Anki Review
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Anki Review

Our Review by Bonnie Eisenman on September 5th, 2011
Rating: starstarstarstarblankstar :: ASTOUNDINGLY POWERFUL, BUT FLAWED
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Anki is not for the faint of heart, but its spaced repetition algorith makes it THE flashcard application for serious users. It's not without its flaws, and this iOS version is inferior to its desktop incarnation, but Anki's algorithm has won my loyalty.

Developer: Damien Elmes
Price: $24.99
Version Reviewed: 1.8

iPhone Integration Rating: starstarstarblankstarblankstar
User Interface Rating: starstarstarhalfstarblankstar

Re-use / Replay Value Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Overall Rating: starstarstarstarblankstar

Anki is Japanese for "memorization," so it should be no surprise that Anki is an app for memorizing things. I almost hesitate to call it a "flashcard app," because it's just so much more powerful than a deck of paper flashcards. Anki employs "spaced-based repetition," so that older, better-memorized cards are introduced at longer intervals, while newer cards are shown more often, according to Anki's algorithm. The result is better, longer-lasting memorization.

But before I start singing Anki's praises, let me issue a warning. Anki for iOS is by no means a perfect app. (This review is based on the iPhone version, though the app is universal.) Anki is primarily a desktop program for PC, Mac, and Linux, where it's free. There's even a free Android app, which I haven't used personally. But Anki for iOS is not only more error-prone and lacking in features compared to its desktop counterpart; it's also rather expensive. I do love Anki. But this purchase decision is a little more complex than usual.

I'm going to start with a look at what makes Anki in general so powerful, and then move on to discuss the app itself.

Space-based Repetition
The key to Anki's effectiveness is its algorithm, which determines at what intervals to show each card. By default there are four answer options: Wrong, Easy, Medium, or Hard. If you answer a card incorrectly you select Wrong; however, answer correctly, and you have three options. For example, with one of my older cards, if I answer that it was "Hard" I might see it in another month; if it was "Medium" difficulty, two months; and if it was "Easy," then three months. On the other hand, a new card might have delays of one, three, or five days. Anki describes this as guessing at what point you have to be shown a card again in order to not forget it.

The sum of this is that with Anki, I can have a flashcard deck with literally hundreds of flashcards, and it's still manageable to study. Because older cards are shown less often, I can keep a larger database of words that I almost certainly know. Try studying hundreds of flashcards on a regular basis without some sort of interval system. (Hint: it'll be painful.)

Models, Facts, Cards
Each deck of cards has one or more models, which are essentially a list of fields. In my "Japanese" model, for example, I use three fields: Reading, Expression, and Meaning. Facts are built based on models, and cards are generated from facts. Cards are just one way of reviewing a fact, and using a card's model, Anki can create many different cards from one fact. For example, each vocabulary word might merit one fact, and two cards—one for English->Japanese, and one for Japanese->English—and it would use my Japanese model.

The sum of this is that Anki gives its users a lot of flexibility when it comes to how to review information. Multiple models allow for different kinds of information, and the fact/card setup is often better than simply having a "front" and "back" to a card, which is often the approach in other apps. If it all sounds complicated, well, like most things in Anki, there's a learning curve, but I think it's worth it.

Import/Export and Sync
Anki decks can be synced to AnkiWeb, and from there downloaded to any device or even reviewed online. Syncing with AnkiWeb ensures that both desktop and mobile versions of Anki are using the same data, as well as providing an easy backup.

Because of limits in the iOS version, decks must be created on the desktop version, then synced over to the mobile.

Different Kinds of Data
Anki is, generally, a very flexible application. Pictures, audio, text, foreign languages, even LaTeX (though I haven't personally tested that feature) are all supported. You can even embed a scratchpad for scribbling in an answer! (See the picture gallery.)

The iOS App
And here is where it all breaks down.

Despite the strengths I've extolled above, Anki for iOS is actually not a great application.

It's difficult to edit cards on the iPhone, and sometimes doing so seems to cause problems when syncing data back to AnkiWeb. Creating decks from the iPhone is impossible. Sometimes it crashes. In general desktop features are simply absent: viewing detailed statistics, viewing all the cards in a deck, etc. Doing anything other than simply reviewing on the iPhone is unfeasible, though sometimes even that's a challenge. So, all decks must be created on the desktop version and then synced to the iPhone through AnkiWeb or iTunes.

Most annoying are the sync issues. The iOS version needs to be manually synced after reviewing. Neglect to do so, review a single card on the desktop application, and Anki insists that you choose between the two versions—no merging of the separate versions allowed. Not only is this annoying when it necessitates re-downloading an entire deck, but it's also a little silly. Additionally, sometimes after editing a card on my iPhone Anki would simply be unable to sync that deck, resulting in more reviews lost as I had to re-download the deck entirely.

It also just looks...ugly. Anki has never been known for an elegant user interface, but Anki for iOS is not the shiniest kid on the block by anyone's measure.

Oh, and that price. $24.99 for an iOS app that's not only less than polished, but also free on the desktop? Hmm.

On the other hand, it's hard to argue with convenience. I typically have a hundred or more flashcards due daily right now (hey, I just came out of an intensive language course...) and if I didn't have the mobile app, I doubt I could keep up with Anki. With the mobile app, fitting Anki into the tiny breaks in life (car rides, bathroom lines, etc) makes it much easier to keep up with Anki's daily due cards.

So, yes, there are problems with Anki for iOS. And yet, I still have to recommend it. It's just so hard to beat the power of Anki's space-based repetition system. I genuinely believe that it helps me memorize more things, more thoroughly. Does it require a commitment? Yes. Not only is there a learning curve, but also, Anki was never built to cram. (You can cram, it just requires using tags...anyway.) Anki is designed for people who are serious about memorizing a lot of stuff, and that requires investments (chiefly, time).

Anki is extraordinarily powerful, and there are many features I haven't even mentioned in this review: tags, plugins, suspending cards...the bottom line is that Anki can do a lot.

Therefore, I wholeheartedly recommend a program in general. As an iOS app? Well. It might be better to fall in love with the desktop app first. For me personally, the iOS version is a must-have, and was worth every penny, but others' mileage will vary.

iPhone Screenshots

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AnkiMobile Flashcards screenshot 1 AnkiMobile Flashcards screenshot 2 AnkiMobile Flashcards screenshot 3 AnkiMobile Flashcards screenshot 4 AnkiMobile Flashcards screenshot 5

iPad Screenshots

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AnkiMobile Flashcards screenshot 6 AnkiMobile Flashcards screenshot 7 AnkiMobile Flashcards screenshot 8 AnkiMobile Flashcards screenshot 9 AnkiMobile Flashcards screenshot 10
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