Software makers have long known that children love playing with tablet computers. To wit: the innumerable apps they’ve written for them. More recently, Hardware makers have been catching on. And so an increasing number of tablet computers are coming to market designed especially with kids (and kid online safety) in mind.
Kids tablet computers break down into two basic groups: Those that run a proprietary operating system and those that run on Android. Proprietary systems tend to be cheaper and the more kid-friendly (since all the software is designed for kids from the bottom up). Android-based tablets tend to be more powerful, more expandable and have the possibility of doubling as a parent’s tablet computer.
In general, Spot Cool Stuff recommends choosing a proprietary tablet for younger kids (eg under 5 or 6 years old) and an Android for older ones. Our top recommendations in both categories:
Best Kids Tablet Computers with a Proprietary OS
LeapFrog LeapPad Explorer Learning Tablet
The LeapFrog LeapPad Explorer† has easily been the most popular kids tablet to date (as anyone who tried to find one for purchase around the holiday season last year knows). The LeapPad billed as an “educational tablet” and its the proprietary games all have some learning aspect to them. There’s also an eBook reader, “animation studio” art app and camera/video recorder.
Of all the tablet computers on the market, the LeapPad Explorer is the easiest for young kids to start playing sans parents. LeapFrog rates the LeapPad Explorer as suitable for four to nine year olds, but some kids as young as three will be able to figure it out. To help with that figuring out, each kid player gets their own animated pet avatar to provide tips and encouragement. The cool part: as your child gets better at playing the games the software will automatically scale-up to make them more challenging; sync an Explorer to a computer and you’ll get a report on your kid’s progress.
The downside? The LeapPad comes with only four pre-loaded apps. New games tend to be on the expensive side, especially compared to iPad or Android apps. If you want Mr. Pencil to save Doodleburg you’ll have to sell out nearly $20, though some other great games cost more around $5.
The Explorer features a 5-inch screen, 2GB of system memory and comes in green and an unnecessarily-gendered pink. Though often sold out in stores, the LeapPad Explorer is available on Amazon at the time of writing for US$150.
† When purchasing online, take care not to confuse the LeapPad Explorer with the confusingly similarly named Leapster Explorer.
Off all the kid’s tablets with proprietary operating systems currently on the market, the Vtech InnoTab has the most fun games. That’s partly the result of good software writers, partly due to the incorporation of the InnoTab’s accelerometer and partly because it’s games aren’t as consistently educational as those for the LeapFrog LeapPad Explorer. Of course, from a parent’s point of view that last point is not entirely good.
Both the InnoTab and the LeapPad (above) feature a 5-inch touchscreen and computer syncing. Apps for both are roughly the same (semi-expensive) price. But the Vtech InnoTab device costs about half what a LeapPad will run you. It also comes will more pre-loaded software and features an MP3 player. The Explorer has a camera, much more system memory (the InnoTab has only 64MB) and a larger library of apps. The LeapPad’s touchscreen is also a bit more responsive. Given all that, Spot Cool Stuff likes the LeapPad Explorer more for families that can afford the extra $80 to buy one. Those that can’t will still get a quality, very high value, product in the Vtech InnoTab.
Best Kids Tablet Computer Running Android
Fuhu Nabi Kids Tablet
The Nabi Kids Tablet is the best child-friendly Android device currently on the market. The big purchasing question for adults looking for a tablet designed for kids: To make the $240 plunge for a Nabi Kids Tablet now or wait for a better Android kids tablet to come out later—a table like the Kurio (below) due this summer.
The Nabi is essentially a regular if underpowered (more on that in a bit) tablet computer that runs on top of an Android 2.2 install operating in Kidz Mode. That means the software runs in a walled off environment (or mostly walled off—more on that in a bit too). Web links will only go to parent pre-approved sites. Apps can be limited to only those available in the kid-friendly Nabi store and then only those that parents allow. Icons are over-sized for simple navigation. The device itself is encased in a large red bumper to help protect it from inevitable bumps and drops.
If a parent wants to use the Nabi themselves they can put it in Mommy Mode (Why not a Daddy Mode? we wonder) wherein it will operate exactly like a normal Android tablet.
The most superlative feature of the Nabi Kids Tablet is that it comes with a truly incredible number of pre-loaded goodies. That includes 15 arguably kid-friendly games including Fruit Ninja, Angry Birds and Cut the Rope. Also included are animated videos from the likes of Clifford, Barney and Mickey Mouse. Plus a proprietary Fooz Kids University math skills game for pre-K through 5th grade. Plus 30 pre-loaded eBooks. Plus more than 50 tracks from the cool kid-friendly songstress Laurie Berkner. Add to that a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera and 4 GB of storage (expandable via a microSD card slot) and you have truly an excellent value, especially considering that additional apps are usually priced between $1 and $5, making them a much better deal than those for the LeapFrog Explorer (above).
The problems with all that are twofold. First, the Nabi parental controls are not nearly as robust as they could be. The customization options are not as extensive as those on the Kurio (below). Worse, children can find their way to non-kid content via some apps. Stay logged into the included Netflix app, for example, and kids can access the whole Netflix library (including R-rated movies).
The second, and more problematic, downside of the Nabi Kids Tablet: it is woefully underpowered. Its dual-core 533 MHz processor can not keep up with some apps and websites. The Nabi’s disappointing performance renders it nearly unusable by adults looking functionality similar to, say, a Galaxy Tab. The Nabi also has extreme difficulty running kids Flash games. Fortunately, it is able to handle most basic kids apps as well as video and audio.
If you are looking for an inexpensive tablet that you can use, as well as your kids, and don’t want to wait for the Kurio 7, consider getting a $200 Amazon Kindle Fire and loading it with the Kids Mode app.
The Kurio 7 from Techno Source won’t be out until the summer of 2012. Happily, Spot Cool Stuff got a chance to play around with a working demo model at the International Toy Fair and came away hugely impressed.
The highlight: Kurio’s highly adaptable and personalized parental controls. Adults can program profiles for up to eight kids. Each profile allows for customization of the look and feel of the screen navigation and also sets usage rules for that particular child. Parents can cut off access to the internet entirely, limit it to specific pre-approved sites or blacklist certain types of content. You can set exactly what music, videos and apps each child is allowed access to. Coolest of all are the playing time controls. Parents can set a profile to only allow access between 2pm and 4pm, for example, or to automatically shut off after a set period of time.
Also great is the Kurio app store. It doesn’t only limit its offerings to that which is kid-friendly, but also excludes apps that show adds or allow microtransactions. Adults can download regular apps for themselves through the Android Marketplace.
Unlike the Fuhu Nabi Kids Tablet (above) or any of the other kids table computers we’ve seen, the Kurio 7 is powerful enough to make adults happy using it too. That thanks to a speedy 1GHz Cortex A8 processor with 512 MB DDR3 RAM and an integrated 3D graphics processor. The Kurio’s 7-inch 5-points multitouch TFT screen is not superlative, but it is plenty vivid. The device features Flash 11 support, an HDMi connection for HDTV 1080p output and a powerful 3000 mAh battery (which allows for 5 hours of continuous video). There’s 4 GB of integrated storage, expandable by up to 32 GB more via the microSD card slot. The only spec on the Kurio 7 that disappoints is the camera, which is an underwhelming 640×480 VGA.
The Kurio 7—named such because it has a 7-inch screen—is expected to retail this summer for $199. That’s a terrific value. Future Kurio versions will feature 8- and 10-inch displays.