Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 Kids £149
7th Jan 2014 | 16:02
Looks and feels right, but it's slow and full of freemium apps
First of all, this isn't a new thing. What Samsung has done here is take its existing and rather low-spec Galaxy Tab 3 and whack it in a yellow case, rebranding it as the Galaxy Tab 3 Kids in the hope generous parents might buy it for their little ones regardless of how many cores it has inside.
This means you, or your lucky child, get a 7-inch tablet with a relatively low-resolution 1024 x 600 display, powered by a positively budget sector 1.2GHz dual-core processor.
There are two things that make it worthy of investigation, though, thanks to Samsung selling it with two extremely robust cases, and also providing a super-secure and completely separate Kids Mode alternative Home screen that lets parents control every aspect of their child's tablet time.
The RRP for the Galaxy Tab 3 Kids is around the £199 (around $229.99, AU$260) mark, although it's available for about £150 (around $199.99, AU$225) online. Which is quite a premium price for a 7-inch Android tablet these days, especially as the specs suggest this is mutton dressed as lamb - and the standard Galaxy Tab 3 can be picked up for nearer £99 (around $169, AU$190).
The hardware, then, is exactly the same as that offered by the Galaxy Tab 3. You get Samsung's traditional physical Home button, with Menu to the left and Back to the right. Beneath the central button is the Micro USB connector, which lets you fill the Tab's generous 4000mAh battery.
There are two cases provided, an orange rubber thing and this extremely impressive Junior Businessman-style case and holdall, which also combines a kickstand with a hole in the hinge to house the stylus.
This is by far the best reason to plump for the Tab Kids over the myriad other cheap Android tablets, as the stand lifts the tablet while in landscape mode, raising the viewing angle and meaning your poor child won't grow up with such a hunched back from using the thing sat at a table.
Samsung's build quality is impressive too. The Tab 3 Kids feels heavy and solid, plus the touchscreen is responsive and survived extensive angry prodding from my son during the course of my tests.
And the stylus that comes as part of the briefcase-like case and stand combo is great, allowing a child to live out its wildest marker pen fantasies without actually ruining any carpets or soft furnishings.
Around the back there's no flash beside that 3MP camera, so don't go expecting to use this for anything other than joke kiddy photography. What's nice to see are those chunky little rubber feet on the bottom of the case, which help the tablet sit still when being used on a table with the kickstand out.
I like the case. The case is great. The case is a five-star accessory. The tablet inside it, though, is a bit of a disappointment.
Kids Mode interface
The main selling point is this locked-down alternative launcher, which Samsung calls Kids Mode. It's activated by tapping on an icon on the standard Android Home screen, and once you're in this happy-clappy world of friendly animals you can't get back to the grown-up Android world without entering your PIN - even turning the tablet off and on again puts you straight back into Kids Mode.
So your child's going to be stuck with it.
Above is the Kids Mode Home screen. Children can choose for themselves what appears in the shortcuts to apps along the bottom, with these cards selectable from the list of all available apps.
Kids Mode also has its own app drawer, but it only shows applications adults have approved via the PIN-protected menu. It's a nice way to control what kids can see and use, although the concept of moving things from the drawer to the Home screen was a bit too much for my little boy to handle.
It's a clever system, though. Opening up the admin panel brings up a stylised version of the Android app drawer, only here there's a tick box beside each and every app.
This means the holder of the hallowed control PIN can give every single app a yes or no, even the omnipresent Google ones like Gmail and YouTube, deciding specifically what does and doesn't appear in Kids Mode.
So if you're the trusting type and are OK with your child using YouTube, you can add it to the OK list with one press. But if your child can't be trusted or has been bad and is in need of punishment, deselecting it denies access and will teach it who's really boss.
Kids are allowed to play with some basic settings, though. They can customise the tablet through the Kids' Settings tab, which lets them access a limited options menu to change the wallpaper, add or remove apps from the Home screen and adjust the brightness.
It's a bit basic, but I like the way it alludes to them having control of the tablet without actually letting them fiddle with the complete range of settings. My kid looked at it once, decided it was boring and left it alone. Which is exactly what you want.
Adults also have a bit more secret admin power, with the PIN-protected menu letting them deactivate the tablet's touch-sensitive Menu and Back buttons when in Kids Mode, more out of courtesy than security, as kids can accidentally press these with arms and stray fingers (and loose tongues, noses etc) and quit apps in error.
