Sunday, September 28, 2008

Kidizoom Camera

My kids love cameras. They love to take photos. Digital cameras are great for this because you can let your kids take photos without wasting film. But if you're anything like me, you're probably sick of deleting 56 photos of the floor after you give your camera to your kids to keep them busy.

Solution? The Kidizoom camera from VTech. I am thrilled with this product.

One thing I love about this camera is that it comes ready to take photos. A lot of photos. You can buy a memory card, but my kids took 328 photos and several videos, and there was still room for more.

It's easy to use too. I handed it to Quinn and he immediately started to wander the house taking photos. It's amusing what catches the eye of small children.


Photo taken with the Kidizoom.

The camera interface is really easy to use. All three of my kids figured it out easily. Features such as the flash are simple as well.

There are games on the camera as well, Tic Tac Toe, and matching, and one other. I couldn't care less that they're on there. I'm more interested in the camera. But for what it's worth, Jack and Quinn love them. And they come with volume control too. (For the camera, not your kid. VTech aren't miracle workers.)

We took the camera with us to play with some friends and I'd like to report that the friends adore the camera as well. I would also like to report that if a four-year-old drops the camera on the sidewalk, it is well-insulated enough to not break.

My kids are mostly interested in taking the photos and looking at them on the screen on the back of the camera. I've seen other kiddie cameras, and the screen on this one was a pleasant surprise.

My kids couldn't care less about uploading their photos, but I know some kids do care. Once I uploaded my 328 photos (and deleted about 312 photos of stains on my floor) I noticed that the photo quality is dependent mostly on the amount of light. (Obviously.) Outdoor photos fared better than indoor photos, but if my kids did care about the finished product, I would defintely have been able to produce enough good shots to make them happy.

I also have to admit that the quality of many of the photos was less than desirable due to sloppy camera work on my three-year-old's part. Using this camera would be a great way to teach a kid about photography if that is something you are interested in.

Following are some photos taken with the Kidizoom:

This was obviously taken outside. By me. I love this shot.


Low light creates a less-desirable image. But still functional enough for most kids.


This is the first photo I took with the camera. It looks a little pixelated, but I kind of like it. And I know my kids wouldn't care.

But possibly the best thing about this camera? I don't have to sacrifice my pricey adult digital camera to their grungy little hands anymore. That is worth its weight in gold.

Honesty Clause: VTech gave me the Kidizoom camera for free. It retails for $59.99.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Leapster2

I was really excited to try out LeapFrog's Leapster2 game system. My kids adore hand-held video games, and because I spend a fair amount of time trying to keep my children busy in waiting rooms, I'm always thrilled to find something that might keep their attention.

Please ignore the green paint on his face and the glue in his hair.
Focus on his intent interest in the game.

This definitely fits the bill. My kids all adore the game. The really nice thing about this system is that it comes with two activities built in, so you can play it right out of the box, or if you forget all your game cartridges at home.

One of those built-in activities is an art program that lets kids create their own art or decorate the scenes provided in the "sketchpad." It was amazing. I'm 35 and I played with it for a good amount of time. It's pretty neat.

The other activity is a learning game that is focused on letters and numbers. I liked this because it had four ability levels ranging from figuring out the difference between letters and numbers to spelling words. All while flying a cute dragon around the screen. I appreciate the fact that all three of my children can play the game.

The controls and stylus are all intuitive and easy to use. I didn't have to coach my five- or six-year-old at all or show them how to play. It is easy and fun.

Another nice feature of the system is that there are slots for three players to create accounts, as well as a guest sign in spot. This works especially well for me, considering I have three children. Kids use these accounts to upload their art to a computer and to view online awards earned during gameplay.

We also tried out Dora the Explorer's Camping Adventure. My kids enjoyed this game, which, among other learning activities, teaches them some Spanish words.

Because I use this game system mainly in waiting rooms, I usually have my guys wear headphones. So it's amusing to see them playing quietly and occasionally bursting out with a Spanish word that Dora tells them to say.

That said, that was the only downside of this game that I saw: to play the games (at least the ones we tried), you need to hear the verbal instructions, so you can't just turn the sound off. There is a volume control, but if you're on a plane or somewhere that people might object to video game sounds, take headphones.

I'm looking forward to trying out some of the many other games offered for this system. For instance, I don't know what Jedi Math is, but Sam is going to learn it. I'm going to buy that for his birthday.

As for those waiting rooms? As long as the Leapster2 is in their hands, they are the best behaved kids around.

