Katherine Boehret

LeapFrog Device Moves Past the Tadpole Stage

When parents buy an educational toy for their kids, they generally consider cost, overall value and how long it will hold a child’s fascination before it ends up in a pile of neglected toys at home. The iPod touch and iPad offer plenty of popular kid-friendly games and apps, but each device costs hundreds of dollars and neither is made to be knocked about by kids.

This week I tested LeapFrog’s $70 LeapsterGS, which arrives in stores this week for kids ages 4 through 9. With this device, the company known for its educational toys has finally upped the ante and included features that its last Leapster lacked. It now has a digital camera, video recorder, a microphone and an accelerometer, which lets kids move or shake the device to do things in games, like they would with an iPhone or iPad.

It’s also a bit sleeker and more in line with the likes of Sony’s PlayStation Portable, though it comes in green or pink, so it won’t get mistaken for a grown-up device anytime soon. And it has been drop-tested for durability.

The price is still nearly a third of what parents will pay for an iPod Touch. But games are more expensive at $25 for each cartridge or at least $5 for each downloadable game, only 47 of which are available in the LeapFrog App Center. That’s compared with the over 20,000 education and learning apps in Apple’s App Store, most of which cost significantly less than LeapFrog’s.

I played with the LeapsterGS for several days at a first- and fourth-grade level, and I admired the way its games and apps smoothly transitioned from fun to educational materials. Each time I powered up my water-balloon launcher in Disney’s “Phineas and Ferb” game, I had to complete math problems. In Disney-Pixar’s “Brave” game, I helped Merida escape from a castle by answering questions about animals and plants, like, “Which is the youngest of the three: a larva, pupa or ladybug?” (Answer: larva.)

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‘T-Rex Rush’

LeapFrog says this device’s games teach kids about the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. E-books on the device help kids read by doing things like showing one line at a time.

But this is what may clinch it for parents: Cartridges from previous LeapFrog devices will work with this new one, which will save them from buying all new games.

Though the 3.5-inch LeapsterGS screen is large and comfortable to look at for a long period of time, its resolution is just 320×240 compared with the iPod touch’s 960×640 pixels. This means characters and scenes sometimes appeared grainy.

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‘Escape of the Sillies’

One giant omission in the LeapsterGS is its lack of Wi-Fi. A LeapFrog spokeswoman said this gives parents control over what kids buy because parents must plug the device into their computers for it to access LeapFrog Connect, where about 250 videos, games, music and e-books are available. Not having Wi-Fi also keeps the price of the device down.

As I played various games, a narrator’s voice prompted me to exchange badges I had earned in games for rewards in the LeapFrog Connect App Center. But kids can only get these by plugging the LeapsterGS into a computer. The same is true for a feature called the Skill Selector, which lets parents adjust the types of math problems a child will see in games. This is helpful when parents know the specific subject the child is working on, like double-digit subtraction.

But if most kids used their LeapsterGS the way I used mine, they’ll be playing with it on the go, in the car and on vacations—where the home computer isn’t handy.

Over time, the narrator’s continuous prompts to redeem badges start to feel like nagging and could result in kids nagging parents to plug into a PC (Windows or Mac).

Even if you aren’t able to plug the LeapsterGS into a computer, the games are smart enough to automatically adjust difficulty levels up or down if the child’s progress exceeds or doesn’t meet the norm for his or her grade level. (Parents enter the kid’s grade when setting up the device for the first time, choosing a level between prekindergarten and eighth grade.)

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‘LeapSchool Reading’ game

I saw this feature at work while playing “Kat’s Math-errific Magic Show,” which involves gathering frogs and putting them in the magic hat labeled with the correct answer to a problem. After I answered about a dozen math problems correctly, they got harder.

The LeapsterGS comes with two apps, “Pet Pad” and “Escape of the Sillies,” plus a free app of your choice from the App Center. “Escape of the Sillies” makes use of the device’s camera, microphone and accelerometer. After I took a photo of myself and recorded myself saying, “Yeeehaww!” into the microphone, my photo and sound were used to create a character that I saw throughout the game.

The LeapsterGS runs on four double-A batteries, which last for about nine hours. It turns off after five minutes of not being used, which helps forgetful kids. If you don’t want to keep buying double-A batteries, LeapFrog sells a rechargeable battery pack for $40.

The LeapsterGS’s new features are good enough that kids may not mind how it compares with the iPod touch or a parent’s smartphone. And its games are a nice mix of fun and education, but its lack of Wi-Fi will definitely slow things as kids wait for access to Mom or Dad’s computer.

Write to Katie at katie.boehret@wsj.com


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