2014 best kids' tablets buying guide

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Gizmag looks at what features make a great kids' tablet, and presents a selection of the best devices currently available

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Are you fed up with handing over your tablet every time your child wants to play their favorite game, or use it with their latest tech toy? Maybe it really is time they had a tablet of their own. But with so many to choose from, which is the best tablet for children? To help you out, here is Gizmag's guide to the best kids' tablets available in 2014.

Update: There is now a new version of this guide. Visit our 2015 Best Kids' Tablets Buying Guide for updated info.

In this guide we'll start off by looking at some of the things you may want to consider before picking up a kids' tablet, and hopefully identify which features are important to you. We'll then take a look at our picks of some of the best child-friendly tablets currently on the market. By child-friendly, we mean those most suitable for children aged three to 10 years old.

With one very big exception, we've stuck to tablets with a screen size of eight inches or less. This is because that should be enough for most children of the ages we're looking at, and bigger tablets would be relatively huge compared to them. If your child needs or wants a bigger tablet, they're probably also old enough to tell you exactly which model they want! That said, where manufacturers offer a comparable but larger version of the included tablet, we'll try to point that out.

Things to consider:

Will it survive in the hands of your child?

While you may look after your own tablet because you recognize it as being a technically advanced (and expensive) bit of kit, the chances of a child – no matter how conscientious – being as careful are slim. Therefore, you will want to consider how any potential tablet will survive the inevitable bumps, knocks, drops and spills.

Luckily, many tablets are now designed with children in mind, and you'll want to look for ones which come fitted with built-in grips, bumpers, or cases that offer drop protection. Similarly, keep an eye out for tablets with built-in protective screen covers ... which may come in handy when your little darling decides to use their tablet as a step to reach something off a shelf. For tablets not specifically designed for kids, third-party cases can often offer the same sort of protection.

Can it run their favorite games and apps?

Just as you probably checked to make sure your favorite apps were available on whichever tablet you purchased for yourself, you might want to do the same for your child. All of these tablets come with a selection of pre-loaded apps, but if there's a particular title your kid loves playing on your smartphone or tablet, will they be able to have it on their own? In our house, any tablet without access to the various LEGO apps, or titles from Toca Boca wouldn't be worth considering.

While very child-focused tablets from the likes of LeapFrog and VTech often feature popular characters in their proprietary educational titles, you're less likely to find the latest must-have hit app on there too. You'll also want to consider whether the tablet will be able to run the apps needed for whatever the latest must-have tech toy is, whether that's an interactive doll or a robot dinosaur. This often means running a recent version of iOS or Android, and a suitable Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection.

Who will be using the tablet?

If you have multiple children, you're probably going to want them to share the same tablet, rather than buying several of the same thing in different colors. If so, look for devices which can be setup with multiple profiles. This means each child can login to have access to their own selection of appropriate apps and their own files (though that won't help if they want to play with it at the same time).

Because kids' tablets are no longer the under-specified low-powered devices they once were, you might even want to use the tablet yourself once they have gone to bed. If this is the case, you'll again want to check that it can run the apps you want, and that you can have a password-protected profile yourself that little prying eyes can't access. You might also want to consider a larger screen in this instance.

What parental controls do you need?

Parental controls aren't just about being able to prevent your child running up a massive bill with in-app purchases. You should also check you can limit what content on the device they have access to. There's also the issue of internet connectivity, whether any web browser can be limited to child-safe sources, and who will be able to communicate with your child online.

Some of the tablets also offer the ability to set daily usage time limits, or times of the day the tablet can't be used. This is good if the tablet will be stored in their bedroom. There are even tablets that allow you to use your smartphone to grant your child bonus screen-time if they complete chores. Doing the dishes has got to be worth letting them have an extra 15 minutes of watching cartoons on Netflix, doesn't it?

Our pick of the best tablets for kids

VTech Innotab Max

The Innotab Max is the latest flagship model from VTech, which knows a thing or two about producing educational tech toys. The headline feature of this model is that, in addition to having access to VTech learning content, it's also the first offering from the firm to have access to a selection of educator-approved Android titles including Toca Pet Doctor and Paper Cut Studio.

The tablet features a 7-inch screen with a resolution of 1024 x 600 pixels, and features 8 GB of internal memory which is expandable by using microSD cards (taking it up to 40 GB). There's built-in Wi-Fi with safe web-browsing, and the camera is of the 2-megapixel variety. There's also a kid-friendly cover with a screen protector, a handle for easy carrying, and a stylus for practicing writing. The chunky design is designed to help survive drops.

The VTech Innotab Max (which made it into our round-up of the best tech toys of 2014) comes bundled with a number of key apps, and has access to thousands more which can be purchased from the VTech Learning Lodge. While there are hundreds of Android apps also available here, the selection is more limited than most other Android tablets. A companion app is available for Android and iOS, which lets parents and family members receive and respond to messages and images sent from the tablet. The VTech Innotab Max costs US$110.

Nabi Dreamtab HD8

Fuhu has been producing its Nabi range of Android tablets for a few years now, and they are generally considered as some of the best for kids. This model has been produced alongside DreamWorks which means the tablet is chocked full of familiar faces and includes the Dream Pro Studio suite of child-friendly creative tools and a stylus for easier drawing. When we reviewed the DreamTab recently we said it was "a sophisticated, fully featured, well-thought out device."

The tablet itself has an 8-inch multi-touch display with a very respectable 1920 x 1200 resolution. A Tegra quad-core processor keeps Android 4.4 KitKat running smoothly, while Fuhu's kid-focused custom skin, "Blue Morpho," makes it more accessible. There's 2 GB of RAM, and 16 GB of storage (expandable via microSD). Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Near Field Communication (NFC) technology offer comprehensive connectivity options, and Nabi Web gives safe access to top kid-friendly websites and streaming videos.

The Nabi Dreamtab HD8 uses the Wings Learning System to help develop educational skills with a personalized learning experience. It also has access to thousands of apps and other content via Google Play and the kid-specific curated Nabi App Zone. Meanwhile, robust parental control lets adults manage apps, set time controls, and even reward children for completing chores. The Nabi Dreamtab HD8 costs $200.

LeapFrog LeapPad 3

The LeapPad 3 is unashamedly aimed at younger users than many of the tablets here. It has a smaller screen and is probably one of the most sturdy devices on offer. Part of the LeapFrog ecosystem, it runs the firm's proprietary educational apps and games which can be more expensive than those of the iOS and Android variety, though parents can be assured they are all educator-approved and include educational content.

A 5-inch 480 x 272-resolution screen on the LeapPad 3 is going to mean it's best suited to children who haven't experienced better specified and more powerful tablets than this 1,000 MHz processor offering. There's 4 GB of internal storage and the LeapPad 3 features 2-megapixel cameras front and rear. Built-in Wi-Fi can be used to do things like perform kid-safe web searches using LeapSearch, and install games and apps from the LeapFrog Learning Library.

The LeapFrog content – which includes titles featuring characters from Disney, Marvel, Nickelodeon and more – automatically levels-up to give children an appropriate challenge as they get older. Parental controls are more basic than some rival tablets, but include the ability to set up child profiles, manage permissions for apps and Wi-Fi access, and control access to the App Center. The Leappad 3 costs $100.

LeapFrog LeapPad Ultra

While the LeapPad 3 is targeted at very young tablet users, the LeapPad Ultra will appeal to those who are that little bit older, but whose parents still want them to be locked into a very child-centric learning tablet system. As such, you've still got access to the LeapFrog Learning Library and all of the educationally-sound apps, games, eBooks, videos and music.

But this time around there's a 7-inch screen, which boasts a considerably higher resolution (1024 x 600 pixels), and is said to offer feather-light responsiveness for a kid’s touch or for stylus-based play. There's a more generous 8 GB of internal storage, and the built-in rechargeable battery is said to be good enough for more than six hours of use (good for long car journeys) on a full charge.

Built-in Wi-Fi also means you can purchase and download new content direct from the tablet, and that children can search the internet while remaining safe online, thanks to kid-safe web browsing. The LeapFrog LeapPad Ultra costs $130.

Kurio Tab

The Kurio Tab is an interesting tablet, which has a few special tricks up its sleeves to help it stand out from the crowd. In addition to being a capable Android 4.4 tablet, and having some of the best parental controls we've seen, it also encourages children not to spend all their time hunched over its screen. This is done by the inclusion of a series of built-in motion-sensing games which work like the LeapTV or Xbox Kinect to incorporate gamers' movements via a camera.

The tablet itself has a 7-inch screen with a 1024 x 600 resolution and an Intel Atom Z2520–1.2 GHz dual-core processor. There's 1 GB of RAM and 8 GB or internal storage, which can be boosted by up to 32 GB with a microSD card. Connectivity options include Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, while a big bright bumper helps to protect the tablet against drops and knocks.

The tablet uses the Kurio Genius Internet Filtering System to help keep kids safe online by constantly assessing the age-suitability of websites and letting parents block any additional content they see fit. Time limits can also be set along with set times of the day the tablet can or cannot be used, with up to eight different user profiles. Apps can be loaded from the Google Play Store or the Kurio Store which features curated content. The Kurio Tab costs around $150.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 Kids

This is the only kid-specific tablet from Samsung, and while it is beginning to show its age, it still boasts specs which should be good enough for most children. It can now also be had for far less money than when it was released in 2013. The tablet is essentially a kiddified 7-inch Tab 3 in a bright safety bumper and running a child-friendly skin over its Android 4.1 operating system.

The Galaxy Tab 3 Kids has a screen resolution of 1024 x 600 and is powered by a 1.2GHz dual-core processor with 1 GB RAM. It has 8 GB of internal storage and built-in Wi-Fi. If this isn't sounding like enough, you could always opt for the 7-inch Tab 4 with its Android 4.4, 1280 x 800 resolution and 1.2 GHz quad-core processor, activate Kids Mode, and add a Kids C-Pen stylus along with a suitably-protective case.

