LeapFrog believes it has found the cure for the common kids' tablet home screen. The 7-inch LeapFrog Epic ($119.99) runs a proprietary UI on top of Android, featuring an interactive virtual world that kids can customize and make their own. Made for children between 3 to 9 years old, this slate comes with a nice set of apps and adequate parental controls, but it costs and weighs more than other kids tablets.
Wrapped in its Kermit-green rubber case, the LeapFrog Epic is cute and grippable. The tablet hasn't been designed for durability, but its bumper may give parents some confidence that the Epic could survive getting spiked on the ground. During my testing, the tablet survived a few falls from my 29-inch-high desk onto our office's hardwood floor without experiencing any problems.
LeapFrog placed the Epic's raised power and volume buttons on its top edge. The tablet's headphone jack and micro USB port also sit on its top edge. They are deeply recessed when the bumper is applied, though we had no problem connecting cables with the case on. Its microSD slot is obscured by the case, however, which will help keep the cards from ending up in Junior's mouth.
The Epic's cloth-tipped stylus slots into its left side and is tethered to the tablet's bottom edge by a short cord. The slate's 1.9-megapixel, front camera sits in the middle of its top bezel, and a 1.9-MP camera lives on its back.
Weighing 20.64 ounces, the LeapFrog Epic is heavier than both the Amazon Fire Kids Edition (14.3 ounces) and Kurio Xtreme 2 (12.8 ounces), and may be too heavy for some small children to hold for long periods. Measuring 9 x 6.38 x 1.02 inches, the tablet is about as thin as the Fire Kids tablet (1 inch), and thicker than the Xtreme 2 (0.8 inches).
The Epic's display is not great, but it may suffice for young eyes. When I streamed video on the tablet's 1024 x 600-pixel display, I noticed good color, but poor detail. Solid colors looked accurate but flat on the panel, which rendered Adventure Time's Jake and Prismo in accurate yellows and pinks. The display quality suffered with live-action clips like Taylor Swift's "Out Of the Woods" music video, which appeared dim and filled the screen with jagged edges that made it hard to see anything clearly.
According to our colorimeter, the Epic's display isn't particularly vibrant. It can produce 74.6 percent of the sRGB color spectrum, which is slightly above the Fire Kids (69 percent) and similar to the Xtreme 2 (74.6 percent). The average tablet (99.6 percent) shows a lot more colors.
The colors the LeapFrog Epic does show aren't particularly true to life, which isn't that uncommon for kids' tablets. The Epic scored 3.02 on our Delta-E test for color accuracy (where lower is better), which is near the average tablet score (3.0). The Amazon Fire Kids (1.4) is better, while the Kurio Xtreme 2 (3.6) is worse.
Our tests showed that the Epic's panel can only emit 211 nits, which makes sense, given its dim and flat output. It is similar to the Xtreme 2 (198 nits), but dimmer than the Fire Kids (296 nits). The average tablet (364 nits) is much brighter. The Epic's display offers good viewing angles, however, as even at 45 degrees, the colors didn't distort.
When parents set up the tablet, they create a user account with LeapFrog and a four-digit code that will keep their kids out of the parent mode. Then mom or dad type in the names, birthdates, genders and current school grades for up to three child accounts, which is fewer than the Xtreme 2 (eight accounts), and the Fire Kids Edition (four accounts). In this mode, parents can also select which apps each child account has access to.
User-specific settings are in the Child Controls app, which is found in the parent mode. Here you'll limit access to the LeapFrog App Center store, including whether or not kids can see the store and if they can have a wish list. Kids cannot install apps on their own from the store, as it requires the parents' LeapFrog account password. Parents can also enable and disable the peer-to-peer gaming functionality.
Under Time Controls, parents can enable daily usage restrictions in 15-minute intervals, with a maximum amount of 4 hours per day. The Fire Kids edition gives no limits to daily usage, and its restrictions can be changed in 15-minute increments, while the Xtreme 2 time limits are in increments of 30 minutes a day, with a maximum of 17 hours per day.
