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The Only Chinese-English Dictionary app You’ll Ever Need

I suppose this could be considered a sequel to this post on the best ebook reader for Chinese. I must apologize for my particular emphasis on i-devices, but as it’s the only kinds I own, I am most familiar with what is available for them. Without much further ado, I bring you the only Chinese to English and vice versa (and Chinese-Chinese!) dictionary app you’ll ever need!

Originally I introduced Pleco (iTunes link here) back in this entry, but I did not devote nearly as much time to it as I should have. I have found that it is probably one of, if not the strongest Chinese dictionaries available. To quote the developers from their website:

free basic version of Pleco for iPhone / iPod Touch / iPad; you can add on more advanced features / dictionaries from right inside of the app, but the basic version is an excellent little dictionary in its own right (and includes the same wonderful search engine as our more advanced software).

I will also preface this by saying: while the basic dictionary is free, the rest of the add-ons (aside from a few) are paid additions. Some of those are very much worth it, others in my opinion are not. Anyway, let’s take a look at what Pleco has to offer!


[Sigh. Originally this was a MUCH shorter entry but I got overly ambitious.. there’s more after the break]

First of all, there are two versions available, one for the iPhone and one for the iPad. And, most importantly, they sync, via an account, so if you make any in-app purchases on one they will be available on the other system as well.

iPhone Version

I love the ultimate portability of this, I can instantly look up words on the go. The interface is clean and easy to use, too:


You can use the built-in Chinese handwriting system that comes with the iPhone, which makes looking up characters a real cinch when you’re reading through an article, looking at a sign or billboard outside, etc. You can even write characters in the same ugly fashion I did and STILL get results! Amazing!

Secondly, it has a wide variety of dictionaries. I tend to scroll through each one because sometimes there’s an entry that is in one but not in another. It’s great since I typically rummage through a few sources when I’m studying or when doing translation work.

Oh yes and the Chinese phonetics can be switched from Zhuyin to Pinyin, but since I prefer Zhuyin that is what I currently have it set to.

Other than that there is not much else to say about it, other than it makes a fantastic mobile dictionary that runs fast, loads fast, and is a smooth easy to pick-up interface.

iPad Version

Let me just say it looks beautiful on the iPad, as shown in the image near the top of this article. But we all love a little eye candy so here’s another view (and even if you don’t, I hope by the end of this article you will):


It’s very relaxing just to sit back and enjoy writing characters on the iPad as you do your work. The bigger screen makes looking at the characters much more comfortable than when using the iPhone.

That said, there isn’t much else different about it, and it’s a fine dictionary to have on the iPad.



Ah, yes, the add-ons, it seems many apps these days are doing this as a way to make money. It’s free BUT you have to get the add-ons for real functionality. I can honestly say, though, I used Pleco for a very long time before getting any add-ons and I felt the free version was just as amazing as anything you could pay for. That said, it would be good to take a look at what is offered.

Free add-ons

The free add-ons, well, they’re nothing to bat an eyelash at, as they’re all simply dictionaries:

  • CC-CEDICT Chinese-English Dictionary
  • Adsotrans Chinese-English Dictionary
  • LDC English-Chinese Wordlist
  • HanDeDict Chinese-German Dictionary
  • DeHanDict German-Chinese Dictionary

But it’s nice to have those freely and easily accessible right into the app.

Paid add-ons

The paid add-ons, of course, offer a much wider variety of options:

  • Optical Character Recognizer
  • Stroke Order Diagrams
  • ABC Chinese-English Dictionary
  • ABC English-Chinese Dictionary
  • 21st Century English-Chinese Dictionary
  • NWP English-Chinese Dictionary
  • Xiandai Hanyu Guifan Cidian
  • Tuttle Learner’s Chinese-English Dictionary
  • Cheng & Tsui E-C Business Lexicon
  • Audio Pronunciation (male)
  • Audio Pronunciation (female)
  • Extended Audio (male)
  • Extended Audio (female)
  • Full-screen Handwriting
  • Document Reader
  • Flashcard System

Again, everyone’s needs/wants will be different. Pleco also offers complete bundles, but that can run nearly $100USD, and I don’t necessarily believe this is worth it. Since there’s a lot of add-ons, I’ll just focus on ones I have purchased or am considering purchasing.

OCR—Optical Character Recognizer


I’ll admit, this was definitely an impulse purchase. Originally, I found it very unwieldy to use and it was difficult to focus on a character long enough to make good use of it. Even after the upgrade which locks onto a character if you hold it there long enough (a very welcome upgrade), I still found that, well, if I can WRITE it, what do I need this for? I don’t necessarily regret the purchase, but I don’t see any real need for this, unless you really just can’t seem to write a character or you buy the document reader add-on. But, even though, I don’t think this is worth it.

Rating: Great if you want a fun toy to play with, but skipable.

Flashcard System

This I have not used personally, but a friend of mine picked it up. At first, I thought, wow, great, another SRS. Like I don’t use enough already (gosh dang do I need to simplify down!). But, what I think is really unique about this one is the ability to add entries directly into the unit as you look them up. This is good for me, as I usually plow through a TON of vocab when I read, but never do much of anything else afterward, and much is forgotten. This way I could easily put them right into the system and study as I go. It also has features such as listing the pronunciation and you have to write the character, or write the tone, or write the phonetics, go off definition, etc. It seemed pretty handy. Granted it’s in single units of vocab, which I thought I had overgrown, but it might be a useful way to build necessary vocab for my school assignments.

