Microsoft's Translator app plays catch-up with Google

The version for iPhones now lets you use the device's camera to translate signs, menus and the like, while the version for Android devices can work offline.

Microsoft Translator has adopted a couple of features already available in Google Translate.

Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Microsoft has a couple new tricks up its sleeve to help it better compete with Google Translate.

Released Thursday, the version of Microsoft Translator for the iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch now includes optical character recognition, or OCR. That means the app can translate text that's in an image. You could use your iPhone to snap a photo of a sign or menu, and the app would overlay a translation of the text.

On-the-go translation via mobile app has been catching on as a helpful service for travelers and others. Google has been the leader so far, through its website and mobile app. Microsoft needs to show it can do more than play second fiddle to Google if it wants its own app to grab more users.

The version of Microsoft Translator for Android devices also has a new feature. As of Wednesday, you can use it even when you're not connected to the Internet, thanks to downloadable language packs. That could be useful in a foreign location where Internet access is slow, spotty or nonexistent, either through Wi-Fi or cellular.

You simply go to the App menu and tap on the option for Offline Languages; then download the source and target languages. Support for offline languages is limited to English and the following: Chinese Simplified, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese.

Microsoft said in a blog post that the offline translations are nearly as good as those you'd get online.

The character-recognition feature for iPhones and other devices that run Apple's iOS operating system is not yet available for Android devices, and the offline feature for Android gadgets is not yet available for iOS devices. Microsoft said that would change soon so that all versions of the app (iOS, Android, Windows and Windows Phone) will have the same features.

Google's Translate app has long included optical character recognition to translate text on the fly via your mobile device's camera. The Android version of Google Translate offers the ability to download language packs for offline translation, but the iOS edition still lacks that feature.

Microsoft Translator supports not only Apple mobile devices, including the Apple Watch, but also smartwatches that run Android Wear, Google's adaptation of its mobile software for wearables.

You can translate text by speaking it, typing it, drawing it with your finger or snapping a photograph. In return, you'll receive both an onscreen and verbal translation of your text.

Microsoft Translator currently supports around 50 languages, including Arabic, English, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Swedish, Thai and Vietnamese.

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