PARENTS take note. For approximately the price of a child's bicycle — about $200 — you can purchase what may be the 21st-century equivalent: a tablet computer.
Children take their tablets, a term defined loosely, as seriously as they do their bikes. So if you are going to buy one that is for them — not you — you had better involve them in the process.
They understand that this single device is a million-channel TV, music collection, game machine, camera and e-book library, and a way to socialise with friends. They may not understand — but you will — that in addition to the first $200 or so you lay out for a tablet, you will be paying for music, books, movies and apps far into the future.
So, what to get? The 21 tablets I reviewed for this article each have strengths and weaknesses. Here's a crash course.
Android-based tablets for children are the newest versions on the block. Each is on a mission to distract children from the iPad and other mainstream tablets, and choices abound. For about $150, you can get the Kurio 7, MEEP or Tabeo.
The Nabi 2 costs a bit more ($200) but has a noticeably better screen. The Nabi Jr. ($100) is smaller and can double as a baby monitor. Though tricky to turn on, these tablets have colourful silicon bumpers for child-proofing. They also are slower, which I discovered when loading the same app on each one. This is a great test. Angry Birds starts in 10 seconds on the iPad Mini, vs. 33 seconds on the Tabeo.
Look at how much storage the devices have. It can be limited to just four gigabytes. This is important because apps and movies take space. One full-length HD video — about two gigabytes — can use half the storage space on the Tabeo, which means you'll need to invest more in a micro-SD card.
The best overall option was the four-inch, $150 MG. Pocket-size and powerful — it loaded Angry Birds in 15 seconds — the MG is built around the Google Play app store. The MG comes with a preapproved digital allowance system, so children can do their own shopping. You supply the USB cable and Wi-Fi.
Beware that some of these devices — the Tabeo, MEEP and Kurio — are intended to sell you apps, music, e-books and movies purchased in their special stores. By the time you add in a micro-SD card to increase memory, you may be better off investing in the MG with easy access to mainstream app stores, or the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD.
My young testers, ages 3 to 12, kept reaching for the iPad first for good reason. They could find the apps they wanted, and the entire experience was familiar. But who wants to pay $300 for the iPod Touch 5, $329 for an iPad Mini or $400 for the lowest-priced iPad 2?
The good news is that the Android options are improving, in terms of app selection and overall quality. Android tablets cost far less, too.
Both the Kindle Fire HD, from Amazon, and Google's Nexus 7 offer power, apps and parental control features at a price near those for children's tablets.
The testers were also attracted by the detachable keyboard on the Microsoft Surface ($500 plus $100 for the keyboard). They saw it as a replacement for a laptop they use for homework. But the best non-Apple option I could find was the Kindle Fire HD, a choice made easier thanks to Kindle FreeTime Unlimited, a fixed-price subscription-based service ($5 per child) that lets children shop on their own for books, apps, games and movies, without surprise bills.
If price is your sole determining factor, consider turning your iPhone 3s, 4 or 4s into an iPod Touch. With an Internet connection but no cellphone service, they serve as great mini iPad Minis. If you have a dead iPod Touch 4, you can get new batteries for $80 from Apple. Make sure to fully explore the built-in parental controls on both Apple and Android operating systems.
These educational game tablets provide the lowest point of entry, at least in terms of initial cost. VTech's MobiGo 2 ($50)