Honesty Clause: LeapFrog gave me this toy and the Dora the Explorer game for free. The Leapster2 retails for $69.99. Game cartridges retail for $24.99.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Tonka Bounce Back Racer

When I looked at the package containing the Tonka Bounce Back Racer, I thought it looked sort of fun, but a little forgettable. I completely misjudged the appeal of this toy.

My children ADORE it. I cannot even tell you the amount of giggles this truck has given us.

It is a remote control car that can flip over and, because the wheels move from side to side, the car does too. The wheels and parts of the car are soft enough that you don't have to fear for your walls. Or your feet, because your children will drive this over your feet.

The controller is very easy to figure out because there are only two options: forwards and backwards. For a three-year-old, I much prefer this to remote control cars you can steer. True, it's hard to get it to go where you want it to go, but it turns out when you miss your target, zoom the car under a chair and into the dog, it's waaaaay more fun.


Plus, because the car is red and orange on one side and green and blue on the other, it's kind of like two cars. I wouldn't have thought that, but Quinn kept saying, "I want the blue one now." or "I want the red one now." Either my kid is dumb, or Tonka knows what they are doing. I choose to believe the latter.

One other thing that surprised me about this toy was how much my older two kids liked it. They also laughed uncontrollably while playing with it. And they were able to make it do tricks:


The only downside of this toy, as I see it, is the battery situation. The controller takes a 9-volt battery and the car takes 6 AA batteries. All these batteries go into three different compartments. So it takes a while to put them all in, what with the child-safety screw-closed doors. I'm also a little nervous about the battery life. I hope they last for a while, but with the constant play my kids have been doing with it, I'm unsure.

I was thinking about doing a giveaway with this, but I think Quinn would be extremely upset. This one is a keeper.

Honesty Clause: I got this toy for free. The Tonka Bounce Back Racer retails for $29.99.

Monday, September 15, 2008

An Open Letter to Ruby Tuesday

Dear Ruby Tuesday,

It was a few months ago when we ordered takeout from one of your restaurants and were dissatisfied. We'd ordered your Strawberries and Ice Cream dessert only to come home to find that the strawberries and sauce weren't in our bag. That left us with a dry pastry and a scoop of ice cream for $4.99.

I called the store to complain and they told me they would send me a gift card to make up for it. Your employee put me on hold while she "found a piece of paper." I gave her my address and began waiting for a gift card that never came.

Last night my husband and I were hungry enough that we decided to forgive you for your poor service, so we ordered more takeout. Here is what was wrong with our order:

1. Your employees left an entire entree out of the bag. My husband had to go back to the restaurant to get his food. Your staff was kind enough to remove the price of the entree from the check, but I know he would rather have just paid for the hamburger than have to make two trips to get it. Takeout is supposed to be easy and convenient.

2. We ordered two of your Chocolate Tallcakes. Neither of them came with the chocolate and caramel sauce listed in the description in the menu. The cakes were good, but not what we had ordered.

3. My entree came with a salad. I was taking my last bites of the salad when I found a giant CHUNK OF WOOD in the box. I repeat: I found an inch-long, jagged chunk of wood in my salad.

This chunk of wood:


I would like to let you know that this has pushed me over the edge. I will no longer be purchasing food from you. Bad service and inattention to detail, not to mention the wood from an unknown source I found in my food, has ensured that my family and I will no longer be your customers.

Sincerely,
Stimey

cc: Ruby Tuesday Support Center
150 W. Church Ave.
Maryville, TN 37801

Honesty Clause: After receiving this letter, Ruby Tuesday contacted me and subsequently sent me some gift cards.

Friday, September 12, 2008

VTech V-Motion & V.Smile Cyber Pocket Update

I have felt the need for several days to come back here with a longer-term review of the VTech products I reviewed here last week. At the time of the reviews I had mostly positive things to say, but I don't feel that I really gave those products their due.

Here are some of my initial issues and how my opinion has changed:

My kids couldn't care less that the graphics on the V-Motion aren't as good as those on the Xbox. They just want to play the Thomas the Tank Engine and Spiderman games we have. All the time. The VTech games are the first thing they want to play with when they come in the house.

At the time of my initial review, my kids weren't very good at using the V-motion motion-activated controller. Well, now Jack loves the motion-activated controller and prefers to play that way. (Sam and Jack still use the joystick option.)

As far as the Cyber Pocket, I just really have to reiterate how well it keeps the attention of all three of my children. The time I spend at karate has gone from being a chore for me to a nice respite. My kids are not only entranced by the game, but they're learning.

I still think they should include a power cord with the V-Motion console.

Honesty Clause: VTech in no way contacted me or requested these changes. It's just that after using these products over a longer period of time, I realized that my kids and I liked them even more than we did when they were brand new.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Leapfrog Tag

When I got the call from the school nurse today that Jack was sick and that I should come pick him up, I was sad. But at least it gave me the opportunity to have him and Quinn test out our new Leapfrog Tag.

The Tag is an electronic pen kids can use to interact with books. It's kind of like a LeapPad, but all packed into a compact package. You can have the Tag read the book to you, have it read individual words, and more. It's pretty cool.

And it's kind of like magic. I know there's probably a perfectly logical reason you can put the Tag on the word "frog" and it reads the word "frog" instead of just saying "bwonk," but I don't know what it is. I'm going to chalk it up to voodoo and move on. I don't have to know how it works to like it.

We have a LeapPad, and have gotten a lot of use and fun out of it in the several years we've owned it. However, the Tag improves on the LeapPad in a big way. Tag books are hardcover, which makes them a lot harder to destroy. Plus, where our LeapPad and accessories take up a big chunk of space on our shelf, the Tag system doesn't take up much room.

But the thing I love most is that I no longer have to keep a book and a cartridge together with the system. With the Tag, I only have to keep track of a book. Which, if you know me (or my kids), is a big deal.

The tradeoff is that once you have a Tag book, you have to create an account at LeapFrog and upload the audio for the book to the Tag pen. The process was quick and pretty easy, impeded only by my inability to type the same password two times in a row to register.

Once we were all set up, we started playing. The books are really nice quality and the narrators were wonderful. Kids can choose to have the narrator read by word, by page, or by entire book. And there are games on each page and at the end of the books that kids can play.


I wasn't able to find anything on the pages that didn't make a noise if I touched it with the pen, and believe me, I tried. (I may have played with it after my kids went to eat lunch.)

This system would be great for travel. I wish we'd had it when we drove from Maryland to Wisconsin (and back) this summer. My kids might have read books instead of watching so many DVDs in the car. And it would even work on airplanes because it has a headphone jack as well.

The book selection seems to be pretty good too. Ozzie and Mack comes with the Tag, and they have more than 20 more books and games available.


Jack particularly liked Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. He laughed and grinned as he listened to it four times in a row. Then he read it himself out loud, giggling and exclaiming the whole time.

My biggest problem with the Tag is that I see several books in their library that I want to own and I'm a little afraid that I'm going to have to go buy out the section at Target. (I did just see that the LeapFrog website has a buy 3 books, get the 4th free offer.)

Quinn had a freakout when he saw they have The Little Engine That Could, and I think I Spy would be a lot of fun with the Tag. I am not, however, excited by the possibility of listening to Walter the Farting Dog. I can only imagine the sound effects. I think it would cause problems in my three-young boy household. I do think that my kids would find it hi-larious though.

Bottom line: I'm excited by this toy. I think it's a great way to maintain kids' interest in books, and is probably a good way to get them started on pre-reading skills.

Honesty Clause: LeapFrog gave me the Tag and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom for free. The Tag retails for $49.99. Books retail for $13.99 each.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

V.Smile Cyber Pocket

Let me share with you how much time I spend in waiting rooms frantically trying to keep two of my kids busy while the third participates in some activity: a lot.

To be more specific, Sam goes to karate two evenings a week for a half hour each day and Jack is currently going to occupational therapy for an hour once a week. Before long, we hope to add an hour of speech therapy as well.

That's a lot of time to spend occupying assorted kids ranging in age from three to almost seven in spaces not necessarily geared for doing such a thing. I have tried many things. When we started karate, I used dry erase boards and markers. Then I started frantically reading them books. Then I started packing bags full of trains and cars. No matter how engaged they are for part of the time, they usually spend at least half of the time trying to cause a scene—something they're very good at.

Then VTech sent me the V.Smile Cyber Pocket, and my life vastly improved. The Cyber Pocket is a hand-held video game system for kids. All the games have educational components, such as as counting, sorting, and number or letter recognition.

For better or for worse, this is the thing that will occupy them for the full amount of time we are waiting. The only time they cause a ruckus is when I make them put it away.

I don't really feel bad about the screen time either, because I don't usually allow screen time until 5 p.m. anyway, so if they're playing between 5 and 6 p.m., that's okay with me because they'd probably be watching TV at home. And this way, I can interact with them while they're doing it.

Or I can read. I'm looking forward to getting some reading done in waiting rooms.