As with the Fire Kids Edition and Xtreme 2, parents can specify which hours of the day a child can use the Epic. The tablet offers additional options that enable parents to restrict usage by content type, so kids can spend more time on learning apps than playing mindless games.
By default, kids only have access to the LeapSearch app, which has no address bar and only offers preapproved bookmarks to kid-friendly sites such as Time For Kids, Disney Jr. and Highlights Kids. Parents can add more sites to the preapproved list in the Child Controls app. With these limitations, I can't imagine a scenario where a child could happen upon inappropriate content.
You can give a child account access to the Web browser app, but be warned: It does not have any parental control options. Also, parents can download the Opera browser onto the device from the Amazon App store.
Unlike any other kids' tablet we've seen, the Epic offers an interactive virtual world on its home screen. Kids can make this world their own by selecting one of three animation styles and adding moving stickers like a twinkling pixie or roving robot. If you enter in your location, the weather in the Epic's world will correspond to what's going on outside your window. There's even a small house in the center of the virtual city that has a mailbox that sparkles when a new word of the day is ready.
While the Epic runs on Android 4.4 KitKat, the tablet's animated kids mode shows few signs of those roots. You switch between accounts by tapping the top left avatar icon, which brings you to a series of doors that each child taps to log in. You switch back to the parent mode by tapping on the Family icon in the top right corner of the home screen and entering the four-digit lock code.
To access other apps, Kids will have to tap circular icons on the bottom of their screen. There are no labels for these buttons, and that's not a problem for the more obvious apps such as calendar and calculator, but it hides the nature of titles such as Pet Chat and Story Spinner. Once a child is done using an app, he or she will need to swipe up from the bottom and tap the Back and Home icons to exit.
It's worth noting that apps never remind the user to turn on the volume, even though many games require you to follow audio instructions.
The LeapFrog Epic comes with an overwhelming 31 apps. They range from educational titles to games and demos that promote content that's available in the LeapFrog app store. LeapFrog promises that all the titles it provides and sells are educator-approved, and vetted by its team of child-development experts.
All of the free titles are made by LeapFrog itself, and the company estimates their combined value to be $140. Not all of the programs come preloaded, as some are supposed to download in the background during setup. Unfortunately, not all of those apps automatically installed on our review unit, but we were able to easily download them from the parent mode's App Manager section.
The LeapFrog App Center store can be found by clicking on the shopping cart icon in the kids and parent modes. App profiles on the store let parents know what ages a title is appropriate for, and adds screenshots and a brief description. Fruit Ninja Academy: Math Master ($5, ages 5 to 9) adds simple equations to the popular franchise's hack-and-slash gameplay. The Disney Pixar: The Good Dinosaur game ($10, ages 4 to 7) teaches fun science facts. The tablet does not support the Google Play store, but you can download the Amazon App.
While LeapFrog promises that the apps it sells will not expose kids to any in-app-purchases or harmful ads, those assurances do not apply to apps downloaded from the Amazon store.
The tablet comes with a handful of apps that encourage creativity. Photo Fun Ultra lets you impose images on top of your own selfies, tweak color balance in your own photos and add mirroring effects. Coloring with Leap School provides your child with line-drawn images that kids tap to fill.
Educational titles include Alphabet Stew, a less difficult version of Boggle, where you find words by tapping adjacent letters. The Word of the Day app teaches kids definitions by asking them to drag letters into a box, where the word they form is already spelled out to reveal a related drawing and sentence that uses the word.
Games like Pet Pad Party let kids play with a customizable character made from such adorable options as a unicorn, robot or dragon. Unfortunately, when I tried the Scrub-a-Dub pet-cleaning challenge, the game couldn't register my blowing into the tablet's microphone until I removed the rubber case, bringing gameplay to a halt.
Kids will use the pet they created in Pet Pad Party as their avatar in the Pet Chat app. This limited messaging client lets kids send other LeapFrog users preloaded messages such as "Play Tic Tac Toe?" and "I'm being silly."
