Every once in a while, I get to review a gadget that amazes me.
When you read the description, you think, “wow, this can’t possibly work,” and when it does work, you swear it must be magic.
I’ve been testing a device from Chinese electronics manufacturer Cheetah Mobile called the CM Translator, which uses artificial intelligence and your smartphone’s connection to the internet to translate English to Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai and Spanish.
When I show it to people, they agree — it’s magic.
How it works
The CM Translator I’m testing is the international version of the best-selling handheld translation AI device in China.
The CM Translator is powered by AI technology from Microsoft Azure Cognitive Services, including machine translation and neural text-to-speech capabilities, as well as Automatic Speech Recognition from AI research firm OrionStar.
The CM Translator looks like a slim TV remote. It has only one button, which you press to record speech. The translator also has a microphone, a speaker and a battery that lasts for 24 hours of translation or 180 days of standby time. The battery is charged via a proprietary USB charging cable with a magnetic connector.
Once you charge the translator, you download the CM Translator app from the iOS or Android app store. When you launch the app, you press the translator’s button to connect it to the phone.
At the top of the app screen, you can choose the language and then begin to translate.
Once you make the connection to the phone, all the action happens on the translator.
If you hold down the button and say a sentence in English, the translator records the audio, sends it through your phone to a server that analyzes the audio clip and makes the translation and sends it back to your phone and then through the translator’s speaker.
Then once you finish speaking and let go of the button, the translated message is played in about five seconds.
If you have the app open on your phone, you’ll see the words appear on the screen like a text message conversation (in both languages), and if you’d like the phrase repeated, just touch the sentence you’d like to hear again.
The translator and server are smart enough to realize which language is being spoken.
If you speak English, the translator will return Spanish, and if you are speaking Spanish, the translator will return English.
More languages coming
Since the device originated for the Chinese market, the languages available are mostly from Asia. Spanish is a useful language to have included, and Cheetah Mobile says 28 more languages will be added in the coming months.
The system should be easy to upgrade, as it will mean upgrading only the app and the backside servers to add extra languages.
Short translations are better
So it works, but how well does it translate?
For the single sentences or short paragraphs that you need to check into a hotel, ask for directions or place an order at a restaurant, the CM Translator does a really good job.
When the sentences turn into longer paragraphs, the translator starts to drop words and run sentences together. I still understood what was going on, but it was less than ideal.
The longer the paragraphs were, the more errors and word omissions came back in the translation.
So let me tap the brakes a bit while I’m gushing about magic.
This is a very young technology, and the translator works well with single sentences and short paragraphs, especially in a leisurely back-and-forth conversation between two people.
Traveling to China or Japan or Korea or even Mexico would be much easier if you take this translator along. If I were making a trip, it would be a no-brainer to pack a CM Translator.
But you’ll need a cellphone with a data connection, so you might have to make some arrangements with your phone carrier before you travel.
The CM Translator has the potential to be very helpful, especially as it adds languages.
Pricing and availability
The CM Translator is initially available through Indiegogo, which is a crowd-funding site. There are different support levels, starting at $99. The orders are guaranteed to ship within five weeks.
The full retail price will be $129 when it goes on sale on the Cheetah Mobile site. It is also available on B8TA.com, and after the Indiegogo campaign ends, Cheetah Mobile says it will be for sale on Amazon.
Pros: Inexpensive. Very fast translation. Small, light and great battery life. Very simple to set up and use.
Cons: The translation gets a little iffy with fast talking or longer paragraphs.
Bottom line: This is very cool now, and it’s only going to get better.
Jim Rossman writes for The Dallas Morning News. He may be reached at email@example.com.