canon’s “jump” feature saved me countless study hours.

  11. […] info By Jason Categories: Uncategorized Reading a new post over at Sinosplice got me thinking about how it is I actually study […]

  12. All the more reason to start learning my Hanzi now rather than later on by the look of it.

  13. I only know about what’s available in Taiwan, but in the electronics shops here, for about $75 US you can get a pocket-sized electronic dictionary with touch-screen and character recognition (you write the character on the screen). The newer models are quite small and light.

    Don’t they have those in China and Hong Kong?

    You can also look up with pinyin, or bopomofo. You can switch the interface/menu language between English, or traditional or simplified Chinese. I never leave home without mine. The dictionary has lots of verb phrases, idiomatic phrases, 成語, etc.

  14. This is too funny because I have been saying this forever!! I always want to check out my students’ latest dictionaries that they are always putting words in while I am lecturing… I can put in words in Chinese using PINYIN… but when I find a word in English that they have just put in… I press the Chinese to see if I can see how to say it in Chinese… and it tells me… but I’ve got no clue how to pronounce the word. IT IS SO ANNOYING. I’m glad I’ve never bought one… but I have a friend who can “write” in their mobile phone and it comes out in Characters… and then they can look it up… I’ve really wanted something like that. But I just have to write it on a scrap of paper and when I get back to a computer I look it up on That’s my favorite online dictionary.

    SCOTT…what’s the name of the thing?? That sounds AWESOME!!

  15. I have a locally bought iTouch phone. 600 RMB, Chinese input (pen based or pinyin) and Java. Installed a Java-based dictionary (Open Source app) and am sitting pretty with Chinese-English and English-Chinese (including pinyin) so I totally agree with you.

    Furthermore, levelling of the technology barrier means dictionary providers have to focus on the quality of the dictionary, definitions, usage examples and audio. This leads to better core products which can be platform independent, a great improvement in the mighty stagnant dictionary market.

  16. For those who do not know it, Chinese Pera-Kun is an amazing add-on for mozilla, basically like an embedded Wenlin.

  17. Chinese Pera-Kun can be useful, but is very unreliable. I wouldn’t recommend it for much more than quickly scanning through articles, so long as you have a healthy grain of salt handy.

  18. I agree with Chris Waugh about pera-kun. I still like Wenlin. Have not really tried Plecodict. There’s a lot to be said for a professionally compiled/edited/maintained dictionary, though.

  19. To clarify some earlier comments…

    I know that Plecodict worked on Windows Mobile, and that Windows Mobile was the most “mainstream” smartphone OS before. But what the iPhone and Android do is make people never want to have anything but a smartphone. I’m sure I’ll never go back. Future cell phones will forever cease to be just phones. And that’s why these new dictionary apps are important, and why the “all it is is a dictionary” handhelds are doomed.

  20. Another one here for Pleco. I’m an iPhone user (and even an iPhone developer) but I keep a dedicated Palm just to run Pleco. Once it’s out for the iPhone, the combination will be unbeatable. In the meantime, I’m happy to carry a Palm around lest I suddenly forget how to say “your toilet paper is too soft” and need to look up a word.

  21. Personally, I would recommend that you not buy ANY form of electronic dictionary. I have always felt that while they can be helpful in a crunch, electronic dictionaries will actually impede your Chinese language progress, rather than help it. The reason why is that one of the most valuable skills in learning Chinese (or any language) is learning how to explain yourself out of a situation in which you are limited by your vocabulary. Firstly, this in and of itself is an absolutely necessary skill for any language learner, and secondly, because there is no better way to push you language muscle than trying to explain a thought seemingly beyond your lexical constraints.

    When you are out and about and using your Chinese, keep a mental track (or a notebook) of words which you need to use, but don’t know in Chinese. Go home and look them up on Kingsoft Powerword or Google Translate, and then force yourself to internalize them the next time you know you will be using them. (e.g. learning the word for “deposit” before you go to the bank) You will find yourself REMEMBERING a lot more of your new vocabulary if you don’t look it up on the spot on a pocket translator.

    As an aside, back when I was teaching English I noticed an interesting pattern among my students. The ones who were the most competent communicators in English were usually the few students who didn’t use electronic translators. The translator toting crew tended to be more of those students with enormous English vocabularies and high CET Test scores, but when it came to actually communicating in English, they were functionally worthless….just my 2 mao.

  22. @Ben Ross,

    I agree. Words looked up like that tend to get lost in the fray for me. Realistically, I don’t think a lot of students of Chinese bust them out mid-conversation though. More of an afterthought. (At least I think…)

    Also, I completely agree about the English language students. That kills me. If you listen to the example and take part in the discussion about the word, maybe you’ll actually remember it, no? But hey, to each his own. (little bubble of shyness?)

  23. I also bought one of these gadgets, but I’m rather disappointed. There was no way to enter pinyin and the device would come up with possible characters.

