Launch offline and third-party dictionaries quickly
Even though iOS comes with its own built-in dictionary, it cannot be launched as a standalone app. To access Apple's own dictionary, the New Oxford American Dictionary bundled or any other language equivalents, you need to use a word already written. This is similar to the pop up menu you use for Copy and Paste, you just need to highlight a word and tap on 'Define'.
While having this system aid on any app is invaluable, most of the times you need to search for a word on a dictionary or thesaurus. Perhaps you are writing and want to check the spelling synonyms to avoid repetition or a translation from another language. As a non-English native speaker, this is something I do everyday to confirm what I already know and to expand my vocabulary with new terms. I could use Apple's own quick dictionary feature for basic reading on Mail or Instapaper but anything else is going to require a dedicated tool I can access quickly offline.
Terminology 3 by Agile Tortoise fits the bill perfectly. Designed from the ground up to work with iOS 7 only, the app builds on years of experience and user feedback to make something more streamlined and open. The app's cornerstone is Princeton University's WordNet, an intelligent database with word definitions, synonyms, more ambiguous or specific alternatives as well as related terms. I was worried this would focus too much on U.S. English but WordNet recognised UK spellings, although it would be nice if it could label them as (Brit) like other dictionaries do.
The WordNet dictionary comes bundled with the app and is available offline. It's taking 78 MB of space on my iPhone compared to the 117 MB of a another dictionary app called Definition. Now, here's the genius: the developer has decided to use the lessons learned with Drafts and implement custom actions and URL schemes to allow Terminology 3 with other apps.
What custom actions really do is to lookup words on particular websites — perform online searches — you can set up yourself and see the results directly on the app. On the actions menu you can easily add quick access buttons to lookup words on online resources like Google or Urban Dictionary.
The URL schemes trigger actions on other apps you have installed on the device. One that I'll find very useful — and comes suggested as a preset — is to use Sophiestication's Articles to browse Wikipedia. If I type a word on Terminology and want to see the Wikipedia entry, this 'bookmark' will launch the app directly with the search term already there. Agile Tortoise is keeping an Action Directory to help you install these extensions.
The app also plays nicely with supported apps such as Mr. Reader or Instapaper using the built-in define function. Although you get the default Apple definition, a small icon at the bottom allows you to jump to Terminology and back to your app with an overlay button just used for these occasions.
It has to be all about search
After this brief outline explaining why Terminology is a powerful tool, let's move on to the execution and design choices in this new version. Upon launch you will notice the app focuses on search. If you have any text copied to the iPhone's clipboard, it will be pasted automatically. Otherwise, the cursor and the keyboard will be already active, inviting you to type something.
As you type a word, the app displays a number of related terms you might be looking for; my big complaint here is the extra tap required to open the definition. I would prefer opening the definition immediately tapping 'Done' on the keyboard instead of getting a list of suggested matches.
If you are navigating the app you can summon the search function by swiping right from the left of the screen — the gesture iOS 7 uses for returning to a previous position. This can be very confusing at the beginning, as you will naturally swipe your thumb trying to reach a previous pane. In practice, it becomes natural, as you want to use Terminology 3 primarily for search. The search box on top of the screen is so tiny and far away on a long iPhone 5 and 5s this swipe gesture ends up being more convenient using the phone with one hand. The transition animation is nice but I wish it would open the new search view and the keyboard at the same time, but I'm not sure if this is an iOS limitation or not.
I'm willing to forget about this because the navigation is quite confusing to begin with, probably led by it's older iPad brother version where you can see a list of recent terms used. Terminology 3 on an iPhone is like a deck of cards piling on top of the previous one. The X icons across the app allow you to close a definition window, revealing the previous term. You can just tap a lot of Xs on the top left corner to get to the initial screen, but I don't think it makes much sense unless you are backtracking to one synonym you liked better a couple of searches ago. What I always end up doing is summoning the search and adding more cards on top of the pile, using the history button if I need to return.
Even if I find confusing these design decisions I cannot fault Terminology because it puts the main function — search — right at the front wherever you are in the app. Not only the content is available online and gives you the option to crosscheck with additional resources via actions, but it's quick. Most of the time, I'll launch the app, type a term, read the entry and carry on with something else. I forgive the 'pile of cards' approach because for every use, I only want to see one card.
In terms of appearance, Terminology 3 has gone for full white with maroon tint on the text and some details in golden yellow. I really like how Agile Tortoise has managed to translate the essence of the app to match iOS 7 without sacrificing too much. The icon has also been redesigned and shows proudly that custard tone it used to have.
After a few days using the app I can already see how it will become an indispensable on my iPhone. Terminology's expandability beats any other dictionary app on the App Store. Its focus on search makes it quick and more convenient than Apple's own dictionary, plus the redesign for iOS 7 keeps it current, in line with the rest of the system.