The prize for the most sought-after Christmas gift this year looks like being fought out between two tablets for children. And there’s no Apple logo on either of them. See also - Group test: Best tablets for children
When the UK Toy Retailers Association (TRA) announced its predictions for the top 12 must-have toys this Christmas it stated that this year’s Christmas bestsellers had "a technological twist".
The InnoTab has been updated! Read our VTech InnoTab 2 review
Of all the toys in the TRA list the iPad-inspired LeapPad Explorer was the most searched for Christmas toy, but this cute little gamer has a rival: the VTech InnoTab.
VTech’s InnoTab is similar to the LeapPad in looks, operation and price (both retail for £79.99) but is more touch-oriented than the LeapFrog kids tablet.
Both are recommended for children aged 4 - 9 years, but a three-year-old wouldn’t find it impossible to use. The usual small-parts choking warning is in place for the under threes.
Both can be operated by a stylus but the VTech InnoTab is more finger friendly. The InnoTab features a handy stand, which works in both portrait and landscape mode – useful when the tablet is used as a digital picture frame or video player.
Web traffic analysts at Hitwise score the LeapPad as winning the war on online searches but it’s a very close run thing. And VTech has a pedigree in such toy battles, with its Kidizoom Digital Camera coming out as last year’s bestselling toy.
(The Kidizoom is still in this year’s Christmas mix as well, madeover and relaunched as the Kidizoom Twist.)
The iPad has many more games and apps than either of the two childrens’ tablets, and they are much more sophisticated and varied. But both the LeapPad and VTech InnoTab could hold a child’s interest for just as long (if not longer) than the far-pricier iPad (from £399).
The InnoTab is larger than the LeapPad but otherwise strikingly similar, with its colourful, bold buttons and casing. (There was a pink model exclusive to retailer Argos but this is now harder to find than a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket.)
While larger in case size the LCD screen of the VTech InnoTab is the same five inches as the LeapPad. There’s more hand room on the InnoTab. In fact, the InnoTab isn’t that much smaller than the iPad, and thicker – although with more slots.
While the kids will see this as a super toy parents will be pleased by its educational benefits. It can be filled with language, logic and maths games, speaking eBooks, and more creative multimedia, touch-screen apps. An interactive globe is available at £2.99, for geographical and cultural learning.
There are, of course, games to play. The InnoTab comes with two built in: motion-based Pinball Letters and Ice Escape, where you help a penguin across icebergs to catch the fish.
There are plenty more to download. At the time of writing most extra games cost £2.99, which is reasonable. Downloadable games and books for the LeapPad range from £3.50 to £5 or more.
The iPad’s range of free and under-a-pound games wins here but there’s enough to choose from to entertain even experienced gaming kids.
You buy the apps through a special desktop application, so you needn’t worry about your offspring racking up a big bill direct from the InnoTab!
You can also buy character-based cartridge packs that have an e-book included and a bunch of games and creative apps. There’s a load of Disney and Pixar cartridges (plus Scooby Doo, Dora, Sponge Bob, etc) to choose from, but they’re not cheap at £25 a go!
When you register your InnoTab you are gifted three virtual coins, which you can spend buying some additional downloadable apps – a nice touch.
There’s an E-Reader to read books downloaded from VTech’s cumbersomely named Learning Lodge Navigator.
The VTech InnoTab comes pre-loaded with a pleasing selection of games, eBooks and apps. This looks much like Apple’s Newsstand. You can flick between bookshelves to see all the e-books you’ve downloaded.
The e-books cover the usual child-friendly cartoons and old favourite tales. A voice reads the words while each is highlighted, and the reader can go over each page again and again if he or she wants, and even pick out individual words and their phonic parts.
You can download music, videos and photos to the VTech InnoTab. You add these to the tablet via an SD card. You don’t get an SD card included in the price, but they’re pretty cheap these days – Amazon has a 4GB card for about a fiver.
One area of functionality where the VTech InnoTab differs from the LeapFrog LeapPad is its lack of camera. For a device at the same price, the camera-laden LeapPad offers better value here. VTech has a range of cool kids’ cameras so I’d have expected the addition of one on this tablet to have been cost-effective. Maybe VTech is protecting its Kidizoom range by excluding such a function from the InnoTab.
The Art Studio is a fun function, where you can draw with brush, pencil, magic pen (for painting patterns – think MacPaint!), stickers and fun tools like a wind-up grog that jumps around leaving footprints or a car that leaves tyre tracks. And, of course, there’s an eraser for correcting mistakes. This beats the LeapPad’s arty functions.
Colour & Pop is another InnoTab creative app that will keep children entertained for longer than you’d expect. It’s basically a simple colouring-in tool. No matter how sophisticated you think your little one, you can’t beat a bit of colouring in now and again. It would be nice if there were more advanced templates, however, to test the experts.
You also need to have an SD card to hand to save your images from the Art Studio and Colour & Pop.
Having a lot more than the 128MB of built-in storage would have been helpful – the LeapPad comes with 2GB built in. If you don’t have or – more likely – can’t find an SD card at the right moment you might well have an upset child on your hands.
You also need an SD Card to add downloaded games to the InnoTab. The LeapPad wins on built-in storage.
The fact that SD cards are so small is great for digital photographers but they’re also the perfect size for kids to lose or drop down the sides of sofas, car seats, etc. The SD card slot is, however, helpfully hidden in the battery bay, so shouldn’t fall out unless tinkered with.
Where the VTech InnoTab beats the LeapPad is its quasi PDA capabilities. There’s the Calendar, where you can add notes and stickers. There’s a Notes app where you can tap in some text, and refer back later. The Clock is handy for kids who can tell the time. It would have been even more useful if it could be used better to teach the time, but there’s a downloadable game (Cuckoo Clock) that will help in that regard. The Stopwatch is a brilliant idea, though. You and the kids won’t run out of things to time using this function.
It also has a date function. Again, as with the clock, this just sets the date for the device, rather than helping to teach dates and time formats
There’s also the Calculator for basic sums, although the add-on maths-based games are of more educational benefit.
As with any electronic device or toy buying a set of rechargeable batteries is highly recommended. Indeed two sets of four batteries would be a good idea. You can also buy a mains adaptor for £7.99.
And, as we said when we reviewed the Leappad, you can’t pretend an electronic toy is as helpful to a child as real hands-on parental play and learning time.
The VTech InnoTab has undeniable educational benefits in the realms of reading, maths and logic, but should be used as an additional tool rather than a substitute parent or teacher.