Pleco: a review

As a disclaimer, what I’ll be reviewing today is the absolutely free iOS version of Pleco (that is, with no add-ons). However, it should be noted that while the free version is already awesome, the paid version verges on the insane, with OCR text recognition, word look-up through handwriting, and more features you can read about in Pleco’s website.

What is Pleco?

Pleco is, for lack of more elegant wording, the daddy of all Chinese dictionary apps—not for age, not for usage, but for its sheer usefulness.

Even before starting my Chinese mission, I’d been on the hunt for a paper dictionary. Call it a fetish, but I like paper dictionaries. There’s something lasting about them, not to mention that as a student, one develops a strange sort of affection for these brickish tomes. However, I didn’t want to make the same mistake I’d made when I began learning Japanese. Back then, I was under the impression dictionaries looked the same in all languages; this mistaken impression ended up with me going through two dictionaries before finally finding the “love of my life” (my trusty Kodansha’s Kanji Learner’s Dictionary).

See, my mistake was thinking that I could learn an ideogram based language with a regular dictionary, but the problem is that most regular English-to-target language dictionaries focus on teaching you the word, not its characters. For languages such as Chinese, this is a major problem (at least if you want to read, which I always do!), as you need to learn ideograms (not letters) in order to make sense of full words and expressions.

Pleco bridges this problem wonderfully, in such a way that it is easy to use even for an absolute beginner.

How does it work?

First things first. Pleco is a dream because it is a bidirectional dictionary, which means you can look up from English to Chinese and viceversa. After you start typing, your keyboard will pop up as always, with a few added buttons on top:

The numbers to the left stand for tone numbers, so if you already know how to distinguish between tones, this will help you narrow the results down. To the right, if you tap “Radical”, you’ll be shown a radical graph that may make you swallow hard at first; however, if you tap a radical, it’ll show you all the hanzi that are written using that radical. Pretty nifty feature if you ask me—all you need is to be able to recognize the radical in the hanzi you’re looking for to be able to find it! As you may’ve imagined, tapping English limits your search results to English (at which point the button changes to “Chinese”, for the opposite purpose).

Now, you’ve probably noticed each hanzi comes up in different colors. This isn’t meant to give you a headache, but rather to help you distinguish between different tones. You can customize the colors, or even disable this feature if you don’t need it (in which case I absolutely envy you, you 行家).

As if this wasn’t a featureful enough, if you’re learning Cantonese (as opposed to Mandarin), it is possible to set the dictionary to show the Cantonese reading as well. Oh, and don’t get me started on the clipboard reader:

See those little icons in the bottom? Anything you copy will appear in the clipboard reader, from where you can use these to descipher the message, whole or by parts), look up every hanzi from the dictionary, add it to your bookmarks (did I mention this app has BOOKMARKS?!), have it read out loud… oh, and since it has a clipboard history feature, you can always track back, should you need to.

My thoughts on Pleco.

I’ve been learning languages for a while now, and have used many dictionaries, both paper, online and app-based. Pleco has got to be one of the best I’ve tried, and as I mentioned in the beginning, this is only the free version. If you’re into Chinese for the long haul, I would seriously recommend investing a little and customizing the app to fit your needs.

Do you use any other apps for learning Chinese? Any products you’d like me to review? Let me know in the comments!

  • Oliver Antosch ,

    I’m actually using Pleco too now, since doesn’t have an offline function. Pleco’s strength is also its biggest weakness which is the vast array of features, meaning it is very powerful but also quite confusing (at least at first). Not sure why Michael Love has decided to hide example sentences by default though. This is one of the best features of Pleco. (apart from the OCR)

    PS: Blog posts are much easier to read now with the bigger font size! 🙂

    • Jai NK ,

      Great review! Happy Pleco user (for several years) here.

      Actually a lot of these things are easier on Android. For example, when you copy text, you can get a popup showing the definition – i.e. no need to leave your app. Hanping’s been doing this for a couple of years and Pleco will be doing it in the next update. Even better, there is a brand new app called Hanping Popup which shows popup definitions (a bit like those popup browser extensions) without having to copy anything: This is super useful when doing things like instant messaging where you want definitions ASAP – no need for awkward selecting of text or running screenshots through an OCR app.

      Presumably none of this is possible on iOS because otherwise Mike would have added it to his iOS version.

      Another reason I chose Android instead of iOS is because Pleco’s add-ons are generally cheaper. Syllable audio and handwriting recognition has been free for years.

      • Siskia L. ,

        Wow, Jai! Your comment sounds incredibly comprehensive. I can see you’ve been using the app for a while now.

        Would you mind me adding a link to your comment for future readers of the review? I’m sure they’d love the extra input (which I can’t provide for because although my phone is Android based, it’s hardly appropiate for my language learning routine).