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Pocketalk voice translator rolls out more languages and features at CES 2021

With travel currently out of the question, the company is eyeing teachers and first responders.

Pocketalk is showcasing its Plus model with a larger display.

This story is part of CES, where CNET covers the latest news on the most incredible tech coming soon.

A digital translator is probably pretty low on your pandemic shopping list, if it's on there at all, given travel restrictions. But the company behind Pocketalk, a voice translator that easily fits in, well, your pocket, saw the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to rethink its target audience.

The company has found a strong use case among educators and first responders, says general manager Joe Miller. In the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, he adds, the translator devices were also useful for personnel aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was docked in Japan following an outbreak of the virus that eventually led to around 700 infections. When international travel resumes, he anticipates travelers will reach for the devices again.

During this year's virtual CES, Pocketalk is highlighting updates to its flagship Pocketalk S device ($299), including automatic language detection, slow playback mode and the ability to practice pronunciation. The company is also showcasing its new, slightly larger Pocketalk Plus ($329). It also still sells its entry-level Pocketalk Classic model, which costs $129.

Of course, the question on most people's minds is probably: Why not just use Google Translate? Miller says you might not want to regularly take out your phone and risk losing it or exposing any personal information while traveling. You'll also have to factor in the cost of getting international data on your phone, says Pocketalk CEO Noriyuki Matsuda, whereas the voice translators come with a complimentary two-year data plan. Pocketalk uses six different translation engines in an effort to provide users with more accurate results, the company says. 

Since the first device launched in 2017, Pocketalk has doubled its language offerings and improved the voice of the translator to sound less robotic and more natural. Miller says the company works to ensure new words and phrases are regularly added. 

Does it stand up to the test?

Immediately after getting my hands on the Pocketalk S translator, I put it to the test. I held the sleek black device, smaller than the palm of my hand, and used the touchscreen to select the languages I wanted to translate between. I mumbled somewhat menacingly, "Let's see if it understands Iraqi Arabic." I held down the button under the screen and blurted out various phrases.

While there's only one option for Arabic on the device, there are multiple dialects based on country and region, which can make it difficult for any digital translator to pick up on certain phrases. Still, Pocketalk did a good job of understanding most of what I threw at it.

Then I decided to make things a little more challenging. I held down the button and said, "Shaku maku," which translates to "What's up?" in an Iraqi dialect. (It's pretty fun to say. You should try it.)

"Shaku maku," the device repeated to me, clearly stumped. (Google Translate can't wrap its machine mind around that niche phrase, either.)

My evil antics aside, the device caught pretty much everything else I said to it in Arabic -- different dialects and all -- as well as my rusty high school Spanish.

The Pocketalk S and Plus feature a touchscreen, noise-canceling microphones and a camera that lets you snap a picture of text and then shows a translation. The devices now include faster and more accurate translations and improved battery life, and can translate 82 languages in more than 130 countries and regions. 

Planned future updates include a hands-free mode that translates without you having to push a button. Matsuda also said the company is working on an integration with Zoom that'll show users translations on their computer screen.