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It happens every holiday. I go racing down every aisle of every retailer in my neighborhood in a mad frenzy, competing with other harried parents as we search for that perfect doll or remote-control automobile, or remote-control doll or whatever the television has been screaming at my kids to buy. And in that insane crush, I always ask myself, “Am I buying the right gift for my kids? Will it last? Is it durable? Is it educational?” And then I remember all the old telescopes, microscopes, and educational software gathering dust in my closets, and I’m left with the sinking feeling that there is no perfect gift, and I’m stuck battling these parents because they don’t know, either.
Online shopping wasn’t developed by a think tank with consumer buying concerns in mind. It was developed by a parent who had enough of the angst of holiday shopping.
Then Apple came along and convinced my kids that they needed tablets. Thanks, Apple. From a parent’s perspective, tablets make a great gift. They’re interactive, they’re portable and they’re quasi-educational. But they’re also fairly open-ended. The websites that I monitor and keep my kids away from are now readily available to them on a tablet, and because of a tablet’s portability, they can wander all over the house and latch on to sites over which I have no control. And the cost is prohibitive—as much as I’d like to buy both my kids (and myself) an iPad Air, they don’t really need an iPad Air (I do).
There are alternatives to pricey full-blown tablets, and I'd like to share some of them with you. You can thank me when you’re sitting in your cozy chair, sipping cinnamon tea on Black Friday, while the barbarians are at the retail gates battling each other for the perfect gift.
I know, I know. Your head is spinning with stats you see online like processor speed, storage, and more, which does nothing but confuse you. Think about it: the last time you bought electronics for your kids all you had to ask was, “Can they play Super Mario on it?” So I’m going to quickly break it down for you.
You want the highest number you can get in a kids' tablet. Although not as powerful as adult tablets (you won’t see them climb much farther than 1.2 GHz), these processors are perfectly suited to control the apps and programs on the tablets.
RAM refers to the amount of memory available for the tablet to access programs and apps. Higher numbers are always better, but for kids' tablets, you won’t see this go farther than 1GB, in most cases
This is the amount of available space on the tablet for storage or digital files. It's often confused with RAM, but it is very different. Most kids' tablets won’t have more than 4GB of storage, but make sure there is an additional SD or microSD card slot so you can add storage—cheaply.
Honestly, the resolution on a kid's tablet doesn’t matter as much as it does on an adult tablet, because you shouldn’t let your children play with the tablet for more than four hours at a stretch anyway. You've got to give those little corneas a rest. Anything in the 800 x 480 range is more than enough. Of course, higher resolution means sharper graphics, and trust me, your kids will know, but that’s why you’re the parent and they’re the child.
You should know that a majority of tablets come with front and rear cameras. This is because social media has our kids convinced that they need to take selfies and chat with their friends instead of going outside or visiting them. Oh, well. Camera megapixel count (MP) won’t be high on a kids' tablet—2MP for the rear is pretty standard. 0.3MP for the front camera usually means the camera is capable of taking video in 720p resolution.
All tablets, kids and otherwise, need Wi-Fi, otherwise you won’t be able to connect and update the tablet. Be very wary of any tablet that is not Wi-Fi equipped.
I’ve made this claim before: manufacturers need to include an SD slot. This is a slot that holds an extra memory card, and for kids' tablets, the limit is usually 32GB. This means that 4GB of storage can be expanded to 36GB with a simple, inexpensive memory card. Always look for the SD card slot, because it will allow you a lot more freedom and flexibility when adding to your kid’s tablet.
Most apps adults use on their tablets are downloaded from major carriers (the Apple App Store or Google App store, for instance), but many children’s tablets come preloaded with apps, or offer a limited microsystem of apps, usually created specifically for a certain device. Be careful that the apps your kids want are available on the device you’re purchasing. If you find a kids' tablet that is GooglePlay certified, you can download almost anything from the Google App store.