Rating: Do you want another SRS?

The Dictionaries

All the other dictionaries, you can pick and choose if you’d want a particular one. At this point, there’s so many dictionaries available online for free, or included already as free downloads, that I don’t think purchasing these are necessary. There are descriptions available for each one, but after looking through them, I personally did not find any that seemed to fit what I would need. If there is one to be interested in, it’s the Xiandai Hanyu Guifan Cidian. It seems to be the only Chinese<—>Chinese dictionary available for Pleco and it’s nice to have the option. I have no tried it yet, though.

Rating: Pick and choose what you’d need; otherwise they’re not necessary; however, the Chinese<->Chinese dictionary might be a worthwhile investment.

The et-ceteras

Things like the audio files, document reader, and full-screen handwriting are pretty much up to personal preference. The audio I think would be a lovely addition to have, and having used the trial, is really nice. However, if you can wait, you can always go home and run it through MDBG. Obviously all you’re doing is paying for the convenience of having it right in your dictionary.

As for the document reader it:

helps to streamline the process of reading through Chinese-language documents by making it easy to look up unknown words; you can look up a word in the dictionary simply by tapping on it, instead of having to write it in manually. Text files are fully supported, and there’s also indirect support (through the pasteboard) for translating Chinese words in web pages and Word / RTF documents.

Yeah, you know, that may be good on say the iPad, but I still don’t think this is necessarily a purchase you need to make.

As for the full-screen handwriting, again, I don’t think this is necessarily any better than what the iPhone already comes with. It:

use[s] the entire width of the iPhone’s screen to draw characters and clear / backspace / finish entering characters using multitouch (two-finger tap). It’s extremely accurate, tolerant of stroke order mistakes, and supports cursive writing, helpful for more advanced users (or for asking people to write down what they’re saying when you can’t understand them).

Again, this is definitely a “if you’ve got the money and figure, why the heck not” kind of purchase. I have seen it in action, and it is pretty slick. But I’m satisfied with the basic iOS interface.

Rating: Really, personal preference and if you have the money.


This is definitely a dictionary app you want to try, regardless of if you plan to buy any of the add-ons or not. The basic app, and the free dictionaries it provides, are more than enough to get full use and enjoyment out of the app. Pleco is also great because of the add-ons, and adds a lot of customization to the dictionary. They’re also due for a GUI upgrade sometime soon, and the developers are always working on it.

What’s it missing? I would say, for me, I would like to see more Chinese<—>Chinese dictionary options. But, for now, I’ll just have to point my browser towards an online one and be satisfied, as it’s free and freely available for me over the 3G network.

Plus their customer service is fantastic, as I just had a few questions about the Guifan dictionary which were all quickly answered—so if you have any issues I am sure they will be more than willing to help! Actually, I will copy it here as it may concern you, too:

< I asked if the Guifan dictionary can be changed from Simplified to Traditional >

The Guifan dictionary does indeed switch to traditional characters when you use the software in traditional mode; however, a lot of the conversion happens automatically (we didn’t go through and hand-check every entry), so there may be a few cases where a simplified character with multiple traditional equivalents is mapped to the wrong one – 历 to 歷 or 曆, e.g.

15 thoughts on “The Only Chinese-English Dictionary app You’ll Ever Need”

  1. In my opinion, the built in document reader is fantastic. Helps me to read those text messages that I just can’t quite figure out.

    Also, the full-screen handwriting is MUCH better than Apple’s built-in version. It gives you quite a bit more leeway as far as making mistakes while writing (stroke order, missing stroke, etc) or recognizing sloppy cursive writing. The basic bundle is totally worth the $35 or so that it costs.

    1. I did not know it could work towards text messages as well, that might be a pretty useful tool.

      Since you mentioned it, the basic bundle is a pretty good deal, and I’m thinking about picking it up myself now.

    1. Haha! Love the way you put that 🙂

      You can actually change the colors of the tones if you’d like. I’m considering trying to follow MDBG’s format since I use that dictionary a lot.

  2. I wanted to write earlier, but never got around to it. At any rate, I don’t think you’re giving the character OCR enough credit. Writing a character to look it up is fine once in a while, but for example when I read a book I circle all unknown characters and once in a while I sit down and add the 30 or so new ones to my flashcards – in that case it’s quite bothersome and takes a long time to write so much and it’s very easy to just hold my camera over them and instantly see the pinyin so I can write them on my computer.

    Judging from the screenshots, you’re holding the camera far too close to the book. I have found that, unintuitively, the software works much better and more reliably when the characters are smaller. Give it a try.

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  6. Do you happen to know if there is are apps for Chinese speakers who need English audio-pronunciation? I must not be searching for correctly or something, since I can’t seem to find one…

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  8. Pleco seems a bit complicated to me, it took lot of my space in mobile and I was lost when I started to use it. Anyway, it might be my problem to get lost, I will take more time to make me familiar with it, because some functions are really what I want, such as OCR…
    I also use DucroZi, a simple offline dictionary APP to search words and add words to my vocabulary list to learn Chinese. It’s a simple APP, but I can find words easily and it can also improve my memory of all vocabulary I learned.

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