As I peruse many academic and scholarly resources every week, I frequently come across obscure words, especially when reading exceptionally difficult works written by scholars who seem intent on not being understood by their readers (I’m looking at you, Judith Butler). Therefore, the dictionary app is one of the most used apps on my phone. When I am faced with an unknown word in the middle of a paragraph, my impulse is to get out my phone, search for the definition, and get back to my reading as quickly as possible. Nothing annoys me more than a buggy app that crashes often or to find that the word that I am looking for cannot be found on the app, forcing me to open a browser just to google the word (god forbid that there’s no WiFi whenever I’m in this state or it wouldn’t be a pretty scene). This was why I went on a hunt for a better dictionary and thesaurus app: I could no longer tolerate the Dictionary.com app’s mood swings!
Criteria for Evaluating a Dictionary App
- Bug-free and lag-free – Isn’t this obvious?
- A huge lexical database – I encounter common Latin and French phrases in my books all the time, and I want them to be searchable on the app.
- Offline Usage – An offline dictionary means that it can be used anywhere and has a fast loading speed.
- Thesaurus – This is a bonus. Ideally, my dictionary and thesaurus needs should be fulfilled by just one app.
- Updated Interface and Design – Apps should look clean and intuitive, and must respond well to the touch. There are some dictionary apps that look so old as if they were not updated since iPhone 3G.
- Affordability – Cambridge, Oxford and Collins all have dictionary apps that cost above US$20 for the full version, but I find that they do not offer many features that justify the huge price tag. There is no reason to spend a bomb on these apps unless you want to play it safe by going after the big names or you require extremely specialized definitions that can only be found there.
The Winner: Advanced English Dictionary and Thesaurus
It was a very close fight between several apps, and Advanced English Dictionary and Thesaurus emerged the winner among the seven that we evaluated. The free app is filled with features that would more than satisfy the average dictionary user, so unless the ads bother you, you need not spend a dime. Interestingly, MobiSystems, the developer that publishes Advanced English Dictionary and Thesaurus, also publishes the Oxford Dictionary of English app. Even though the layout of both apps are the same, the former trumps the latter by far in terms of features. Why a company would publish two nearly identical apps at vastly different price points beats me…
Quick and Efficient Offline Search
I tested the app on airplane mode, and it worked great. When you start typing letters into the search bar, suggestions for words fitting your query come up immediately. What I like about Advanced English Dictionary and Thesaurus is that you do not have to type in the full word to look it up. Once you have typed enough letters such that the word appears on your screen, you can select it immediately to go to a new page with its definition.
Detailed Definitions, Examples, Synonyms and Hyper-what?
Whenever you look up a word in Advanced English Dictionary and Thesaurus, different forms of the word appear in different entries. For example, the word “distress” can be a noun or a verb, and they appear separately on the app. This takes a while to get used to (and admittedly I was initially not a fan since I prefer my information on a single page), but the presentation does have its uses. It classifies the definitions and thesaurus entries accordingly, which does not choke up the page with an immense amount of information, an issue that plagues a few other dictionary apps such as The Free Online Dictionary.
On a dictionary entry, what is cool is that the app groups all the words with a similar meaning under a definition, which serves as a thesaurus and aids you in your understanding of the word. Each definition comes with examples and other “WordNet” pages that you can select if you want to discover related terms. The detail in some of these WordNet pages is impressive. For example, on the “hypernyms” page for “offender,” you can see a list of related words. The opposite of “hypernym” is “hyponym”, which shows related antonyms. Note that not all words (especially the rarer ones) show examples, hypernyms and hyponyms.
If you want to search up another word that appears elsewhere on the page, all you have to do is tap on it, and a new page with the definition of the word would appear. To go back to the previous page, just swipe to the right.
Voice Search, Camera Search & Favorites
Many dictionaries have a voice search feature now. To use this feature, select the microphone button beside the search bar and speak to the phone. The app will register what you have said and will give you a list of words to choose from.
Advanced English Dictionary and Thesaurus also has a cool “camera grab” feature that could be useful, although I still find typing in the word to be as fast as using the camera. When you select it, it activates the camera screen with a small bar above to capture words. The tool recognizes the words within the bar, and you can then select the words that appear to check their meaning.
I use the “favorites” feature quite a bit. If I like a word and want to note it so that I can look it up whenever I want to use it in my writing or because its definition keeps slipping my mind no matter how many times I have seen it, I select “Add to Favorites” in the “more options” button beside the volume button. It will appear on the favorites page on the side navigation bar.
Learning, Fun and Games
The learning and games section (also on the sidebar) is what makes Advanced English Dictionary and Thesaurus truly stand out. There’s the usual flash cards puzzle to test your vocabulary, which you can set to “history” mode to test your memory of all the words that you have looked up in the past. There is also a fun word scramble game, where the app gives you some jumbled-up letters for you to unscramble.
My personal favorite is the “Hangman” game, where you decipher the word through guessing its letters, with each wrong letter chosen bringing you closer to “death.”
Merriam-Webster – I really like this app. The information is very organized. Its design and interface is even more intuitive than Advanced English Dictionary and Thesaurus, and the paid version (US$3.99) comes with a more extensive thesaurus. It also features Apple iWatch integration. In fact, the Merriam-Webster app would have been our top choice if it were not for the fact that it redirects all derivative words such as “offender” and “blackmailer” to their root words “offend” and “blackmail” respectively. As there are no separate entries for some derivative words, you cannot look them up directly in the thesaurus. Some negative forms of words such as “untrammeled” also do not show up when you type the word in, forcing you to delete the word and type “trammel” before you can tap into the definition, which can be really inconvenient. Use this app if you just need a dictionary and nothing else.
The Free Online Dictionary – This app shines in terms of its vast database. You can even search up common English expressions. However, it suffers in terms of its organization and user experience. Some words such as “play” that have multiple definitions and expressions have horribly long entries. Finding the correct definition and expression (yes, the definitions of some expressions are lumped together in the root word’s entry) can be tedious. And not to mention the ads. I can deal with display banners, but not pop-ups that can only be closed after a few seconds. Just no.
Dictionary.com – I have been using this app for a long time, and the good thing is that the interface and design is constantly being updated. But lately, the app has been really unstable for me, and crashes very often. In addition, some words do not even have entries even though they are provided as in-app suggestions. If you don’t believe me, look up “hors d’oeuvre.” (To the developers of Dictionary.com: Why do you suggest and have the word in your database if you don’t have definitions available for the word?!)
There are many dictionary and thesaurus apps out there, and Advanced English Dictionary and Thesaurus is a bargain given that you have access to the all the great features already in the free app. That being said, the app could be better organized, and my first impression of the WordNet add-ons in the dictionary was that they were advertisements. Unless a better dictionary and thesaurus app comes along (hey, a suggestion for all you developers!), Advanced English Dictionary and Thesaurus will be my new reading and writing companion. Adios, Dictionary.com!