And Samsung's physical Home button serves the same purpose. While my boy often accidentally quits apps while using a phone with capacitive or software buttons, the chunky Home button Samsung's still using here means a definite press is required to get out of an app. That's a great frustration-saver for kids.
You're also able to choose whether you want all new apps downloaded in standard Android mode automatically added to Kids Mode or not. This is another nice touch, as it means you don't need to worry about accidentally granting your kid full access to your Dropbox files or Facebook messenger should you download them in Dad Mode.
But if you mainly download apps by request for the amusement of your child, you can set it so all new downloads automatically pop up in Kids Mode.
Back on more familiar territory, entering the PIN lets adults or trusted older children access the standard Google/Samsung Android interface.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 Kids belies its rather old age here by arriving with Android 4.1 as the OS, although upon first boot I was prompted to download a 230MB update.
Everything here's the same as it was on the standard Galaxy Tab 3, meaning Samsung's TouchWiz interface runs the show, offering such enhancements as a selection of quick access toggles to common features on the Notifications tab, an editable number of Home screens, and access to the usual Google apps and live widgets to install.
There are a few useful custom additions in here, notably the option to choose if the Android or Kids Mode layout should be the default, plus there's what Samsung calls Blocking Mode, which can be used to disable notifications according to a timed schedule.
Handy if you fancy doing a bit of uninterrupted sleep, or want to hand the tablet to someone else without them being able to see and access the notifications that might be firing into your phone or another tablet.
What's immediately apparent here, though, is how low-spec the hardware behind the Galaxy Tab 3 Kids is. Everything lags, from opening up the app drawer to watching the various settings screens take half a second or so to populate, plus there's a separate "loading" screen in place to cover the occasional blackness gap of around ten seconds that it can sometimes take the Gallery app to load.
It's a disappointing experience away from the undemanding Kids Mode. Adults are not going to be impressed, especially with rival budget tablets like Tesco's Hudl doing such a superb job of running Android for a much lower price than the Galaxy Tab 3 Kids.
Camera and media
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 Kids features the same hardware spec as the Galaxy Tab 3, so your kid will be spoilt with access to twin cameras, then mildly disappointed by the blotchiness and general gloom of the output.
Images come off the camera at a maximum 2048 x 1536 resolution, and they're pretty depressing to behold. Colour reproduction is so poor images look like they've been run through some sort of 1990s-colour-printer-with-low-toner filter, plus the lack of flash makes indoor photography unappealing.
What's also sad to see is that there's no integration of images within apps. The third-party drawing app Samsung's stuck on here isn't aware enough to pull photos in from the Android gallery, which disappointed my child who's used to other Android drawing tools that let you import shots and draw exotic beards on everyone's faces.
Video captured in Kids Mode is saved at a shockingly poor 640 x 480 resolution. Seeing as kids will probably end up taking videos of their feet and the dog's nose that's probably not such a problem, and at least the framerate is consistent and smooth.
There is the luxury of a front-facing camera, though, plus Samsung's added in a range of clever overlays to the simplified Kids Mode camera interface, which let you add dog ears, funny noses and the like to images. This made my kid laugh quite a bit, but then he's only three so is still quite easily impressed by the magic of today's technology.
Heading over to the usual Android OS brings in loads more camera options via Samsung's TouchWiz customisations, where users can add a few filters, adjust the brightness and upgrade the resolution of clips to 1280 x 720, meaning the 640 x 480 limit on Kids Mode has presumably been put there to stop kids from eating up all the system storage with their videos.
And again, Kids Mode is the best thing about the experience. The simpler camera app is easy to use, with chunky, bright icons letting my kid immediately identify what each button does.
The rear camera sensor is fairly near the right-hand side of the tablet, though, so most of the videos and photos my child took featured quite a bit of finger blocking the shots.
If you choose to let your child have full access to the Android range of media options, there's plenty to do on the Galaxy Tab 3 Kids. The YouTube app works well enough given the limitations of the low-resolution display and relatively weedy 1.2GHz dual-core chipset, plus Google's Play Music app is on here for cloud-based music playback.
In terms of actual child-friendly media options, there's a standalone player called Kids' Video in the Kids Mode area. Rather cleverly, this filters out any videos recorded back on the standard Android side of things, so the only clips you see in the Kids mode gallery are the ones recorded in Kids Mode.
What happens in Kids Mode stays in Kids Mode, unless you access the PIN-locked parental options and manually check the tickbox beside the standard Android gallery, in which case all videos on the device pop up.
