It's official: You're buying a tablet for the kids. Since you've done all your homework with parts one and two of this Kids and Tablets series, you know what's in store for you when you turn your young ones loose on these high-tech toys. But before you run out and plunk down hundreds of dollars, take a look at some of the options to figure out the best fit for your family. Here are some of today's top choices based on age, price and overall wow factor.
TABLETS WITH TRAINING WHEELS
Kid-specific tablets, like those from ClickN Kids, Kurio, VTech, Fuhu, or LeapFrogare like tablets with training wheels. As we mentioned in part two of this series, these can be a great way for youngsters to cut their cyber-teeth. They're often targeted to kids 3 to 9, and come loaded with varying degrees of age-specific games, educational apps, parental controls, content filters and even timers to help with that whole "too much screen time" issue. Here are a few kid-centric options to consider:
PART ONE: Kids can't resist the tablet temptation
CLICKN KIDS, $100
Pro: Inexpensive, long battery life, great suite of parental controls, great phonics program
Con: Dark screen, hard to find the on/off switch
This is a low-priced, entry-level Android tablet that the whole family can use. It comes preloaded with more than 30 apps, including a learn-to-read specific Looney Tunes Phonics series (which normally costs an additional $30). There's a slight learning curve (it's hard to find the "on" switch — though the company is revamping its design and bumper cover to make this easier). But one of the features I like the most is the home screen with two giant buttons: one labeled "Grown Ups," the other labeled "Kids."
PART TWO: Rules of the road for kids and tablets
It also has a bevy of parental controls, including app approval, Internet management, time-limit controls and activity monitoring. But these aren't always easy to find and use, and it will require some time and patience to really take advantage of these features. Put it next to one of the more expensive kids' tablets and it looks a little bleak in contrast, especially since it has the darkest screen of all of the models we reviewed. Will kids notice this? Probably not, as long as you don't give them a side-by-side comparison.
LEAPPAD ULTRA, $149
Pro: Awesome educational tablet for young kids
Con: Apps can get expensive, not a good tablet for older kids or adults
This is a great first tablet for a young child, especially in the 4- to 9-year-old range. The LeapFrog LeapPad Ultra has an education focus and is covered with plastic bumpers, a large 7-inch touch screen, full Wi-Fi capabilities and a rechargeable battery. These were fan favorites with the youngest of our reviewers, who especially like the front- and rear-facing cameras, MP3 player, and fact that this just looks like a fun toy. While it's tough enough to hold up well through various spills, drops and other kid-life wear and tear, this is not a tablet your tween will want to be seen with, nor one you'll use after the kids go to bed.
SAMSUNG GALAXY TAB 3 7.0" Kids Edition, $199
Pro: Great battery life, beautiful high-end tablet that can grow with kids
Con: Expensive, fewer parental controls
Like the ClickN Kids, this tablet also swaps between adults and children with ease. Overall, it is one of the best and easiest to use kid-specific devices around. Within Kids Mode, youngsters can play preloaded games, and you can always add more from the Kids Store and the Google Play Store. Parents have the option to approve which apps children can play with and also set time limits on how long kids can play on the device.
The tablet comes with a bumper or a protective case, which also doubles as a stand. With a beautiful, bright and crisp screen, and a solid nine hours of battery life, this tablet can outlast most kids on a single charge. On the downside, it's all or nothing with letting your child surf the Web on this device. It's easy to limit a child's access to apps and set time limits for playing with the device, but when it comes to overall Internet security, there's no middle ground — you have to turn the built-in browser "on" or "off," so you can't really customize which websites or categories kids can visit.
KIDS TABLET TRENDS TO WATCH
FUHU DREAMTAB, $269
Fuhu's a prolific kids tablet maker, and the company is about to launch a new tablet that makes a deeper connection between super-popular kids movies and the exploding tablet market. The Android-based Fuhu DreamTab comes out in early June, loaded with DreamWorks Animations interactive videos and games based on the Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar franchises, as well as others. While Fuhu has been criticized in the past for not putting enough emphasis on educational content, the new tab stands up well to the competition, coaching kids on how to draw and animate their favorite characters, create books and edit videos. Even the parental controls get the cartoon treatment. A short video of a DreamWorks character tells kids when it's time to take a break from the screen or shut down for the day. Parental controls have also gotten the star-treatment, including first-of-its-kind Child's Online Privacy Protection (COPPA) compliant email, a kid-friendly social network and texting.
