Whether we parents like it or not, the internet is everywhere, and the technology that gives us - and our children - access to it, is becoming more and more affordable, and more and more accessible. Long gone are the years where people could easily decide to keep their kids away from electronics, not least because the technology is starting to play a key part in education too. All three of my children, whether I wanted them to or not (I do) would have been introduced to computers and the internet as a research and entertainment tool by their teachers before they reached five years of age.
So, the question then comes: Is there a safe way that children can be given this technology in a safe, monitored manner? There's definitely been a lot of attempts - Hatch Kids is a subscription service of children's games, there are plenty of 'Kid Mode' apps for phones, and there are numerous versions of parental guidance systems out there. One solution is Pebble Gear's range of 7" Kids Tablets.
The tablets are available in a variety of designs - each one a twist on the same OS, preloaded with a few character-themed apps and UI elements. Each tablet is £100, which includes a year's subscription to its controlled app ecosystem, and they come in a variety of types. A recent wave included Toy Story 4 and Frozen 2, while the new wave of tablets includes Mickey and Friends or Disney Cars branding.
A Controlled App Ecosystem for KidsPebble Gear's solution to the App Store is to cultivate its own, the Game Store Junior. It's an app store with over 500 apps on it. That includes games, books, videos and a lot of education apps. 500 is a lot, and it definitely shows when you navigate the store. Although there are some decent category separations (and I do like that the American Reading Age categorisations are included when it comes to the books), it can be a little overwhelming - as with any App Store.
The educational games include the entire Pango catalogue, as well as quite a few other titles, however - as we've been downloading education games for a while - the selection definitely felt somewhat limited and geared toward younger users. Apps built toward learning ABCs, or drawing 'connect the dot', stand out among the learning selection, which is fantastic for younger kids (perhaps younger than my own), and the reading options are great - but something does feel lacking when compared to a regular app store.
But, this isn't about that. The Pebble Gear is clearly designed to allow kids to have a little bit of autonomy, and a safe area to exist - if you keep the parental options loose.
Kids will naturally gravitate to the games (play) section, and that's where the Pebble Gear's included 1-year subscription for their app store comes into its own. From Pacman Kart Rally through Evoland to Cut The Rope 2 (and stopping off with the Asterix, Garfield and Doodle Jump IPs) there is a surprising amount of premium and ad-free versions of popular games here. I mean, Syberia 2, Burly Men at Sea and Tengami are here too, smaller sweethearts that they are. Also, there are games from my youth, or even from before my time, like Little Big Adventure and the Gobliiins games... they're there too. It's a phenomenal selection of games, and if they are - indeed - adding new games every month then that's amazing.All the Mod Cons
There's definitely some value there, then, in the game selection at least. However, the ecosystem is largely closed to the outside world. There are zero ways that that tablet can be taken 'online' by the conventional definition - there is no kid-friendly browser or a completely locked-down version of Youtube. In that, the Pebble Gear is definitely closer to one of the preloaded child consoles of yesteryear than a tablet experience.
All of that said, it is impossible to put a value on knowing that, no matter how tech-savvy your kid is, the worst thing they can do on the device is to download extra apps by working around parental locking. The adless experience is extremely comforting too because you know that the kids won't be swept off around an app store by misleading, heavily targetted adverts.
In addition to this, I definitely need to mention that the case for the tablet is of the swollen 'bumper' variety - exactly the same that I've bought previously for the other devices in the house. They might look a bit goofy at times, but by cladding a device in thick material you reduce the chance of damage to almost zero. You'd normally pay a good £15-£20 for an appropriate case, and that definitely needs to be considered when it comes to thinking about the value proposition.
Would I recommend the Pebble Gear? Definitely. But do consider the only real downside here before buying: That the device will not grow with your children beyond a point, and while you might get a good 2-3 years out of it, it is a closed ecosystem.