It’s only been a couple years since optical camera recognition for Chines text hit the app stores. Now users have a handful of options to choose from, and the technology is quickly improving. We’ve compiled a list of five OCR apps so you can give up learning to read Chinese for good and just let your phone do it for you. All the apps are pretty solid when it comes to single-line recognition. Multiple lines can be a little less reliable, and they are all effectively useless on handwriting. But who uses pens and pencils anymore, anyway?

The Android Freebie: Google Translate


I’m willing to bet everyone that’s read this blog has used Google Translate at some point, so I’m going to skip over its often shaky translation quality. That said, it’s free, and you can’t beat free. I actually really like the simplicity of Google Tranlate’s OCR. Take a snapshot of some Chinese text, highlight what you want translated with your finger, and voila! It’s quick and easy, but you don’t get the same level of detail as the other dictionary apps. Google processes the text as a whole and doesn’t really parse out the individual characters. Not good for people learning Chinese, then, but there’s no reason to not have it in your toolkit. And of course, it works for just about any language. Just remember that you’ll need an internet connection.

The iOS Freebie: China Goggles


China Goggles has nothing to do with beer goggles or Baidu’s answer to Google Glass. It claims to be the world’s very first “real” Chinese-English dictionary, but somehow we doubt the veracity of that. In its early incarnation, China Goggles used Google Translate, but since the Big G stopped offering free translation services to third party developers, the app now has to rely on its built-in dictionary of around 3,000 common Chinese characters. One big disadvantage — and it’s a pretty big one — is that the OCR is patchy. When you look up more than one character in a go (which is basically all the time), the app displays the definitions by automatically scrolling through them, one by one. You’re left scampering behind, trying to piece together the sense of the sentence. I tried out both the video and still photo translations on printed and handwritten characters and found them to be confusing at best, inaccurate at worst. There is a manual setting though — if you click on Analyze, you can scroll through and choose from a list of characters that might be what you’re looking at, rather than what the app guessed they were, and access individual definitions. China Goggles is not sophisticated but it is free. (You get what you pay for.) 

The Android Student: Hanping


Hanping’s OCR just released a full version sometime in February, but it’s probably my favorite of the Android options. Hanping will automatically detect when to take a photo of the text, so you don’t have to spend so much time steadying the camera while trying to hit a “pause” or shutter button (this feature can be disabled if it annoys you). Once you have the photo, you can move through it as you please one line at a time. Multiple color-coded definitions for each word is displayed at a time. It’s easy to zoom in or out to get the text in frame. You only get the individual words translated, not the sentence as a whole. That’s good for people who want to learn, but not necessarily if you’re just looking for a quick rough translation. The one-line-at-a-time restriction can prove annoying if, for instance, the Bei of Beijing is at the end of one line and jing is at the beginning of the next. Hanping OCR for Android will set you back 10 USD (62 RMB) and comes with a free solid dictionary app. The handwriting input costs an additional 7 USD.

The iOS (and Android) Student: Pleco


Pleco was probably the first well-developed app to use optical camera recognition for Chinese characters. It includes options for manual focus, using your phone’s camera flash as a light, flashcard creation and macro mode. It’s probably the most feature-rich of all the OCR’s tested, but I found it to be unwieldy in comparison. You pretty much need both hands to use it. Pleco uses a resizeable frame to capture the image you want to decipher, or crosshairs if you want to translate a single line. That sounds good, except it only retains the text it found, whether it’s correct or not, and doesn’t save a photo for you to scan the rest of later. That’s a problem if you take a picture of, say, a passing bus and it’s not going to stick around for you to translate the advertisement on the side. The symbols that show up on the screen sometimes change sporadically, making it hard to pause when all the characters have been correctly recognize. Only one definition is displayed at a time, making longer sentences tedious to translate. Pleco’s OCR is available for both Android and iOS for 15 USD (93 RMB). Like Hanping, it also includes a dictionary with a handwriting input.

The iOS (and eventually Android) Traveller: Waygo


Waygo has a specific vocabulary: food and transport. The app aims to be an aid for people travelling around China who want to be able to quickly decipher signs and menus. It’s gorgeously simple. When you open the app, it connects to your iPhone camera, then all you do is hold the phone over the Chinese text, line it up in the box (make it nice and big), and when the app’s recognised the characters, the box turns orange. Up comes app a definition underneath, and because Waygo doesn’t claim to be a complete dictionary, you just get a couple of words rather than a befuddling list of definitions — enough so that you know what you’re ordering or where you need to go. Choose between capturing the image as a still with the camera button, or hovering the phone over the text for real-time translations. You can also extend the centre box by dragging the arrow down to translate several lines of characters at once, which is a clear time-saver when you’re tackling a menu. I tested it out on both Chinese and Western-style cuisine, and it seemed pretty comprehensive. The developers say they’re working on adding other vocabulary sets too. Waygo connects to Facebook and Twitter, if you happen to have a VPN installed on your iPhone. This app is clearly far superior when it comes to the translation game, but there is a caveat. Your first 100 translations are free (each individual line of text counting as one translation), after which time you’re limited to 10 per day. That’s the basic package. If it’s not sufficient then you’ll need to upgrade to the paid service, a one-off payment of 11 GBP (104 RMB). Not cheap for an app, but I would definitely have been willing to shell out for this service when I first arrived in China, if I’d known about it. Anything to avoid ordering innards by accident….

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