KURIO EXTREME, 4G LTE (exclusively on the Verizon Wireless network), $229
Launching this fall, this 7-inch Android tablet is designed just for kids, yet loosens the leash with the first 4G connectivity through Verizon. This means that kids can have the same connectivity as adults, using tablets to play, watch and surf the Web on the go. Back in January, when this was announced at the Consumer Electronics Show, company officials told me this connectivity is important, with one official noting that "kids want to use tablets the same way as their parents, and that means having access to all kinds of content wherever they are, and whenever they want." Hmm.
It seems to me that with this new connectivity comes new concerns with child privacy, and additional cellular expense, though the company says the tablet will be easy to add to existing family plans, and per-app parental controls prevent kids from visiting salacious websites or streaming music after bedtime.
TABLETS TO GROW WITH
Depending on the age of your kids, your budget and whether you want to use the tablet too, a better value might be a full-featured "grown-up" tablet that kids can learn from and also grow into. Many of these now come with features geared toward kids — like Amazon's Kindle FreeTime Unlimited, or Netflix's kid-specific interface — and just might be all you need to turn a family tablet into a more child-friendly device.
If you're hesitant to buy a device kids will outgrow relatively soon, you might be tempted to plunk down $50 or so for a Target or Walmart special, but remember, ultra-low prices usually mean ultra-low quality. Your child could crumble under the frustration of buggy software and cheap construction that can't take what kids dish out, and you'll likely find yourself shelling out more cash for a proper tablet later on anyway.
If you do decide on a full-fledged tablet, the biggest decision you'll make is deciding between an Android device or an iPad. There are high-quality options on both sides, and you'll get a wealth of parental controls either way, so it can come down to a matter of taste. But if you're ready to help your novice tablet user dive into a real tablet, these are your best bets:
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7" (Wi-Fi), $244
Amazon's hugely popular tablet runs a slightly modified version of Android, but still plays all the hit games, and the Kindle store has a ton of kids programming and educational content. The Kindle Fire HDX stereo speakers and sharp LCD screen are great for videos. Kindle FreeTime is a solid parental control mode that lets you set separate time limits for different kinds of content; similarly, the new Mayday remote video support means you can get help whenever the child messes up the settings. Amazon's media store reigns supreme with the best selection of books, movies, TV shows and music, and its simplified interface is also easier for kids to use than standard Android.
Google Nexus 7" (16GB), $229
Google's premiere gadget, the Nexus 7", is an intuitive device that kids will be able to navigate without issue. But don't kid yourself: This is a very "adult" device, and you may need to set limits for Web browsing, mature games and other content. We show you how to do just that in part four of this Kids and Tablets series.
Apple iPad mini, (16GB, Wi-Fi), $299
If you want to go all out, get them a pint-sized but powerful device worth growing into. The iPad mini is just as capable as its bigger brother, but its shrunken form factor is a big hit with young hands. The biggest issue with giving such a grand tablet to a child is the fear of losing or breaking it. You'll have to invest in a great case, and be sure that Find My iPad is turned on!
Of course you don't have to bestow a brand new, top-of-the-line tablet on your kids. Consider handing down your own tablet and scoring a personal upgrade in the process, or picking up a last-generation or refurbished model for a fraction of cutting-edge prices.
Regardless of which one of these is the best fit for your family, it's important to make sure risky apps and websites are nowhere to be found. Keep an eye out for the next episode of Tech Now, where we'll show you everything you need to do to keep your kids' tablet on the right side of the tracks.
Don't see the model you're wondering about in this list? We've reported extensively on all brands, shapes, sizes and models, so be sure to do a quick search for the brand you're looking for, and read more here in our tech section at USAToday.com. As always, be sure to share your comments with us below.
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech contributor and host of USA TODAY's digital video show TECH NOW. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly.