What’s the best tablet for kids? Apple’s iPad? One of the Android tablets? Er, the HP TouchPad..? Maybe none of these adult-aimed tablets but one specially made for children – Leapfrog’s LeapPad Explorer Tablet for kids is tipped to be one of the most popular toys this Christmas. See also - Group test: Best tablets for children
The LeapPad has been updated! Check out our review of the new LeapPad 2 children's tablet, which updates the original LeapPad reviewed here. Reviewed August 2012. Update: Now read our LeapPad 3 and LeapPad Ultra XDi reviews.
See also: VTech InnoTab 2 review
Powered by four AA batteries (buy a recharger!) the LeapPad is a tough-looking but still-pretty mini-tablet that boasts a 5-inch screen (400 x 712 pixels), built-in still and video camera, iPad-like accelerometer and its very own app store with around 100 available apps and games.
It’s aimed at kids aged 4-9 – just like the competing VTech InnoTab, reviewed.
Parents with a bit of cash will know that children love the iPad and its hundreds of apps and games for young ones.
The trouble is that the iPad costs from £399, and is designed to please responsible adults more than excited kids (apart from the Apple fanboys, of course!).
It’s much larger than the LeapPad, too. Only the smaller-scale Android tablets are as suited to smaller hands. Anyone who’s seen a child shake an iPad will know that it’s rather unwieldy a toy. The LeapPad measures just 2.4 x 13 x 17.9cm – much more child friendly.
The iPad does boast many more kids’ games and educational apps, but don’t forget that you want to use it, too. There’s not much chance of that with the LeapPad Explorer, and it might just keep your children and their greasy paws off your own tablet for a while.
You can use your finger or the included stylus to control the LeapPad’s touchscreen. And you can twist and shake it just like an iPad.
The stylus isn't strictly necessary but does add a level of precision if the child is a bit of a finger jabber. It can also be used to aid handwriting and drawing in some of the available apps.
The LeapPad is no cheap toy, however. For starters it costs around £80. For that it comes well equipped with multimedia features: still and video camera, voice recording via built-in microphone, and motion-based accelerometer.
Many of the 100 or so apps and games use these features, and it’s the interactive nature of the play that makes LeapPad more than a time-wasting toy – not that there’s anything wrong with one of those once in a while.
There are art and animation studios for children to create their masterpieces. The Photo Studio lets them edit pictures taken with the built-in camera. It’s super simple to use. The LeapPad’s Story Studio can be used to create an interactive book "All About Me" for stories about families, friends, etc.
There are apps to improve school skills such as reading and phonics, maths, art, music, language, geography, health and hygiene. You can set skill levels for each child, based on the age you input in their profile. This is set to year of birth, so should adjust as the child gets older.
My five-year-old daughter, a real pro on the iPad, didn't find it too childish. In fact she probably played on it longer than she would do the iPad in one sitting.
As with any iPad, iPhone or Android kids’ app the cheesy monotonous music will get you in the end. Luckily there’s a headphone jack – what are the best headphones for children. We recommend Griffin’s volume-limiting MyPhones.
LeapPad works with all Leapster and Leapfrog Explorer cartridge games. Unlike iPad and Android games and apps the Leapfrog apps aren’t priced from 69p or even £2.99. Prices start at £3.50 and many are £5 or £7.50. That’s expensive in terms of mobile apps, so you’re playing a premium even Apple wouldn’t dare charge.
That said, if the £5 app teaches little Johnny to spell better or little Jane to develop her subtraction, or even keeps the child quiet for half an hour while you get on with some housework it could be money well spent.
Of course, even interactive educational apps and games are no substitute for proper parental interaction, books, pencils, pens, crayons, and physical exercise – that’s true whether your child’s tablet is a LeapPad, iPad or Galaxy Tab.
You set up to three users on each LeapPad, and customize profiles by adding your child’s name and photo (via the built-in camera). You can also choose a pet to customize and nurture.
You sync the LeapPad via Leafrog Connect, which crashed a couple of times when I was using it. It could also be a little simpler to log into, as the instructions when trying to login while syncing are rather vague. That said, once you’ve got the hang of it it’s pretty easy to get to grips with.
As with any self-respecting tablet there’s even a protective carrycase for the LeapPad Explorer Tablet, and if it’s a hit there should be plenty more.
The LeapPad Explorer Tablet is available in lime green and a purplish pink (from mid September 2011).
See also: VTech InnoTab children's tablet review