Review of tablets for kids by Consumer Reports
Are they toys or actual computers, and is one right for your child?
A group of young volunteers put these tablets made just for kids through their paces.
Since the advent of the game-changing Apple iPad early in 2010, tablet computers have been one of the hottest electronics products on the market. Much as adults love them, though, children may just love them even more, as tablet-owning parents can verify.
Toy makers have taken note as well, and this year several companies-Fisher-Price, LeapFrog, and Vtech-have come out with tablet-like toys that feature at least some of the capabilities of real tablets, albeit in less sophisticated, less expensive form. They're each built of hard plastic that feels as though it'll take a fair amount of abuse. You'll find such features as touch screens, music players, cameras and video recorders, and photo-editing apps.
We purchased three of these toy tablets and tested them in our lab and with children within the manufacturer-recommended age ranges to see how well they work-and whether kids will actually settle for toy versions of the real thing. Our conclusion: The child tablets have fewer features than standard tablets, but their learning apps and child-friendly content make them ideal for children. Children can have fun with the toy tablets, particularly the LeapPad. But they may still clamor to play with your responsive, feature-rich tablets and smart phones.
There is also the Vinci Tab (from Vinci), an Android tablet that's customized for toddlers and young children. It's quite a bit more expensive than the toy tablets-ours cost $480-and though it lacks wireless-Web capability, it has specs and features comparable to "grownup" tablets. We acquired the Vinci Tab, curious as to whether it's really worth the extra money. Our conclusion here is that the Vinci didn't really deliver for the price.
The child-tablet companies make various "learning" claims for their products. Each tablet includes media such as interactive storybooks that read aloud and let children click on words and other elements, spelling and counting games, and creative activities, and more can be purchased as downloads or add-on cartridges. (We aren't evaluating the educational efficacy of the tablets in this report.)
The toy tablets each have a modest price, at least compared with prices of standard tablets, which can cost as much as $800-but of course, don't expect the same functionality. And each one requires parental help with adding content or media, especially the Vinci, which has a younger target audience than the others.
All the child tablets can be connected to a PC for new content downloads and software upgrades and to transfer media onto and off the devices. The LeapFrog LeapPad also syncs with the company's Learning Path website, so parents can check up on what their children are playing and how well they're doing. Vtech has a similar site that keeps track of kids' activities on its InnoTab.
Each tablet has a color touch screen display and features at least a few preloaded learning games and apps; you can add to your content by downloading more or buying insertable cartridges. All the devices but the LeapFrog have a memory card slot for additional storage, all but the Vinci have a headphone jack and stylus, and all use four AA batteries, except for the Vinci, which has a built-in rechargeable battery. None of the models have wireless Web connectivity.
Finally, to a greater or lesser extent, all the tablets require parental participation to get new content onto the devices, set up profiles, sync for updates, and so on. So parents, be prepared to help out, at least initially.
Kid testers at work
Most of the panelists thought art was the killer app, calling it fun. Test results
In our lab, we tested the display quality, battery life, and ease of use of the touch-screen interface for each device. We also did kid testing: Staff volunteers with children within the age ranges that are recommended by the manufacturers were sent home with a set of tablets to use for three or four days.
The screens (except for the Vinci's) are not very sensitive, which could frustrate or confound children who are used to touch-screen ease on their parents' devices. Also, the length of time it takes for apps to launch and other activities to start could be something kids are not used to. One parent of a 6-year-old child tester commented, "Kids her age may have a hard time waiting for the slow prompts." And during our video shoot, we noticed the kids pounding on screens several times; it's a good thing these devices are tough!
That said, our limited kid test indicates that the LeapPad was the most fun for the testers. The Fisher Price iXL may be a better choice for the younger end of the recommended age range, though. And the games on the Vtech InnoTab were considered more fun than games on the other tablets. The costly Vinci got mixed reviews from our testers.
Most of the child panelists thought art was the killer app, ranking art-studio activities on each tablet to be a little fun or a lot of fun. Most of the children did not need help finding an e-book to read on any of the tablets-but in general, they thought the books were just moderately fun.
Every tablet had its fans, so we would advise letting your child try them before buying, if you can. One parent noted that his 3-year-old already easily navigates the Apple iPad tablet without his help, but she needed help initially with these tablets. So if you are willing to share your grown-up tablet with your child, that could be another way to go. (Padded cases are available!)
Fisher Price iXL: Long life for long trips
Extra-long battery life
The Fisher Price iXL 6-in-1 Learning System ($80) is easily portable. Our child-testing results seemed to indicate that the iXL was more popular with children at the younger end of the recommended age spectrum, 3 to 7. One parent commented regarding her 5 year old, "This was almost too young for him." But another said: "Nice and durable for my 3-year-old boy who is a little rougher with things. He really liked it too." Kids also found using their fingers (instead of a stylus) on the touch screen to be more difficult on the iXL than on the other tablets.
In our lab, the iXL stood out for its long battery life (13.7 hours average in our tests) but also for its tiny 3.3-inch screen. It's also the only child tablet we tested that opens and closes like a book, making a somewhat bulky but compact device that's readily portable. (Like the LeapPad and InnoTab, the iXL runs on four AA batteries, but Fisher-Price is now offering an optional battery recharging station for $35.)
When you first turn on the iXL, you're asked to create a custom profile for your child. To do this, you first must install software from a CD that comes in the box and connect the iXL to your computer. You can then add a kid's photo to a profile, along with his or her favorite food, color, animal, and so on. You can create up to five customized profiles on the device.
