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Smart devices for kids: tech toys that teach

Consumer Reports News: December 17, 2010 02:38 PM

One of our kid testers with the V-Tech V.Reader

If you spend any time with children, you're well aware that kids love digital gadgets. Even the very young ones are fascinated by your smart phone, iPad, e-book reader: basically, anything they can interact with. Tech toy manufacturers have noticed this phenomenon, of course, and are coming out with "smart devices" that are based on these adult products but are geared specifically to kids.

Some have an educational bent, as well: They claim to help teach kids their letters and to help them learn to read. One, the LeapFrog Leapster Explorer, offers to help develop "school skills like reading, math, science and geography, plus creativity and life skills like music, health and problem solving."

Here's a big question parents (not to mention kids) will be asking: Can "educational" tech toys also be fun to play with? We decided to find out, by testing three of them with real kids.

We acquired the Fisher Price iXL 6-in-1 Learning System, the LeapFrog Leapster Explorer, and the V-Tech V.Reader Interactive E-Reading System, and sent them home with three Consumer Reports staffers who have children within the toys' target ages.

Each of the toys we tested came preloaded with at least one game and one story or both. You can add more by purchasing cartridges and/or downloading from the manufacturers sites. Please note that each family tested just one device, so this is an informal review, rather than the scientific comparisons our testing colleagues in the Consumer Reports labs do.

Here's what we found.

Fisher-Price iXL
Photo: Fisher-Price

Fisher-Price iXL
Suggested price, $80; software cartridges, $25 each
Suggested age range: 3 to7

Celia, age 5 tested the Fisher-Price iXL for us. Her mom says Celia is normally "unplugged" (meaning she doesn’t have access to digital devices), so although the prompts would be familiar to someone who was used to gadgets, it took her a little longer to get going. (And her grandfather groused that the user manual was "not user-friendly.")

Celia did need some help getting started and navigating among choices, said her mom: "between programs and within them." Her mom also thought Celia was a little young to have the required dexterity for playing games, but she really enjoyed the drawing and writing applications. Overall, Celia enjoyed the novelty of the iXL, but her mom thinks it would be most useful on car trips. "Being able to adjust volume was a good thing," she added.

LeapFrog Leapster Explorer
LeapFrog Leapster Explorer
Photo: LeapFrog

LeapFrog Leapster Explorer
$60; also available bundled with games and accessories (many currently on sale at the company's site); software cartridges, $25
Suggested age range: 4 to 9

Christopher, 6, loved playing with the Leapster Explorer. He needed no assistance to get started with the device, and he happily played on his own throughout. Buttons were simple to use, and graphics and text on the full-color touch screen were clear and easy to see.

What impressed his mom the most was that even though he struggles with reading in school, Christopher truly enjoyed the reading aspect of the Explorer, no encouragement needed. And she noted that the toy was quite sturdy: an important consideration for this age range.

Note to parents: LeapFrog offers with certain toys—including the Leapster Explorer—the free online LeapFrog Learning Path. There, you can see what your child is playing and learning and get progress updates, as well as suggestions for what you can do to help your child learn.

You can also buy codes for downloadable Leaplet learning apps, $14.99 for two codes (though at this writing, on sale for $9.99 for two).

V-Tech V. Reader
Photo: V-Tech

V-Tech V.Reader
$60; software cartridges, $20
Suggested age range: 3 to 7

Marc, 5 took home the V-Tech V. Reader. Unlike Celia, above, he's quite plugged in, thanks to his older brother's iPods and DSIs, said his mom, and he was excited to try the V. Reader.

He did need a little help to get started—specifically, mom had to point out where the different activities, such as reading and games, were. After that, he was fine on his own. He preferred the reading games to the application that reads stories aloud. According to his mom, "the games seemed fun and educational all at the same time." She also thought the V.Reader was quite sturdy.

Bottom line: If your goal is to provide your child with an alternate gaming experience that can be both fun and instructive, or if you're going on a trip and want to keep your child occupied for a while, one of these smart devices could be just the ticket.

Before you shell out the money for these devices, have your child try one out in the store for a few minutes to see how they fare, if you can. Some retailers have them laid out for the kids to use. If you’re buying as a surprise gift, though, make sure you can easily return the toy, in case you child doesn’t take to it.

Keep in mind that to keep kids interested in all these handhelds, you will need to add to the library of games and/or reading material—that means more expense. In that way, kids' smart devices are just like any other handhelds out in the market today.

Take a look at Consumer Reports' toy-buying guide for tips on safety, age-appropriateness, and more.

—Ina Gozenpud and Carol Mangis

Carol Mangis

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