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Language tech: Pleco 2

Image of the Plecodict software referencing the University of Hawai'i ABC dictionary. http://www.pleco.com .

Pleco 2: Chinese Study with a PDA/Smartphone

The recently released Pleco 2 is potentially a killer app for Chinese language studies.  To use it, you'll need a smartphone or PDA.   This article by Ben Caesar on Chinese study technology has been written for the Association for Speakers of Chinese as a Second Language (ASCSL).

Pleco 2 - The Killer App?

The recently released Pleco 2 with handwritten character recognition, flashcards, quizzes, comprehensive dictionaries, a reader, audio and stroke order diagrams, is potentially the killer app for Chinese students and indeed anyone working with the Chinese language. With dictionaries ranging from the beginner-friendly Tuttle Learner's Chinese-English Dictionary and stalwart Oxford University Press Concise English & Chinese Dictionary, through to the mighty 200,000-plus entry University of Hawai'i Press ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, the huge Chinese-Chinese 现代汉语规范词典 (Xiandai Hanyu Guifan Cidian) and the similarly vast English-Chinese volume 21st Century English-Chinese Dictionary, the makers of the software are clearly intending their product to be a catch-all for Chinese language studies.  Using a unicode reference, pretty much any character you're ever likely to see will be defined.

However, extolling the virtues of this software is perhaps for a future article and Pleco Software's website does a decent job of this anyway.  What I want to look at here is whether this could be the solution for your studies and, if so, what you will need to get started.

Barriers to usage

If the barrier is simply technical know-how.. the investment of effort.. is absolutely worth it.

One of the big issues with such software for pocket devices is that there are barriers to usage both technical and physical.  On the technical side, the software is designed to be used on hand-held devices that you can carry around in your pocket.  If you're not particularly interested in gadgets to begin with, purchasing, installing and configuring it all could be quite a challenge.  Also, let's not forget the simple fact that the display used in these devices is tiny and clearly an issue if your eyesight can't cope with it - less of a problem for most young students but definitely a problem for many academics.  Even with good eyesight, when these small devices are used for prolonged study rather than just quick checks or tests, eyestrain is another likely issue - I often had mild headaches from prolonged reading and studying when I used similar tools in Taiwan.  If eyesight is an issue, you'll unfortunately have to wait for software like this to appear on an operating system more appropriate for your usage (E.g. The Windows OS for your desktop computer or one of the new tiny 'netbook' format PCs).  However, if the barrier is simply technical know-how, I really think that the investment of effort in purchasing a compatible PDA/Smartphone, installing the software and then configuring and using it is absolutely worth it.

PDAs and Smartphones

A Dell Axim 50V - one of these could probably be bought second-hand for under £100 and are perfectly capable of running Plecodict.

For Pleco you basically need to get a Windows Mobile Pocket PC PDA or smartphone.  (A limited iPhone version is in development and the developers have stated that they will work on a Windows desktop version).  A Pocket PC PDA is a little handheld pocket computer running Windows Mobile 2003 (old second-hand ones), Windows Mobile 5 or, with the more recent models Windows Mobile 6. If you buy one, get it with a decent screen (I recommend 320 by 240) and make sure the screen is a touchscreen one (almost all PDAs are). If you're in China or Taiwan, perhaps look for a Dopod, Acer or Asus.  You'll also need a card slot to expand the memory. Most have SD card (Smart Digital card) memory slots. Probably the cheapest new one that fits all of this will be available for less than £150. If you can get an old second-hand one, maybe you would pay only £50-100.

An alternative to a Pocket PC PDA is a Palm PDA - the Palm Tungsten TX is a good bet but be aware that it runs a completely different operating system and may not be as cheap or as available in China.

If you do buy a device overseas, make sure that you can easily change the operating system to English from Chinese, unless you fancy the challenge of course.

Smartphones are basically the cross-breed of a PDA and a mobile phone.  They tend to have smaller screens, so if your eyesight is already a bit of an issue, you should definitely try before you buy.  As with PDAs, make sure its running a Windows OS (I.e. Not Blackberry, not iPhone for now at least - Palm OS should be okay for Pleco though), and make doubly sure that the screen is touchscreen if you intend to use the software to look-up your written characters - HTC Smartphones seem to be a good balance of functionality and affordability.  With any purchase, do invest the time in researching if it is a suitable one - ask around and see who has a PDA or smartphone you could check or trial the software on.  In the UK, you can get a smartphone from one of the mobile providers on an 18-month contract and one of the middle-upper tariffs.  Each provider tends to rename the product, so use Wikipedia and Google to find out what each product is.

What else is needed?

You'll need a memory card to install the large Pleco data files to, especially if you intend to install the more comprehensive dictionaries or make use of the audio functionality.  A 1GB will probably be okay but I'd recommend 2GB minimum, just in case. Check that your PDA accepts the memory card before buying as, if you get an old PDA you might find that some will not take very large cards (2/4/8 GB). If it's a Smartphone you bought, you'll likely be looking at buying a mini- or micro-SD card - avoid buying the wrong type.

If you get any device, buy a screen protector for it to avoid scratching the touch-screen when you write on it, otherwise it will likely get scratched and unclear after lots of scribbling.  I've always found Nushield to be a provider of reliable screen protectors.

Finally, get a case for it - I recommend a soft leather one rather than a hard plastic one.  You won't go wrong with a Krusell case.

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