LeapFrog has become quite a force in gadgetry for young children, with well-thought-out intuitive kids' versions of some of the biggest tech trends around. It has kids' versions of handheld games consoles and tablet devices in its range, and recently released its LeapBand fitness tracker to help encourage the younger generation to keep active while caring for a virtual pet.
Now it has spied what it thinks is another gap in the market for a device that many adults use on a daily basis but is often too complicated for very young children; a home games console.
Pocket-lint encountered a prototype model of the LeapFrog LeapTV during the Hamleys Christmas in July event (in June, strangely enough). The UK's largest toy store highlighted the product as being one of the top 10 toys it believed would be sure fire hits come the holiday season. But the device didn't actually work back then, being just a plastic shell that looked but did not act like the real thing.
Now we've had a chance to play with the first working model(s) in the world and we have to say that not only do we agree with Hamleys, we feel it could be the undisputed product to top most three to eight-year-olds' lists to Santa.
It works very much like a conventional games console but with some key features that are specific to the type of device LeapFrog is famed for. There is a PlayStation Eye-style standalone camera that comes as part of the package, and a motion controller that has an accelerometer built-in. Plus, the console can stand on a base or lay flat, much like the original Wii. However, unlike modern games consoles, the LeapTV takes cartridges rather than discs. And it runs on a locked user interface, so parents can rest assured that their children are safe from external influences.
The games are all platform specific and have been developed with educational experts specifically for the target age range. There will be eight cartridge games available at launch when the console hits stores in October and up to 100 other games and videos will be downloadable from the dedicated app store.
Even this simple action will be protected from kids. Parents will download apps and videos and send them to the LeapTV through their own smartphones or tablets - that way a child can't accidentally download software and therefore unwittingly spend their mum's or dad's money.
As well as isolated from the outside world, the UI is purposely simple in design. Children can create their own profile and customise their experience, with different avatars to choose from, plus backgrounds and audio themes can be chosen to suit them. Games and videos are presented on an on-screen carousel that only shows three at the forefront at any time, to restrict confusing younger children with too much choice. They just click on one of the big icons, which are also verbally described in case a kid cannot read yet, and the game or clip should start nigh-on immediately.
Its graphics are output through HDMI in 720p and are crisp and colourful - something that trumps the closest rival real-world console, the Wii - and we have to say that if all of the technology was hidden behind a curtain, you'd find it hard to distinguish the on-screen images to those of a PS3 or Xbox 360.
The controller has been purposely designed to suit little fingers and to be versatile. It is chunky and feels solid in the hand - certainly enough to take a bashing - and its handles can be manoeuvred to match the type of game being played. For example, click them to make one long bar and it can be used for driving games - like bike handlebars - or a sword for Jake and the Neverland Pirates.
Some parts of games use the camera too, in Kinect fashion, allowing full-body motion gaming. A couple of examples that used the camera that we had a play with were Dance & Learn, LeapFrog's answer to the Dance Central games, and the karate sub-game in the Sports package. In the latter we had to chop boards that appeared on screen that featured a certain shape and avoid all others.
Indeed, this is indicative of all the games on offer. They each have educational value as well as serve as analogues to conventional titles a child might see their parent play. The Disney-licensed Sofia The First game featured a round where the child has to only fly through clouds featuring a letter, rather than a number. And as levels progress, the missions become tougher, such as only fly through clouds that feature a capital letter, and so on and so forth.
And it is this learning aspect to the gaming experience that will ensure parents also buy into the LeapTV idea. It is what most strikes the console apart from its more grown-up counterparts and, in our opinion from what we've seen so far, justifies its £119.99 price ticket.
There is no better way to learn than to have fun while doing so.
The LeapFrog LeapTV console will be available from 15 October in the UK along with eight games, including Sports, Dance & Learn, Sofia The First and Ultimate Spider-Man.