The LeapPad Ultra, the latest iteration of LeapFrog's popular LeapPad learning tablet toy, features some significant upgrades. It has a bigger, higher resolution screen, a built-in rechargeable battery and Wi-Fi support, all of which are most welcome updates. However, it is a bit pricier than its predecessor, particularly now that the latter has been knocked down in price.
The LeapPad Ultra's chassis is made of ABS plastic. Measuring 230 x 23 x 155mm (WxDxH), its dimensions are more in line with the original VTech InnoTab than with its predecessor. It's bigger and heavier than the LeapFrog LeapPad2, in no small part due to the bigger 7in touchscreen it sports. The display itself has a resolution of 1,024 x 600, which is big leap from the 480 x 720-pixel, 5in TFT touchscreen of the LeapPad2. While I actually liked the smaller form factor of the previous iterations, the LeapPad Ultra does feel more substantial in the hand.
The locations of the controls around the screen remain the same, though the home and power buttons now have a more matte texture, presumably for better traction when pressing. The power button lies on the left side of the device, rather than to the immediate left of the screen as it did on the LeapPad2. There's also a standard 3.5mm headphone jack at the top of the device, to the left of the game cartridge slot, and a mini-USB port next to the cartridge slot (a USB cable is bundled with the system). There is a small home button at the bottom right of the screen, and volume controls are located to the right of the screen. Centred right underneath the screen is a toggle button.
There are subtle exterior changes here, however. The front-facing camera now resides to the left of the screen (in portrait mode), though the location of the back-facing camera stays the same. Both have been upgraded to 2-megapixels. In contrast, the InnoTab 3S has a camera that rotates 180 degrees from front to back. The stylus storage has morphed from a magnetic depression on the upper right side of the device, into a hole towards the bottom right side. One final note: There's no microSD slot for storage expansion, unfortunately.
There are bigger updates inside the chassis. The new LeapPad Ultra comes with an 800MHz ARM chip, and 8GB of on-board memory (double that of the 4GB in the LeapPad2). The newest LeapPad adds what the company calls "web-safe Wi-Fi," powered by Zui. This proprietary browser lets users access the LeapSearch site to browse age-appropriate videos, images, and sites from the web that Leapfrog's education experts have approved.
To activate the Wi-Fi connectivity, you will have to get into the parent settings on the LeapPad Ultra. When you turn on the device, click on the blue Parent icon at the bottom on the login screen. The product will prompt you for your four-digit Parent Code (you get this by logging onto LeapConnect and connecting the LeapPad Ultra to your account – your number should then be provided). After that, you can connect the device to your local Wi-Fi using the instructions on the LeapFrog site. Once you've connected the device to the Wi-Fi network, it will automatically remember your network's password. Note that the LeapFrog Ultra won't be able to connect to public Wi-Fi hotspots, since those tend to ask users to fill out additional information and agree to terms and conditions that the secure Zui browser will not show.
The Wi-Fi capability also means that parents can access Leap Connect to download new apps. Another new feature related to Wi-Fi is the ability for a user to connect with another user within a 50 to 100-foot radius in order to play multiplayer-capable LeapFrog games (well, up to two players at a time, anyway), or even "network chat" with up to four users with LeapPad Ultras.
An additional major (and frankly very welcome) change is that the LeapPad Ultra comes with a built-in rechargeable Lithium-ion battery. According to LeapFrog, the battery will last for up to nine hours of active playing time before needing a recharge. You can charge the LeapPad with the bundled AC adapter. Unlike the InnoTab 3s, the battery is not user-removable, so if it goes on the fritz, you’ll likely need to send it back to LeapFrog for repairs or a replacement.
In terms of the price, while the LeapPad2 retailed for £80 when it launched, this model sells for £90 – which certainly seems fair enough when you consider the upgrades here. However, the thing is you can now grab the LeapPad2 for around as low as £50 if you shop around (although it’s still £70 on the LeapFrog online store). You can also get the InnoTab 3S, which also comes with Wi-Fi connectivity, for £70 – and all this considered, the LeapPad Ultra’s sticker price may give parents some pause for thought.
In addition to games and eBooks, you can also purchase and download LeapFrog videos for the LeapPad 2. Its catalogue of videos continues to improve, with offerings from Disney, Nickelodeon, and Sesame Street. The catalogue of video, games, and eBooks is actually bigger than that of 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.
Having played with previous iterations of the device, my five-year-old had no problem figuring out how to play with the LeapPad Ultra. He easily navigated the games and apps that came with our review unit, and had no difficulty getting to the stylus. He found it easier to put the stylus in its hole, rather than trying to fit it to the magnetic slot as he did with the LeapPad2.
We were both pleased that he could still use his old LeapPad and Leapster Explorer cartridges, as the LeapPad Ultra is backwards-compatible with game cartridges that came out for older LeapPads. The web-safe Wi-Fi allowed him to remotely access LeapSearch, and he was so pleased to be able to browse videos and apps, like he had seen me do on my Apple iPad.
But let's be clear: This is purely a toy tablet – unlike, say, the Fuhu Nabi 2 Tablet. It can't go online except in the Zui proprietary browser, and with the Nabi 2, you can conceivably load Android apps and, say, check your email and browse the regular web. However, all that said, the Nabi 2 is £60 more expensive.
Also, what the LeapPad Ultra has that the Nabi 2 lacks is a vast ecosystem of educational cartridges and apps that have been vetted by educational experts. For the four to nine-year-old demographic it targets, the LeapPad Ultra is a perfect tablet.
Given its bigger, higher-res screen, Wi-Fi capability, and rechargeable battery, it's ideal for those who already have LeapFrog cartridges and apps. And for those who haven’t already been immersed in the LeapFrog ecosystem, the LeapFrog Ultra is a great place to start – although you still might want to consider picking up the older LeapPad2 at £50 if you're on a budget.