Collins’ new Spanish dictionary for Macs — blech!

The past few months have seen way too little blogging (i.e., none) and way too much work on the Guaraní field methods course.

But I’ve been roused from my recent non-bloggishness by the overwhelming need to discuss the “Collins Spanish Dictionary Complete and Unabridged” app that I recently bought from the Apple AppStore.

It is — how can I phrase this delicately? — the single most unprofessional and incompetently designed piece of alleged dictionary software that I’ve had the misfortune to use in the last decade. (And believe me, there’s some stiff competition for that title.)

I have two arguments in my defence against the charge that I’m a total rube.

First is that the AppStore will only show its Canadian customers reviews that have been written by other Canadian customers — in this case, there were none. I never saw the U.S. AppStore’s slew of overwhelmingly hostile reviews (blaring like the warning beacon at the beginning of Alien) until it was too late.

My second defence is that I’ve actually had, until now, consistently positive experiences with dictionary software bearing the Collins name, including for Spanish, including other apps for the content of this exact same Spanish dictionary.

On my iPad, I’ve been using Cole Zhu’s app, which has the contents the complete unabridged Collins Spanish-English dictionary. It’s as fast and convenient as you can expect an iPad app to be, but still nowhere near as convenient as typing words on a real keyboard — which I would like to have for those occasions where I’m sitting with a real keyboard.

On my Mac laptop, I’ve been using a 2006-vintage dictionary program that looks like this:


This piece of software has mysteriously vanished from the Collins website since I bought it for something like $15 last year. It’s the same handy-dandy dictionary that I mentioned in this post as aiding and abetting my delusional attempt to read Roberto Bolaño. It’s got a couple of annoying glitches, and it only has the contents from the Concise Collins Spanish-English dictionary, rather than the unabridged behemoth. But when I said it allowed me to look up a Spanish word in approximately 0.3 seconds, I wasn’t exaggerating much.

I’ve also played around with a dictionary program that works only under Windows (boo!) that has the contents of Collins’ unabridged dictionary — a licence for it came for free with the paper version I bought. It too was pretty usable with a nice enough interface. But it wasn’t a huge improvement over the concise handy-dandy Mac program, at least not a huge enough improvement to bother firing up my Windows virtual machine and waiting a minute before I could even type a word in, so I got out of the habit of using it.[1]

The licence for the handy-dandy Mac program was always vague (read “completely silent”) on the question of how many of my computers (home desktop, office desktop, laptop) I was allowed to install it on. I’ve put it on two now without eliciting complaints, but never got around to trying the third.

But then I stumbled across this shiny new AppStore app — with the content of the unabridged paper dictionary (like the iPad app and the Windows program) and, I assumed, at least the usability of the Windows program and the handy-dandy 2006 Mac program (and hopefully half a decade of improvements) and guaranteed to work on every Mac I own now or may own in the future — all for less that I spent on the paper dictionary. Seemed like a no-brainer. How could it possibly go wrong?

Oh, let me count the ways.

Style — or lack thereof

There’s always been a strong tendency among Mac developers to favour vacuous style over actual usefulness. I’m used to that. I almost expect it. What I wasn’t prepared for was that the successor to several highly usable Collins programs would trade in already existing usability for vacuous style, and then not even manage to be stylish.

The app isn’t actively leap-off-the-screen ugly — that’s the best I can say for it. It’s definitely trying to be more stylish than the workmanlike handy-dandy 2006 program. But honestly, it looks like it was put together by a committee endowed with one-tenth the aesthetic sense of an autistic actuary. This is what they thought was way more important than being able to look up words easily:


The colour scheme doesn’t guide your attention in any useful way. The green icons inside the entries are unreadable and uninterpretable, and they don’t even link to explanations of what they mean. (Really, guys, this is 2012. There’s these newfangled things called hyperlinks that we invented, oh, somewhere around the time you were born. Check them out some day.)

One last nit to pick here. It’s nothing that renders the app unusable (unlike the points below), but something that points to the overall stylelessness/cluelessness of the developers. Most Mac applications have short catchy names, like “Safari” or “BBEdit” or (for me at this very moment) “MarsEdit” or the name of the handy-dandy 2006 program: “Collins”. Occasionally there’s a self-important company that allows themselves to get long-winded, like with “Google Chrome”. The name of this app, in the menu bar and in the tooltip that hovers over the dock, is “Collins Spanish Dictionary Complete and Unabridged”. By the time it’s printed all that in my menu bar (along with its handful of purely ornamental menu items), there’s barely enough room left over for the clock.

Interactivity — such as it is

In the screenshot, you can also see the app’s font size. Yes, the only font size you can get. There’s a Format menu that claims to have commands for increasing or decreasing the font size. Sometimes those commands are greyed out. Sometimes they’re not. Doesn’t matter. They do absolutely nothing. You can, if you’re lucky, succeed in changing the entire font of the dictionary entries, and the dialogue box for that acts like it’ll also let you choose the point size. Don’t get your hopes up. It’s lying to you.[2] Whether a program lets the user change its font size is one of the easiest ways of telling whether it was made by people with the slightest clue about designing usable user interfaces. This one fails.

That’s also the width of the app that you see in the screenshot. You can make it wider if you want, even fill the whole screen, but it absolutely refuses to get narrower than that. So there’s no way you can slim it down to the size you see in the above screenshot of the handy-dandy 2006 program and let it sit comfortably beside, say, your browser — ready to be used when necessary and ignored when not necessary. No, this app arrogantly assumes that it deserves your entire attention while you’re interacting with it — one more sign that it was designed by people who have no clue about what people need to use dictionary programs for.

My number-one criterion for the usability of a dictionary program is whether I can go from a desire to know about a word to reading its entry without taking my fingers off the keyboard. Every (non-iPad) dictionary program I’ve bought since about 2004 lets me do that. Unsurprisingly (by now), this one fails.

If I type “largo” into handy-dandy 2006 program and hit Return, it instantly shows me the definitions for largo (the adjective, the noun, the adverb), then also for the verb largar, ’cause maybe I’m looking for the “I” form of that one.

If I type “largo” into the new app, I get a list of every headword that has those five letters in that order:


Now if I want to see the entry for largo that’s sitting there at the top of the list, I have to waste a couple of extra seconds and fumble for my mouse or the trackpad, move the cursor to that list item, and click on it — since apparently my merely typing the word doesn’t make it obvious enough which word I want. Another fail by someone who’s apparently never bothered to use a dictionary program themselves before attempting to design one.

And notice: no verb largar anywhere in that list. Every one of the earlier Collins programs I used could handle all those wacky Spanish verb suffixes and immediately send you to the right entry filed under the infinitive form. This one doesn’t even try. I think it’s obvious that this “feature” comes from sheer laziness on the part of the developers. (Or, being as charitable as I can manage, perhaps the absence of anyone on the development team who, you know, actually spoke Spanish? Or knew anything about it?) The developers, on the other hand, try to pass it off as a deliberate design decision, boasting in the product description:

While many large dictionary applications pile on complex features and functions, we strove to streamline Collins Spanish Dictionary Complete and Unabridged and make it the fastest and easiest Spanish language dictionary application available.

Yeah. Sure. “Streamline”, you say.

Any information about verb conjugation apparently counts as one of those frivolous “complex functions”. Can’t remember the future subjunctive of some irregular verb? In any other dictionary program, there’s a little icon you can click to see the whole paradigm. Is there one here? Do I really need to answer that for you by now?

Content — et tu, Bluto?

Okay, forget the lack of any Mac’ly flair. Forget the lack of butt-standard features. Forget the least usable interface design for dictionary software in a decade. At least this app has got the entire content of the heaviest, most gigantickest Spanish-English dictionary on the planet, right?



Well, almost.

Notice the Spanish example sentences in the first screenshot that have no English translations. Those English translations are there in the paper edition. They’re there even in the handy-dandy 2006 program (for half the price). Why aren’t they here too? I can’t even hallucinate a good excuse for you.

The paper edition and all previous Collins software I’ve seen also have a bunch of extra annotations that tell you, for example, meaning 3 of this word is only used in Mexico or in the Southern Cone, or is a technical term in medicine or horticulture. The meanings shown in the screenshot should be marked with an asterisk to tell you they’re informal (as in: don’t use them in your presidential inaugural address and/or term paper that you’re counting on to pass the course). Or there’s two asterisks to tell you a word is downright slangy, or three asterisks to tell you that the person you say it to had better be a very close friend and also unarmed.

None of that here. I guess those details are also too “complex”, and information about words just gets in the way of a dictionary being the “fastest and easiest”. An app that boasts about being “Complete and Unabridged” in every square millimetre of screen space it can, ironically, feels no need to be a complete and unabridged presentation of the information in the dictionary.

How could it get this bad?

I’ve been blaming “Collins” for the uselessness of this monstrosity and talking as if some executive deliberately decided to take working software and hack out all the features that made it work. While somebody at the HarperCollins corporation is ultimately responsible (in the usual corporate sense of “I screwed up, now triple my bonus”), I gather that Collins’ main problem is that they can’t be bothered developing their own dictionary software and farm that job out to others. They’ve been pretty lucky in the past, but this time their luck ran out.

In the “About” box of my handy-dandy 2006 Mac program, I see a copyright notice by HarperCollins Publishers followed immediately by one from Ultralingua Software. The iPad app is by some guy named Cole Zhu.

