Nabi Review: A Kids Tablet That’s Not a Toy

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Young children look so darned cute playing with iPads on YouTube. But leave them alone with the things for too long, and they might end up with a serious addiction to Infinity Blade or other apps that aren’t suitable for their age. Or worse, you’ll end up with a busted, $500 paperweight.

Enter Nabi, a $200 tablet for kids, with a monstrously large protective case and a bundle of child-friendly apps. Nabi’s not the first children’s tablet on the market–LeapFrog’s LeapPad and Vtech’s Innotab are big competitors–but it’s the first I’ve seen that isn’t a toy. It’s got decent specs, including a 7-inch capacitive display, a dual-core 533 MHz processor, 512 MB of RAM, 4 GB of storage, a microSD card slot and a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera. The operating system is Android 2.2.¬†Even by adult standards, the Nabi is a real tablet.

To make Nabi mother-approved, its creators, FUHU, threw a bunch of software on top of Android. On startup, children type in their name and age, and parents set a password for access to Nabi’s app store and device settings. After that, Nabi presents a screen full of jumbo icons for games, books, videos and educational apps.

If I was still a kid, I’d probably go ga-ga over Nabi’s pre-loaded content. There’s Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja and Cut the Rope. There are books that can read to you, math problems to solve and puzzles to put together. There’s a book creator that uses the tablet’s front-facing camera for illustrations, and a drawing app that includes a coloring book. The videos app is loaded with links to animated shorts from Barney, Blue’s Clues, Clifford, Mickey Mouse and others. The “Web” app leads to more pre-approved links, including simple Flash games and more videos. I’m not even listing everything here, or counting the apps you can buy through the Nabi Store.

Nabi, without case

The amount of content on Nabi would be a beautiful thing if the tablet itself was a better performer. Some apps, like Angry Birds, work flawlessly, while others, like the “University” app that trains children in a variety of skills, needs long load times to get through every menu. Some of the Flash-based content is unbearably slow. And after about an hour of use, the entire OS, which was already a bit laggy, started to slow down. One app ground to a halt and required me to reboot the machine. Children shouldn’t have to troubleshoot.

Nabi could also do a better job with parental controls. Netflix is pre-loaded on the tablet, but there’s no way to require parental supervision to get into the app. That means a child left alone with the Nabi could watch all kinds of mature content unless you sign out of Netflix from within the app or delete the app entirely. But Netflix isn’t the only example. Because there’s no ability to temporarily disable certain apps, you can’t, for instance, tell your kid to solve math problems or read books for an hour, and then allow a few minutes of Angry Birds as a reward.

The Nabi Store also has a critical error: when you download new apps, they only appear in the tablet’s “Mommy Mode,” a special section of the tablet that allows full Web access. I couldn’t figure out any way to add new apps to Nabi’s kid-friendly home screen, so why bother purchasing them in the first place?

I applaud the concept of Nabi. Children are apparently clever enough to manipulate grown-up tablets, so they need a children’s tablet that takes them seriously. Nabi has the content to pull it off, but the software needs a lot more polish before this tablet is ready to inspire YouTube videos of its own.