The music app comes with a total of 21 songs that include two renditions of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and duplicate versions of "Muffin Man" and "Old MacDonald." These aren't the best performances of these songs, but they're good enough.
The tablet also includes an illustrated eBook, "A Surprise For Scout," which tells a story about sharing. Children with smaller fingers may find the tiny page-turn buttons easy to use, but I had a tough time using my adult-sized digits to click the buttons.
LeapFrog promises peer-to-peer gaming, but the only titles with this feature must be purchased separately. Those games are LeapFrog Kart Racing ($9), Arturo's Bug Adventures ($10) and Busy Beehive ($10), and you can only play them against other Epic owners.
Comparatively, Fire Kids Edition owners receive a year of access to Amazon FreeTime Unlimited. This subscription service is normally $2.99 a month and includes access to over 10,000 kid-friendly apps, games, books and TV shows, from brands like Disney, Sesame Street and Nickelodeon. The Kurio Xtreme 2 comes with 61 preloaded apps.
Unless your child is a stereophile, they probably won't mind the Epic's mediocre audio output and you'll definitely appreciate its limited volume. The speaker on the tablet's back produced just enough sound to fill a small bedroom with a poor rendition of Taylor Swift's "Out Of The Woods." While Taylor's vocals sounded clear, the notebook muddied the track's synthesizers and took all the kick out of the drums. But, the more simplistic songs found in the tablet's music app sounded much clearer.
LeapFrog has given the Epic a minimal amount of horsepower, and it shows. Armed only with a 1.3-GHz MediaTek MT8127 ARM Cortex A7 processor, 1GB of RAM and a 16GB SSD drive, it was slow at just about everything. When I moved between apps, I often sat for about 5 to 10 seconds as it loaded. When I enabled the Web browser for the child account, I discovered the device moved at a sluggish pace with only three open tabs. The waiting and sluggishness may try the patience of young children.
I saw so much delay when I drew with the stylus in the Art Studio Ultra app that I frequently made mistakes, because the display was a stroke behind my input. I found it impossible to make small, accurate marks. Kids looking to make precise drawings will likely keep the Epic's conductive cloth-tipped stylus stowed permanently.
The Epic's poor performance also showed in our synthetic benchmarks. It notched a score of 1,201 on the Geekbench 3 overall performance test. That is close to the MediaTek MT8127 processor-powered Xtreme 2 (1,216) and the ARM Cortex A7 processor-powered Fire Edition Kids (1,172). The average tablet (2,868) beats all of these child-friendly tablets.
While the LeapFrog Epic's performance doesn't impress, it has slightly longer battery life than most kids' tablets. The slate lasted 7 hours and 35 minutes on the Laptop Mag Battery Test (constant Web surfing at 150 nits of brightness), which is better than the Fire Kids (6:42) and the Xtreme 2 (5:23), but shorter than the average tablet (9:05).
The LeapFrog Epic isn't a good starter camera for kids. The tablet's 1.9-MP front and back cameras captured oversaturated and detail-free photos of me and a bush on our roof. A shot of a red wall looked pink. And a green bush appeared far too yellow. Both cameras can record 480p video, though the footage we shot on our rooftop looked choppy and dark.
LeapFrog has given the Epic a standard one-year limited warranty that doesn't cover accidental damage or if someone immerses the tablet in water. That's similar to the Kurio Xtreme 2's 1-year limited warranty, but it pales in comparison to Amazon's no-questions-asked, two-year guarantee that comes with the Fire Kids Edition.
While the LeapFrog Epic offers adequate parental controls and good battery life, it's $20 more expensive than Amazon's Fire Kids tablet. LeapFrog's preloaded apps may be engaging and educational, but Amazon FreeTime Unlimited offers an exponentially larger library of free content. Both tablets have similar performance, but Amazon's two-year warranty, which covers accidental damage, provides more peace of mind than LeapFrog's one-year limited warranty.
If your decision to buy a child-friendly tablet is rooted in making the safest purchase, you will probably want to check out the Fire Kids Edition ($99.99). However, the Epic's uniquely immersive UI, which looks like a cartoon show, makes it worth considering.