Last September, I posted about two free dictionaries that had flashcard functionality (at extra cost): Pleco Chinese Dictionary and trainchinese: Dictionary & Flash cards. In reviewing the state of the iOS Chinese dictionary market, I find that those are still the two that I would recommend to students, so let’s take a closer look at their respective advantages.
Both have useful features for learners, such as color-coding by tones and example sentences, but for beginning students, I’d recommend trainchinese over Pleco for a number of reasons:
- Features that are especially useful to beginners, such as audio and stroke order diagrams, are included at no extra charge. Audio does require an internet connection.
- English to Chinese search is better.
- A nifty feature draws your attention to characters with similar shapes to the ones you search for (see image below).
- App badges remind you to study.
- It seems easier to use, partly because there are fewer options. In the image of a dictionary entry in trainchinese, notice how tapping a character brings up a special menu from which you can easily get an animated stroke order diagram.
Pleco, on the other hand, is more of a power tool and has features that more advanced users will appreciate, such as
- one-tap flipping from traditional to simplified characters and vice versa
- choice of zhuyin or pinyin
- wildcard searches
- detailed information about characters, such as frequency rating, grade level, radical, number of strokes
- the ability to search for words containing a certain character or just beginning with it
- the ability to add custom dictionary entries
- extra dictionaries available as free or paid add-ons (including free ones for French and German)
- lots of display options for colors, font size, screen arrangement, night mode, etc.
Features like audio and stroke order diagrams are paid add-ons. But as a dictionary, Pleco is my favorite for fast lookups of Chinese. It has an independent handwriting recognition system, so you don’t have to switch keyboards to do a hanzi search. Any Chinese copied to your device’s clipboard from another app will be automatically entered into the search box when you launch Pleco (no need to place the cursor in the box and choose “paste”). It also can search multiple dictionaries at once (for example, its own and CC-CEDICT).
When it comes to comparing the flashcard features of each, the same generalities hold true: trainchinese is easier to use, but Pleco can be customized in all kinds of ways. For example, in Pleco you can choose spaced repetition or other methods of word selection, customize the appearance of the flashcard “sides,” and choose from six different test types (fill in the blank, multiple choice, tone knowledge, stroke order, self-grading, and review). For more about trainchinese’s flashcard feature, see my earlier review.
Another big difference is price structure: Pleco’s flashcard tool is a one-time purchase (check their website for the educational discount rate), whereas trainchinese uses a subscription model (free users have limited flashcard functionality). But that subscription gets you access to tons of pre-made wordlists, whereas with Pleco, you need to make your own lists. Some of Pleco’s other tools, however, make this very easy. Their OCR tool makes it very easy to grab words using your iOS device’s camera. And the Reader tool lets you add words from texts you are reading. But each of these tools is also an additional purchase.
With your trainchinese subscription, you also get access to a web app, and your word lists sync across that and your devices. One of Pleco’s biggest drawbacks is that your flashcards and progress do not sync across devices. You can manually export from one and import to the other, but even this seems harder than it needs to be.
In short, Pleco can do things that I have not seen in other other iOS Chinese dictionary apps, which is probably due to the fact that it has existed since long before iOS. But for the same reason, it cannot do things that users expect nowadays, like sync across devices and give reminders. If you are into Chinese for the long haul, Pleco is great app and the “pay once” pricing means you won’t be stuck in a subscription for the rest of your life and you will have control over your data (you can export word lists as text or XML files).
But for new students, trainchinese will get you up and running with your flashcards faster and the dictionary will give you audio and stroke order animation without additional purchases. If you do choose to subscribe, using one of the links to trainchinese.com on this page will earn me a month’s subscription.