The home screen shows clickable icons for the iXL's game player, digital reader, art studio, MP3 player, notepad, and photo viewer. There's no camera built in, so you will have to transfer photos to the iXL for kids to look at and draw on. You can also transfer music files and iXL e-books and games that you've purchased ($25 or $26 per title).
An animated monkey guides kids around the iXL and also stars in the one preloaded game and book and the music "videos." He doesn't speak, but a friendly male voice supplies more navigation guidance and encouragement.
LeapFrog LeapPad: Most fun overall
Most fun overall
The LeapFrog LeapPad ($100) adjusts the level of difficulty to your child's abilities. For our child testers, the LeapPad was the easiest tablet to use and also the most fun. Eighty percent of our young testers said they would like to own it. One tester's parent said, "He really enjoyed it and now asked me to buy one." Another said, "Needed a little help but with time he would have no problem with it."
When you first turn on the LeapPad ($100), you're asked to connect to LeapFrog's website and set up your child's profile (or profiles, up to four), download any current updates, and download your choice of one free game or e-book. Parents be warned: This is not a speedy process. Give yourself half an hour to 45 minutes to get the device set up.
Not a lot of content is preloaded on the LeapPad. You start with Pet Pad (described below), Story Studio, and Art Studio. You can buy additional apps, books, and games. Cartridges run from $20 to $25, and downloadable apps are $5 and up.
Once your child starts playing, he'll see a cute interface with an animated Pet avatar that serves as a guide through the LeapPad. Kids can customize their Pets, changing their looks and sounds to suit them. The Pet also stars in the Pet Pad activity, in which kids feed, groom, and play games with them.
As your child plays games and uses other activities, an encouraging male voice says "You're doing great!" and so on. You can't turn this off, though you can lower the volume to zero.
As for its learning component, the LeapPad adjusts the learning level (that is, the difficulty) depending on how well your child does when playing. It also remembers the child's progress from game to game, and lets parents customize math skills and spelling lists in games. When it's connected to your PC, the LeapPad syncs to the LeapFrog Learning Path site, where parents can follow their kids' progress and see which skills they've been developing.
Vtech InnoTab: Best for games
Did well in lab testing
The Vtech InnoTab ($80) also was judged by our kids to have the most fun games. The Vtech InnoTab Interactive Learning Tablet fared better overall in lab testing than the Fisher Price iXL 6-in-1 Learning System and the Leapfrog LeapPad Explorer Learning Tablet. And our child testers thought its games were the most fun: It's the only child tablet with an accelerometer (which lets the screen respond when you tilt the device), which may have something to do with that result. But the InnoTab was edged out by the LeapPad as being the most fun overall by the kids.
One child tester's parent said, "He was not nearly as into this as the LeapPad." But another said: "He enjoyed the book but loved the game. Vtech made a wise choice with their selection."
When you first turn on your InnoTab, you can set up a kid's profile right on the device instead of connecting it to a computer, as with the LeapPad and iXL. But the personalization options are pretty simple: name, wallpaper, and greeting. The InnoTab has no animated character to guide your children through navigation and activities, but it does have the ubiquitous encouraging male voice.
The InnoTab comes preloaded with a good variety of activities and content: an e-reader with one book, two games, a music player, a photo viewer (but no camera), an art studio, digital coloring book, and a calculator, notepad, clock, and calendar.
Parents are encouraged to download Vtech's Learning Lodge Navigator software and set up an account at its site. You can spend "V.Coins" that you get free with the InnoTab or actual money to download additional content. Parents can also track what and how their kids are doing on the InnoTab at the Learning Lodge website. And you can buy additional e-books and apps on cartridges, at $25 each.
Vinci Tab: Expensive and not a standout
A different kind of kid tablet
The Vinci Tab ($480) is most like a "real" tablet, but it's priced well above the others. In lab testing, we found that the Vinci Tab VH-2001 has the best display and touch screen interface of our child tablets-but it costs more than some standard, non-kid tablets, without offering as many features.
The Vinci Tab is a different animal than the other child tablets in our roundup. It's the most like an "adult" tablet: It runs on the Android operating system, has 8GB of storage, features a 3-megapixel camera, and has a multitouch capacitative touch screen, which is more responsive than the resistive touch screens of the other kid tablets. It's also the most expensive, by far. We paid $480 for the model we tested (a 4GB version is also available for $390).
Also, the Vinci is recommended for a younger crowd-toddlers and preschoolers, as indicated on the company website. So we used a different (and smaller) child-tester group for this tablet: five children from 7 months to 4 years old.
The Vinci looks like a tablet for grownups, but it comes encased within a red bumper, which should help protect it against knocks and drops. The bumper makes the side slots and buttons (including the On/Off and Volume buttons) a bit difficult to access, though.
The first time you turn the Vinci on, you're prompted to set up a profile with your child's name, birthday, sex, and nationality. You can create multiple profiles and set one as Active from the Settings menu; that's who'll be "greeted."
The home screen shows icons for games, storybooks, music videos, media, and accessories. Not a lot of content is preloaded; you can purchase and download more from Vinci's website, but the choices are skimpy, at least so far. The two additional available games are $35, interactive e-books are $10, and music videos are $2 a piece.
We noticed that some areas of the tablet feel unfinished. For example, in the Media folder, you can view and edit photos. The app to do that appears to be the same app you'd find on an Android phone. In fact, it has a Share option that tries to connect your "phone" to Gmail, which of course the Vinci can't do, since it has no wireless built in.