My older son has an InnoTab and gets to use a Kindle Fire as well, while my younger son has a LeapPad and occasional use of the Kindle Fire. In this article I'll go through the pros and cons of educational tablets vs letting kids use an Android tablet that has kids content and parental controls. I think they're different devices, each with their own benefits.
For the purposes of this article the LeapPad and InnoTab are similar devices, I'll do a comparison once we have all the information on the 2013 product ranges. Likewise, there are many Android tablets on the market that are either specifically targeted at children like the Nabi and MEEP! or have child-friendly features. We have a Kindle Fire HD, Google Nexus and a cheap Android tablet (yeah we like our tech ;-)
We'll leave the iPad out of this discussion as that takes us into a higher price bracket. It has its merits but isn't affordable to everyone.
The LeapPad and InnoTab are educational tablets designed specifically for young children who are learning to read and write, develop their maths skills and learn about topics such as science and geography. These tablets are designed for children aged around 3-9.
HardwareThe Android tablets win hands down in the hardware category. The learning tablets do not compete on processor speed, screen size or memory. But, that's not the point!
I've seen lots of people recommending that people choose an Android tablet for their kids because you get more hardware for your money. That's not a good basis for making your decision.
You need to consider what you want your child to get from the tablet and how easy it will be for them to access that experience. So stop comparing CPU speeds, it's not relevant to your decision.
We've found that there are delays when switching between apps on the learning tablets, but the software runs well on LeapPad and InnoTab once you're in a game.
Where the kids tablets do come out on top is in terms of durability. They have kid-tough cases rather than you needing to buy an additional tough case to put the Android tablet in (though you can get gel covers / bumpers for the learning tablets too.)
SoftwareThe learning tablets have a limited but high quality range of software available as cartridges or increasingly as software downloads. The software is designed to be educational and is carefully vetted and often adjusts its difficulty level depending on the ability of the child. You get educational games and eBooks that speak and help kids to sound out words.
Android tablets have access to a huge range of apps and eBooks some of which are suitable for children and many of which are definitely not! Kids Android tablets such as the Nabi and MEEP! have a custom version of Android that offers curated free and paid kids content (though you still have full Android if you need it.) The Kindle Fire offers a Freetime Unlimited subscription service for children's content including apps, eBooks and videos.
The Android world can seem tempting. And the range of apps that are available is getting better all the time. It does take a lot of time to research and find the right apps for your child though. I've downloaded lots of apps that have ended up being either too easy or too difficult for my kids or just poor quality.
If you're after a tablet for your child for pure entertainment purposes then an Android tablet is likely to be a better choice. Though for kids up to age 5 the learning tablets provide a less frustrating experience and lots of fun too. I often find that my kids can do the first couple of levels on an Android game and then it gets too tricky whereas on the learning tablets it adjusts.
If you're looking for a tablet to help you child learn to read and write and develop other early learning skills then I think the learning tablets are the better option. They are much more focused on these activities and there are fewer distractions.
Ease of Set UpOne thing that's definitely in favor of the learning tablets is their ease of use. They are devices designed specifically for little children rather than adapted adult devices. In our experience both the LeapPad and InnoTab are straightforward. The setup and syncing is all done on a PC with easy to use software (or via Wifi for newer models.) Basically, it just works.
Android devices are more complex. There's a lot more that can go wrong. Even the kid specific tablets like the Nabi and MEEP! require more set up and thought. You can install all sorts of cool stuff, but you have to worry about upgrades and whether things work well together. You might get lucky and not have any problems but it can get more involved.
For generic tablets it's more complex again and you'll need to think about choosing and installing parental control software.
The learning tablets do less, but that makes them easier to set up and maintain.
Ease of Use for KidsIt's a myth that kids magically know how to use technology. Some kids learn very quickly. But I've found that on Android tablets kids often accidentally quit the app, or end up clicking on a link to a website. Once kids are about 6 this becomes less of an issue, but if you install free Android apps you'll often have lots of flashy things enticing them to click on ads or social media buttons - again with the freedom comes complexity.
The learning tablets are straightforward for little kids to use, they each have a few quirks, but kids soon find their way around. They also offer spoken instructions which are very useful for kids who can't yet read.
Internet AccessThe LeapPad and InnoTab tablets don't allow internet access (though newer models offer Wifi for downloading and syncing.)
On the one hand internet access is great. My older son is always looking up information about ancient Greek gods or upcoming LEGO sets. And Netflix streaming is brilliant.
But, I only let him use the Kindle Fire with internet access when I'm in the room and can see what he's doing. I don't want to restrict his browsing too much because he gets so interested in subjects he wants to research, but this means I need to keep a close eye on things.
When my son wakes up before us in the morning he sometimes uses his InnoTab for a bit. I don't have to worry about internet access and he doesn't tend to think about it because he doesn't expect it from that device.
Pricing and Value for MoneyThe price point for the learning tablets is around $69.99 - $99.99 depending on the model you choose (or less for a used model.) The software can add considerably to this cost with the main titles costing around $20 and apps available for a few dollars.
Android devices are in the $65 - $200 range and upwards with a corresponding range of hardware and features. There are lots of 'free' apps (but beware in-app purchases and adverts) and lots of apps in the $1 - $3 range.
Interestingly, the higher cost of software on the learning tablets means that we have less of it. This means that the kids spend more time with the titles they do have and I think they get more from it. On the Android tablets they flit around from app to app not getting particularly deeply into a lot of them.
We've found that we haven't needed to buy lots of software for the learning tablets, they kids spend a lot of time using the apps that came with the devices.
Future-Proof?One of the reasons people site for choosing an Android tablet for their child is that it will last longer - they will still be using it in a few of years time. Well maybe. The tablet market is moving rapidly though and in a few years the device you buy today might look a bit dated and might not work with the latest apps and app toys that they want.
On the other hand if you buy a learning tablet when they are little then you'll be able to choose a more up to date Android tablet (possibly for less money) in a couple of years when they will really appreciate it.
This has been our approach - my older son gets to share a Kindle Fire HD with me and at some point he'll get a tablet of his own which because we've delayed the purchase a bit should hopefully last him a while.
For Learning to Read and WriteLeapFrog LeapPad2 Disney Pixar Monsters University Bundle, Varsity Edition @ Amazon BUY NOW
If you're looking to buy a tablet for a child who is still learning to read and write then I think the learning tablets have a lot to offer.
They are much more focused devices and are great for making learning more fun for little kids. My younger son is almost 5 and loves his LeapPad and I think he still will for a while yet. My older son is 6 and a very competent reader. He still uses his InnoTab - he loves the note-taking app. The new InnoTab 3 has just been announced.
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Kindle Fire 7", LCD Display, Wi-Fi, 8 GB
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I wouldn't buy my six year old a learning tablet if I was buying now - he's ready to get more from an regular Android tablet where he can read eBook chapter books and browse the web for information. He loves the Kindle Fire so that will be our choice for him.
An Alternative ApproachLeapFrog LeapReader Reading and Writing System, Green
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An alternative that you could consider is to choose the new LeapFrog LeapReader pen to help your child learn to read and write and then go for a regular Android tablet for fun and access to a range of entertainment content like NetFlix.
See Also: Best Tablets for Kids Summer 2013 and New Kids Tablets in 2013