Youdao Dictionary Pen: Read Aloud & Translate Chinese to English
This post continues my series of Chinese Reading Pen reviews, and is a detailed review of the NetEase Youdao Smart Pen 2.0, which translates printed text effortlessly and fluently from Chinese into English and vice versa. It will read aloud and translate from Chinese to English, including whole paragraphs.
[March 2021 Update: Since writing this review in Spring 2020, there’s now a Youdao Smart Pen with English interface, and a Youdao 3.0 version. I have written an updated comparison post of different Youdao Pen model.]
For the past 5 years, I’ve been on an epic search to find ways in which I can immerse my children in Chinese literacy and audio exposure, despite not being able to understand the language myself. I think I may have just found the holy grail gadget for translating Chinese-English text!
Our family knows a lot about Chinese reading pens and optical reading translation tools. Heck, our list of gadgets includes Le Le Chinese Reading Pen, Luka Hero and Habbi Habbi, just to name a couple of the more popular technologies which have. I’ve written about the ways we use are many child-centric Chinese reading pens and devices on an earlier blog post. However, as a mother, I’ve always wondered “Why isn’t there a simple handheld device which can read any Chinese text, just like Google translate?”. Well, I’ve found it, and it’s miles better than Google Translate.
Does that sound too good to be true?
This post covers:
What is the Netease Youdao Dictionary Pen 2.0?
Introducing the Netease Youdao Pen 2.0 (also retailing as the Youdao Dictionary Pen II). It’s an optical scanning and reading device, with a very clever translation algorithm.
This clever pen will can scan any Chinese written text (from an individual character to a full paragraph), and then it will:
- read it out in Chinese
- read it out in English (in a very fluent and sensible translation)
- show the pinyin
- provide dictionary definition of individual words in the sentence/paragraph.
The Netease Youdao Dictionary Pen is something we stumbled upon accidentally whilst visiting a centre to learn about Chinese enrichment classes. The centre director – whilst explaining their curriculum – also happened to bring out this device and highlight it could be helpful for our family situation. He was totally right. It makes me wonder why I’ve never heard about this product reviewed ever before?
Youdao is a New-York Stock Exchange listed company, which brands itself as the “leading intelligent learning company in China.” The company’s elevator pitch, according to its IPO filing from 2019 is “Starting from online dictionary and translation tools, we offer a comprehensive suite of learning products and services catering to people’s learning needs throughout their lives. Today, for tens of millions of people, Youdao is their go-to destination for looking up a word, translating a foreign language, preparing for an exam, and picking up a new skill.”. One of these tools is an optical reading pen.
From our experience, the Youdao Dictionary Pen truly is a powerful tool to translate between English and Chinese, and vice versa. It’s primarily been made for Chinese speakers to read English, but it works perfectly well in the reverse direction too. Youdao’s main function is similar to Google Translate, allowing the user to look up Chinese/English phrases and their meanings in English/Chinese. This can be typed directly into the pen, voice command into the pen, or optical scanning of printed text. For example, it’s possible to scan an English phrase and find the meaning in Chinese.
Previously, we’ve used other devices which claim to ‘translate’ text between languages. In the cases of say Google Translate or Pleco or even C-Pen, it *sort of works* to get the context, but not well enough to enjoy the reading experience or be certain 100% of the nitty-gritty details. The Youdao is much much better than I expected – it uses a proprietary self-developed neural network translation engine (有道词典), which would appear tonnes more accurate than other sources we’ve tried.
How does our family use the Youdao Dictionary Pen?
As some family background, my three daughters each study Mandarin at school as their “mother tongue”, ironically, since no parents or grandparents can speak Chinese. My children are essentially bilingual, as in their schooling, but for me as their monolingual mother, this means I cannot understand the homework, or help with weekly tingxie (Chinese spelling) revision, or even bedtime fun reading.
