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Tech and Gadgets

The WizCom SPV1000V SuperPen Translator: A Review

The WizCom SuperPen is a great concept, something like the first technological step toward having a Star Trek style universal on-the-fly language translator. It combines OCR scanning technology with microcomputing to give you a hand held pen sized device with which you can scan words in multiple languages and see a translation appear for other languages.

The unit does not contain the dictionaries of all the languages it supports all at once, however. You have to manually download dictionaries to the pen through your computer, and you get these dictionaries via the WizCom website. They currently boast over thirty dictionaries available for download, but there are a couple of catches. One is that one language does not necessarily translate into another. Most of the focus seems to be on translating English, European languages and Chinese back and forth. Translations that would come up in less common situations, such as say Italian to Finnish, may not be supported in either one or both directions. The other catch is that the pen only has modest memory, and in most cases can only hold two dictionaries at a time. So that limits you to the language that you speak, and whatever language you want to translate. That should be adequate for most regions of the world but there may be some areas where you’ll want, say, French, English and another language on hand and you can’t have all three at once. This device is also considered as one of the best portable translator in the market. With its impressive features and quality functions, WizCom is a good device to buy.

Other specs of the unit are that it boasts a 97% optical character recognition rate for all languages, scans fonts of 6 to 22 points in size, and has a manual letter entry option for large signs and other items that cannot be scanned. Obviously, the scanner is optimized for print. Handwriting may be picked up if it is clear, but is not guaranteed. You can always enter characters manually, but obviously with a unit of this size, there’s no keyboard and you have to tediously scroll through characters one by one to enter them.

The SuperPen has a number of further limitations that keep it from being the ultimate pocket translation gadget, and may make you reconsider dropping money on it. The first is that it takes AAA batteries, and has a decent life span for the amount of batteries used, but has no option by which to be plugged in for extended scanning sessions. It would be nice to be able to double this as an OCR translator for use at a desktop PC, but you won’t be doing that unless you’re prepared to go through a mountain of AAAs or have a good battery recharger on hand.

Another is that the unit connects only to computers via serial cable. Many laptops and notebooks don’t have serial ports, so be sure to check carefully beforehand to see if you do (desktops generally do have one by default.)

There’s also some issues with installation and compatibility. The installation procedure is really old-school, like something from the 1990s. There’s no USB plug-and-play convenience here. You install manufacturers drivers off of an included CD and run their setup program, and hope for the best. If it doesn’t work you are off to their website to troubleshoot for yourself. There also does not seem to be a Macintosh version for this model, and Windows Vista has a lot of problems reported with it (as it seems to with nearly everything.)

Limitations to physical scanning are that you have to move the pen over the surface really slowly to ensure that the characters are picked up correctly, and it works very poorly with surfaces that are either highly reflective, or text that is red or pink in hue.

The unit currently retails for about $100, and at that price you really have to consider whether your needs won’t be better served by a less expensive pocket translator with manual keyboard entry. There’s still a whole lot of room for refining and improvement with pen scanners, but I hope these companies will stick with it as it is a great concept that can be extremely functional once they iron out the kinks.

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