    Also the screen was rather bad once You went outdoors and it is too heavy, too. Especially compared to modern day smartphones. Pretty much wasted money.

  24. Plecodict is truly great. And yes, I whip it out in the middle of conversations. Or on the bus when I see a new character. Or watching TV (scratch it out very quickly – Plecodict doesn’t seem to mind horrifyingly written characters – and then wait for commercials to investigate). Or… well, anytime, really. And the flashcards are great for those long waits in airports, train stations etc. And the simplified/complicated toggle is essential for the traveller. The reverse-lookup function is to die for. Plus the business lexicon has words like underwriter and sole lead manager – since many of my Chinese colleagues don’t know the Chinese for that either, it can be an interesting conversation to see if they agree or disagree with the dictionary word. Plus you can add words. In short, exactly because I whip out my phone to see the time (who wears watches anymore?) or to text, it has become a habit to whip out the cell and fuss with the dictionary instead of play whatever lame game that comes with a cell phone (although I put bejewelled on the palm and lost some valuable studying time, there).

  25. Hi! I study in Beijing for couple of months and I am thinking about buying some kind of dictionary stuff. PlecoDict seems to me to be the best option. Is it possible to use it for ancient chinese as well? That means at least to find non-simplified characters. What kind of mobile phone shall I buy to use it? I like Nokia, are those okay? And the last question, the easiest way to purchase PlecoDict? Thank you for all your advices!

  26. My friend bought an amazing electronic dictionary in Nanjing..It costed about 100 euro but it reallly is contains five-language dictionaries, a pictorial dictionary, mp3 and mp4 player… you can download e-books to it and it reads them to you.. of course it contains all the pinyins as well.. Your problem was that you were focused on dictionaries designed for chinese ppl learning english.
    If you´re in China, you can find anything you long for,, The only catch is that it´s not good to buy the first gadget you see… because there are so many of them that u will always see a better d then; instead of being happy…u will regret..

  27. sinotized Says: October 26, 2008 at 7:02 am

    May I suggest using any browser-enabled mobile phone (iphone, blackberry, lg voyager) with It does pinyin in both directions and displays english on the same line for each word, allowing you to decide for yourself if the translation is correct or not.

  28. As far as I’m concerned, there are only a few killer apps for handhelds–SBSH PocketWeather for weather fans, boaters, and pilots; PlecoDict for students of Chinese; Woodpecker tide tables; and, of course, calendar-phonebooks for the masses. These apps, each in itself, are reason enough for buying a PPC of some sort.

    Pleco not only does just about everything a student might need to do, but is partially designed by the users, or, to put it another way, the developers are extremely responsive.

    Oh, and has anyone mentioned there are audio files too?

  29. You might be interested to know that nciku also has a mobile version, with the same content as the main site (including pinyin for definitions, example sentences etc). The address is

    You need to enable internet on your phone, but that’s really cheap here (at least with China Mobile) – you can get a 10 MB data package for 5 RMB a month.

  30. Hmmm, I’m not sure what you guys are talking about. All I have to do is click an extra button on my handheld electronic dictionary to get the pinyin. Not sure what the exact name is, but the cover is blue and it says “BESTA” on it – bought it at the Foreign Languages Bookstore on Fuzhou Lu in Shanghai. Lots of other people seem to have the exact same one. The handwritten character recognition function seems to work pretty well, too.

    The only thing that annoys me about it is that if I know the pinyin for a multisyllable word and want to find the characters, I have to do it character for character as opposed to typing the whole word as with an online pinyin input method, so it’s pretty much useless in that regard…

  31. Sparkletron Says: March 7, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    I received an MD7100 as a gift but found it useless due to the lack of pinyin. What I longed for was something like Wenlin–only portable. Now, with the advent of netbooks, it’s possible to carry Wenlin around in a package that is not too unreasonable. The new netbooks also get astounding 7+ hour battery life.

    It may interest some to know that Google Android does indeed have a dictionary with full pinyin support:
    You can search by pinyin or use pinyin as an input method to search by Chinese characters. It also has fuzzy pinyin options. And it doesn’t require a network connection, which is the one flaw to these otherwise wonderful online dictionary services.

  32. I have been looking for a good Android Dictionary for a long time but everywhere I look, it seems that there is no professionally prepared, high quality dictionary for Android. This seems like a market opportunity to me. Think about it, the cash I would have to spend for Pleco: iphone 3gs(5000-6000rmb) + Pleco ($100+ USD). That’s a lot of money for a freaking dictionary. Plus I don’t think that iPhone has that many inherent advantages over an Android whose handsets tend to be a lot cheaper(3500 for htc hero on taobao).

    All I really want is a good dictionary for Android and I’m going to buy an Android phone. iPhone has the free/low cost KTDict application that is not that bad.

Leave a Reply