Merriam-Webster Dictionary Apps

Posted in Reference on June 10, 2010 by Brian Sawyer

I’m a lexiconophilist. Specifically, I love old, printed dictionaries, like the OED (or further back, when it was called A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles) or Samuel Johnson’s work. Though I love these books as artifacts and could pore over etymologies and eccentricities all day, I tend to use the more practical Merriam-Webster’s for my daily work. But do I need it on my phone?

When it comes to identifying “best” apps for our Best Android Apps book, we factored in both utility and price to determine an app’s ultimate value for the user. We imagined most users looking for a dictionary app would prefer a free app to quickly find spelling or definitions for more common words to an expensive option that provided more features and a more comprehensive selections of words. Given these assumptions, we didn’t really consider featuring versions of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary ($24.95) or Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged International Dictionary ($59.95), which might perhaps have been “better” in terms of quality but still might not be the “best” choice for a reader’s money.

All that said, I do love dictionaries (see above), so when Paragon Software asked if I’d like a complimentary license for these apps to review, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.* After just a day or so of use, I can say that there certainly is an awful lot to like. In fact, I’m prepared to say that these are indeed the “best” dictionary apps in terms of quality alone, but the question of whether they’re worth their pricetag has yet to be decided (and will likely be different anyway, depending on what you want or need in a dictionary app).

So, what do they offer that you can’t get for free from, say, Free Dictionary Org? The latter does a great job and is pretty full-featured for a free app (which is why it’s featured in the book), including voice search, suggestions as you type, and an annotations capability:

Dictionary Apps

As you can see, it’s certainly serviceable and sufficient if you’re just looking for a quick definition or spelling. So, most people won’t even know what they’re missing, unless they actually get a chance to use the Merriam-Webster apps:

Dictionary Apps

Not only do they show much more polish (and no ads), but they also include additional functionality (annotations being the only missing feature that Free Dictionary Org has) and a much richer, broader, and detailed database of words (notice the additional words found in the unabridged version that aren’t present in the collegiate edition) with a long-established and respected pedigree of editorial oversight. Take a look at these definitions, which include etymology, historical references, pluralization, variations, and linked synonyms and references:

Dictionary Apps

Also note the speaker symbol, which gives you an audio pronunciation, a feature found in Free Dictionary Org, but which is much less useful in the free app:

In all, the experience of using the app lends itself much more to actual research, wordsmithing, and other professional, academic, or other serious use. If you want to carry the unabridged de facto standard for English dictionaries in your pocket, it just might be worth the money (the unabridged dictionary is a little less than half the list price of the print copy).

I’m still not convinced that I would pay 60 bucks for the unabridged version, or even 25 for the collegiate edition, but that perspective would probably change if I weren’t almost always around a computer or the dead-tree dictionaries in my office. Now that I have it, I’ll definitely get a lot of use out of it when I’m working remotely, and I’ll consider it one of the most important reference apps on my phone.

* Full disclosure: I did not pay for these apps, but I was not compensated in any way for this review, nor was there any expectation that I would write a favorable review as a requirement for receiving them.

Book Shipping (and Downloading) Now

Posted in Reference on June 3, 2010 by Brian Sawyer

Best Android Apps is shipping now! You can get the print version at Amazon or, if you’d rather read it on your phone, grab the ebook bundle (Mobi, PDF, and ePub). The ePub version looks great in Aldiko:

Best Android Apps on Android

or in iBooks on iPad:

Best Android Apps on iPad

Best Android Apps on iPad

And, of course, the print version is a beautiful thing to behold (and hold):

Best Android Apps

Whichever format you choose, happy reading!

Choose Your Format

Google Navigation: Free Garmin Replacement

Posted in Lifestyle, Utilities on March 12, 2010 by Brian Sawyer

Last night, I needed my Garmin to get somewhere important, but when I reached for it in the glove box, I remembered I’d loaned it out to the other car in our family and hadn’t gotten it back yet. What to do?

