Pocketalk pocket translator
Review

Hands-on review: Pocketalk handheld translator

Image credit: Pocketalk

Technology that gets close to Douglas Adams’ fictional Babel fish, even if it won’t fit in your ear.

Arthur C Clarke once wrote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So it is with this device: a smooth monochrome pebble smaller than a smartphone. Just a few years ago it would have seemed impossible.

Pocketalk runs Android and translates between 74 languages on the fly. Speak and the translation emerges, both written and spoken, within seconds. But it doesn’t work offline; it requires a data connection, because it quickly feeds your words through multiple online speech-to-text, translation and text-to-speech engines for the best results.

You can use Wi-Fi hotspots on your travels but it’s more practical to share your phone’s data connection. Or you can pay extra for a Pocketalk that comes with a data SIM so you can roam with it anywhere.

Set-up is very simple: you start it like any Android device and then you just need to ensure it has some sort of data connection, for example logging into Wi-Fi. It’s a touchscreen but tiny, so don’t expect to do more than tap a few on-screen menus. Even typing in the Wi-Fi password is a challenge. There’s also a physical power button on the side and two buttons at the bottom, for the two languages you’re translating between.

We started ambitiously, using our best-remembered Japanese phrases and trying to turn them back into English. Some went well, some not so well. But Pocketalk writes the phrase in both languages on screen as well as speaking your translation out loud, so if it’s made a frightful listening mistake the person speaking the original should be able to tell from the written words. You can tap the translation to hear it again as often as you wish, even scrolling up through your history to say it again.

Its abilities in European languages impressed and put our O-level (sorry, GCSE in new money) skills to shame. But more impressive is the way you use it: you hold down one or other of the bottom buttons to speak, depending on the direction in which you want to translate. So you can effectively hold a conversation with someone without sharing a language. You take turns, one button each.

It was great fun, and the ease of use encouraged us to play with it: to translate, to teach ourselves, to test ourselves. The killer question though was whether it does a job that isn’t already covered by free apps or websites, and the answer is no. Apps and sites like Google Translate (see below) will do the job for free. With some languages, you can even translate offline, which saves money on data roaming too.

We also had technical issues with the device we were testing. It worked fine initially, but a week later it wouldn’t register our speech in any language. The Wi-Fi and mobile data connections were fine... we tried tinkering with the settings, we tried rebooting, we tried updating the system software, we tried a factory reset. No joy. It would have been replaced under warranty but it was still frustrating and would have been a pain if you were travelling at the time.

So why buy Pocketalk? We could think of two main reasons. The first is that its single-use simplicity is compelling: any member of the family can get to grips with it and it won’t drain your phone battery. The second is for conversations with strangers: sure, you don’t want to see them run off with your cute new £299 gizmo... but it’s less catastrophic than your smartphone being stolen, complete with your contacts book, maps and e-tickets home. We’d increasingly be lost without our phones, especially in foreign climes.

You can’t play with the Pocketalk without referencing another great sci-fi writer, Douglas Adams. The Babel fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fulfilled the same universal translation function, only it was small enough to fit inside the ear canal.

Pocketalk isn’t quite a Babel fish but it’s not far off. The ability to hold conversations is very compelling. But there are also apps for that.

£299, pocketalk.net

Available at Smartech Selfridges.

Alternatives

Google Translate

Free online translation between dozens of written and spoken languages, with automatic language detection. You can paste up to 5,000 characters, translate entire websites, even popular document formats.

Free, translate.google.com

Google Translate app

On the move? Download the free app and you can speak into it too. There’s a conversation mode too. A good free alternative and some languages work while you’re offline.

Free, from iTunes or Google Play

ili

One-way, offline translation for the spoken word. Currently only translates from English into Spanish, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese or Korean (beta) with more languages to come.

£199, iamili.com

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles