Q: Our boys, 8 and 9, love their dad's iPad, so we're getting them tablets for Christmas. Which tablet offers the best education and entertainment at the best price?
A: Warren Buckleitner, founder and publisher of Children's Technology Review, has rated children's software for two decades. The day I contacted him, he and his team were testing 22 devices in four categories: handhelds (such as Nintendo and PlayStation); Androids (Kindle and Nook, plus new entries); the Apple 'ecosystem'; and tablets from toymakers such as Fisher-Price, LeapFrog and Vtech.
When choosing a tablet for a child, Buckleitner wants parents to ask:
-- What device best matches your child's development? "An 8-year-old iPad user will find it hard to settle for a toylike tablet. The screens may not be as sensitive, it may lack a camera, and apps can take longer to launch," notes Buckleitner. "Kids care about power, aesthetics and ease of use -- just like adults."
-- What device will grow with your child? "Don't purchase something your child will be bored with in a few months," says Buckleitner. "Start with the apps. While I'm happy to see new Android entries, the quality and quantity of Android apps for kids doesn't compare to the tens of thousands of Apple apps for kids."
-- What are you really paying? A $150 tablet that requires the purchase of plug-ins, cartridges or online downloads, plus a constant replenishing of batteries, can end up being as expensive as a $300 product with lots of free and low-cost apps.
-- Does it pass the Angry Birds test? "Take your boys to a store and let them 'test-drive' devices," says Buckleitner. "Try an app you know, like Angry Birds. Does the game load quickly? Do the birds fly smoothly through the air? Is the sound muffled? Does it feel responsive?"
For children your sons' ages, Buckleitner suggests purchasing within the Apple iOS ecosystem. "My rule is simple -- go for as much quality for the money, and that means Apple. In addition, the iOS preferences let you kid-proof as much or as little as you like."
Of all the choices, Buckleitner likes the iPad mini. It delivers all the iPad apps in a smaller form with a clear display. "It has Wi-Fi, improved sound and good cameras. The mini can talk and listen, via Siri, and kids love to play with Siri!" he says. Prices start at $330.
A less expensive Apple alternative is an iPod touch (fourth generation). "It might be two years old, but this $180 option offers access to all Apple apps," he says. "Another solution is to buy used iPhones, or upgrade yours and give the boys the old ones with phone service disabled."
The goal is to "match high-quality digital experiences with your child's age and interests. You want experiences that are fun and empowering, and that you can learn and play along with, too," says Buckleitner.
Find top-rated kids' apps at childrenstech.com. The free content is valuable, and an annual subscription ($30) can be invaluable in selecting the best apps for your boys.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)