(After nearly 300 posts in the last 2.5 years, this is my last blog for UberMobile. I've been honored to be a witness at the birth of the mobile 2.0/post-PC era, and share what I've seen and learned with all of you. Keep following me on Twitter at @ericylai as I plan to re-emerge soon with another blog looking at new trends in how businesses collaborate. And keep reading UberMobile, as you'll be in good hands with my successor, Bill Clark.)
After playing with the Fuhu Nabi 2 tablet on and off for the past month, I'm 100% confident in declaring it the best kids' tablet out there today.
That’s not the important question, though. The important question is: is the $199 Nabi 2 a better gift for your family this Christmas than the equivalently-priced Amazon Kindle Fire HD or Google Nexus 7, the $329 iPad Mini, or even the $399 Google Nexus 10?
It's a complicated question, so before I answer that, let me share my experience with the Nabi 2.
Full disclosure: the Android-based Nabi is the ONLY childrens' tablet I have tested hands-on. But to be immodest, I've done my fair share of research into tablets. From my readers' e-mails, the Nabi was the only tablet that nearly every parent said was on their list.
So the Nabi was the only one I was truly curious to get my hands on and see if it could sway me and my kids (two boys, both just turned 9 and 7, respectively) from the iPad ecosystem.
The Nabi 2 bundles 25 free apps, including this fingerpainting app that my younger son loved.
The Nabi comes from a Los Angeles-area startup called Fuhu, which you might've heard is suing Toys R’ Us, basically for stealing its design and business plan.
Normally, these two factors would raise my doubts as to Fuhu's long-term viability. But Fuhu's backers include some of the biggest names in the Taiwanese PC scene, including Acer, Foxconn, Kingston Technology and VIA Technologies. It just got a $5 million investment from leading Japanese telco, KDDI. So I wouldn't be worried.
$150 must be the price point that extensive market research has shown that parents and grandparents are willing to spend on kids' presents these days, because that is what the vast majority of childrens' tablets are priced.
The Nabi 2 may be $49 more, but it is totally worth it, for two big reasons. First, most of the kids' tablet makers are creating custom, kid-safe app stores and and content that it hopes to sell to parents. Fuhu is no exception to this razors-and-blades strategy, hoping to profit long-term from selling $2.99/month subscriptions to its Spinlets+ TV service and paid app downloads.
The difference is that the Nabi 2 already includes 25 free educational apps and games. These run from the ubiquituous Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja to the totally entertaining AirAttack, a homage to the top-view shooter games of the 80s that me and my kids equally enjoyed.
One son really enjoyed the fingerpainting app while the other preferred the drumming and hangman ones. There are also 50 free songs and 30 free e-books. All in all, several hundred dollars worth of free content right there, says the company. (Note: A Fuhu spokeswoman says that both AirAttack and the fingerpainting app are NOT included in the free bundle, but can be purchased through its App Zone store.)
The second reason: the Nabi 2's hardware. Whereas tablets like Oregon Scientific’s MEEP, Toys R’ Us’s Tabeo and others all sport single-core ARM chips, the Nabi 2 has a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 chipset, 1 GB RAM, 8 GB of storage.
The Nabi 2's sub-standard screen didn't prevent me and my boys from being addicted to the included game, AirAttack.
Apart from an inferior screen, the Nabi 2 is virtually identical to the Google Nexus 7, which for most of this summer and early fall was considered the fastest tablet around.
Knowing how fast that mobile hardware advances/becomes obsolete, I would guess that the Nabi 2 will have a useful life 2-3 years longer than $150 peers like the MEEP and Tabeo.
The Nabi's Achilles Heel
But specs are specs. How does the Nabi 2 perform in real life? According to my sons, the Nabi 2 was all-around zippier than our (1st-gen) iPad.
There were some hiccups. "It crashes every time I do multiplayer on Fruit Ninja," said my 9-year-old. The screen sometimes faded to black during a video, reported my other son. Note: I didn't check to update the Nabi while I had it, so these problems may have been fixed.
If it seems like I keep bringing up the Nabi 2's screen, that's because it is the device's definite weak spot. It's neither bright nor, at 1024x600, very sharp.
Both the Nexus 7 and Amazon's Kindle Fire HD have 1280x800 resolutions, cramming 66% more pixels in the same 7-inch screen. The Nexus 10 with its 2560x1600 resolution sports an incredible 670% more pixels. Even the iPad Mini, which has also been criticized for its resolution, is almost 30% sharper. Bright-eyed kids may not care, but adults like myself noticed.
Out of the box, the Nabi 2's parental controls, aka “nabi Mode,” provide a very safe environment for kids. These include the Maxthon child-safe Web browser, the curated App Zone (store) with 500+ apps, and the video player. Precocious kids used to browsing YouTube or searching Google or Wikipedia will feel confined, though.
The Nabi’s reward system, called Treasure Box, lets parents award digital coins (redeemable at the Nabi app store) to kids for completing tasks and chores on the Nabi or offline. It is well-thought-out, but can be labor-intensive as a parent to manage.
The New Competition
Adults can use the Nabi 2. There is an alternate Web browser that lets users download any content. Parents can also install the Amazon App Store and Netflix onto the Nabi – look for instructions on the many fan sites such as Everything Nabi!. Installing access to Google Play is technically trickier, but is supposedly do-able.
Of course, the reverse has always been true - kids will use their parents' tablets. Which is what made parents like myself nervous. Every time my kids say they are going onto YouTube looking for the latest hilarious Dinosaur Office video, I'm afraid they'll instead type some semi-naughty word they learned on the playground and suddenly they'll watching something that they'll only be able to unsee after years of therapy as an adult.
That's what made childrens' tablets - see this gallery of ten of the hottest ones - such a slam dunk.
But the latest version of Android 4.2 'Jelly Bean' allows the creation of user profiles for multiple users. That means parents can create separate logins for their kids that filter and allow only child-safe content and apps. This would apply to the new Google Nexus tablets as well as the Kindle.
Parents with older, non-upgradeable Android tablets can turn to parental control apps like Kytephone.
As for the iPad Mini, there are no multiple user profiles, so it's hard to switch between adult and child users. But you can set up aggressive content filtering and parental controls. And at $329, the iPad Mini is now as affordable as the iPod touch ($299 to $399), which parents have been buying and giving to kids for years.
I asked my kids what they thought overall. My 7-year old son gave it 8 stars out of 10, while my 9-year-old awarded it 7 stars.
So What Should You Choose?
That sounds about right to me. If you're looking for a tablet that straight out of the gift box is kid-safe and chockful of entertaining and educational apps and will be owned or primarily used by kids 8 years old and under with minimal parental supervision, the Nabi is it. It is the best of the crop of kids' tablets. You are unlikely to go wrong with it.
However, if the Nabi would be only the first or second tablet for your household, or would be heavily shared with teens and adults, I’d recommend the Amazon Kindle Fire HD or one of the Google Nexus tablets.
If your kids already have strong history with games and apps available only on iOS, I’d strongly consider the iPad Mini.
In our situation, with only one, rapidly-aging tablet in the house, it makes more sense that our next tablet will be an adult one that we can safely share with our kids. Despite our long history with the iPad, I'm leaning towards the Google Nexus 10 with its killer screen. But for many other parents and giftgivers this holiday season, the Nabi will certainly be your best choice.