LeapFrog LeapPad2 Explorer review

Pros

  • Has 4GB of memory
  • Compact form factor
  • Works with older LeapPad game cartridges
  • Adds a front-facing camera
  • Leaplet store boasts some good content

Cons

  • Metallic finish may scuff more easily

My four-year-old really wants an iPad. But that ain't gonna happen, at least not for the foreseeable future. But I'm not happy crushing the dreams of my youngest. So, in an effort to compromise without having to dip into his college fund, I thought of getting him a toy tablet. That's where the LeapFrog LeapPad2 Explorer comes in.

This toy tablet comes with its own app platform, as well as a rugged design that can take a beating from the kiddie crowd. The newest iteration of the LeapFrog LeapPad Explorer jazzes up the colour scheme, adds a faster processor, and doubles the memory of the original, all while staying at the same price point. Add to that a front-facing camera and a vast catalogue of downloadable games, videos and apps, and you've got yourself a great little toy tablet.

Design and features

At first glance, there's not a lot to distinguish the LeapPad2 from the original LeapPad. The LeapPad2 measures approximately 130 x 25 x 180mm (WxDxH), which is slightly wider and thicker than the LeapPad, and weighs about 770 grams. Like its predecessor, it comes in both green and pink, though the latest iteration spruces up the colour schemes with a metallic finish that unfortunately showed a bit more wear (i.e. scuffing).

The LeapPad2 still features the same 480 x 720 pixel, 5in TFT display. Even the locations of the controls around the screen remain the same. The tiny power button lies on the left side of the screen, and there's also a standard 3.5mm headphone jack at the top of the device, to the left of the game cartridge slot. There’s a mini-USB port next to the cartridge slot (a USB cable is bundled with the system). A small home button is located at the bottom right of the screen, which gets you back to the main menu, and volume controls are located to the right of the screen. Centred underneath the screen is a toggle button.

But all is not identical. The first major change is the addition of a front-facing camera to augment the existing rear-mounted camera. In comparison, the VTech InnoTab 2 (stay tuned for the review of that) has a camera at the top of the device, when held in portrait mode, which pivots from back to front. There are now two thin bars on the side of the LeapPad2 (one near the top, one near the bottom) to tie the string attached to the stylus, depending on whether the user is left or right-handed. The stylus can be still be stowed magnetically in a slot in the top right side of the LeapPad, but trust me when I advise that you use the string.

There are even more changes on the inside. At 4GB, the LeapPad2 has double the built-in storage of the LeapPad and the InnoTab2, though the InnoTab2 has an SD card slot that can take up to a 32GB card for additional storage. The processor has been beefed up, running at 550MHz, compared with the 393MHz CPU of the LeapPad.

Parents considering an upgrade from the original LeapPad or even the LeapFrog Explorer will be happy to know that the LeapPad2 uses the same cartridges. Matthew, my four-year-old tester, was able to use the gaming cartridges that we had bought with the LeapFrog Leapster Explorer. That is a good thing, because each gaming cartridge costs about £20 on average. LeapFrog also sells other accessories, like the LeapFrog LeapPad2 Recharger Pack (£30).

Leaplet Apps

Since the launch of its Leaplet app store, LeapFrog has added a lot to its inventory. Of course, it’s a tiny drop in the ocean compared to the host of apps on iTunes or Google Play, but there’s a decent choice of more than 100 titles now.

Among the highlights are what LeapFrog is calling Ultra eBooks (not to be confused with the new laptop category), a souped-up version of the eBooks that LeapFrog already had in its library. Where the eBooks had sound effects and a read-aloud feature, the Ultra eBooks add games in the middle. For instance, the Cars 2 Ultra eBook features a couple of cool racing games that take advantage of the tablet’s built-in accelerometer.

In addition to games and eBooks, you can also purchase and download LeapFrog videos to the LeapPad2. In the last year, the catalogue of videos has drastically improved, with offerings from Disney, Nickelodeon, and Sesame Street. The catalogue for videos, games, and eBooks is actually bigger than that of the VTech's Learning Lodge, but they can also be pricier. You have two options for purchasing an app from the Leaplet store. You can do so directly from LeapFrog's site, or you can buy a Leaplet app card, wait until you get it, and then enter the download code. Once purchased, you can add the app, book, or movie to up to four Leapster Explorer and LeapPad devices, a boon to those who own several devices.

Performance

Setup is relatively easy. The system takes four AA batteries, and installing them doesn't necessarily require a screwdriver. I used a ten pence piece to slip open the two slots in the back of the unit, and voila, batteries installed. After inserting the batteries, I turned the unit on and created a player account for Matt on the device. Then I inserted the bundled CD into my PC, which brought me to LeapFrog's site (you'll need an Internet connection for this) where I downloaded the LeapFrog Connect app. Then I simply followed the instructions that came up on my computer screen.

After I connected, I added the device to my existing LeapFrog account; creating a new account is just as easy. It's important to note that if you have a previous LeapFrog account and set up a new account, you won't have access to apps you downloaded using your original account. (I found that out the hard way when I was testing the original LeapPad). Then I downloaded a few games, books, and videos that I had previously purchased for the first LeapPad.

After the setup was all done, I handed the LeapPad2 to Matt to play with. Since he has played with the original LeapPad, he was familiar with the controls, but new users will find it easy to figure out in any case. Matt checked out the different games already on the LeapPad2. He was particularly taken with the drawing and writing apps, though he got frustrated with trying to write some of the more complex letters. He also really enjoyed the racing games in the Cars 2 Ultra eBook.

He quickly learned to tilt the device left or right to move the cars in the race, and loved playing the games over and over again. He was also very taken with the read-aloud function, and spent a lot of time just listening to the book being read aloud to him. Matt had fun with the built-in camera and video recorder. In particular, he thought it was hilarious to take pictures of his Dad eating, then "drawing" on the image with the stylus.

It's important to keep in mind that, like the LeapPad and VTech InnoTab 2, the LeapPad2 is a toy, and not an actual tablet. In contrast, the Fuhu Nabi 2 is an actual Android-based tablet that's targeted towards children. The Nabi 2 is certainly more expensive than the LeapPad2 – almost twice as costly in fact – but it also has higher-end components, and the Android-based game apps are cheaper than the £20 game cartridges, or the gaming, movie and book apps you can shell out around a tenner for on the LeapPad2.

That said, the LeapPad2 offers a bulletproof kids' experience right out of the box, with minimal setup and no support necessary. It also has a "learning path" (accessible via LeapFrog Connect) for parents who want to follow their child's progress in the learning concepts presented in the various games.

Verdict

The LeapPad2's design and interface are appropriate for my four-year-old son Matt, and it's colourful and advanced enough to hold his interest. The lack of a media card slot is still a peeve, but given the 4GB of built-in memory, it's a small peeve. Overall, the LeapPad2 improves significantly on the original without upping the price. It's faster, has double the storage space, adds a front-facing camera, and has a vastly improved Leaplet app store. All that adds up to a Best Buy award for this toy tablet, but if you want a tablet targeted primarily at children that can be used by adults too, you'd do well to check out the Fuhu Nabi 2, or even the Amazon Kindle Fire.