As anyone who has ever found sticky little fingerprints on their tablet will know, kids love touchscreen technology. But while you can appease them by installing apps on your device, the time will come when they will want one of their own. With this in mind, (and with Christmas fast approaching) here's the Gizmag guide to the best tablets for kids.
Update: There is now a new version of this guide. Visit our 2015 Best Kids' Tablets Buying Guide for updated info.
We'll start off by thinking about what to consider when shopping for your child's first tablet, and then look at some of our favorites. We'll be focusing on devices which would be suitable as a first tablet for four to seven-year-olds, and for easier management and additional functionality we've limited our selection to those with Wi-Fi.
Things to consider:
In the hands of even the most careful and diligent child, a tablet computer is an accident waiting to happen. Whether that means it being dropped, accidentally trampled on, or maybe driven over by the odd toy train. Therefore, things to keep an eye out for include chunky grips to minimize the risk of accidental drops, and rubberized bumpers which protect against damage caused when they do happen.
Some tablets will have this built-in, while others will require an additional protective case. Cases can also add a level of water resistance, which might come in handy if the contents of a juice carton was to find its way onto the tablet.
Size, Screen and Power
Tablets with nine(ish)-inch screens, have been designed for adults, and in the hands of a young child they'll look strangely out of proportion. Something with a screen in the five to seven inch range would be a much better fit. It's also worth remembering that those chunky protective bumpers and bezels increase the size of a device beyond what the screen size might suggest.
Screen resolution can also vary wildly, with some kid-focused tablets having low-res blocky screens. If your child's used to devices with vastly superior screens, they'll instantly know they're being fobbed of with something inferior. The same goes for processing power. Kids who regularly use grown-up gadgets could find some of the lower-powered tablets a bit sluggish.
Operating System and Parent Controls
Kids tablets run a range of operating systems, with choices including the child-specific ones developed by the likes of LeapFrog and VTech, custom Android versions which have been tinkered with to be more family-friendly, as well as familiar grown-up options.
Child-focused operating systems have been designed for kids to navigate and use safely, with features like educator approved apps and kid-safe web-browsing. They also feature built-in parental controls allowing you to limit what is used, and when. This is also available on some of the family-friendly Android tablets, though parents may have to take slightly more care to ensure the safe limits and restrictions are set up.
If there's a particular app on your smartphone or tablet that your child's addicted to, you'll want to make sure it's available for their tablet too. Luckily, with Android kids tablets, you typically get the same sort of app selection as you would with any Android tablet. Some manufacturers are also building their own kids app stores with titles judged as child-friendly by experts.
That said, LeapFrog and VTech probably still have the edge on quality educational titles, with large libraries of content developed with age appropriate education in mind. They also have deals with the likes of Disney to ensure your child's favorite characters are well represented. But this does all come at a price, downloads cost more than other app stores, and cartridge titles can cost US$25.
Do you want to use it too?
It may seem a daft consideration, but the question of whether you will want to use your child's tablet is valid one. Do you want this tablet to just be a toy, or do you want to get additional use out of it? If so, you'll want to think about whether the screen-size, resolution and processing power are up to what you'll want to be doing.
Many Android kids tablets have a parent mode, where you can side-load apps which are not accessible to your little one. This means you could grab their tablet when they fall asleep in the buggy, and settle in for a Netflix session at the nearest coffee shop.
Top tablets for kids
The LeapPad Ultra is the top model of the LeapPad family. Thanks to a large seven-inch screen with a 1,024 x 600 resolution and an 8 GB internal memory, it's more like a grown-up tablet than previous toyish models. It has a 800 MHz processor and boasts two 2 megapixel cameras, built-in Wi-Fi and is designed to withstand the odd knock or drop.
Because it's from LeapFrog, the Ultra runs its easily managed operating system, and is compatible with more than 800 educator-approved games, eBooks, apps and videos. These can be downloaded by parents or bought on cartridges, and there's a selection of 11 pre-loaded.
The $150 LeapPad Ultra can also access the internet, but this is a managed experience through a kid-safe browser. Powered by Zui, everything on LeapSearch has been handpicked by learning experts and can be fine-tuned by parents.
VTech InnoTab 3S
The InnoTab 3S is the top offering from VTech. This time a five-inch screen is order of the day, though it has just a 480 x 272 resolution and is powered by a mediocre 360 MHz CPU. The InnoTab 3S features Wi-Fi, a 2 megapixel rotating camera and 4 GB of internal memory.
