Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.
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Ever since the tablet market exploded, we've seen a wide range of designs find both success and failure. But most of the tablets on the market have something in common: they are primarily designed for adults or at least children old enough to be responsible for a fragile device. Particularly for the popular iPad, we have seen a number of specialized cases design to protect the tablet for use with young ones. But a small cadre of tablets aimed specifically at kids -- including preschoolers -- begs several questions. Are tablets good tools for kids? Is there value in optimizing them for kids? And if so, how should they be optimized?

Clearly, kids are drawn to tablets at least as much as they are other digital platforms such a smartphones and PCs.

Clearly, kids are drawn to tablets at least as much as they are other digital platforms such as smartphones and PCs. The increased focus on ease of use means that there are fewer issues around navigating file systems, folder hierarchies, and other configuration issues. In addition to being less complicated compared to PCs, they provide a richer media experience than smartphones, and their larger surface areas not only provide a bigger canvas for content but are arguably more stable and forgiving one than smartphones or the likes of an iPod touch

With support for full Web pages not a key priority and weight and size even more of an issue for younger, weaker arms,, 7" seems to be the de facto kids' tablet size. This generally helps to keep prices at around $200, which is inexpensive for a tablet, but expensive for a toy. The hardware expense may be justified by the relatively low cost of software, especially compared to PCs or game consoles, even as many parents may not like the prospect of ad-supported freeware games.

And there is something about the combination of a relatively large and touch-enabled display that has opened the door to specialized appcessories. Several toy and game makers -- from Discovery Bay Games to giants such as Disney and Mattel -- have released physical add-ons that interact with digital games to create experiences that live somewhere between a game and a toy. But many of those products are exclusive to the iPad, at least for now.

At least until they can attract enough popularity to woo such app developers, kids' tablet vendors seem to be relying on a few differentiating approaches beyond price:

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Ruggedness and design
Donning what may be the defining characteristic of the subcategory, early all kids' tablets have some kind of rubbery coating to prevent damage to the display or other parts. This can have the added advantage of minimizing the importance of thinness, a quality that commands a premium in the general tablet market, and thus allowing further cost reductions..

Accessories
If they will not come (at least not yet), build it (yourself). Oregon Scientific, for one, plans to go all-in in the kids' tablet market with a host of accessories, including a piano keyboard, game controller and a creative case that serves double duty.

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Content
Perhaps the most vertically integrated of the kids' tablet makers, Vinci had created its own expanding line of educational software apps for the preschool set, starting as young as toddlers. Its curriculum is divided into three levels divided into six modules (with the exception of Level 1, which does not include a science component).

Some kids' tablet makers, though, are taking the opposite tact on specialization, and trying to straddle the markets for parents and children. The Web site of kids tablet maker Nabi, for example, hedges that its tablet is "powerful and entertaining enough for adults." Indeed, the strongest competitors these tyke-targeted tablets will likely face is not each other, but hand-me-downs from their parents and perhaps older siblings. While the new entrants may be low-priced, they are certainly not less expensive than the tablets already owned.


Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director and principal analyst of the NPD Connected Intelligence service at The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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Switched On: Tablets are toys. No, really.