Ultralingua is a cool little dictionary software company in Minnesota (which is, after all, the next best thing to Manitoba) that actually hires linguists on their staff.[3] I’ve got one of their Spanish dictionaries on my iPad, too, and while I don’t like it quite as much as Cole Zhu’s, they clearly know what they’re doing.

The new disaster from the AppStore, on the other hand, is made by “Innovative Language Learning”. While Ultralingua’s website lists over a dozen staff members (and the descriptions of their skills are highly relevant to making dictionaries), Innovative Language’s website lists only three “team” members, who seem much more focussed on marketing and raising money than on software design. The most tech-savvy of them has such ninja hacker skills as “uses innovative knowledge management and development practices to enhance the company’s competitive edge.”[4]

I think I can begin to see the problem here.

I still have no idea why the problem was permitted in the first place, or how long it will last. I don’t know if Collins hires one firm at a time to build their dictionary software for them, and each new firm has to throw out its predecessors’ work and start from scratch (in which case, this was a seriously bad choice). Or maybe it’s a franchise deal, where any app developer with enough cash can buy permission to use Collins content in their products (in which case, Collins seriously needs to exercise some quality control for the sake of their own reputation). I have no idea how Collins decides which software gets sold through its own website, or when it gets pulled off.

Most of all, I don’t know how the hell I get Apple to give me my money back.



  • [1]: To check that my memories of the Windows dictionary program were accurate, I just now did fire up my virtual machine and tried running it again. The program claimed my free trial period is over (it is remotely possible that I stopped using it fast enough that I never bothered registering it). But when I type in the registration key printed in the paper dictionary, the program stubbornly insists that it’s invalid. Either: 1) I did enter the key almost a year ago and the program has decided to forget it, or 2) the program is deliberately rejecting a valid, unused key. Either way, I’m being prevented from using a program I have every right to use. Way uncool, Collins. I’m starting to lose faith in you already, and I haven’t even got to the part of the review where I start slamming your wretched choice of business partners.
  • [2]: The same menu apparently does allow you to switch the writing direction between left-to-right and right-to-left. I haven’t tried it, but I can imagine how exceedingly useful that ability would be in translating between English and Spanish.
  • [3]: And linguists are, after all, the most incredibly useful people any company could have on their staff, whether they’re doing anything from pharmaceutical research to making movies to organizing leveraged buy-outs of Swiss multinationals. But most especially if they happen to be making dictionaries. You’d think. (End shameless plug.)
  • [4]: I was actually surprised to see that one of the three team members was Peter Galante. I listened to a few episodes of his a few years ago when I was checking out the state of the art in language-instruction podcasts. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy, passionate about the Japanese language, an excellent one-on-one teacher. Since then, I’ve been impressed with his attempts (at least those that have passed through my peripheral vision) to spin his early podcasts into a language teaching network that isn’t sleazy. But, nice guy or not, the fact remains: Did the latest incarnation of his growing empire produce a competent Spanish dictionary app? Not even close. Not even by the standards of 2001.
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2 Responses to Collins’ new Spanish dictionary for Macs — blech!

  1. Eric says:

    Thanks for the article…
    My question is what are my options for an Spanish/English dictionary for the iPhone? Ultralingua, cole zhu or another one?

    • Kevin says:

      Thanks for your question! If you hadn’t asked it, I never would have noticed that Cole Zhu’s dictionary works on my iPhone too. (I always just assumed it was for iPad only.)

      You’ll have to check which apps are available in your country’s iTunes store, but it looks like most of the major desktop/iPad ones carry over to the iPhone.

      It’s hard to recommend any single one. You have to think about interface and content separately. There are interfaces like Ultralingua and SlovoEd that get used in several apps in conjunction with a lot of different dictionary content across several languages — sometimes they’re presenting the content of a major paper dictionary publisher (like Collins, Harraps, or Oxford), sometimes they’re presenting public domain content or the software company’s own dictionary developed in-house (which tends to be more hit-and-miss in quality). Generally the apps from any one company all have similar names and you have squint hard at the descriptions to keep track of whose content it is.

      I like Ultralingua’s iPhone/iPad interface. I like SlovoEd’s (which I’ve used with Harraps’ French and Van Dale’s Dutch dictionaries), though it doesn’t handle things like verb conjugations for you. Either would be good choices for an interface. (You can probably guess that I’d steer you away from anything made by the company I rant about in the article — clunky interface and, even when they’re working with great content, they manage to botch it.)

      Which content is best for you depends on what level you’re at in the language. It’s probably best to go to a bookstore and browse through the paper dictionaries for the one that seems like it would be most useful for you, then go buy the app for that dictionary (it probably exists).

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