Every kids' tablet runs on the Android operating system—but you should still be careful. Look for a tablet that lets you upgrade the operating system over the air. An OTA update will smooth out bugs or amend the way that apps are run, usually for the better. If you find a kids' tablet running anything older than Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), it may be customized for that specific tablet, limiting its usability and compatibility with the latest apps and programs.
First up is the Ematic FunTab series. It's available in 9”, 7”, and 4.3” sizes. The ones aimed specifically at my kids are the updated FunTab2 Multi-touch 7” Tablet for kids. It comes in blue/green or pink/purple, and features a 1.2 GHz processor with 512MB of RAM, 4GB of flash storage, an 800 x 480 capacitive touchscreen and 0.3MP front and 2MP rear cameras. It includes the Android 4.1 Jelly Bean operating system, Wi-Fi and a micoSD card reader for up to 32GB of extra storage. It comes preloaded with apps like Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja, and the Zoodles Kid Mode.
The thing I love about this tablet is the Zoodles Kid Mode (okay, and I love Angry Birds—sue me). This award-winning mode lets you keep track of your kid’s progress in a non-threatening, not-a-helicopter parent sort of way. You can see progress reports on sites they visit or the amount of time your kids spend in certain school subjects, like science or math. Your child can also receive video messages from family members, or record stories read from Grandma or Grandpa (perfect if the grandparents live far from you).
The parent dashboard on this unit also lets you check activities on a weekly basis, block unwanted third-party content or just check on how the kids are doing. You can also pre-approve the sites your kids visit (great for keeping undesired content out of their hands)—and most importantly, it comes preloaded with games my kids love, like Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Where’s My Water? and Fruit Ninja. There’s also a ton of educational software available.
Next up is the nabiJr series. Nabi is a fairly recent player in the kids' tablet marketplace, but they do a great job of offering kid-friendly content. There are two different nabi JR tablets: the nabi Jr. 4GB Multi-Touch 5" Tablet for Kids and the nabi Jr 16GB Multi-Touch 5” Nick Jr. Edition tablet.
The regular 4GB version is just right for parents looking to give their children something educational and fun, like the Ematic tablets. Nabi uses the proprietary Wings educational system to help you navigate through your child’s progress. Wings rewards your child for various tasks or creatively thinking through different achievements. No money is used in this system (hear that Candy Crush?), but your child can collect coins through the Wings interface, and those coins are used to unlock maps, quests, challenges—and even other apps and games. Because you can’t use real money to purchase items (and believe me, my kids wear me down with the constant, “Can we buy an app? Can we buy an app?") your kids have to work for those extras. Love it.
The other feature I love about the nabi Jr tablets is their durability. The nabi tablets are encased by a tough, rubberized case bumper that is colorful and effective. My kids tend to drop things, and if I’m going to shell out money for a tablet, I want to make sure the tablet is protected.
The tablet has more than 30 built-in apps, and although that may seem like a lot, it’s not bloatware. Most of the apps are designed to teach kids about core fundamentals in math, reading, and science, but they're hidden cleverly as games, so your kids may not notice. Mine did, and thankfully, the nabi Jr tablet is compatible with most of Google’s Play Store, so we could easily download other apps for them.
The nabi Nick Jr edition is priced a little higher, and comes branded with tons of Nick Jr. content, which is great if your kids love Nick Jr. I can’t wait until nabi partners with a few other children’s brands so we can get a wider variety of content, but the Nick Jr. branding is still lots of fun. The Nick Jr. tablet is also a little more advanced—it sports a faster 1.6 GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, and 16GB of internal storage, but retains the camera, microSD card slot, and resolution of the smaller tablet.
Last on our lists of tablets for tots is a relatively new player in tablets—Vivitar, known back in my day for making awesome affordable cameras. They bring two players: the Vivitar XO 8GB 7” Tablet and the Vivitar 4GB Camelio 7” Android Family Tablet. The XO is aimed more squarely at kids. It also features (thankfully) a rubberized casing, but this one includes a giant kid-friendly O-loop at one end so your kids can easily grasp it without grabbing it by the screen. I was horrified when my kids grabbed an iPad air in a retail store recently. It brought back the old mom war cry—“Put that down before you break it!” It’s a little sharper than the others, with a 1024 x 600 resolution 7” multi-touch screen, 8GB of internal storage, microSD card slot, and it sports a snappy little 1.6 GHz dual-core processor. It also includes front and rear cameras, pre-loaded content and allows downloading of Google Play store apps.
