PBS Kids releases baby's first HDMI dongle

Junior can now watch 'Bob the Builder' without any ads or inappropriate content.

Nicole Lee / Engadget

With the recent arrival of YouTube TV and Hulu Live, it's clear that cord-cutting is here to stay. Not only is content readily available without a cable subscription, you can watch it on your big screen TV thanks to the proliferation of streaming set-top boxes and HDMI sticks. Yet, these devices are meant for a general audience; there aren't really any streaming sticks with specialized content. Until now. PBS has just released something called PBS Kids Plug & Play, which is apparently the first streaming stick for kids. Bonus: It even looks like a toy car.

Indeed, with its four wheels and the racing stripe down the middle, you'd be forgiven for initially thinking this was just a Hot Wheels ripoff. But if you look at the car's rear, you'll see the telltale dongle that fits neatly in any HDMI port. PBS wisely included an HDMI extension cord as well, just in case your TV's ports are too shallow to accommodate the irregular-size Plug & Play. Just like other streaming sticks on the market, you'll also need to hook it up to a USB power source, be it from the TV or an AC adapter. The stick has 1GB of memory, 16GB of flash storage and a microSD card slot.

As for ease of use, well, the name describes it pretty accurately. Plug it in, and it comes alive, instantly pairing to the accompanying remote control via Bluetooth. The remote control is green, curved and sized perfectly for small hands. On the front are four direction keys, a center star button, plus a circular "PBS Kids" button that acts as a catch-all home or back key. Once connected, you'll immediately see the bright green PBS Kids home interface on your TV. There's no need to sign up for anything, and there are no ads. The Plug & Play has a super simple UI, with a circular navigation menu in the center and a settings shortcut at the top right.

As you might expect, you can use the Plug & Play to watch PBS Kids programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as long as the stick is connected to WiFi; simply navigate over to the Videos section. At this point, you're probably wondering why you would need a specialized PBS Kids stick in order to do this. After all, you can already watch PBS Kids content on the Roku or online via your computer.

The key with the PBS Kids Plug & Play stick is that it offers way more than just streaming episodes of Clifford the Big Red Dog or Thomas & Friends. It also has games and exclusive content. What's more, you can access it without an internet connection. An added benefit of the stick is that the content is in a closed environment, so you can rest assured that your child won't encounter any inappropriate videos while you're not looking.

That exclusive content includes 50 sing-a-long songs, on-demand episodes of your kids' favorite shows, Words of the Week, an interactive sound box where you can play around with different instruments and a "Rail Riders" game -- where you're collecting different items on a railroad track. There's also a "Road Trip Adventure" board game, in which you move across a predetermined route by spinning a wheel, performing silly tasks and actions along the way (examples include buzzing like a bee or waddling like a duck). Last but not least is a series of interactive "scenes," where you can press the center star button to do things like launch fireworks or boost submarines.

"We know families are busy and on-the-go, and value spending time together whenever they can," said Dawn Ciccone, vice president of brand licensing at PBS, in a statement. "We have also learned from research that when parents are engaged with their children in activities related to their favorite TV shows or games, children learn more." She goes on to say that the Plug & Play turns any TV into an "interactive and fun learning resource."

Yet the value of a streaming stick as niche as the PBS Kids Plug & Play is unclear. Sure, you get all of that extra content, but you could probably get much of the same from existing apps and websites. And, as we said earlier, if all you want to do is watch PBS Kids content, you can already do so without the stick at all. What's more, the Plug & Play is only $50, which is about the same price as Roku's streaming stick, even though it's nowhere near as versatile.

But perhaps there's something else at play here. PBS is certainly not the only outfit to wrap kids' programming in a cord-cutter package. YouTube, for example, has recently rolled out a special Kids app for smart TVs. It's even created four completely original shows just for its YouTube Kids service. Other streaming services have child-friendly programming too; Netflix offers a kids-only profile, as does Hulu. Another on-demand offering for kids is Sprout Online, which is essentially the online component of NBC's children's programming. Disney and Nickelodeon are still pretty tied to traditional TV -- you can't watch their live programming without a cable or satellite subscription, for example -- but you can watch certain full on-demand episodes on their respective websites.

It's clear that as cord-cutting increases, even specialty categories have to follow the footsteps of HBO and Showtime in offering a la carte programming. Media companies know all too well that young parents are now sitting their children in front of iPads and computers, thus raising a new generation of kids who aren't beholden to the whims of traditional TV. Now, it appears that YouTube and PBS are savvy enough to not only cater to this audience but to provide exclusive content that's not dependent on TV at all.

In this light, the PBS Plug & Play is a shrewd move. It tells the child, hey, this is your own little version of Mommy and Daddy's Roku. This is your TV, catered for you. It tells the kids that they can watch what they want, when they want, on their own terms. Whether we like it or not, it seems children's eyeballs are the next untapped market for the media companies. As long as Mommy and Daddy pay for it, that is.