The Pocketalk translator is a super-portable Babel fish of a device that allows you to speak to people in up to 74 different languages at the touch of a button. Weighing around 3.5 oz (100 g), it's smaller and lighter than a smartphone to carry about, and with only one job to do, you can get up to seven hours' use out of the battery, or 240 hours of standby. It's got its own internal SIM card, an extra SIM slot and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, allowing you to access cloud-based translations wherever you can get online.
The Pocketalk is one of a raft of new translator gadgets that aim to smooth out the bumpy edges of international travel, enabling you to have conversations with folks you might normally be restricted to charades with. And while the stilted process of holding down buttons and waiting for the translations to come through does kill the energy of a conversation, the fact is they work pretty well. I'll take a stilted conversation over a non-conversation any day of the week.
We tested something similar a month or so ago with the Langogo Genesis, so this review will involve a lot of comparisons. The Pocketalk, for example, has two translate buttons – one for each language – where the Langogo only has one, and backs itself (not always successfully) to guess which language is being spoken. This is an advantage for the Pocketalk machine.
But that's essentially where the advantages ended in my experience. The Pocketalk unit routinely takes a second or two longer to bring back a translation than the Langogo. Its look is a bit Nokia to the Langogo's iPhone, with a lower-resolution screen that's not as nice to look at, and it's about 30 percent lighter than the Langogo, but ends up feeling a bit plasticky as a result. The Langogo can use its SIM connection to create a Wi-Fi hotspot, the Pocketalk can't, and the Langogo has 30-odd more languages to choose from, even if some of those (I'm looking at you, Taiwanese Chinese and Colombian Spanish) got a big thumbs down from native speakers.
Perhaps more importantly, in the two languages I tried both devices with (Korean and Mandarin), my conversation partners came back with the same opinion: the Pocketalk made more mistakes, didn't do as good a job of understanding context, and returned jankier sentences where the Langogo tended to be smoother and more natural. I'll add to this a point in the Pocketalk's defence: it seemed better able to recognize sentence breaks, which is very handy when you're talking casually, because you often don't formulate full sentences.
This is not to say that the Pocketalk isn't a useful device – it works nearly as well on all counts. And frankly, since both these devices use a selection of third-party online tools, a software update could easily change things around. But given that both devices cost the same US$299, it's hard to recommend this one over the Langogo right now, even if the Langogo only has one year of global SIM data included and the Pocketalk has two years.
And of course, all this is to ignore that you can easily download an app onto your smartphone for free or for peanuts that can do a very similar job, making these devices a bit of a tough sell. Pocketalk's got a few arguments here: it doesn't waste your phone battery (true), it's got better microphones, noise cancellation and speakers (possibly true, but I haven't had problems with the phone in this regard), it's faster (in testing I actually found it a bit slower), and it connects to a broader range of cloud-based language engines (true). Pocktalk also says it's better than handing your phone over to strangers during conversations at a bar, and that's probably true as well.
I enjoy using the Pocketalk. It opens doors and breaks down barriers and feels like something that would've blown my mind if you'd shown me one 10 years ago. Anyone who regularly deals with a broad range of international guests or travels a lot themselves will find it a super handy device to slip in the pocket. But in my opinion there are better devices on the market, and it's hard for any $300 gadget to compete with a free smartphone app.
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