Back to the iPhone (it’s all about Chinese!)


I got a first generation (2G) iPhone in 2008. Then I switched to an Android in 2009. As of this past weekend, I’m back on an iPhone (3GS). Why? I’ll spare you most of the geekery… it’s largely related to Chinese.

The HTC Hero was a pretty solid early Android device. The new smartphones running Android 2.2 are way better now, though. I’m aware of this. It wasn’t just about upgrading hardware and getting the latest OS.

I don’t really care that the iPhone has more apps, snazzier apps, and more games. Unfortunately, with the app advantage the iPhone pulled off another important victory: better apps for learning Chinese. As a learning consultancy, AllSet Learning also recommends various tools for learning Chinese. Well, I’ve got to admit: the iPhone is now the best tool out there for learning Chinese. For myself and for my clients, it’s the phone I need to be using.

Here are the most important factors in my decision to switch back to the iPhone from Android:

iPhone Pros

– The iPhone has quite a few dictionaries available for the student of Chinese. The free ones are decent, but if you’re willing to shell out a little money, you can buy some very good dictionaries. Popular choices include Pleco, Cambridge English-Chinese (not free), iCED, Qingwen, and DianHua.

– Switching between input methods in the iPhone is instant and easy (especially if you only enable English and one Chinese input method). This is something I do so often that even a slight advantage starts to really matter.

– If you’re interested in handwriting recognition for Chinese (and this is a great learning tool in itself), Apple’s solid version of that is built into the OS.

– The ChinesePod app for the iPhone is better than the one for the Android. (This is a trend that’s not particular to ChinesePod.)

– Ummm, have you seen Pleco OCR?

Android Cons

– No good dictionaries. I don’t even know what everyone uses. Hanping? Honestly, until I heard about Hanping (which, although serviceable, is a very basic CC-CEDICT dictionary), I was just using the mobile version of nciku.

– Switching input methods is a bit slow and annoying. It’s tolerable… for a while. But if you do a lot of switching, it gets to you. (Or you might stay in pinyin mode all the time, which also slows you down, since it has no predictive text functionality.)

– It’s getting Pleco someday, but who knows when?

OK, but nothing is totally one-sided… There are a few other points I should mention.

iPhone Cons

– Google Maps is still messed up in Shanghai on the iPhone. What’s up with this? It always places you some 300-500 meters northwest of where you really are. Apple blames Google. (Google Maps works just fine on Android devices in Shanghai.) This is seriously annoying.

Android Pros

– Google Maps just works.

– Recharging with a regular USB cord is so, so nice. (When you forget your cord, you can even borrow a friend’s digital camera USB cable.)

An iPhone 4 that’s usable in Shanghai is still super expensive, which is a major reason why I got a 3GS. The iPhone 3GS and the high-end Android devices are comparably priced. I was tempted to check out one of the Android phones, but I can’t ignore those iPhone advantages. I’m fickle, though… we’ll see how things develop over the next year.


John Pasden

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


  1. Should have gotten iphone4

  2. Thanks for the warning — I was going to switch to android since i’m so mad at Apple for their anti-labor anti-environment practices (especially around the iPhone 4). I guess I’ll cling to my 3G until a third option presents itself or apple stops being evil.

  3. The GPS offset also exists on Garmin devices in China. I read somewhere that you need to purchase a device specifically designed for use in China in order to correct this. Very frustrating, but the offset seems too similar to that you describe on the iPhone to be coincidence.

    • The offset is a known, intentional problem with Garmin devices sold outside of China. We contacted Garmin and this was the email they sent back to us. They also sent us the necessary bin file to fix the offset. Some of their customer service people are not aware of this, so it took us a few rounds of email exchanges to get what we needed.

      “Due to requirements by the government of China, City Navigator China NT mapping is shifted by several hundred meters unless you are physically located within the borders of China and your compatible Garmin device has acquired a satellite signal. While using your Garmin device within China, the unit will compensate for the shift in the mapping and will both navigate and mark waypoints correctly. In order for this “unshifting” to be done correctly, the unit relies on a .bin file located on the Garmin unit and/or datacard.”

  4. Yea, was out of town recently and while pretty easy on the highway, once off it was a bit of guesswork when trying to determine what street I was on and where I should turn, etc. using Google maps on Iphone (due to the offset you mentioned).
    I found Autonavi Navigation (高德导航) but it is $15, so contemplating that or a cheap dedicated Car GPS from taobao, anyone use Autonavi before?

