Adding a tablet to the family
In my day, tablets were called books, videogames were 8-bit, movies were seen in a theater, and we liked it. Today’s kids have incredible technology literally at their fingertips, but with great power comes great responsibility—for you, the parent.
If you hand a smartphone or tablet to a kid, to play games, watch movies, read ebooks, or just kill time on a boring car or plane ride, you’ve also got to monitor what they’re doing with it, and for how long. While it’s entirely possible to enforce limits on your own, the current crop of just-for-kids tablets makes it even easier, with granular controls that you can set—and let the tablet play the bad cop every once in a while.
Every tablet here performed solidly in my tests (big thanks to my 4-year-old and 8-year-old helpers, too!), delivering a fun experience in a kid-friendly package. All are worth their asking price, so picking one comes down to the features your family is looking for—which operating system, if you’re interested in a subscription-based content package, and so on. And while the iPad mini isn’t techinically aimed at kids (and thus has the weakest parental controls of the bunch), it’s here for comparison’s sake. Read on to find the best tablet for your whole family—especially the little ones.
LeapFrog’s $129 Epic is a 7-inch tablet running a forked version of Android 4.4, with an expertly curated app store full of LeapFrog’s own educational games as well as select Android titles. Epic is aimed at kids ages 3 to 9, and each child in your household gets their own account for a vastly personalized experience.
The animated home screen is totally interactive; kids can pick a scene and customize it with stickers. The robust parental controls let you specify which of the included and purchased apps can be accessed by which kids, and you can also set time limits for reading, games, and videos. LeapFrog’s downloadable, auto-leveling games adjust the difficulty level to each child, increasing the challenge as they improve, or even making it easier if they keep getting stuck. The progressive hint system cuts down on frustration—and whining for help from an adult who’s just trying to cook dinner.
Pros: LeapFrog’s well-done LeapSearch browser offers educational, age-appropriate content from sites like Scholastic News, Sports Illustrated for Kids, National Geographic, and Sprout Online. Parents can whitelist more sites, and as kids age you can loosen the reins until they’re looking at more and more of the web.
Cons: Since all the apps are vetted by educational experts, they also cost a little more than what you might expect of “regular” kids’ apps for Android or iOS: Videos start at $5, and games range from $4 to $20, with sales and bundles helping cut that a bit. The screen’s 1024x600 resolution didn’t impress me, but my son didn’t mind one bit.
Who’s it for? The Epic will appeal to families looking for an incredibly safe, educational experience, especially families with more than one kid.
Fire Kids Edition
Amazon’s $100 Fire Kids Edition is the exact same 7-inch Fire tablet sold for adults, bundled with a huge foam bumper, two years of accidental damage coverage, and a one-year pass to FreeTime Unlimited, an all-you-can-eat buffet of kids’ books, movies, TV shows, apps, and games. It’s got something for every child, so they won’t be constantly bugging you to buy new apps and movies, but you can control exactly what each kid has access to, and set controls for each content type: TV only on weekends? An hour of reading before any games? No problem. Oh, and you get an adult account too, for reading Kindle books or watching movies once the kids are asleep.
Pros: You could buy all these pieces a la carte (the tablet itself is only $50), but the bundle makes sense because of FreeTime Unlimited, which normally costs from $3/month for Prime users with one kid, to $10/month for non-Prime users with up to 4 kids—not to mention Amazon’s promise to replace the tablet if your kids break it, “no questions asked.”
Cons: The interface isn’t the most intuitive since it differs pretty widely from stock Android or iOS. And the huge foam bumper, while durable, makes it really hard to press the tablet’s buttons.
Who’s it for? If you already buy a lot of digital content from Amazon, this is a no-brainer—a Fire tablet is one of the best ways to watch all that, and this will work for everyone in the family. It’s also a great pick for budget-minded parents whose kids tend to destroy things.
Kurio Xtreme 2
The $130 Kurio Xtreme 2 encourages kids to get up and move, with “Body Motion” games that use the camera to let kids control the action with their arms and legs, Xbox Kinect style. The games are fun enough, but you need to stand the tablet up and stand back a few feet, so it’s not something you can do anywhere. An integrated stand helps, but it’s a little tricky to use.
The Xtreme 2 provides a kid-friendly experience, packed with free apps, plus a fully curated Kidoz store and the full Google Play store. I appreciate the Kurio Genius internet filtering system, which starts with predefined age-group features and then lets you tweak them however you need. You can authorize and block individual apps, set time controls for the “educative” section separately from the rest of the apps, and even turn off access to the USB port if you like.
Pros: The Xtreme 2’s specs are pretty good for a kids tablet, with a quad-core processor and Android 5.0 Lollipop. It charges by micro-USB instead of a special cable, and it has micro-HDMI out as well.
Cons: That said, the Xtreme 2’s 7-inch screen is 1024x600, and it only comes with 16GB of storage, but the microSD card slot can handle 32GB cards. And the Kidoz store makes you buy apps and other content with coins, not actual money—although you first have to buy the coins, of course.
Who’s it for? Active kids might like taking the Body Motion games for a spin, and large families will appreciate the support for up to eight user accounts.
