Kongzi vs. Stackz

Stackz is the kind of commercial program that Kongzi will be competing directly against. In addition to examining Anki before I started writing Kongzi, I also took a look at Stackz.

You can visit the Stackz homepage at: http://www.stackz.com/Stackz/stz.htm

First Impressions
First off they have a great looking webpage. It’s obviously intended to be commercial quality software compared to Anki, anyways. Upon downloading and installing the program however…

Stacks was not intuitive. Not like anki or I hope Kongzi to be anyways. However after a few minutes of tinkering I got the hang of it and was off. As I got to learn how to use Stackz, I realized what a great program it was. I mean that. Stacks is really a nice program – it costs $35 US for the “standard” version and $49 US for the “Full” version.

Stackz is Better than Anki
Hands down Stackz beats Anki in every respect except Anki possibly has a simpler look to it. I had to laugh when I read the Stackz webpage. Allow me to paste a short quote:

You never lose the control over your words!
The Stackz system does not take decisions for you, nor are actions performed automatically. It rather makes the current situation transparent and lets you to decide what you want to do about it.

I had to laugh because it sounded like they were on about the same thing I was regarding Anki’s ridiculous spaced repitition system which effectively locks you out of using the program. You would seriously spend more time in Anki resetting cards than you would drilling them.

Is Stackz worth the money?
I’d say so. The standard version without a dictionary costs $35, while the full version costs $49. Stackz definately has the features and the professional look to carry a $49 price tag. Would I buy it? I’m thinking about it. If I wasn’t writing kongzi I would have bought it months ago.

What are some of Stackz’ Amazing Features?
Stacks has a “match” quiz type, in which you must select the correct character, phonetic and defenition from random lists. It’s very cool and it’s a different kind of knowledge than a simple flashcard quiz. Oh, Stackz also has flashcard quizzes (and does them better than Anki I might add).

Stackz also allows you to change the order that the items are presented on their flashcard. I think Anki does this too but the option is buried – in Stackz it’s integrated and much easier/obvious. Basically Stackz considers that flashcard quizzes with different initially presented items will train different skills, like recognition by sound (phonetic) or sight (hanzi or hangul or kanji etc.) or some thing like that. The match quiz type trains you to differentiate between phonetics, hanzi etc, which is also a valuable skill. In short Stackz is a much more complete suite which will definately help you learn a language much better than Anki would.

Now, for the bad news…
Stackz has serious, serious problems. Here are a short list of major problems I noticed right away:

1. Regardless if you select Chinese Traditional or Chinese Simplified, the program displays Chinese Simplified.
Conclusion: Stacks is useless if you want to study traditional characters.

2. If you select Chinese at all (traditional or simplified), Stacks keeps calling the words “Kanji” and dealing with them as if they were Japanese Characters.
Conclusion: Stackz’ does not provide a Chinese-friendly environment. Kanji is nice, really, but it’s not Chinese.

3. Stackz does not run on anything except Windows.
Conclusion: Forget about Stackz if you’re a Mac or Linux user.

There are other problems. But the three above are pretty major in my opinion.

Is Kongzi Better than Stackz?

Well, of course I think so, I wrote it! But to try and be objective I could talk about how both programs help you learn. After all that is their goal. In that respect Both Kongzi and Anki will do Stackz-style quiz (Kongzi calls it a “Flashcard Quiz”).

Kongzi also has what it calls a “Mix ‘n Match Quiz” type – which is very similar to how Stackz quizzes you in what they call a “Match” test.

So on those two points both Kongzi and Stackz are pretty even.

But Kongzi has two types of quiz that Stackz simply doesn’t have. First, it has a Multiple Choice style quiz, and it also has a memory game. If that wasn’t enough, Kongzi has special artificial intelligence which selects characters which are similar to each other in various ways, which makes the quizzes more interesting and meaningful for study.

Additionally, a lot of work has been placed into the user interface. If you want, you can click on buttons like you can with stackz, but kongzi encourages you to use the mouse as a native interface. Left click for “yes”, right click for “no”, third or side button for “advance”, and so forth.

Kongzi’s F-Score system has a finer gradient than Stackz. You can also select a range of scores to test, unlike Stackz which only lets you test a single band. Not to mention selection by tags. Or frequency range. So, in general it would seem that Kongzi is more useful for learners because it offers more and more varied and more configurable types of quizzes than Stackz, and Kongzi keeps better track of what you know as well.

