Top 5 China apps

Taking your iGadget to China with you? Here are five must-have apps that work offline.

1. Pleco Dictionary (free)
Although having a Chinese-English dictionary on your phone does not seem like it would be much use for non-Mandarin speakers, trust me, this thing is amazing. In Beijing or Shanghai you can get by using only English, but once you're off in the provinces making pointless hand gestures every five seconds, that's when Pleco will come in handy. Look up words in English, pinyin (Mandarin transliteration) or by stroke order (I've yet to come across a character it doesn't recognise). For an extra USD14.99 ($11.99 for students) you can get the full-screen handwriting add-on, which can identify and define characters written on the screen. If you've ever had a Chinese person try to communicate with you by tracing invisible characters on the palm of his or her hand, you will know just how useful this feature is.

2. Xiangqi (US$0.99)
Yup, bus and train rides in China can be pretty long. But rather than plug in your headphones, try out this Chinese chess game with your neighbour. Unless you've been playing since birth your chances of winning are slim, but you will definitely break the ice and make some new friends. You can also play against the computer to improve your skills (recommended).

3. Explore Metro Maps (US$0.99)
Explore puts out metro maps for Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. They're easy to use, up to date (no easy feat in Shanghai) and work offline. Very handy, especially when they've run out of paper maps at the stations.

4. Pocket Timetable (US$2.99)
Imagine...China's entire train schedule in your pocket. This is a major change from the days when you'd have to wait half an hour in line just to find out when the next train to Chengdu was leaving. Pocket Timetable's search function is powerful: you can easily determine departure and arrival times and choose the most convenient option, and results are displayed in English and Chinese - critical for usability. If you use it online, you can also access features such as pricing and the number of tickets remaining from A to B for any given day.

5. Lonely Planet  Phrasebook (US$3.99)
So you've got the dictionary to help you out with specific vocab, but if you want to actually speak Chinese?  Lonely Planet's Mandarin Phrasebook is in audio format, and will have you ordering dumplings and bargaining like a local in no time. A good search function and helpful categories make it even easier to use than the print version.

Chris Pitts is researching the 12th edition of the China guidebook in Shanghai. Follow the tweets that slip through the Great Firewall.