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Your kid wants a phone? Consider this cute, trackable smartwatch instead

The $130 Xplora XGO3 serves the same basic functions you'd want in a cell phone for children and none of the ones you don't.
Written by Maria Diaz, Staff Writer
Reviewed by Kerry Wan
The Xplora XGO3 on a kid's wrist.
Maria Diaz/ZDNET

My oldest child is a kindergartner, so I can't say the thought of getting her a phone is one I lose sleep over -- yet. But I was surprised when she came to me recently and asked if she could get a phone for her seventh birthday. 

While we agreed to wait until she's older for a phone, we also decided to let her try out Xplora's new XGO3 and see if the smartwatch was a feasible placeholder.

Immediately, she felt empowered by the fact that she had her own "phone" and began calling and sending my husband and me text messages, even if we were just two feet away! 

She loved the sense of independence that having her own phone number gave her, even if the power eventually went to her head, as evidenced by all the voice messages she'd send of her just saying "poopy".

The XGO3 is the most affordable model of Xplora's kid's smartwatch lineup at $130, and it is available with a discount every now and then. While the larger X6Play is the newer of the two, the XGO3 is better suited for younger kids and has just as many quintessential features you'd want out of a smartphone: Mobile connectivity, voice and text messaging, real-time GPS tracking, school modes, safety zones, and an SOS function to reach you in the event of an emergency.

Also: The 6 best smartwatches for kids

It comes in five different colors for your little one to choose between, and also features some handy widgets for them to use, like a step counter, stopwatch, calculator, alarm, camera, and emojis.

Parental controls & subscription

Xplora XGO3 on a child's wrist.
Maria Diaz/ZDNET

As a parent, though, I love that this introduction to a smartphone is absolutely locked down. The XGO3 needs a SIM card with a mobile plan to work, and if you buy it through Xplora's website, a SIM will come included with the watch, so you can then sign up for one of its own data plans. But no matter who gets your kid's phone number, they can't contact them unless you, as a guardian, add their contact information in the Xplora app. It's a small detail that makes a big difference.

Also: How to set maturity ratings on Netflix

Once you turn on the XGO3, you have to pair it with your phone in the Xplora app, which is where you'll be able to send your child text messages, photos, emojis, voice messages, and access their location and settings. You can call them from your phone as you would to anyone else, but messages are limited to the Xplora app.

Xplora XGO3 and Xplora app on the iPhone.

The parental controls are set from your phone using the Xplora app.

Maria Diaz/ZDNET

While kids can send you pictures, emojis, and voice messages, I didn't like the fact that text messages coming from them were limited to pre-written phrases, like "Love you!" or "Be home soon". They can't type in their own messages. The only time a digital keyboard appears on the watch is when you're entering the Wi-Fi password. I wish you could, at the very least, add in or edit the message templates through the Xplora app.

Also: How to use YouTube Kids' screen limit feature

Lastly, there's a "School Mode" that you can schedule through the app which locks the smartwatch so that only the SOS feature is accessible during your child's school hours.

Demoing School mode on the Xplora XGO3.

The Xplora XGO3 will stay locked while in school mode.

Maria Diaz/ZDNET

Location tracking

When my husband and I first decided to send our oldest to preschool, we were hit with the uncertainty of sending our firstborn into the open world without us physically being there with her. We had never sent her to a daycare center or to go camping, so the idea of GPS tracking was something we knew we needed going into the first day of school. 

Also: The 5 best tablets for kids 

From my testing, the GPS tracking in the XGO3 is reliable, especially because I can set up specific safety zones within the Xplora app, like for home and school, and be notified when my child leaves those areas. The app also shows historical tracking data, which is handy when you need to recall past activities. The XGO3 gives me peace of mind, knowing my daughter is where she needs to be. 

The Xplora XGO3 showing four feature widgets.

The Xplora XGO3's features interface is clean and user-friendly.

Maria Diaz/ZDNET

Gamifying health and fitness

Xplora's barebones approach to mobile devices means that there are no games or internet access in the XGO3, though you can earn playtime the more steps you walk. The smartwatch encourages physical movement, with a built-in pedometer that tracks the child's steps and rewards them for hitting milestones. For every 1,000 steps, the user earns an Xcoin, redeemable for games in the Xplora app, which can then be played on a smartphone or tablet. It's a smart way to gamify health and fitness.

Xplora XGO3 from the side

Side view of the Xplora XGO3, you can see the buttons and speaker on one side and SIM card slot on the other.

Maria Diaz/ZDNET

Bottom line

The Xplora XGO3 is a great starting point for anyone looking to keep their child in the loop as they step out of the home. Compared to the Apple Watch SE, a smartwatch parents commonly get for their kids, the XGO3 is better suited for younger children and parents who want more control over what they have access to. It's a simple device that kids enjoy and parents can rely on, and it's been perfect for my six-year-old. That is until she's old enough to care for an actual smartphone.

There are drawbacks, of course, like the fact that you can't edit the predetermined text responses and the fact that Xplora considers a 42mm watch kid-sized. But the benefits outweigh the negatives for me, and I'll continue to enjoy the real-time location tracking, the way my kid's face lights up when she gets a text from her dad, and of course, the "poopy" voice messages. 

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