If you have a tablet and young children, then you will probably already know the plus points and pitfalls of getting the two together. On the positive side, the masses of games, videos and child-friendly apps available are great for keeping busy hands and busy minds occupied when you need them to be, while touch controls are easier than old-fashioned keys or buttons for younger kids to get to grips with. What’s more, all the major OS platforms are developing decent libraries of creative and educational apps, which can be very helpful when you want something to back up the more conventional work they’re doing at home or in school.
On the negative side, tablets are still a sizable investment, and most of us feel a little uneasy when they’re in the grips of a five-year-old, or being prodded hard and repeatedly by more impatient youngsters. Perhaps. Instead of letting the kids loose on your iPad Mini or Nexus 7, it might be better to give them something built for them.
Until fairly recently, that wasn’t such a tempting idea. Toy computers bore little relationship to the real thing, and the software was sometimes dire. With products like the LeapPad 2 Explorer, however, the gap is closing. No-one could accuse it of being comparable to a proper grown-up tablet, but it has its low-resolution colour display, its own touchscreen interface and its own apps ecosystem, while coming wrapped in a chassis your average five-year-old can’t mangle, and at a price your average parent might be willing and able to afford.
LeapPad 2 Explorer: The Hardware
Shipping in green or pinky-purple, the LeapPad 2 Explorer feels as much a toy as a tablet, with the 5-inch screen surrounded by an inch or more of chunky plastic in all directions, a chunky D-Pad at the bottom and two battery covers/handgrips on either side of a textured panel at the rear. It’s mostly controlled with a stylus, which slots into a recess on the right-hand side and is tethered to protect against loss. The only physical controls are the aforementioned D-Pad, volume controls to the right of the screen, a home button at the bottom and a power button to the left. Connectivity comes down to a socket for the charger, another for headphones, a cartridge slot and a mini-USB connector. It’s all very straightforward. As grown-ups, we value thinness, sleek lines and slick, metallic finishes, but in the LeapPad’s market the chunky plastic approach makes more sense. Not only is it a robust construction – it’s also very easy for small fingers to hold.
Needless to say, the screen isn’t exactly Retina-quality. A 480 x 272 resolution isn’t exactly sharp even on the rather measly 5-inch screen, and while colours are bright when viewed face on, viewing angles are predictably poor. If you’re used to an iPad, a Nexus 7 or a Kindle Fire HD then you’ll note that the LeapPad 2 Explorer’s screen limits graphical detail and how readable small text can be, but our test subject – my six-year-old daughter – had no complaints about cartoon videos, storybooks or games. If Merida from Brave looks like Merida from Brave, that’s really all she needs to know. Sound is both surprisingly full and surprisingly beefy, showing what difference a little extra size can make.
LeapPad 2 Explorer: Cameras
The LeapPad 2 also packs in two cameras; a two megapixel snapper on the back, and a matching one just above the screen. Neither produces what you’d call great photos, and low-light performance is as noisy and poorly focused as you might expect – and that’s before you have your eager offspring waving the thing around mid-shot – but they’re not so bad that they can’t fulfil their intended purpose: taking quick snap shots that your little monkey can monkey around with after shooting.
LeapPad 2 Explorer: Performance and Battery Life
We haven’t got too many complaints about the LeapPad 2 Explorer as a piece of hardware. The touchscreen really needs the stylus to work and even then isn’t all that responsive; any app where you have to tap twice in quick succession can be easily flummoxed. With a 500MHz processor, performance is up to running simple 2D games and videos, but even here the motion isn’t always 100% smooth. Finally, the LeapPad 2 runs on four AA batteries, with four alkalines provided in the box. You can always use rechargables, and LeapFrog sells an optional charger. With a battery life of around eight to nine hours it’s wise investing in some good ones.