Sep 082011

The input methods (“keyboards”) provided within iOS include one that lets you produce hanzi by typing the pinyin for the character, but what if you actually want to type the pinyin transliteration itself, with proper tone marks?

You can almost do this with the English input of iOS. ā, á, and à are all easy to get by holding down the a key and picking from the palette (same with e , i, o, and u). But how do you get an ǎ when using an iOS device, like the iPad I’m typing on right now?

Until a couple of days ago, I would have drafted this in the WordPress iOS app and then gone to a computer to stick in anything with a third tone before I could post. But a couple of days ago, I was given a promotional copy of Pinyin Typist by its developer, Wayne Wong.

Pinyin Typist does a lot more than let you type pinyin with all the tone marks. With the iOS English input I could type “ài” in the way I just described: by holding down the “a” key, selecting “à”, and then typing “i”. With Pinyin Typist, you type in all the base letters first (“ai”, in this case) and then hit a special key with the right tone. The app intelligently places the tone mark for you over the correct letter. This is a nice feature for beginners, who may be unsure of where the tone mark should go.

The app adds special keys for all four tones, plus ü (and an apostrophe and a hyphen) in an extra row above the usual virtual keyboard. Inputting with these keys feels decidedly faster than the press-hold-select method, even if one could get all the tone marks that way.

The virtual keyboard of Pinyin Typist

Notice the row of extra keys for entering tones

There are many other thoughtful details built into the app.

  • First of all, it’s an actual basic text editor, so you can use all the iOS keyboards within it. For example, I can type 汉语 using the iOS handwriting or pinyin input and then transliterate it hànyǔ using Pinyin Typist’s keyboard without leaving the app.
  • There is a feature to save snippets of text so you can reuse them easily.
  • There is a dedicated copy button, so you don’t have to place the cursor, select all, then hit copy.
  • Text can be exported directly to an e-mail with just two taps.
  • Pinyin Typist retains any text entered, even after you leave the app.
  • The text can be zoomed up to an enormous size, not only so that you can easily see the tone marks, but also so that you can hold up your iOS device to show someone else. This could be useful in a teaching or tutoring situation, or when traveling (even if your Chinese is OK, you may have dialect issues in some places, so it might be handy to have something like an address written large to show a driver). The size of snippets is saved with them.

Pinyin Typist text zoomed

Text zoomed to fill iPad screen. Notice the slider is only about half-way!

Wish list:

  • Rich text formatting. When mixing roman letters and hanzi, I like to have the hanzi a couple of point sizes larger for easy reading. Also, being able to do some simple formatting, like italics, would reduce the amount of “post-production” to be done when you paste your text from Pinyin Typist to another app. Rich text wouldn’t normally be necessary for e-mail, but would be very handy for preparing teaching materials in Pages or Keynote. This is a small desideratum, though. What the app does, it does extremely well.

Pinyin Typist not only solves a particular problem in iOS (i.e. entry of third tone marks), but provides a very convenient environment for working with Chinese text and transliteration, even when mixed with other languages. There are other ways to get pinyin with tone marks (such as using a character converter, as discussed in this post), but Pinyin Typist is probably the fastest to use; the fact that you can do all your basic text editing right in the app with minimal switching back and forth between apps, makes Pinyin Typist the most efficient way that I’ve seen to get proper tones marks in iOS.

Pinyin Typist is a universal app for iOS. My screenshots are from the iPad, but it works on iPhone as well.

  4 Responses to “iOS app: Pinyin Typist”

  1. Thanks again for your great review of Pinyin Typist! I especially appreciate how you pointed out some of its various features beyond the basic pinyin typing functionality, which you found to be the best available on iOS.

    Re pasting into the iPad versions of Pages or Keynote specifically, I noticed that while text copied from the one of those apps and then pasted elsewhere within the same app will retain its original formatting in some scenarios, text pasted into these apps from Safari always seems to take on the formatting at the insertion point, regardless of what formatting the pasted text had where it was copied from. So for pasting into those apps at least, it appears that any formatting that would have been applied in a hypothetical rich text-capable version of Pinyin Typist would be lost anyway.

    One method that I have found to successfully set formatting in Pinyin Typist and then pass that on to certain other apps is to use Markdown or HTML code in Pinyin Typist. Such code is made up of Unicode plain text, which is exactly what Pinyin Typist produces. More details can now be found on Pinyin Typist’s official web page at the subheading Pinyin Text With Formatting:

    Wayne Wong
    Developer of Pinyin Typist

  2. Pinyin Typist version 1.8 just recently went live on the App Store. Besides fixing a bug that caused crashing under iOS 5 when any of the Snippets tab view Action menu commands were invoked, this version also changes the format of the emails that Pinyin Typist sends.

    The emails sent by Pinyin Typist are now in HTML (web) format. Thus, HTML code and CSS code in the text are rendered like they are in web browsers, enabling you to put formatting in the emails that’s like the formatting seen in web pages:

    ◦ bold

    ◦ italic

    ◦ colors

    ◦ font settings

    ◦ headings

    ◦ bulleted and numbered lists

    ◦ links, etc.

    This provides another option for using Pinyin Typist to produce pinyin text with formatting.

    Happy pinyin typing, everyone!

    Wayne Wong
    Developer of Pinyin Typist

  3. Pinyin Typist 2.0 recently went live on the App Store.

    This update brings some refinements as well as some big new features, including one that takes advantage of a new provision of iOS 5:

    • The Settings tab view has been added, which enables:

    ◦ The Night Theme, which changes the text and background colours to be easier on the eyes (especially at night) and easier on the battery

    ◦ Setting a different font for the Pinyin Typing tab view, for those times when you want to explore beyond the default font

    ◦ All font choices have been tested to ensure the proper rendition of the pinyin vowels before being made available.

    • When running on iOS 5 or above, you can now tweet directly from Pinyin Typist.

    ◦ You can tweet the text in the Pinyin Typing tab view. (The first 140 characters are automatically used.)

    ◦ You can also tweet the text of a snippet in the Snippets tab view. (The first 140 characters are automatically used.)

    • In the Snippets tab view, the size of the text in the displayed rows of snippets has been increased to make it easier to see pinyin tone marks.

    • The startup images have been changed to use a grey linen textured background.

    The above changes should serve to advance and refine the experience of using Pinyin Typist to quickly and easily type typographically correct pinyin on iOS devices, especially for bigger pinyin typing jobs. At the same time, Pinyin Typist is still nimble and ready for those times when the need or opportunity arises or inspiration strikes, and you must quickly jot down something in pinyin before you forget or the opportunity passes.

    Wayne Wong
    Developer of Pinyin Typist

  4. For an example of how the natural typing technique used in Pinyin Typist makes it suitable for use on even long form works in Pinyin, see this Pinyin version of David Moser’s classic essay, “Why Chinese Is So…Hard”, which was produced with the help of Pinyin Typist:

    Why Chinese Is So…Hard—Pīnyīn Version

    Wayne Wong
    Developer of Pinyin Typist

 Leave a Reply



You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>