The child-specific Android skin on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 Kids makes it easy for little fingers to navigate, and parents can set daily usage time limits, and block the use of certain apps entirely. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 Kids currently costs around $130.

Fire HD 6 (Kids Edition)

This is another example of a tablet which is normally marketed at adults getting a child-friendly makeover. In this case the Fire HD 6 comes in a kid-proof case to protect it from accidents, and is bundled with 12 months' access to Amazon FreeTime, which lets young users access thousands of child-appropriate apps, videos and books, free of charge. Amazon also offers a free tablet replacement, should your child manage to break theirs within two years of purchase.

As with the standard Fire HD 6, the Kids Edition offers a 6-inch touchscreen with a 1280 x 800 resolution. It's powered by a 1.5 GHz quad-core processor running Fire OS 4 (which is based on Android 4.4 Kit Kat) and boasts the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity you'd expect. Where it differs is that the Kids Edition automatically starts in Amazon FreeTime, with kid-friendly navigation and personalized child profiles which don't have access to a built-in web browser, in-app purchases, email, or social media features. These can all be accessed by password-protected parent profiles.

Parental controls also allow the ability to purchase apps and content from Amazon, which can be added to those already available to your child. You can also set time limits for different types of media, so you might decide to allow more reading time than playing games. The Fire HD 6 (Kids Edition) costs $150, and a 7-inch version is also available.

Apple iPad mini 2

Everyone is probably familiar with Apple's iPads, and the fact that they are not generally designed (or priced) with children in mind. However, the Apple App Store still has arguably the best line-up of apps for children, which makes them impossible to ignore. Of the line-up, the iPad mini is probably the most child-friendly because of size and cost, though we'd consider opting for the mini 2 over the newer mini 3 as it has an almost identical specification (except for a few features which aren't going to make a difference for children).

The Apple iPad Mini 2 has a 7.9-inch screen with an impressive 2048 x 1536 pixel resolution. It has a 64-bit dual-core 1.3 GHz A7 chip and various wireless connectivity options, which all make it the highest specified tablet in our round-up. For children, and to keep cost down, we'd advice the 16 GB Wi-Fi-only version. And remember, you are going to want to add a protective case to this tablet before handing it over.

Of all the tablets we've looked at, the iPad probably has the fewest parental controls, which along with the price is going to mean this is best suited to older children. That said, you can use restrictions to block access to things like internet browsing, email, iTunes and the App store, as well as stopping users from making purchases from those sources. However, there's no option for multiple user profiles, so you'll have to turn these features back on (and then off) every time you use them. The Apple iPad Mini 2 costs $300 for a 16 GB Wi-Fi only version.

Nabi Big Tab

Remember when we said we had one exception to our self-imposed limit of tablets with screens of eight inches or under? Well, this is it. The monstrous Nabi Big Tab comes in 20 or 24-inch versions (yes you read that correctly) and aims to redefine how a tablet is used by re-imagining it as a communal family experience. That Leappad 3 in the image is there to show you just how big these tablets are.

Other than the gargantuan size, the Nabi Big Tabs have more standard tablet specifications. Screen resolutions come in at 1600 x 900 pixels on the 20-inch version, and 1920 x 1080 on the 24-inch offering. Both feature a NVIDIA Tegra 4 processor with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage. Powering such big screens, you shouldn't expect too much life out of the battery.

The tablets run Android 4.4 Kit Kat with Nabi’s child-friendly Blue Morpho OS. This means access to plenty of parental controls and child-friendly content and apps. The 20-inch Nabi Big Tab costs $450, while the 24-inch version will set you back $550.

Summing up

Hopefully, this guide has not only helped you to identify what you need in a kids' tablet, but has also given you a few specific options which meet that criteria. Obviously there are plenty of other kids' tablets out there, as a walk down the tech aisle of any toy store will prove, but we could only include so many here, and these are the ones which have impressed us most.

If you're looking for a tablet for a younger child, maybe three to five years old, we'd recommend one of the offerings from the likes of VTech or LeapFrog, where you can be assured of the educational quality of any app which can be loaded onto it. If your child is just growing out of this age-range, the Innotab Max looks to be a great in-between device before jumping up to an Android or iOS tablet.

Children between six and nine are going to be best served by one of the more grown-up devices in our selection, and it will come down to which features appeal most to you and them. It could be that a combination of content and parent controls of the Nabi DreamTab swing it for you, or maybe the motion-sensing games of Kurio Tab will send you in that direction.

Then there's the Fire HD6 and the iPad mini, either of which you could quite happily use when your child isn't. Here it's a decision between the Freetime service and managed cost of the Fire HD6 compared to the app selection of the iPad. There's also the elephant-sized tablet in the room, the Nabi Big Tab. This could be for you if you want a family tablet which brings you together to play like a board game ... just don't expect your child to be carrying it around with them.

Finally, does your child really need a new tablet? Alternatively you could treat yourself to a new slate, and give them your cast-off tablet. If you think this might work better, why not check out our more grown-up tablet comparison.

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