Compatible with age-appropriate content from the VTech Learning Lodge, the InnoTab 3S comes packed with 17 free apps including an MP3 player, video recorder, clock and eReader. It's also capable of kid-safe web browsing with a selection of parent-approved websites.
Costing $100, the VTech InnoTab 3S also has the possibility to send and receive text and voice messages (along with photos and drawings) via Wi-Fi to the Android and iOS devices of family members if they install a VTech app.
The nabi Jr is an Android tablet from Fuhu aimed at younger children (3-6 year olds), which has a five-inch screen with a 800 x 480 resolution. It runs Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich, not that you'd know to look at the custom and colorful child-friendly user interface.
Powered by an NVIDIA Tegra 2 A9 Dual Core processor, the $100 nabi Jr has 4 GB of internal memory and a 2 megapixel rotating camera. The child-focused tablet experience is further backed by parental controls which include time controls, web filters and app management.
Child-friendly apps can be accessed in the nabi App Zone via Wi-Fi, and the included Wings personalized learning system teaches children through a series of challenges, while allowing parents to track their progress. A parental mode also allows for the side-loading of other Android apps you might not want your little one to access.
The nabi 2 is a seven-inch offering from Fuhu. It has a 1,024 x 600 resolution and is powered by a NVIDIA Tegra 3 Duad Core processor. It boasts a 2 megapixel camera, 8 GB of internal memory and 1 GB of RAM, all of which make it one of the higher powered kids tablets.
As with the Jr, its Android Ice Cream Sandwich operating system is buried under a child-friendly user interface and the Wings adaptive learning system is again on hand to help children learn, and kid-friendly apps can be accessed by the nabi App Zone via Wi-Fi. Parents can still side-load their own apps for use when the nabi 2 is not being played with.
While the standard nabi 2 retails for $180, special edition Disney and Nickelodeon versions packed with branded content, sell for $200. An unlimited kids TV streaming service can be added for $2.99 per month.
Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 Kids
The Galaxy Tab 3 Kids is a kid-specific spin-off of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3. Featuring brighter colors and additional child-friendly protection it looks every bit the toy, but it boasts some impressive tech inside. There's a 1.2 GHz dual core processor, 1 GB of RAM, and a 7-inch screen with a 1024 x 600 resolution.
Selling for $230, the Galaxy Tab 3 Kids also has 3 megapixel rear and 1.3 megapixel front cameras, 8 GB of internal memory, and built-in Wi-Fi. Samsung has also announced a range of bumpers and cases that will be available to help protect the tablet from butter-fingered youngsters.
On the software side, Samsung has given the Android 4.1 a child specific skin which screams aimed-at-kids with bold colors, cute-ified illustrations and big buttons. Parental controls include the ability to set daily usage time limits, and block the use of certain apps entirely.
Kindle Fire HD
While the Kindle Fire HD isn't a kids tablet per se, its price, the parental controls that Amazon includes in its tablets, and the optional FreeTime subscription, make it a very interesting option. Particularly if you pop it into a child-safe case for added protection.
Though adults might want to opt for the HDX version, the $140 Kindle Fire HD has more than enough under the hood to keep most kids happy. Its seven-inch screen has a 1280 x 800 resolution and a 1.5GHz dual-core processor will keep things moving quickly. While it does have Wi-Fi, it's worth noting that the Kindle Fire HD does not feature a camera.
But it's the ability to create and manage profiles for children (and set limits about what they can use and when) that makes it a viable kids tablet. The Kindle FreeTime subscription service also allows unlimited access to a selection of kids books, games, educational apps, movies, and TV shows for a monthly fee of $4.99, or $2.99 for Prime users.
As we've seen, a tablet doesn't have to have been specifically designed for children, to be suitable for them, especially if housed in a protective case. Because of the selection of apps available, almost any tablet will keep a child entertained.
However, if you want to go the route of an otherwise adult tablet loaded with kids titles, whether that's a Nexus 7 or an iPad Mini, you'll want to think hard about how you'll manage internet access, what apps are available, and controlling in-app purchases … and make sure password restrictions are your friend.
Summing upThere are loads of tablets aimed at kids out there. We've only included our favorites here, but in the past year or so we've also seen the VTech InnoTab 3, the LeapPad 2, the FunTab Pro, the Meep! and the Tabeo. All of which makes picking your child's first one a difficult and daunting decision.
To that end, we hope we've helped you decide what's important in a tablet for your child – whether that's durability, having a child-specific operating system, or compatibility with other apps – to help narrow down your search.
We're pretty sure that almost any child could have hours of fun playing with the tablets we've looked at here. All have their relative merits, but of course only you can decide which is right for you and your family.