No Garmin in the glove box, but I did have my G1 on me, and the directions on Google Maps had saved me on numerous occasions, so I fired it up and plugged in my destination:

Google Navigation

That Navigate option was new to me. I’d remembered hearing about Google Navigation coming to phones running versions of Android below 2.0 (my G1 is running Android 1.6, but note that Navigation is still not available for my Motorola Cliq, which is still back on Android 1.5), but I hadn’t had the chance to look into it yet. So, here was my chance. I pressed Navigate …

Google NavigationTurns out I wasn’t quite ready to roll yet, because Navigation required an additional (free) text-to-speech download to work. The download process was a little buggy, which forced me to install it a couple times, but I after I closed Maps and started back up again it seemed to work. I pressed Navigate again …

Here’s what my new turn-by-turn directions and route map now looked with Google Navigation turned on:

Google NavigationGoogle Navigation

Ready to get driving, I switched over to the turn-by-turn map screen, but I could have used Street View if I’d wanted (it’s neat to look at but not as usable for actually driving, especially since I actually had a real-time street view right in front of me):

Google Navigation Google Navigation

I also could have turned on a selection of layers to show gas stations, banks, traffic, and parking along my route:

Google Navigation Google Navigation

All of these bells and whistles are great, interesting, and good fun, but for my phone to actually serve as a viable replacement for my Gamin GPS, it would need to speak to me, telling me when to turn. Well, it does, and in my experience, it worked just as well as my Garmin, and all for free. If you’re looking to buy a GPS unit for your car but already have a phone running Android 1.6 or higher, at least give Google Navigation a try first. You might just save yourself a few hundred dollars.

But what does Google Navigation Lady sound like? Take a listen:

Aldiko: Best eBook Reader

Posted in Entertainment, Lifestyle, Reference on March 10, 2010 by Brian Sawyer

Note: My coauthor and I each wrote about Aldiko for the book, for the Reference chapter and the Entertainment chapter, respectively. We ended up putting it in Reference, so I’m running my own description here, which we cut to avoid duplication.

Who needs another expensive device dedicated to just reading books when you always have your Android phone with you anyway? Aldiko gets mobile book reading right, with an eye-pleasing, customizable (by font, color, margins, etc.) experience to curl up with or take on the go. Sure, the screen is small and doesn’t support proprietary, DRM-protected formats like Kindle’s MOBI, but Aldiko reads any ePub files, which you can import yourself or get download through Aldiko’s online catalog.

OFF THE SHELF (left): The attractive dashboard that greets you when Aldiko launches gives you quick access to the book’s you’ve read most recently, your whole eBook library, and a portal to a variety of catalogs to download new books. Just choose a book to get reading, wherever you left off or bookmarked.

BROWSE THE CATALOG (right): Aldiko taps into a variety of sources for discovering both free and paid books that are available to download. is a great place to find free books, both original content and classic works culled from the public domain. Specialized catalogs include technical content from O’Reilly eBooks, romance novels and erotica from All Romance eBooks, and books by independent authors and publishers distributed by Smashwords.

READ THE CLASSICS (left): Reading books on the small screen isn’t as difficult as you might think, especially when you can change text size, font, brightness, orientation, and other layout choices. Navigate through the book by table of contents, search by phrase, or just swipe the page to the left to turn to the next.

BEDTIME READING (right): Reading dark text on a bright backlit background is a little more difficult on the eyes than the reverse. When you hunker down in bed to read with the lights out, switch to Night mode to get white text against a black background.


FBReader is another serviceable eBook reader, and it supports ePub, OEB, and fb2 (.zip) file formats. It includes some of the standard features of Aldiko, such as Night/Day modes and choice of screen orientation, but its appearance and layout options are much more limited (most notably, you have no control over your font type, size, or color). FBReader also taps into the free public domain content available at Feedbooks, but it doesn’t directly access the other specialized catalogs offered by Aldiko.

My Starter Guitar

Posted in Entertainment, Games on March 2, 2010 by Brian Sawyer

I’ve finally decided to learn to play the guitar. While I’m wrestling with the decision of acoustic versus electric or the question of what I can afford in a starter guitar, I figured I’d give Guitar Solo a whirl:

Even if it doesn’t quite teach me to play, it’s free and fun and it doesn’t callous my fingers.

Google Shopper Beats ShopSavvy

Posted in Lifestyle on February 19, 2010 by Brian Sawyer

Yesterday, Google Labs announced the release of Google Shopper, a scanning app for Android phones that searches for product details by barcode, image, or voice query. In this screencast, I run through its basic features and show the ways it beats ShopSavvy, the app I’ve been using for product searches and comparisons until today.

A note about this site: I’ve coauthored a book with Mike Hendrickson titled Best Android Apps. It should be out in April. O’Reilly will have a catalog page up soon, but in the meantime, Barnes & Noble has it available for preorder.

Control Your Media Remotely with Gmote

Posted in Entertainment on January 28, 2010 by Brian Sawyer

Gmote is a free application that turns your Android phone into a remote control for all the media on your desktop:

Perfect for PowerPoint presentations and family slideshows.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.