How to buy a tablet for kids

Your kids are monopolizing your tablet again. They need a tablet of their own. Buying a new iPad—or passing down your old one so that you can indulge in a new one—remains one option. But now you have other alternatives: Many tablets are built specifically for children, and offer a tough or well-padded casing, good parental controls, user accounts for multiple kids to share, an array of educational apps, and a price tag that won’t break the bank (so you don't have to worry if they break the tablet).

Few tablets built for kids are from manufacturers you would be familiar with if you’ve been researching tablets for yourself. And several come with hidden gotchas. Here are a few of the many different things to consider when you're choosing a tablet for a child.

Specs still make a difference

Do specs matter when you're shopping for kids? Yes, they do. You may think that what’s on the inside isn't important—especially for small-fry not interested in the latest graphics-intensive game—but in reality, many child-friendly tablets are achieving their low prices by using outdated processors, poor screens with slow touch response, and little on-board storage. Buying a tablet that’s frustrating to use because it lags so much will merely encourage your kids to borrow your iPad more often, not less.

Processor and screen: The vast majority of child-oriented tablets come with a Cortex A8 processor and try to run kid-friendly skins over Android 4.0. Not surprisingly, the mixed reviews for these tablets are full of complaints about frustrating lags. The only tablet made for kids with a Tegra 3 processor is the Nabi Tablet.

Almost all kid tablets have a 7-inch screen. This design helps keep the weight down and make the tablet more manageable for small hands. The biggest drawback is that most of them also run at a definitely-not-Retina resolution of only 800 by 480 pixels. Again, in this respect the Nabi comes out on top, with a higher-res, 1024-by-600-pixel 7-inch screen. For comparison, the average regular 7-inch tablet has a 1024-by-600-pixel display; the Apple iPad mini has a resolution of 1024 by 768, while the Google Nexus 7 offers a resolution of 1280 by 800.

Profiles and parental controls: An easy-to-use built-in parental-controls system is a main selling point for tablets aimed at kids. Make sure that the tablet you’re considering allows you to restrict purchases and limit what your child can do and what they have access to. The Kurio tablet, for example, lets you impose time limits to determine when and for how long your child can use the tablet. You can manage the parental controls of the Oregon Scientific Meep tablet from the cloud. Amazon's 2012 Kindle Fire series (including the Kindle Fire HD) includes controls for limiting which types of content and activities your child has access to, and for how long.

Barnes & Noble's Nook HD offers up to six user profiles, and allows customization for a child's age and gender.

If you’re seeking a tablet for multiple kids to share, make sure that the model you choose allows you to set up user accounts. Ematic’s FunTab Pro comes with Zoodles kid mode, which emails progress reports for each child and presents a custom user interface based on the age of each child. Barnes & Noble's Nook HD has multiple user accounts, and provides ways to obtain content targeted at your child's age group.

The Fuhu Nabi 2 has a customized Android skin.

Software: Many tablets designed for kids run Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich under highly customized, child-friendly skins. The skins—such as those found on the Archos Childpad, Ematic FunTab Pro, Fuhu Nabi 2, Meep by Oregon Scientific, and Toys 'R' Us Tabeo—work to keep kids out of places in the operating system they don’t need to be, in addition to helping pre-readers navigate the interface with big, colorful icons.

You might think that this means you can run any Android app on these tablets, but generally that isn't the case. Although it’s theoretically possible to root these tablets and sideload apps, they’re designed to be used with dedicated app stores (typically provided by the manufacturer) full of apps that are geared toward kids. That could be a positive, or it may end up being limiting if you haven't done your homework first and checked out what exactly is on offer.

LeapFrog's LeapPad 2 runs the company's own operating system.

Other tablets, such as the LeapFrog LeapPad 2 and the Vtech InnoTab, run completely proprietary software. You can still add software from their Web stores, or even via cartridge in the case of the LeapPad.

Look into the software available for each tablet you’re considering. With most tablets having similar screens powered by similar specs, the ecosystem and available software play a big role in differentiating one tablet from another. Do you want an Android-based tablet? Are the games your child is interested in available? More important, is the educational content you’re interested in available? Do you want to deal with cartridges, or would you prefer the all-digital approach?

Storage: Most kids haven’t yet built up a multigigabyte music collection that they need to keep with them at all times, but you will want to load the tablet with some favorite movies and tunes to keep them occupied on long trips. The majority of child-friendly tablets have only 4GB of built-in storage, but some models will give you 8GB, which should yield about 5GB of user-accessible storage and may be enough for a child's tablet. Many models also come with a MicroSD card slot to expand the storage.

Stylus: Kids love to draw. While younger children may be happy with finger painting, older kids might appreciate the greater control that a stylus offers. They can also use a good stylus to practice handwriting, since many games teach letterforms.

Some of the tablets, such as the LeapPad 2 and the InnoTab, come with an attached stylus for writing and drawing games. Tablets with a capacitive touchscreen, which most of the Android-based tablets are, can work with any capacitive stylus. Stay clear of any tablet—budget-friendly or kid-oriented or not—that still uses a resistive touchscreen.

Price: No need to hand over a $500 tablet to your less-than-gentle four-year-old. Most kid tablets come in at around $150, though the Nabi is a little pricier at $199 due to its Tegra processor and better screen. Both the LeapPad and the InnoTab are less than $100 since they are not full Android tablets.

Kid-friendly, or full Android?

With child-friendly tablets landing at about $150, you might be wondering whether you should simply pay an extra $50 to get your kids something like a Nexus 7, a Kindle Fire HD, or a Nook HD. Or maybe you have your eye on a lower-resolution, based-on-last-year's-technology Kindle Fire or Nook Tablet. Before you take that plunge, consider whether your child would be comfortable navigating the interfaces of these tablets, and what kind of parental controls are built in to prevent your child from going on a shopping spree with your linked Amazon account.

The Nook HD has user profiles, parental controls, and many other kid-oriented options. Amazon released a software update for the Kindle Fire HD that includes FreeTime—a set of robust parental controls and user profiles, such as an easy way to set screen time limits. If you want to go with a pure-Android tablet like the Nexus 7, you can install Zoodles Kid Mode to lock your child into a kid-friendly interface, and then turn it off when it’s your turn with the tablet.

Apple has finally unleashed the 7.9-inch iPad mini, which can be an appealing option for families already invested in the iOS ecosystem. At $329, however, it’s a more expensive choice, and it has no user profiles for easy sharing among family members.

A hand-me-down tablet

Another alternative is to pass along your old tablet when it’s time to upgrade. Before handing the tablet over, you'll need to set up the parental controls and decide whether the tablet should continue to sync with your account, or if you want to set up a new account for the child. You can remove your information from an iPad by going to Settings and selecting General, then scrolling to the bottom and choosing Reset > Erase All Content and Settings. On Android, under Settings, choose Personal Data and then Factory Reset. From there, you can download kid-friendly apps like Zoodles (also available for iPad), or other educational games.

Be sure to invest in a nicely padded case if you’ll be giving the tablet to a young one. Look for something with lots of soft, nubby edges that allow small hands to get a good grip and that protect the tablet in case of a fall or spill.

Shopping tips

Before buying, try to get some hands-on time with your potential pick by checking out the models that are on display in stores. Our local Best Buy had the Nabi tablet on display next to the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity, as well as the LeapPad in the kid’s section, and Toys 'R' Us carries many kid tablets in-store. Buying from a local store also gives you a convenient place to pick up accessories as well as to return the tablet if it doesn’t work.

Consider the age and maturity of the child you’re buying for. Just because they fall within the recommended age range doesn’t necessarily mean that a particular tablet will be right for them. If you have a younger, princess-obsessed kiddo, for example, a pink princess-theme LeapPad might be a good choice. If you’re shopping for an older child who likes to tinker, they may be ready to have a regular Android tablet in a rugged case.

It may seem like a lot to think about, but answering these questions should help you figure out exactly what you’re hoping to get out of a tablet for your child. Then you can find one that best fits your family situation.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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