What about other features? Both stackz and kongzi handle a variety of languages. But the problem with Stackz is that it is focused on Japanese and does not support Chinese properly. For example, Stackz has never been able to display Traditional Characters properly. In the demo versions I always select “Chinese Traditional”, then try the sample, and am presented with Simplified Characters. That is simply inexcusable. Also, Stackz does not seem to support zhuyin natively, only pinyin. Kongzi supports pinyin and zhuyin side-by-side. So in this department Kongzi is the clear winner.

Kongzi’s Special Features?
Above and beyond all this, Kongzi has a few features which make it easier to use – features not found in any other software. Kongzi has a “Shortcut System” in short, a customizable IME which means you can type “ni3” and the pinyin tone will be automatically applied. This can also be used to type zhuyin. It works with any language, including japanese romaji and what not. This is a technology I have never seen in any language learning software. In essence you will be able to use Kongzi without an IME. I think this will actually be a major selling point because

  • the cost of using kongzi will be cheaper than other programs, as you don’t need to buy NJStar Communicator
  • using kongzi will be faster and easier than using any other program which requires an IME because you will not need to switch back and forth between pinyin, daidao and ascii text input modes.
  • Kongzi will look better than other programs because it will always display pinyin tones properly – the way you want it to.

Finally, Kongzi uses an innovative Tag Tree system to organize characters. Every other program uses word lists. Word lists are insiduously evil. Take Stackz as an example. Each “Stack” is part of a “Lesson” which is part of a “Wordlist”. This can double or even triple your work and I don’t think there is a way to get around it. For example let’s say you create a word list of the 100 most common characters. This will include words like one, country, so on and so forth. If these words will ever be classified in another way, such as being part of a lesson in your textbook.. if you created a stackz file to represent the characters as they appear in your textbook to study them that way, you have to enter the character again! That’s double the work, at least. And what’s worse is that you have to learn it again, too in the new wordlist/lesson. What a total waste.

In Kongzi you have ONE dictionary file for each language. One for Japanese, and one for Chinese, etc.

Then you organize them with tags. It’s a beautiful concept. And the tags are organized in a tree structure so you can classify things the way you want with zero mess.

Here’s something else that only Kongzi lets you do. You can import and export anything. And what’s better that this? You can do it selectively. You can import only words, or only idioms from CC-CEDICT. You can import the HSK lists and have them autotagged by level and parts of speech. You can import frequency lists from external sources and have the characters organized by any frequency order you like.

You can organize characters by textbook lesson and then export and share that tag list with your friends. You can create a russian IME in the shortcut system and export it and share it. You can export a dictionary with no tags or you could export part of the dictionary based on it’s tags. It’s kinda cool.

Why would anyone buy Stackz after learning all this about Kongzi?
Stackz is still a great program. Frankly it’s more mature than Kongzi is. It’s also, um, available. And more available. It has a huge user base. That is important. Stackz is a real solution you can buy and use RIGHT NOW. Kongzi? No, sorry, you can’t get it yet 😦 At this point Kongzi isn’t available and isn’t likely to be released until I am happy with it which may take a long time, maybe until mid-2010. You’ll also get more support with Stackz. I don’t have time to answer user questions. Stackz also runs on a palm (and a cellphone maybe?) and kongzi is not even close to reliable operation on any mobile device.

So stackz is, for now, a far better buy than Kongzi is. That’s the truth. If you’re in the market for language learning software, go ahead, buy Stackz. It’s better than Anki…

I’m even thinking of buying a copy myself!


One Response

  1. I read your article up until you said spaced repetition was ridiculous. So maybe 200 words?

    No point in reading after that.

    Renli responds: At the time I wrote the review, the implementation of SRS that Anki uses prevented you from studying characters until their time was up. So you could theoretically not use Anki as a flashcard program during that time. It was possible to reset characters one by one or individually but you would lose the order you’d established. My solution to this was to order them along the lines of the last 20 guesses; if you got 20 out of 20 correct you probably “knew” the character. I’m sorry if you didn’t feel like reading the rest of my post; you’re more than perfectly free to continue using Anki. It seems a lot of Anki advocates have left nasty comments on my blog regarding what I said. More power to you guys!

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