Recently I got a tweet from Alek Ehlke asking me to try out his new iOS app “Manabi Reader”. In case you didn’t know, “Manabi” (学び) comes from the verb “Manabu” (学ぶ) which means “to learn”. While it’s not a very creative name, it’s easy enough to remember.
The purpose of this app is quite simple: provide a way to easily lookup Japanese words while reading text without having to switch to another app or browser window. The content that you can use comes from two places. There is a bunch of pre-configured reading materials organized by category (stuff for beginners, news, blogs, and folktales). You can also open up arbitrary web URLs. All of the suggested materials have an associated picture which is a nice.
While I like the idea of providing sample texts to read, and some of them seemed interesting, I feel that the app could have done a better job organizing them by difficulty level. For example, they could be ranked from 1-10 based on factors like grammar complexity, vocabulary, and Kanji level. The beginners category is in the right direction, but there was only two entries there (“Hiragana Times” and “Matcha – Japanese Travel Magazine”).
The core feature of the app, word lookup, was designed pretty well and I don’t have any major issues with it. You simply tap a word and it brings up a menu with the word’s reading (in hiragana), one or more definitions, a link to a full definition (this opens a browser window to weblio), and a button for flashcards. I tried clicking the ‘flashcards’ button but it just sent me to a page with ‘Notify Me’, so I guess that feature may not be fully implemented yet.
The word lookup even works with things you might not expect it would, like particles and conjugated verbs, which was cool. There was a few words that it looked up a subset of the word I actually wanted, but often words in Japanese can be used as prefixes and as a result some words that are easily understood by humans are not always in dictionaries. For example, it didn’t recognize the word “１週間前”, only “週間” or “前”. But coding all these in would be quite time consuming.
A quick test of a custom URL worked pretty well (see below issue #4 for a hiccup though) and the ability to bookmark that for later perusal was useful.
Overall, while I think this app could use some more polish, for a free app I think it is well worth the download and recommend anyone wanting to brush up their Japanese reading skills try it out. For an app designed and implemented by a single person, it’s quite easy to use, and didn’t crash on me even once. I know how difficult it is to write mobile apps (and how much more difficult it is to get a substantial user base), and I wish Alek the best success with this app.
Personally I am not sure how often I will use this app because most of the Japanese reading I do these days on a mobile device is of novels using sites like Booklive, which already has lookup features, though Manabi Reader’s lookup is arguably easier to use in some cases (less clicks for basic work lookup). For other Japanese stuff, I will usually just use a mac laptop where I have set a macro to invoke the Japanese/English dictionary. But if this app had been around when I was first learning Japanese, I probably would of gotten some good use out of it.
A few more comments about bugs, issues, or feature requests:
1) Sometimes if I do a long press on a word it will select it instead of bringing up the definition menu.
2) At least one of the links seemed to have a parsing problem, for example in the “Matcha – Japan Travel Magazine” there was a bunch of “<ruby>” tags showing up on the article view.
3) While loading wasn’t exactly slow, the delay was just enough to annoy me. If you go to an article you’ve viewed before, it does seem to cache up the result and the result is faster, but still not instantaneous as I’d hope.
4) Entering in “srad.jp” as a custom URL gave an error. Adding “http://” to the front of it worked.
5) Some of the definitions were incomplete. For example “な” listed a few common definitions but omitted it’s use after na-adjectives, even when it was used in that context.
6) Some of the suggested stories (like the fairy tales) had a “ページを戻る” button on the bottom which did nothing when pressed. Ideally that button should either be removed, or made to work.
7) When my device was in airplane mode, I couldn’t get at new stories (which wasn’t entirely surprising), though the error message displayed was confusing. Ideally, the app would detect I have no network and tell the user this. The basic word lookup did work in a quick test which was nice.
8) Some of the stories (like the first one from the Matcha travel magazine I mentioned above) had a confusing mix of furigana listed above the words and listed in parenthesis after the words. It would be great to do one or the other.
9) It would be nice to explain what the conjugation of a verb means (for example “食べた” is in the past tense).
10) Minor visual quirk: There is a strange dark highlight behind the buttons not the first page (News, Blogs, etc.) which goes away momentary when you press one of them. This should probably just be made invisible.
11) There is a large number of Japanese translations of Aesop’s folktales. While these can provide entertaining (and historically interesting) reading, personally I try to avoid translated works when studying Japanese, keeping to things that were originally created in Japanese. There is a large set of Japanese classical stories as well though, so I guess I can’t really complain.
12) Closing the basic definition window, a very common action, was just a tad bit awkward. The two main ways to close it are a tiny ‘X’ icon on the top right (which is too small), or clicking somewhere else on the screen. The problem with the latter is that you can accidentally click on another word, which closes the first definition window and opens another. Clicking on the open space at the top or the bottom of the window (the only guaranteed safe spaces) doesn’t work, unfortunately. Clicking on the definition itself does nothing.
13) I’m not sure how difficult this would be technically, but having an option to dynamically enable/disable furigana reading hints above words would be great. Even better if this could be filtered by kanji level.
(Note: this article is written in reference to the first release of the app, version 1.0).
Very interesting! I will have to download it on my iPhone and give it a go.
That’s really nice that it’s a free application for the end users. Of course, I’m sure it’s not free for the developer to create and host an app on Apple’s store. Does the app utilize ads or anything to help support it?
I haven’t seen any explicit ads. However since the bookmark feature goes to a website, they may be some potential to make certain this feature (or other future ones) pay-only.
But the only thing harder than getting a big crowd of users to use your app is getting them to pay for it (:
The bookmark feature is actually local to your phone. (In the future I will be synchronizing this in the cloud across your devices, but using a free service anyhow.)
To be fully transparent about how this is free: I’m working on a 2nd app for Japanese flashcards called simply “Manabi” which will be a commercial product, and Manabi Reader will integrate with it to let you create flashcards from what you’re reading. I intend to keep Manabi Reader fully free (without ads) for the foreseeable future. Manabi Reader is meant to be independently valuable whether or not you also use the Manabi flashcards app, but of course should provide a great integrated study solution if you do use both 🙂
I’ve tweeted at locksleyu in response to this but just to quickly reiterate – I really appreciate not only what a good job this article does at informing its readers, but also all the actionable feedback I’m getting from this thorough review. I have no connection to this site, I just dropped a link to the author in case it’s of interest. I have a lot to think about from this as I continue working on the next update!
Alex, thanks for the comment, disclosure about your plans, and glad my post was helpful.
Turns out I have software development experience so I couldn’t help giving your app a detailed treatment (: