Around this time last year, I reviewed the then current crop of tablets geared for kids. The offerings were some fairly sturdy little devices meant for little grubby hands to poke around and play games on devices that offered a range of parental controls. Many of those devices have been improved upon since then, and we are starting to see a new crop of tablets being marketed to the young’uns. This year, I am revisiting the kid’s tablets to take a look at the new batch.

XO Tablet

kids xo tabletFirst off, let’s take a look at the XO Tablet. This offering comes to us from the great minds behind One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), an organization devoted to bringing technology to kids in developing nations to help accelerate education. The XO Tablet is their current commercial offering, available publicly, in contrast to the laptops that are donated to children and schools.

The XO Tablet is a full Android tablet, loaded with 1.6 Ghz processing power, 1 GB of RAM, 8 GB of storage (expandable with MicroSD), a camera in the front (1.3 MP) and rear (2.0 MP), capable of 720p HD video, and a 7-inch screen, all running Android 4.1 via a custom home screen for the kids. The $150 price tag is nice, too.

About that custom home screen – this is the child’s gateway to a parentally controlled tablet experience. The home screen defaults to what XO is calling the “Dreams” layout, where a child selects from different occupational descriptions (Artist, Scientist, Athlete, etc), and is offered a link to an important figure from the history of the occupation as well as a selection of apps related to the subject.

If the child doesn’t want to filter apps based on occupation, having free-form access to apps curated by XO for use in kid mode, they can tap the “My Applications” button and search for the apps they want to use. The parent has the option to allow Play Store access, which will allow apps to be installed; however, from my testing, I was only able to get games added to the kid’s mode and not OverDrive Media Console, which remains accessible only in parent mode (something that XO is aware of and investigating).

Kid’s mode tracks what the child does while the tablet is in use, with stats accessible via the XO Usage app available in Android mode. The Usage app offers a percentage of how much time was spent under each Dream category with a breakdown of how much time was spent by day of the week. The emphasis here is tilted toward educational use, keeping with the OLPC’s ethic. Internet access is an “all or none” affair, where parents can either allow or disallow access to the browser, rather than provide a list of acceptable websites the child may visit. Also missing is a feature to limit the amount of time spent on the tablet – which would be useful for parents trying to aggressively manage their child’s screen time.

Visually, the screen is not as crisp and clear as with a higher-end grown-up’s tablet, which may lead to constant cleaning if the hands touching the tablet tend to be sticky fingered or grimy (as is often the case with my own kids). As far as the touch sensitivity, the screen works well, with very little instances of having to tap a single icon more than once. The bumper case tends to rob the power and volume buttons of some of their responsiveness, but features a cool loop I could easily imagine being designed for a karabiner clip, or simply for hooking a small finger through for easy transport. Overall, it’s a fairly solid tablet for kids who enjoy edutainment, and some light gaming.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 for Kids

kidsgalaxytab3Samsung has introduced the Galaxy Tab 3 for Kids – a standard Galaxy Tab 3, in bright yellow, with an operating system tweak to make it easier for small hands to navigate safely. The specs are the same as the “grown-up” Galaxy Tab – 1.6 Ghz processing power, 1 GB of RAM, 8 GB of storage (expandable with MicroSD up to 32 GB), Cameras in the front (1.3 MP) and rear (3.0 MP), 1080p HD video playback, and a 7-inch screen at 1024×600 resolution. Also available are different bumper case options. One is a small orange skin (included) that protects the back and sides, while the other comes with a handle and stylus. The tablet itself sells for a more expensive $230.

Kid’s mode is colorful, populated with cartoon animals, and the home screen is locked in landscape mode. Apps are navigated by sliding through a selection of cards representing the apps. The emphasis is on fun! The tablet is preloaded with a lot of games encouraging children to play. That said, the tablet also offers its fair share of educational software as well. My favorite example is the pair of “Invention” apps, where you are given a scenario where you have to build something to achieve a goal using only the parts provided – it’s a fun little game that will likely trick a child into learning.

The parental controls on the Galaxy Tab for kids are a little more robust than the XO tablet, and a bit easier to navigate. Still missing is the ability to create a list of acceptable sites for the child to visit; but, you do get the option to set a timer for how long a child can spend time on the tablet before they get locked out.

Adding apps to kid’s mode is a bit simpler on the Galaxy, as you don’t have to step through a couple of menus to get to where you can add a new app card to the home screen or allow access from the list. I used the process to create a “card” for OMC on the kid’s mode home screen. Samsung also did not include a mode to track which apps the child is using frequently, though with the emphasis on fun present in the Galaxy Tab for Kids it seems like such a feature would be out of place.

The tablet is very responsive, as you would expect from the Samsung Galaxy line. The only major slowdown was the transition from Android mode to Kid’s mode, where the regular bare-bones style of the Android interface is replaced by the skinned, dynamic desktop of the kid’s mode. However, once loaded, Kid’s mode responds just as fast and smoothly as the standard Android mode.

After spending time with both devices, it seems like a close race between the two. As a parent, I want a good balance of function and durability, while kids just want to have a fancy new toy. Specs-wise, these devises are pretty comparable – offering about the same computing power, memory, storage space, HD capability, etc. For me, it comes down to which one allows me to manage my child’s experience most efficiently. In this case, I’m going to side with the Samsung device because I find the emphasis on fun as well as easier to use parental controls worth the $80 price difference.


Justin Noszek is a Support Services Specialist at OverDrive.


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