Most helpful critical review
134 of 141 people found the following review helpful
VTech V.Smile vs Leapfrog Clickstart
on January 28, 2008
Electronics are evolving into pretty much every area of life, and that includes Early Learning. Apart from PC software, and stand-alone toys, a new approach follows the `games console' line: a console that you can hook up to your television so your little one can play games that will teach him or her counting, the alphabet, and the basic reading/writing/'rithmetic. Whether this approach actually `works', in terms of teaching children the basics, remains to be seen - it's too early for any useful research evidence.
Two of the front-runners in this evolution are the V.Smile from VTech, and the Clickstart `First Computer' from Leapfrog. Both are fairly cheap plastic battery-powered consoles pitched at 3- to 6/8-year-olds; both come with initial free software, and have a range of additional software available as cartridges, mostly themed on popular cartoon/comic characters (Disney, Thomas the Tank Engine, Superman etc). Unable to decide which (if either) of these might be helpful for our three-year-old boy, we decided to buy both and try them out. This is what we found.
The V.Smile is slightly more expensive (AU$119 for the console, plus AU$40 per software cartridge). It seems like the better machine in a lot of respects. There is a much wider range of software (about 30 cartridges available), catering from 3-to-5-year-olds up to 6-to-8-year-olds. It looks better engineered: sound output can be in stereo; there is a built-in compartment for storing your cartridges; there is a microphone (which we haven't used yet); and, although battery-powered (4 x AA), you can also run it off the mains - though, somewhat annoyingly, you have to buy a separate AC adapter. The user manual leaflet is somewhat better than that of its competitor, though both are adequate and both systems were quite easy to set-up without the manual.
However, its appearance gives the game away for the V.Smile: it looks like a cartoon version of a Playstation, and the interface is joystick-based (one supplied, with the option to add a second). It is first and foremost a games console, and the software confirms this: the activities are essentially `platform games' (think Donkey Kong or Super Mario), with a fairly thin serving of word/number/pattern/colour recognition thrown in. It was readily apparent that the main entertainment lay in manoeuvring, jumping, and evading hazards, and the basics of this were beyond our three-year-old at his first sitting; in contrast, the puzzles shown (`which one is the apple?' `pick the red circle' etc) posed little or no challenge to him at all. Although he had great fun (with Daddy's help), I'm not sure he learnt anything at all in an hour's test run.
The Clickstart got off to a poorer start, despite being a bit cheaper (AU$98 for the console, and AU$31.50 per cartridge). For openers, it's packaged in that annoying wire-and-sticky-tape fashion that takes at least half-an-hour to get out of the box and generally requires destroying a substantial amount of the packaging. There seem to be only six software cartridges available, aiming up to 6-year-olds. It does have the big advantage of being cordless, relying on an infra-red transmitter rather like your remote. We thought this might be a problem for our projector (being behind the child, as opposed to a TV screen in front of them), but it proved to be no problem at all unless someone stood in front of the IR receiver - presumably the IR signal is reflected from the wall. However, this does also mean that there are two components each requiring batteries (4 x AA and 4 x C), with no option for an AC adapter.
But - and it's a big but - the Clickstart is quite clearly based on a computer, not a games console. The interface is a QWERTY keyboard, with a simple one-button mouse; it can register different `users', if you have more than one child; and the home screen is a simplistic `point-and-click' GUI. A cute puppy called Scout is your guide to the system (and our boy LOVES puppies). The built-in games are more varied in format, and richer in content, than those of the V.Smile; they focus on developing both conceptual skills (numbers, letters, shapes, colours etc) and interface skills (how to use a keyboard and mouse). Even with no keyboard skills at all, our three-year-old could still have a grand time pressing random keys to collect alphabetical fruit or bring up phonetic-linked pictures. But by the end of an hour or so, he was starting to recognise individual digits (`press the 8 key'), and was getting the hang of the mouse. The cartridge games we tried were somewhat more `platform'-like, but with less emphasis on tricky manoeuvring and more emphasis on picking the right shape/number/colour, and some counting. The cartridge graphics seem to have come from the 1980s, but our three-year-old could recognise Buzz and Woody and Emperor Zurg and that was good enough for him! And whereas the V.Smile cartridges are each pitched at a specific age range, the Clickstart games and cartridges each contain different levels for different age groups - making up to some degree for the fact that there are fewer of them.
So my vote goes to the Clickstart, simply because it aims to be an educational toy computer rather than an educational games console; and (on the basis of a short test run), it actually seems to achieve some education. On the other hand, for an older child who's already hooked on video games, the V.Smile probably stands a better chance of getting their attention, and perhaps keeping it with the older-age-group cartridges and two-player options. I'm still not convinced that either of these systems is really the best way to teach children their numbers and letters; and I realise that nothing will take the place of hours of input from an enthusiastic adult. But I'd much rather see my toddler having fun with a keyboard than a joystick, particularly if that's going to set any sort of pattern for the future.