If your child uses the family computer for homework, the $200 Kurio Smart, which comes with Office, might be the perfect two-in-one. It’s an 8.9-inch 1280x800 tablet with a quad-core Intel processor and 32GB of internal storage, and it comes with a keyboard that acts as a stand as well as a cover. It comes running Windows 8.1, but you can upgrade that to Windows 10 (for free for a limited time), and it even includes a one-year subscription to Office 365.
Aimed at 8 to 12-year-olds, the Kurio Smart does a good job of balancing work and play, and I appreciate how Windows isn’t skinned—it’s the real deal, complete with the Windows Store. You’re still in charge, though, with parental controls provided by Microsoft Family Smart, which lets you whitelist and block apps and websites, set daily (but not per-activity) limits, and get detailed reports sent by email.
Pros: The 1280x800 IPS screen might not be full HD, but it still looks sharp, and the 1GB of RAM and quad-core Intel Bay Trail chip keep performance pretty snappy—I didn’t feel like I was playing with a child’s toy. Our kid testers loved the keyboard, which is a little cramped for adults but easier to use for them. Bonus points for having HDMI-out, too.
Cons: While a lot of the tablets here charge with micro-USB (the iPad mini uses Lightning and the Nabi Elev-8 uses full-size USB), the Kurio Smart has its own charger. It comes with 32GB of storage, but the built-in apps and Windows use more than half of that, although the microSD card slot lets you add up to 32GB more.
Who’s it for? Windows-using families who would be well served by not just a tablet for play, but a miniature laptop for real, honest work.
Nabi Elev 8
Aimed at kids 6 to 9, Fuhu’s Nabi Elev-8 is an 8-inch tablet that includes a bright red bumper and six months of Nabi Pass All Access, which is packed with content separated by age group. Education is emphasized, with a suite of Wings apps that provide math, reading, and writing lessons based on Common Core.
Mommy/Daddy Mode includes not only a whole host of controls over what the kids can see and do, but also a full suite of Android apps for you: all the standard Google apps, plus popular games, Skype, YouTube, and the Google Play Store if you want to get more. The Chore List feature lets you create a list of tasks for your kids to do to earn Nabi coins, which they can redeem for apps and games in the Nabi Treasure Box. There’s also the “NSA” or Nabi Security Administration, where you can exert control over your child’s address book, approve chat buddies, and “spy” on their email and photos.
Pros: The 1280x800 IPS screen makes movies and TV shows look great, and the Elev-8 comes with 32GB of memory plus an SD card slot for up to 32GB more, so you can bring plenty of movies on the plane or in the car. The build quality is excellent too, with powerful front-facing speakers, metal buttons, and a slim design under the bright red bumper. The rear-facing 5-megapixel camera takes decent stills and 1080p video, and the front-facing camera is 2-megapixels and 720p video for Skype sessions with grandma. It runs Android 5.1 Lollipop.
Cons: The app store is terrible for browsing. Apps are grouped by category, age rating, top rated, what’s new, and so on, but you can only look at one category at a time. I can’t look at top rated games for 3–4 year olds, for example, just the top rated apps, or the games, or anything for 3–4 year olds. But the store does warn you ahead of time if apps have advertising, web access, or social media tie-ins. I’m also not a fan of the proprietary “Nabi Connector” charging port.
Who’s it for? Families with slightly older kids, especially those who need a little electronic tutoring in Common Core subjects.
This isn’t a kid’s tablet (I’m not even counting it in the “5 tablets” of the headline), but the most affordable iPad mini, the $269 iPad mini 2, would make a serviceable kids’ tablet once you slap a rugged case on it. This one is my own son’s main tablet, shown here with the Zagg Rugged Book case, which has a detachable backlit keyboard. (It’s probably overkill for a kid, although my son loves it—the ever-popular Speck iGuy is much cheaper, at $30 versus $100.)
While the iOS App Store has tons of great kids’ stuff, it’s not curated that way at all, and the parental controls are the weakest of any of the tablets in this collection. In Settings > General > Restrictions, you can turn off access to purchasing media, apps, or just in-app purchases, and specify allowed age ratings for different content types. You can’t blacklist specific websites, but you can block the whole web except for whitelisted sites. Finally, there’s no support for user accounts.
Pros: If you already have an iPhone, you can buy universal apps that your kids can use on the iPad as well as on your phone, and the Family Sharing feature in iOS can give you access to everyone’s purchased apps, movies, TV shows, and iBooks. (Which isn’t as good as separate user accounts on the device itself, but it’s something.) It’s also got the best screen at 7.9 inches and 2048x1536.
Cons: It’s the most expensive tablet here, and since it’s not truly a kids’ tablet, it doesn’t have separate user accounts to keep some apps just for adults while giving other access to kids.
Who’s it for? The iPad is OK to give to kids if you have one lying around, or you’re heavily invested in the iOS ecosystem. Its superior cameras make it good for budding filmmakers too. You’ll just have to be more diligent about keeping an eye on what your kids are doing, since there’s no way to separate out accounts or snoop on their activities.