NEW YORK — Tablet computers are expected to top many kids' holiday lists, but parents need to do their homework first.
Kids' tablets range from educational toys that perform more like hand-hand gaming devices to Android tablets good for whole family.
If you're shopping for someone else's child, keep in mind that some parents and experts oppose children using tablets entirely, and many believe that screen time should be limited.
These products are made for young children and feature educational games and e-books. They're more toy than tablet.
They're encased in heavy-duty plastic, making them durable, but also heavy and clunky. Although some are Wi-Fi capable, they don't provide full access to the Internet.
Their screen quality and processing speeds lag those of traditional tablets. At times, my 4-year-old daughter opted to walk away rather than wait for an app to load.
— LeapFrog's LeapPad Ultra, $150, designed for kids ages 4 to 9:
I can set up profiles for different children. Many games adjust their level of difficulty based on the child's age. As a result, my 4-year-old daughter and my colleague's 9-year-old daughter can share the device.
But apps can be pricey — $5 to $25 each for downloads, or $18 to $25 for cartridge versions. Apps for both formats include interactive storybooks, e-books, music, videos and games.
Although most apps have some educational aspect, many include characters tied to popular TV and movie characters. Children can look at a variety of pre-screened content online, but can't search for specific topics, as they would for homework.
— Vtech's InnoTab 3S, $70, designed for kids ages 3 to 9:
At less than half the price of the LeapPad, the InnoTab may be more enticing for parents worried about spending so much for a tablet they can't use themselves.
The InnoTab has a much smaller screen, but weighs less and might be easier for little kids to handle.
Its apps are similar to those of the LeapPad, with all of the familiar cartoon characters. They're priced at $3 to $24, though about half of them cost $3.
Kids can view certain age-appropriate websites. Unlike the LeapPad, the InnoTab lets kids trade text messages with parents and other approved adults. For $15 a year, they can also exchange voice and photo messages.
These tablets attempt to combine the functionality of a traditional tablet with the ease and safety of a toy version. Once your child's time is up, you can use the tablet to watch a movie or check Facebook. And as your children grow, you can let them do more so the device won't gather dust.
Their processor speeds, cameras and displays are generally better than those of toy tablets, though most are nothing extraordinary compared with traditional tablets.
— Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 Kids, $230, designed for kids ages 3 and up:
The kids' version of the Galaxy Tab 3 has yellow trim and comes with either a blue hard plastic or an orange, rubbery protective case.
Adults with a passcode get a typical Android tablet with the usual apps.
A kid-friendly mode blocks most of that out. The home screen features bright colors and smiling animals. It's easy for kids to scroll through the offerings, which include a handful of free games, a Nook e-book reader, video and still cameras and a kids' app store. Kids can use apps their parents add, but are blocked out of Web browsers and social media.
My main complaint: You can't set up individual profiles for multiple kids.
— Kurio 7S, $150, designed for ages 3 and up:
The Kurio also has separate modes for kids and adults. It comes with e-books, popular games such as "Angry Birds Space" and educational apps designed to teach reading and math. Games featuring popular cartoon characters are there, too.
Additional apps start at $1. The Kurio store has only kids-friendly content, organized by age group. Kids can shop on their own if you put a few dollars in their virtual piggy banks.
The tablet's layout isn't great, however, and younger children may have trouble with the small icons.
You can create profiles for up to eight children. It has a Web browser that tries to filter out potentially unsafe content, including social media. This approach may inadvertently let in some questionable content, but it's also better at letting in more useful content than a pre-screening approach.
The tablet's good for parents who want to give their kids more freedom online.
— Vinci MV 7" Android 4.1 Tablet, $200, designed for kids 3 and up:
This tablet lacks the flash of the others. You don't get separate modes for kids and adults. You can't block out Web browsers or social media. It's something for parents and kids to use together, rather than something to hand a child and walk away.
What makes this for kids is Vinci's app library. The company sells a wide variety of educational software. Some apps are free, while others cost less than $10.
Although the apps might not be the flashiest, they're strictly educational. And it's the only one I tested capable of connecting to cellular networks — useful on long car trips. You'll need a data plan.
— Kindle Fire, starts at $139, with FreeTime geared to ages 3 to 8:
Although not specifically geared toward kids, the Kindle Fire still has a lot to offer them.
Amazon.com Inc.'s FreeTime feature creates a separate mode for kids and limits them to just the content you want them to see. You also can set up multiple profiles, so each child can manage his or her own app library. The feature is free to use.
Starting at $3 a month, Kindle FreeTime Unlimited lets kids download as many age-appropriate e-books, games and apps as they want. Although content may lean heavily toward cartoon characters and sometimes lack educational value, the variety is sure to please many children.
Follow Bree Fowler on Twitter at http://twitter.com/APBreeFowler