cameras, computers, TVs, and other high-tech devices. But each year they also get to play with toys and the latest gadgets aimed at junior consumers to see how fun and easy to use these products are.
Many of the toys here, available online and at toy stores and mass retailers, include learning elements, and some are just plain fun, but all include technology that bumps up the wow factor and the enjoyment. We even include a couple of toy tablets, perhaps a smart gift if your kid has held your tablet hostage.
One warning: Packaging for some of these products is hard to open, so have an adult do the job. And don't forget to check our battery ratings to find the best ones.
Ages 3 and older
To play, you insert one of the included maps into the front slot of the toy. Then use the stylus to click around the map and learn interesting facts as you go. (Did you know that Saturn’s rings are made of ice and rocks?) This isn’t a new concept, but here it’s well implemented and fun to use.
We used an iPhone along with the toy and got some extra animated content—eventually. The 3D images were especially cool. But the app is really slow to start up. And we couldn’t get the camera to identify things on the map without touching the screen with the stylus. We would like to see more troubleshooting and help, either in manual or online. Otherwise, this could get frustrating for parents and kids.
Vtech Cogsley Learning Robot
Ages 3 to 6
Cogsley is a sturdy little robot that moves, talks, sings, and teaches. He’s in the cute zone on the cute-to-creepy robot scale.
Tap Cogsley on the head to wake him up, then select the learning activity you’d like to play. His torso swivels, lights flash, and his eyebrows move up and down. His voice is fun—part nerd and part pitchman.
You can twist his ears, eyes, and nose, and he responds. Or you can drop chips into a slot above his nose to answer questions or learn new info. The chips seem a little losable for the age range, but Cogsley does come with a clip-on backpack to store them.
Cogsley also responds to clapping by dancing and singing. But the sound of his movements can drown out the music. And the LCD screen on his torso is a bit tough to see and read; it's not in color, nor is it back-lighted.
Two big pluses for parents: auto shutoff (to conserve batteries), and volume control (to preserve your sanity).
Ages 4 and older
This mobile microphone, which comes in five zingy color combos, really works, amplifying voices as kids talk or sing. It also makes three funny sound effects (elephant trumpeting, electronic whistle, and something we can only describe as “whacka-whacka”). We wish there were a few more, because they're really fun!
Even better, you can bend the 3-foot WrapStar to fit around your wrist, wear it on your head, place on a bike’s handlebars—the possibilities are nearly endless. But parents beware: Send your little stars outside with this one, unless you don’t mind lots of loud singing, because there’s no volume control!
Crayola Digital Light Designer
Ages 6 and older
When you first take it out of the box, the Crayola Digital Light Designer is a dark plastic dome. But add four D batteries, turn it on, and it transforms: An array of LED lights inside starts spinning and creates colorful designs on the transparent surface of the dome.
Using the included stylus, young artists can draw right on the dome and save up to 50 of their favorite designs. Kids can animate their drawings or play one of the games included.
One bummer: Its motor is pretty loud. That's too bad, because if children want to keep it on in their rooms at night, it might keep them awake. Still, if you can tune out the whirring noise, the toy does seem almost magical.
Mattel Loopz Shifter Game
Ages 7 and older
Loopz is an ingenious electronic device with built-in memory and reflex games. You pass your hand into the loops and follow increasingly complex patterns of lights and sounds. This is even better than the previous version, adding a new dimension to the challenge by letting you reconfigure the loops into different shapes.
As you play, the games get harder and harder. It takes practice and concentration to do well, but it’s fun, especially with another player. The device remembers high scores and gives feedback, such as “You’re a rock star!” And for a techie toy, the Loopz Shifter Game really gets kids moving.
Ages 7 and older
$130 for 3 cubes, sifteo.com
Sifteo Cubes are expensive, but they’re among the most innovative toys we’ve seen. The new ones out now sound even cooler than the originals, which we loved.
Each of the 1.7-inch cubes has a color LCD touch screen, a motion-sensing accelerometer, and embedded sensors that find other cubes. You can play with up to 12 cubes; additional ones cost $30 apiece.
Play one of the four free games, download a fifth for free (additional games are $8 to $12 each), or design your own. Choices include match challenges, puzzles, and word games. You download games to your computer, then hook up to the Sifteo base. We recommend starting with the excellent tutorial.
