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A promising tablet for toddlers

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / September 8, 2011

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If the children at the Bright Horizons child care center in Hingham were writing this review, it would all be over pretty quick.

There’s a new tablet computer made just for us, they’d say, and we want one. Now.

But I’m not taking the rest of the day off. There’s a lot more to say about Vinci, a clever new tablet designed for use by children up to age 5.

The Bright Horizons youngsters, 3 and 4 years old, gathered around and dived right into the Vinci when we brought them one yesterday. They immediately touched the screen to get it going, and really loved the Vinci’s interactive storybooks, eagerly tapping away to release the Ugly Duckling from his egg. For about 20 minutes, they were utterly captivated.

Yes, it’s a smart little device. But it’s also a rather expensive one: $389 or $479 at, depending on features, with an additional $99 annual subscription fee that pays for new games, e-books, and age-appropriate software.

This hefty price doesn’t get you the sleek elegant user experience of Apple Inc.’s iPad. Not even close. Still, the Vinci is a respectable first effort by Dan Yang, physicist, entrepreneur, and doting mom.

Children go digital quite early these days. According to Sesame Workshop, the people who bring us the television show “Sesame Street,’’ 20 percent of children under 5 use a handheld gaming device, 23 percent go online, and 48 percent use some kind of electronic educational gaming device, such as the popular LeapFrog system.

Yang has a young daughter who loved the family iPad. But Yang feared its thin edges could injure a child who might drop it on her toes. The iPad’s wireless Internet access might serve up nasty online content, while exposing kids to unhealthy amounts of electromagnetic radiation. Besides, Yang was unimpressed by the quality of many “educational’’ iPad apps.

Hence the Vinci, with hardware and software customized for small hands and growing minds. The tablet itself is surrounded by rubberized grips. They soften the Vinci’s sharp edges, and protect the electronics from the gnawing mouths of toddlers.

The actual viewing surface of the tablet is 7 inches across, and touch-controlled. Because the screen has lower resolution than the iPad, everything has a grainy, low-budget look. But the touchscreen is quite responsive, and its images are good enough for the Vinci’s kiddie-level apps.

The $389 version comes with a small assortment of pre-installed games and storybooks; the more expensive edition offers a larger software library. A $99 annual fee keeps the updates coming as your child grows. Those who buy the $479 version get a $50 discount on the first year’s subscription.

The lower-priced version, which I tested, comes with four gigabytes of memory for storing games and other apps; the premium edition has eight gigs. Both have Micro SD card slots so you can add up to 32 gigs more.

The cheaper version also contains a smaller battery. It died on me after leaving the Vinci switched on overnight. I wasn’t expecting that; a sleeping iPad will go a few weeks between charges.

There’s no Wi-Fi; you connect Vinci to a personal computer with an Internet connection, then download more apps from the company’s site. But like so many tech products these days, the Vinci came to market before it was finished. The software for synching to a PC or Mac was unavailable when I received the Vinci. When the program was posted online a few days later, it didn’t work. At least I was able to download the videos and still images I shot using the Vinci’s three-megapixel camera. Image quality isn’t especially impressive, but unless your kid’s named Spielberg, he won’t mind.

The Vinci’s modified version of Google Inc.’s Android software tends to crash at unexpected moments. Besides, you don’t get access to the thousands of apps on the Android Market, though a Vinci spokesman said they’re planning to add that feature. But for now, forget about installing that kiddie favorite, Angry Birds.

At Bright Horizons, children who played with the Vinci were enthralled. But I suspect the spell would have faded, once they grew bored with its limited inventory of apps. To succeed, Vinci will need a lot more games and e-books, and a reliable way to install them. I also vote for a better battery and a lot fewer software bugs. And of course, a much lower price for the device itself and its software subscription. Still, a tablet for toddlers is a good idea, and the Vinci is a good start.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at