Primarily, it’s a device for my sanity. In the past, I’ve had whole pages of Chinese text which I’ve needed to help my daughter with, and it’s not a good feeling doing this manually through Google Translate or Pleco. It’s tiresome, time-consuming, and still produces a sub optimal result. We’ve also had experiences where my daughter is reading a book by herself, but then doesn’t know a particular character or phrase, and I’m madly trying to look it up for her on Pleco. Believe it or not, it is now possible to do both this instantly and painlessly with the help of Youdao.
So far, we’ve been able to effortlessly read Chinese picture books and pages from encyclopaedias using this technology.
Pros of Youdao Reading Pen
- User friendly: clear voice that is easy to understand, with adjustable volume, comfortable to hold, multidirectional scanning for left or right handers, and very portable.
- One-click translation: recognizing words and sentence automatically.
- Fast translation: by scanning the text, it instantly translates (they claim it translates 15 characters per second, which is 5 times faster than an electronic dictionary……)
- High quality translation: the translation is miles better than Google Translate. This as the first thing I noticed, and also the first thing which two of my Chinese speaking friends commented on when I showed them. It’s based on massive contents of millions of Chinese phrases, vocabulary, idioms, etc to make it as fluent as possible in a variety of contexts.
- Many options on touch screen: provides Chinese audio, English audio, written English, and Pinyin translations
- Works on nearly all written text: Support standard fonts in textbooks, children’s Chinese picture books, newspapers and magazines, restaurant menus, etc.
- Works without WiFi: although it will need a WiFi connection for any system updates / upgrades.
- Translates spoken voice inputs too – helpful added feature, especially for when my daughter is doing her homework (like story composition) and stuck on a word.
- Works for very neat handwriting – now there’s an incentive for a child to write neatly!
Cons of Youdao Reading Pen
- The operating system language is Chinese: Instructions and set up are fully in Chinese, as are all menus on the pen itself (it’s reasonably intuitive if you play around for a bit)
- It’s quite fragile: certainly not to be left in the playroom, and wouldn’t be appropriate for <7 years old to attempt to us
- It will read only printed text which is less than 1.5 cm wide: this rules out some popular Children’s books, like Sage 500 Books or Elephant & Piggie which have oversized fonts in them. (In comparison, Luka Hero can read large size text, and also handwritten words).
- It doesn’t work very well on screens: to get it to work best, the screen needs to be set on a VERY bright level. It apparently works best for iPads and iPhone.
Battery: 1000mAh; USB rechargable; : 8 hours of continuous offline use; 5 hours of continuous online use
Screen: 1.9-inch color RGB LCD screen
Voice Mode: Real voice (English or American options)
Would Youdao replace every other Chinese reading pen on the market?
No, not really. If we are talking about children’s education, then any device itself needs a good curriculum to go with it. Youdao has no accompanying materials – it’s literally just for translating. So, we can use our Youdao pen to read a Chinese newsletter which comes home from school; we can use the pen to read a menu in a Chinese restaurant; we can use it to read Chinese books borrowed from the library together (with an adult’s help). As an adult, living in Asia, the pen is totally amazing for me. For my elder daughter, I can see the pen becoming a more and more useful learning aid as she gets older and reads more widely (like newspapers, school text books, etc).
For young children learning the Chinese language and gaining good exposure in a fun literary context, all of our other reading pens would be more relevant than Youdao Dictionary pen. Aside from it not being ‘fun’, I fear my Youdao pen would be destroyed if left alone with a young child. It’s not a durable play pen like our Habbi Habbi Reading pen, nor a slow pronunciation reading aid like our Le Le Chinese Reading pen.
Where is comes into its own is for translating Chinese words and phrases. Compared to using other optical translation devices (eg Google Translate, Pleco with OCR function, Hanping app etc), yes, I think a dictionary pen is hands down the best and simplest option. It’s also the “Merriam-Webster” of Chinese dictionaries – with a choice of multiple different dictionary options to look up individual words and definitions. This could be a helpful tool for Chinese learners seeking to expand their vocabulary with more advanced phrases.
While it may be hard for young children to use the Yaodao device, and for sure it’s unnecessary for beginners, it’s just perfect for advanced Chinese learners (or their illiterate parents!). You’ll never need a physical Chinese dictionary again.