We love the creativity it took to come up with the concept, the intuitive game play, the learning challenges, and the excellent help and direction the company provides. Sifteo cubes are different from any other toys we've seen and should keep kids entertained for hours.
DJ Rock Dock
Ages 8 and older
This SmartLab kit has everything you need (except a 9-volt battery and transparent tape) to create a working stereo speaker dock for an MP3 player or any digital music player with a headphone jack.
Colorful, easy-to-follow instructions explain how the dock works and how to put it together without dumbing things down too much. But unless you have a mini-Edison on your hands, we’d recommend that you help out—it’s a perfect project for two people.
Once it's built, the cardboard dock looks cool, and your little engineer will know exactly how it works. You won’t get high fidelity, but the audio is perfectly adequate. It sounds even better when your kid says, “I made this myself!”
Classic toys enhanced by apps
The Game of Life: zAPPed Edition
and Monopoly zAPPed Edition
Ages 8 and older
$25 and $30, hasbro.com
In these adaptations of the classic board games, you'll definitely recognize your old favorites. And by adding a smart device to the mix, Hasbro hasn't taken any of the fun away: The apps really enhance game play, making the games more smoothly playable and adding fun extras such as videos, animations, and mini games.
In case you're concerned that players will focus on the screen and ignore each other, that didn't happen when we played—there was just as much interaction, banter, and trash-talking as with traditional board games.
Each game provides a standard game board and pieces to move around it; other game-play elements take place on the iOS device. Setup for both games was quite easy; you just download a free app, and the smart device then tells you what to do to get going. We tried these games using an iPad, which we thought to be a better size for play than iPhones or Touches.
Mattel Apptivity Hot Wheels
Ages 4 and older
The idea is fun: You download the free app to your iPad, then place the Hot Wheels car right on the screen to “drive” it while scenes of landscapes, racetracks, and ramps rush by. The effect is really fun; you feel like you’re moving! (Mattel says the cars won’t damage your screen, but you need to keep them clean.)
A tutorial shows you how to play—but you can view it only once, a drawback if you want a refresher or a new player joins in. Mattel should provide more help within the app (there's an online PDF FAQ that provides some troubleshooting). And the app crashed several times while we played; we had to restart it to keep playing. Hot Wheels Apptivity could use a bit more refinement.
Cool new toy tablets
The first tablets made just for kids came out last holiday season. This year, there are new versions of two: the LeapFrog LeapPad 2 (deemed “most fun overall” by our panel of kid testers last year) and the VTech InnoTab (“best for games”).
Both are aimed at 3-year-olds to 9-year-olds and are great for games, photos, e-books, art activities, and more. Those used to grown-up tablets may find them a bit slow, though. You can use your fingers to tap and click, but the included styluses work better.
Consumer Reports is currently testing a batch of Android-based tablets made for children. Check back here soon for the results of that testing. Meanwhile, here's a summary of what's familiar and new in these second-generation toy tablets.
LeapFrog LeapPad 2
Ages 3 and older
You can choose from more than 325 learning-focused apps and games for LeapPad tablets. Available in green or pink, the LeapPad 2 has 4GB of memory and a front-facing and a rear-facing camera, so kids can take photos and video of themselves and others.
It comes with songs, a free download, and Pet Pad, an animated pet kids care for and play with. The tablet automatically adjusts activity levels for each child’s ability, and parents can track their child’s progress at the LeapFrog Learning Path site. New games, books, and apps cost $5 to $25.
Vtech InnoTab 2
Ages 3 and older
The InnoTab 2, in pink or white, comes with just 2GB of internal memory, but VTech has added an SD card slot, so you can increase memory up to 32GB. The new model also has a rotating camera you can point forward, up, and backward. We enjoyed taking a face photo and integrating it into the included Face Race game.
With the InnoTab 2, you get two styluses, a thoughtful touch. It also has an incorporated kickstand for viewing videos and other content. Also built in are a tilt sensor and microphone. Parents can track kids’ activities at Learning Lodge Navigator on the VTech site. That’s also where you can get additional games, apps, and e-books, free to $7.50.
Copyright © 2006-2012 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.