I like the interface of this tablet. It asks the child what they want to be, and then gives them a number of options, called Dreams (I want to be an XO Artist, I want to be an XO Engineer, etc). The Dream interface can then be explored by clicking on the icon, where they will be directed into Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced categories. Each category has a number of apps that help a child “realize” their dream. For instance, the I Want to be an Artist icon will show you a picture of Michelangelo, and give you a choice of Beginner apps (PicsArt Kids, How to Draw, Animating Touch), Intermediate apps (Artist’s Eye, Markers) and Advanced apps (MoMa and Pixelesque). My kids were engrossed by the apps, and spent many hours playing wit them. Eventually, when it was time to move on to something fun, they went to the Google Play Store and downloaded some games, but when I snuck a peek at them later, they were back on the Dream interface
You can also set the tab for different users, so each of my kids could have their own personalized content and interface. Setting the user to different children isn’t as diplomatic as it seems. It would probably be easier on your day to just buy your children separate tablets, unless your little darlings know how to share.
For the conscientious consumer, the XO tablet is also part of the OLPC (one Laptop per Child) initiative. OLPC was developed by a charitable group at MIT to provide educational opportunities to underprivileged children in the US and around the world. Proceeds from each sale go to buying a similar device for those children.
Vivitar’s other tablet, the 4GB Camelio 7” Android Family Tablet, is a more basic tablet. It uses a 1.1 GHz processor with 1GB of RAM, contains 4GB of internal storage, and features a microSD card slot. It has front and rear cameras as well, and a screen resolution of 1024 x 600. It’s Google Certified, so you have a full range of apps to choose from and there are Parental Controls to keep the young ones from shifting their focus to unwanted content.
One of the coolest things about the Camelio is its ability to customize the interface with various Personality Packs (sold separately). These packs include a rubberized branded case for the Camelio, a cleaning cloth and a card with a control number that lest you download the theme or “personality” of some favorite franchises. Available now are Barbie, Hello Kitty, Hot Wheels, Monster High, My Little Pony, and WWE packs, with more on the way.
Another great kid’s tablet is the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 Kids Tablet. Samsung goes all out with a 1.2GHz dual core processor with 1GB of RAM, 1024 x 600 resolution 7” display, and 8GB of flash storage. It also has a microSD memory card slot, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and front facing 1.3MP and rear-facing 3MP camera – with a 4x zoom. The case pops out as a viewing stand and inclines the screen so smaller necks don’t strain. Although the tablet comes with games like Toca Train, Wipeout, Fruit Ninja, Toy Story: Smash It! and Where’s My Perry? it also comes with a fair share of educational apps like I Learn With Ocean as well as Dolphin Reader, Inventions 2 and Kids Planet Discovery.
One of the more appealing features of this tablet is that it’s from Samsung, which already has a stellar reputation with their adult-sized Galaxy Tab and Galaxy Note. With that in mind, they’ve created this kid’s tablet so that it can be transformed into a regular tablet, capable of downloading apps from the Google Play store, like HuluPlus and Audible.
Although these are the seven friendliest tablets for kids that I found, there are a couple of other considerations you should make when choosing your tot’s tablet. Price has already been mentioned (all the tablets above are between $99 to $230), but also consider battery life (depends on usage, but the XO seems to be the winner here), apps you want and need (although I loved the XO interface, my kids are Barbie and WWE fans, so the Camelio made more sense), or level of customization (nabi takes the cake here—you can even purchase optional letters to decorate the case). In any event, know what you want before you shop, and it will make the holidays a rewarding one for your kids, and less stressful for you.