The Langogo Genesis is a hand-held pocket translator, smaller than a smartphone, that uses noise-cancelling microphones to translate between more than 100 languages, while offering you a 4G Wi-Fi hotspot while you're traveling. We've been using one for the last few weeks.
Surely, I told our esteemed editor, a review of a travel-ready translation device would require me to take a holiday somewhere sunny and foreign where I could get by on nothing but my masculine wiles, charm and futuristic talking box. "Can it translate "nice try," do you reckon?" was his response.
Yes. Yes, it can. The Langogo Genesis device can translate all sorts of things into all sorts of languages, and it does so using clever neural machine translation tech that models and works on entire sentences at once to try to understand and relate the context of what you're talking about.
The Genesis is about as thick as my Google Pixel 3 XL smartphone, but significantly shorter and thinner, as well as much lighter. It's small enough that you wouldn't think twice about throwing it in your travel bag, or your pocket. It's got Wi-Fi connections as well as a SIM card slot, and the included SIM (which wasn't included for our review unit) comes pre-loaded with a year's worth of mobile data you can use in more than 70 countries. That data can be used for live translations, of course, or you can set the Genesis up to act as a Wi-Fi hotspot and run your other devices off it. Neat!
Using it is simple – you choose the two languages you wish to work between, and then you can either leave it on the table in conversation mode, where it'll listen full-time and translate constantly, or use the standard translate mode, which gets you to hold down a button to talk. It returns translations very quickly – often in less than a second.
I haven't had the world's best experience with translation services in the past. Google Translate, last time I checked some years ago, did a stellar job translating between Euro languages, but was confusing and unhelpful when it came to very different languages like Chinese and Korean – to the point where many conversations had to grind to a halt, the other party looking at me in utter confusion.
So I was interested to see how the Langogo device went, given that its designers have set it up to use the best bits of 24 different translation engines, including Google's and Microsoft's, to return what the team has determined is the best spread of results between different languages. I hit up a few multi-lingual friends to find out. Here's how it went, as judged by speakers of the following languages:
Mandarin Chinese: "That's really close, it's picking up the context very well, for the most part. I'm very impressed, I haven't heard a translator that understands context this well before."
Spanish (Colombian): "No. This is not Columbian." Subject crosses arms and shakes head vigorously, refuses to elaborate.
Chinese (Taiwan): "Some of these words are not Taiwanese. It's Mandarin. I can understand it, but it's not Taiwanese."
Korean: "This is wonderful, it's the best translator I've ever heard. I want to buy this machine!"
It strikes me at this point that I've been out of WiFi range when using it with my Colombian and Taiwanese friends, so it's probably just defaulted back to one of the "system languages," which include Chinese, English, Japanese, Spanish, French, Dutch and Korean. I suspect results would be very different for the actual consumer, whose device would come with a SIM card to keep it always connected.
The Genesis did an impressive job understanding me and my conversation partners across a range of different environments, from quiet ones to noisy areas where I presume the built-in noise-cancelling microphones did their thing to filter out extraneous voices. It also worked when I tried it over speakerphone and video calls.
I came away pretty impressed. The Langogo device seemed to enjoy eating up more and more complex sentences, and I frequently got a nod of understanding from my conversation partner and a salient response. It made a couple of conversations possible that I haven't been able to have at that level after knowing people for decades, and Langogo says that the nature of its service is such that it'll learn and adapt every time you use it, so your results should continue to improve over time.
Could it be improved? Certainly – and I'm certain it will, in time. Speaking naturally, you don't tend to craft full sentences. Bits come out here and there, and you might take a few stabs at an idea to make your point. The Genesis would take this stream of consciousness and try to treat it as a single sentence, sometimes messing up subjects and objects as a result. A single, well-constructed sentence would usually come through perfectly, but casual speech sometimes became tangled.
It's also hard to know exactly what you just told somebody, as there's no quick way to immediately re-translate what the device just said. And at times, the device would guess the wrong language of the conversation pair, leading to some weird and funny results. No deal-breakers there.
The elephant in the room with a device like this is ... well, that you've probably already got a translator sitting in your pocket right now. There are literally dozens of smartphone apps lining up to do this kind of job, not the least of which come from Google and Microsoft. What's more, these allow you to download entire language packs for full offline translation, even if this presumably nullifies the benefits of neural machine translation services and potentially renders them less intelligent as a result.
At US$299, the Langogo Genesis needs to be a lot better than using a Google Translate app. And that's a difficult call. Back to back, Google Translate and the Langogo device seem to get the job done in about the same amount of time, and Google's results seem to have improved since last time I used it, as well. The advantages of the Langogo device come with its noise-cancelling microphones, which make it better at understanding you in crowded areas, and in its built-in multi-national data service and Wi-Fi hotspotting – although both of those can be added to your phone by buying an international SIM card or enabling data roaming, though those will cost you.
Still, my time with this device has impressed me, and I'll certainly find room for it next time I travel. Technology at its best can bring down barriers between people and foster better understanding. That's a noble goal, and this device is the best execution of that idea that I've seen yet.
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