  5. Darn – I just started teaching a class for American college students, and was going to ask you if you had any recommendations for Android-based tools. (I was kind of surprised that they didn’t all have iPhones or iPod Touches, but whatever.) Pleco really justifies (retroactively) my purchase of an iPhone — and Pleco OCR is going to be truly amazing. One of the things I noticed about my students is that many of them seem to be unfamiliar with looking stuff up in dictionaries — then I realized that with the exception of truly obscure vocabulary, I hardly ever refer to print dictionaries anymore either. Interesting times!

  6. “The ChinesePod app for the iPhone is better than the one for the Android. (This is a trend that’s not particular to ChinesePod.)”

    Seriously man? I mean SERIOUSLY?


  7. Pleco for Android beta is supposed to be out this year. I can’t imagine that with Android far outnumbering iPhones that the app disparity will last too much longer.

  8. For Google maps on iphone, you can fix it with jailbreak.
    After jailbreaking, you use cydia to install a small patch and then googlemaps just works fine.

  9. Congratulations on the switch, John!

    You raise a particularly interesting point with your discussion of IMEs on iPhone: I think Apple’s built-in handwriting recognizer may actually have a lot to do with the proliferation of iPhone Chinese dictionary apps. It’s certainly flawed (and doesn’t even support traditional characters on the iPad), but it means that anybody with a basic knowledge of iPhone programming and SQLite can whip up a perfectly serviceable little Chinese dictionary in a couple of weeks and immediately have something comparable to Pleco’s state-of-the-art $40 Palm OS product back in 2002. (CC-CEDICT may not have Oxford’s quality or depth yet, but it actually has almost 4x as many entries as the Oxford Concise did)

    The programming isn’t that much more difficult on Android, but without plugging in a third-party Chinese IME you’re left with something that’s really only good for Pinyin. Even radical tables on Android are a bit dicey, since the built-in Droid Sans Fallback Chinese font doesn’t have full coverage of standalone radicals – you have to use character images or bring your own font.

    So even ignoring financial concerns, the satisfaction / usability per hour of programming time is much better for people developing Chinese dictionaries on iPhone than on Android. And of course the finances do play a role too, and the difficulty of selling Android apps in countries outside of Google’s short list of officially-supported ones isn’t helping matters on the Chinese dictionary front.

    Google is already addressing the supported country gap (or at least they claim to be), and they could probably fix the handwriting gap too if they wanted to spend a bit of money on it – I know for a fact that there’s a pretty good mobile-friendly Chinese handwriting engine out there that they could buy and open-source like they did with Tesseract for (English) OCR. But until they do, Pleco port notwithstanding, the overall selection of Chinese dictionaries on iPhone will likely continue to dwarf that on Android, even if the Android installed base (much more important metric than market share) eventually catches up with that of iPhone/iPod/iPad.

  10. Why an outdated iPhone3GS??? An iPhone4 is much better…

  11. I agree with Giraffe, and i find M.Love comments true unfortunately. with lots of android devices and tables coming mostly from ASIA i would expect ASIAN languages will be well supported. i have an iphone 3gs too loaded with every possible chinese application necessary for beginners learning. I am looking to buy an Android tablet soon as soon as Froyo 2.2 becomes available, hopefully very soon now. and i have a trust that because of the simplicity to program on the Android platform and it is mass market especially in China and around it that we would see a an in increasing trend in the number of chinese applications and soon it should catchup with the iphone. i need flash to use with skritter and lingt for example, that is not available yet on the iphone and ipad, however on Froyo it is. so as an access to chinese learning websites Android is more friendly than the iphone in that regard.

  12. Interesting, and I really see the focus on Pleco. I love Pleco as an application, but not as a business. Pre iPhone they required Windows Mobile or Palm, which were technogically stagnant platforms. Only long after the iPhone was released did they present an iPhone app. And such a slow transition to Android too.

    They have a great product, which a lot of people buy a hardware platform just to run, but they have a horribly slow business strategy that’d win them a lot more customers should they not tie their hardware to obscure hardware platforms. Netbooks came out years ago now – both Linux and regular Windows based, and still no app for them. Hopefully, Android as an open platform can make Pleco more widespread too. If they’d just hurry up.

    • There’s not really any way around our “slow business strategy” unfortunately – the main reason people like our software is precisely because it has so many features, if we slapped together an app in a couple of months for every new platform that came out we’d lose most of the things that make our products special. We’re not that big, we don’t have millions of dollars of VC behind us, competent mobile app developers are incredibly expensive, and, high prices notwithstanding, this is not an enormously profitable business (the amount we spend on royalties would make any accountant cringe), so we’re working as fast as we can.

      The iPhone version could have been out ~6 months earlier if we’d ceased all development on Palm and Windows Mobile and gone all-out iPhone the second Apple released the first version of their iPhone developer tools, but we’d have royally screwed all of our old customers in the process; we really had to finish Pleco 2.0 (which we’d spec’ed out when the iPhone was nothing but a gleam in Steve Jobs’ eye) on Palm/WM for them before we could turn our attention to iPhone development.

      Also worth noting is that until a few months after Pleco 2.0 came out, it seemed like Palm was about to release a new version of Palm OS that might actually get consumers interested, and until last winter it seemed like Microsoft was about to release a beautifully-revamped version of Windows Mobile; if they hadn’t both dropped backwards compatibility in their new OSes (particularly baffling with Microsoft, which has generally gone to tremendous lengths to preserve backwards compatibility) our Palm and WM software would still be a hot seller today.

      As far as the Android version, until this summer’s release of the NDK r4 it wasn’t even really viable to get ~10 years of code ported over to Android – we experimented with actually rewriting our database engine in Java and it was so slow as to be almost comical (and we really used every trick in the book to try to make it faster). Since that came out it’s been roughly a 50-50 split between Android and iPhone development, and given the response we’ve gotten to the OCR feature I think the continued effort on iPhone is well worth it.

      As far as netbooks, we’re planning to offer a distribution of our Android software recompiled for X86 and bundled with an open-source virtual machine as an alternative to a dedicated desktop version – given how easy that’ll be I’m actually feeling very smart not to have invested resources in a separate app for desktop OSes.

      Honestly, I hate the constant platform races – I really wish we could just all settle on one platform and stick with it; say what you will about Microsoft (and I’ve said some particularly choice things in the wake of the WP7 announcement), it sure made developers’ lives a lot easier when one company dominated the OS market for decades. Hopefully we can settle into a nice simple Apple-Google duopoly for a while and Pleco can finally concentrate on improving our software instead of constantly rewriting it for the Awesome New Mobile Platform du jour.

  13. I keep hearing good things about Pleco, and I have seriously been considering getting an iPod Touch just to get it (I’m not in the market for a smartphone right now). OCR is the feature that really makes me want it, like having a popup translator for printed books.

    • It doesn’t look like OCR will work on the new iPod Touch, unfortunately, since its camera doesn’t seem to support autofocus (though we’re still trying to confirm that with Apple).

  14. Andrew Cockerham Says: September 3, 2010 at 10:28 am

    I agree with you about the dictionaries being much better for iPhone, and an annoying lack of quality dictionaries for Android. I’m stuck using Google Translate or NCIKU on my Android G1.

    But other than the dictionary thing, there are still many good ways to study Chinese using Android. For example, I regularly use the Chinesepod App for Flashcards, although not for lessons. And there are many spaced recognition algorithm based flashcard apps for Android, a recent one that I use is AnyMemo, with tons of Chinese character databases.

    So even though iPhone has the advantage (for the time being) of Pleco and other dictionaries, with Pleco coming soon and the ability to use online dictionaries if necessary, I’m sticking with my Android device.

  15. John… one little correction.

    The new Google IME, at least on the Android, does have predictive completion when in English mode (Stay in the IME, but switch to typing English letters, rather than pinying).

    Granted, it’s not great, but, at least, it’s there, meaning it’s capable of learning and getting better… =)

  16. I’ve been very happy sticking with the iPhone for Chinese learning, especially once I could get Pleco and ditch my old Palm. I agree that it is worth investing in hardware just for Pleco, and I’ve also been happy with the support (letting users port their dictionary licenses over was unexpected and appreciated). I will go up to iPhone 4 once the OCR is ready.

    The Google Maps is a dreadful pain. To deepen the mystery of why this must be so, have you noticed the satellite and map views are misaligned on Google Maps website by the same amount?

  17. Pleco drove my last phone purchase (Windows Mobile 6.x) and is why I am getting an iPhone. (Should be able to get it in a couple days.)

    Michael Love also is very good about answering customer feedback–paying for the dictionary is worth it.

  18. Hanping, Colordict and Anki on my Nexus One works fine for me. China is the first market to have more people with Android phones then iPhones so its only a matter of time before the quantity and quality of Chinese apps for Android improve. Android will surpass iPhone in every way in due time.

  19. Have you tried Hanping Pro? It has far more features than the free version. Also, Hanping in super-fast on Android 2.2.

  20. …and you can see the Hanping Pro features here:

  21. Also for free handwriting support on Android, try HanWriting IME. Supports Chinese, Japanese, Korean and English!

    I think the biggest problem here for John is that he’s comparing free Android apps with paid iPhone apps. Also, the iOS app market is about 1 year more mature than the Android market. Android is catching up fast and I would expect the quality and breadth of apps to catch up over the next year.

    Living in China, you don’t see paid apps in the Android Market. Those are generally much better quality than the free apps – especially in niche areas like Chinese learning.

    If you have an Android device and are living in China then all you need to do is put a US/UK/DE etc sim card in your phone (doesn’t have to be active and can connect to Market over wifi) and then you can see/buy whatever paid apps you want. Once you are done, swap back in your Chinese sim card (i.e. you only need to change the sim card when purchasing paid apps, not using them). This is of course a PITA, but its useful to know until Google comes up with a proper long-term solution.

    OCR? Google are rumoured to be bringing out an update to Google Goggles soon which will include multi-lingual OCR support (including Chinese). Use it from within any app (SMS, email, dictionary, flashcard etc) so no need for cumbersome copy/paste like you would need to on the iPhone.

    The vastly superior support on Android for inter-app communication is a big advantage over iOS’s “pasteboard” approach and this is very useful in language-learning where you are often juggling multiple apps. Currently, not too many apps take full advantage of this inter-app functionality but this will improve as the Android Market apps mature.

  22. Although I have spent quite some time listening to Jenny and you on the road, I only recently discovered your website–so much useful stuff! I just keep on reading.

    I was planning to buy a new iPod touch, just for Pleco and its coming-up feature, but unfortunately that does not seem like a good idea anymore. I guess I could buy an iPhone, but I thought those are sold only in combination with an expensive phone plan, and really I just want to use it as a dictionary. Is the plan thing true for iPhones bought in China as well? And are there any other technical devices will support the OCR? I guess I should just be patient, and wait and see, but I’m pretty curious.

    Ok, now back to trying to make sounds with my tongue blade rather than tongue tip 🙂

  23. For handwriting support Penpower beats Hanwriting hands down.
    Check this link.

  24. I agree, iPhone has a lot more choices. Just search “learn Chinese” in iTunes store and you’ll find so many of them for iPhone and iPad. I’ve used a few of them, including Pleco, iChinese by Matthias Huber, iLearn Chinese , etc. Each of them offer some different advantages/disadvantages. For example, the well known Pleco provides the most comprehensive set but each add-on costs a lot. iLearn Chinese ( introduces characters with their picture meanings which makes so much sense for those otherwise are like non-sense characters.

  25. Hi John,

    Is Apple’s handwriting recognition tool the best, in your opinion?

    • I think the add-on in Pleco (licensed) is head and shoulders above the built-in one in iOS. If you have a iphone/pod/pad it is worth the few extra $$ to get the plug-in. I can’t go back to the built-in one!

  26. The iPhone is very pleasurable to develop on which is why there are so many apps. I wanted to write my own Chinese learning app and had a great time doing it. It’s a great platform and Apple provide really good tools to work with which means it can only get better for the Chinese language learning community.

    Rob Phillips,
    developer of HanZi Reader

  27. Looks like iOS support for Chinese (and other languages) is improving

  28. […] Android version (screenshots here)! This is interesting to me, because one of the major reasons I switched from an Android phone back to an iPhone was Pleco. I haven’t seen the Android version in […]

  29. Kaushik Says: May 2, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    Pleco for Android is out,completely for free !!!!!!!!
    Some other funky apps are out there,just do check them out !!!

  30. Hi John-

    Wondering if you have an updated take on the iPhone vs Android with regard to Chinese input and language tools. I’m on a 3GS that looks like it’s on the way out, comparing iOS6 and Android. Seems the new txt-speech capability in the former is a big bonus, and Android’s input method toggle has been much more clunky, though seems there was some attempt to address this in 4.1 Jelly Bean. Pleco for Android appears to have a full deck these days, though with no hands-on experience I can’t tell if it’s as well implemented. Would be great to get some data points from folks that are using recent hardware/OS.

    • Michael,

      You’re right; this info could stand an update. I’m a little out of touch with Android these days, though. Haven’t used it in years.

      If I get the chance, I’ll recompare. I do get the sense that the gap is no longer as large, though. Apple, in general, is not quite the powerhouse it was in Jobs’ heyday.

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