FAQs on 有道 Youdao Chinese Dictionary Pen
Which option do we prefer?
For the price point, I’m quite happy with our Model 2.0. We wouldn’t use any of the advanced features on the Pro or Version 3.0 (see comparison review here). Having the English Instructions and English Operating system in the new International Version would be a huge plus (but we’re are very used to using the pen without it by now).
Will the software / dictionaries become outdated?
No, the pen connects to wifi to ensure latest system software updates, including new wods, voices, etc are included. It’s as simple as clicking “Settings-Upgrade” and keeping the pen connected to the wifi during the upgrade (usually it doesn’t need wifi to function)
How long does battery last? How long does it take to charge fully?
For our Youdao 2.0 version, it lasts for about 8 full hours of continuous use (which is a really really long time, as likely a child will use it intermittently through reading …. for us, it lasts about 4 weeks!). The battery fully charges in 3 hours.
What are the options for pronunciation?
For English, it’s either British or American in a female voice. For Chinese, it’s mainland Chinese in a female voice.
Will Youdao pen work for our family?
We’re a family where no parents speak any Chinese, and yes we use this pen daily – both my daughter, and myself, for different purposes. We read in Simplified Chinese, and generally have books with no pinyin. For us, it’s been an excellent help. For a family where parents speak fluently, I see it as being a less valuable tool.
Comparison again other Chinese Reading Pens
Different reading pens and curriculums suit different learning stages, ages, family situations, and intended learning outcomes. I’ve tried to summarise this in the below diagram. As a learning tool, Yaodao Dictionary Pen is definitely for older children and adults, who are already very fluent at both reading and speaking, and wanting to advance their language skills. (It’s also for English-speaking parents who know nothing of the Chinese language and simply just need ongoing translation to get by!!).
I’ve put together a graphic to summarise how the ‘Chinese reading pen’ landscape (for children’s devices) fits together. We have a Luka Hero, Le Le Chinese, iHuman, Habbi Habbi, eTutor and Penpal Whizz!
Do refer to my previous posts for more information about other Chinese reading pens which are more suitable for younger children, especially preschoolers– these include:
- Comparison of our favourite Chinese reading pens and robots for Children
- Detailed Review of Habbi Habbi Reading Wand
- Detailed Review of Luka Reading Companion
- Detailed Review of Luka Hero
- Review of iHuman Graded Readers
- Review of eTutorStar Reading Pen
- Detailed review of iFlyTek Alpha Egg Dictionary Pen
Where to buy Youdao Reading Pen in Singapore?
These pens are now plentiful on Carousell, Lazada and Shoppee. Most of these offer a 1 year local warranty – if you buy from @888flypig on Carousell, you can quote “lahlahbanana” for a further discount. There are many many authorised retailers in Singapore – one of which also includes Elite Linguistic Network (note – no affiliation, and my pen didn’t come from there either, but they dropped me a note after I made this blog post, again if you quote “LAHLAHBANANA” they will give you a 5% discount too.).
Find the best price, and go with that. Take note of the specific version you are buying though as some will have only a Chinese user interface, and others will offer English. Then some will come with written instructions in English, and others will not.
The cheapest options to get this pen will likely have all the interface and manual in Chinese, and it’s possible to get it all working as a non-Chinese speaker (because we certainly use ours effortlessly, without asking anyone how to get it working….. setting up the wifi and downloading the latest firmware was the toughest part).
For those OUTSIDE of Singapore, the pen can be bought from:
- Global: Taobao or Amazon
- US: Jojo Learning
- UK & Europe: Deziremi Bookstore, and special note that my blog readers have a £12.00 discount if you use code YOUDAOLAH at checkout
Which Chinese dictionaries and optical readers have you tried?
I would love to hear from you, especially if you have experience with other Chinese reading pens and dictionaries. It’s only through meeting other wonderful parents virtually, that this shared language journey becomes a more valuable one. All comments welcomed!