The LeapFrog LeapPad Explorer is tipped to be one of the most sought-after toys this Christmas. It’s a child’s tablet device, with a touchscreen, built -in camera, and access to a large selection of games via an online store. Does that sound similar to another device, maybe? I am sure there are many iPad-owning parents who are really hoping that this is the toy that will enable them to claim their tablet back from their offspring! But will it do that? We were sent a LeapPad Explorer to review a couple of months ago, and having had a decent amount of time to test it, I am now ready to share my full thoughts on the device…
First of all, let’s have a look at what you get. Included in the box are the LeapPad itself, two styluses (or should that be stylii?), and a USB cable to connect the tablet to your computer. The device takes 4 AA batteries, or you can use its external power connector (although no power supply is included in the box). I managed to find a generic power supply that fitted it, but we don’t use it, as the LeapPad is designed to be pretty mobile, and the geekdaughter didn’t like having to stay connected to the power socket. A cord to attach one stylus to the tablet is also provided, which is a godsend, because although the stylus does connect magnetically to the device, it is quite small and would be easily lost in this house if it wasn’t tied down!
The LeapPad comes with two main apps installed to start you off - Pet Pad (a tamagotchi-style game where you can choose a pet and care for him) and Camera. There are also a couple of “utility” apps – a bookshelf which you can populate with books bought from the app store, a “my stuff” app which stores all your pictures, photos and videos, and a very irritating app which shows video trailers of other apps that are available and guarantees a lot of “I want that one Mummy” type conversations. If you connect the LeapPad to your computer you can then download the Story Studio and Art Studio apps, and one further app of your choice (from a small selection, not the complete range), all free. Further apps are then available, and will cost you between £3.50 and £20 each. This to me is one of the major downsides of the device – I live in an iPad world, where I can get educational, high quality apps for below £3. I hesitate to buy anything that costs more than £5 as I’m not sure I’ll get value out of it, and most of the LeapPad apps cost more than that.
First impressions of the LeapPad Explorer are good. It has a chunky, rugged feel to it, and seems very kid-proof. It is easy to operate, although it does feel very slow to respond – I frequently have to press on an option several times before it does what I want. Whilst you can operate it by touch, it seems more reliable to use the stylus. One area where it beats the iPad is in terms of multiple users – you can set up up to three profiles, and there’s also the ability to play as a guest if you want to lend it to someone. The user profiles allow each child’s progress to be tracked separately – the software supplied collects information about your child’s activities on the device each time you connect it to your PC/Mac. Your child’s activities on the device earn them virtual currency which can be spent on items in the LeapFrog store (not full games/apps, just in-app items like biscuits for your pet).
The LeapPad has really been designed with young children in mind, and this shows in the way many instructions are presented by being both spoken and written. This has meant that even though the geekdaughter cannot yet read, she has still been able to fully operate the LeapPad, without needing adult support. This definitely appeals to her independent side! There’s also a nice consistency of look and feel and interface between all the apps, meaning that she has been able to pick new things up on the device very easily. The built-in camera takes both stills and video, and whilst the output is not brilliant quality, it certainly is on a par with other devices aimed at kids of this age.
The LeapPad Explorer is marketed with a suggested age range of 4-9 years. At just 4 years old, the geekdaughter is at the bottom end of that age range, and that has shown in the way she has played with the device – I have struggled to find games or apps that engage her. She has enjoyed the videos though, and one thing that did impress me was that within a day or so of getting the tablet they had inspired her to try writing on her own, as you’ll see in this picture. So whilst I would prefer her to be doing something more interactive with the device, I can still see the educational benefit of the videos. There is one big downside for me, and that is that the device is very American. There has been no attempt to record any of the narrative for either the apps or the videos with a British English voice, which means that all the letter sounds are American, including “Zee” for Z.
I should mention at this point that there is no way to load content onto the LeapPad unless you’ve bought it through the LeapFrog store. So you can’t load your own videos onto it for example. The videos in the store retail for £7.50 each and are about 30 minutes long.
So the question is, what do we think of the LeapPad Explorer now that we’ve had a chance to live with it for a few months? Well, there are some aspects of it I don’t like at all. It eats batteries at a rate of knots, but even worse than that there is no indication of battery status until about 5 minutes before they’re completely flat, so it keeps catching me by surprise! In addition, the batteries are really difficult to change – they’re wedged quite firmly in, and I usually have to resort to prodding at them with a spoon to get them out.
Another bugbear is that whilst I can use the PC/Mac software to remove purchased apps from the LeapPad , I can’t remove any of the “core” apps. The one I want to remove is the one which simply shows video trailers for other apps I might want to buy. I understand LeapFrog want to promote their content, but I found it hard to direct the geekdaughter away from watching that towards the more interactive apps.
I have to say that LeapFrog really know how to build stuff for kids. They’ve produced a very child-friendly device, which gives access to a range of apps and content. The consistency across the LeapPad is very well done – and although it comes across as a little slow and underpowered, it is hard to fault the educational and fun aspects of it. The retail price of £89 is, on the face of it, very appealing. However I think the prices of additional apps for it are far too high. If you’re considering purchasing a LeapPad I would recommend you also consider an Apple iPod Touch. This retails at £169, and for that £80 more (which you could end up spending on the LeapPad by buying just a few of the more expensive apps for your children) you gain access to a far larger selection of free and very low cost apps of similar educational value. In our household, where we have both the LeapPad and the iPad, the only thing the geekdaughter does with the LeapPad is watch the videos. For interactive games and apps she goes to the iPad every time.
In conclusion, the LeapFrog LeapPad Explorer is a good device, and it’s good value at just £89, but the high price of the apps spoils that value, and you may find it is not engaging enough to keep your kids away from your iPad.
Disclosure: I was provided with a LeapFrog LeapPad Explorer and a £15 gift card for the LeapFrog store for the purpose of this review. The opinions expressed are entirely my own.