I should have known my kids would love this. They, and especially Jack, are always glued to the screen of other kids' Nintendo DS systems. They are thrilled to have a system of their own.

And this one is easy enough for my three-year-old to play. The controls mostly consist of a joystick and a button, although there is also an option to use the attached pen for parts of the game. I still have to help the littlest guy, but not so much that it is frustrating.

Because we also have the V-Motion, we can use the same games in both systems. As with the V-Motion, my kids liked the game that came with the system, but adore the game I bought for it.

There is a headphone jack, but I haven't used that yet, because there is also a volume control, and the games we've played can be turned down without making the games confusing. There is also an adaptor plug, so you can plug it in to save batteries if you want. (Adaptor not included.)

Honestly the only fault I can find with this game system is that my kids like it too much and are always pestering me to play it. Which can be a drag, but when it comes to waiting rooms, it can be a lifesaver.

Update here.

*****

Honesty Clause: VTech gave me the Cyber Pocket for free. Other than that, I was uncompensated for this review. The Cyber-Pocket retails for $69.99.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

V-Motion Active Learning System

EDITED TO ADD: My kids have done nothing but ask to play with this game all day. Almost literally nothing else. They love, love, love it. Update here.

I didn't have a review blog before VTech caught my attention. Then I was seduced by their table of products at BlogHer and eagerly signed up to be on their "Demo Team." Because my family is composed of suckers for electronics in general and video games in particular.

I was excited beyond words when I got a package in the mail a couple of weeks ago that included their V-Motion Active Learning System.

Before I start my review, I would like to say a few words about the necessity of a video game system for small children. I remember when I first saw the V.Smile. I wondered why anyone would need to give a video game system to a 3-year-old. I still kind of wonder that.

My 3-year-old playing the V-Motion.
(Do you think he likes it?)

But I also kind of live in the real world. Well, my real world. And my real world includes screen time. VTech's take on this issue seems to be, if they're going to ask to play video games, why not give them something educational instead of something mindless?

That said, you're either the type of person who's going to let your small children play video games (me) or you're not (my sister). If you're like my sister, go back to Stimeyland. If you're like me, read on.

The game was really easy to set up and connect to the TV, although it didn't come with the adaptor. So we had to start out with battery power, which ran out pretty quickly. Then I went to Target and bought the power cord, which made me much happier. (And $10 poorer.)

All the VTech systems come with something called the V.Link, which allows you to track your child's game time and scores, plus access extra games, or something to that effect. As far as I can tell, the V.Link only works on PCs, and I have a Mac, so I obviously can't review that part of the system. But, frankly, I don't think my kids will miss it.

My guys had fun with the system using the game that came with it, but the biggest problem we had was that they had already played on an Xbox 360, and the V-Motion just cannot compete with that. I had to remind myself that the Xbox and its awesome graphics retails at around $300, and the V-Motion is $70.

However, Quinn (the 3-year-old) is not coordinated enough to play with the Xbox controller. So the Xbox is not really a possibility for him. But the V-Motion controller is basically a joystick and a button. That he can do. There is also a motion-activated function for the controller so kids can play the games just by moving the controller around. (Think Wii.)

This option was kind of tough for my kids. They actually prefer the joystick option, but I'm sure they could get the hang of the motion activation if they practiced. For now, though, the motion-activated option requires serious contortions, which is actually sort of entertaining to watch.

Clothing digitally added. I know. It's like I'm a professional or something.

All the VTech games have an educational basis: matching letters, color sorting, counting, etc... For kids still working on things like letter and number recognition, this is fantastic.

We like the V-Motion with the game they include with it, but we LOVE the V-Motion with the Thomas & Friends game I bought at Target. Quinn is a little bit of a train nut, so he was thrilled to guide Thomas around a train track to find the letters in Percy's name. Especially if it meant he could occasionally crash Thomas into Edward.

Plus, and I haven't tested this yet, but the packaging on the games ($25 each) claims that they work in all the different systems. Which is awesome, because I think I'd be upset if they wanted me to buy different games for different versions of the same system.

Excuse me. I have to go now because Quinn is yelling, "I like Thomas! I like Thomas! I want to play the Thomas one!" I think I have to go turn the V-Motion on now.

*****

Stay tuned for my next review coming soon: The V.Smile Cyber Pocket and why it is making waiting rooms waaaaaaaay more fun.

*****

Honesty Clause: VTech gave me the V-Motion system for free. Other than that, I was uncompensated for this review. The V-Motion retails for $69.99.