That's quite handy, as my child loves looking at photos and videos of himself, so if you have a load taken in the normal Android camera, your child can access them if you allow him to.
The only problem with doing that is it means your child can then delete all the videos on the device too, so be warned that your precious memories might be coldly binned by an accidental exploring finger.
Another area where Kids Mode shows welcome signs of restriction is with sharing media. You can't, basically, with the Android share menu completely missing from the images in the photo gallery. It's quite nice to know your children won't be sharing photos.
Battery, connectivity and apps
The Galaxy Tab 3 Kids features a 4000mAh capacity battery. Given that's it's running a relatively low-spec device here, battery life is generally pretty decent. It's certainly better than I've seen from some of the cheaper tablets, giving me several days of regular active use off a single charge.
There's little to no connectivity to worry about when Kids Mode is engaged, aside from that built into any apps you've specifically allowed your child to use. That's quite reassuring, as you know your kid is using the tablet solo and not enjoying Hangouts with random people on the internet.
What is a bit annoying is the inclusion of a Kids' Store app which, once again, sees Samsung and its cherry-picked app providers kindly offering to sell things to our children. Apps can be sorted by All, Paid or Free, but it's pretty clear that a big part of the reason this thing exists is so Samsung can cream off pocket money direct from dad's credit card.
For full connectivity options, Dad Mode AKA proper Android needs engaging. Here, again, it's all identical to what you get from the standard non-yellow Galaxy Tab 3, with Samsung's TouchWiz offering 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi connectivity, DLNA support and a MicroSD slot for storage expansion.
One large and quite baffling omission is an option to shut-off and lock Wi-Fi use when in Kids Mode. There's no such tool hidden in the PIN-protected admin panel, so the only way to deactivate Wi-Fi is to head off to the full Android and deliberately switch it off from there. You can turn it off via the Kids Mode settings screen, but there's no way to stop the little dear turning it back on again.
There's also no blanket "Turn Off All Payments" option or equivalent, so some apps will pester for money and Samsung's IAP tool to be downloaded no matter how hard you try to pretend today's aggressive monetisation strategies don't exist.
Kids Mode apps
Here's where Samsung's child-friendly ambitions disintegrate. Toca Train and Hair Salon 2 are the fairly grim highlights, with my boy getting quite a bit of pleasure from train driver role-play and making women go bald.
That said, at least some token effort has been made to cater to children of different age groups. 123 Farm is a counting app for toddlers, where they learn numbers by tapping on animals while being cheered on by a sickeningly cheerful and grating American child actor.
Kids also get two puzzle-based Inventions games that ask them to arrange objects to trigger events, plus of more educational benefit is Ocean, which attempts to teach children around the three- to four-year-old mark basic grammar and sentence structure, by giving them audio clues that describe where things are hiding behind objects on the touchscreen.
As the adult in charge, I like to see these educational apps on the Tab Kids, as it somehow convinces you that leaving your child playing with it for hours is actually doing some good. My son, though, wasn't easily fooled.
Anything vaguely educational was crossed off his play list after a few minutes, and the Tab Kids soon became his exclusive Toca Train play machine.
One thing that shouldn't be on here is the disingenuous Kids World app. This is basically a hub that promises access to fun and learning activities, but in reality is a shop window with the specific aim of getting kids to click on the 'Buy' icon that sits inside every tab.
If your child's getting on a bit and perhaps even pushing double digit years, the wealth of full-power Android apps that feature on the Android 4.1 side of things can be accessed in Kids Mode too. So as your child gets more adept and proves it can be trusted, you can start filtering in other apps and adding them to the Kids Mode side.
That's a nice touch. I trust my boy to amuse himself listening to Spotify and Google Music playlists as it's important he learns about the Pet Shop Boys, so being able to add these to the Kids Mode options means he's instantly at home. In a year or two he might be allowed YouTube, so it's nice to know that can be added to the locked side when you feel a kid is ready.
Then when he's 18 he can have access to Snapchat.
For controlling younger children and hopefully heading off tantrums, there's a Time Manager on here. This lets responsible adults set a limit for use, either by setting a live countdown or allowing access between certain times of day.
Which seems a bit unfair and controlling, especially if your child isn't very good at telling the time, but may at least encourage them to put it down once in a while. So dad can have a go on it.
The Galaxy Tab 3 Kids does some things right and some things very wrong. The rubber and hard cases are top quality, Kids Mode is a fantastic interface that was easily usable by my three-year-old, plus it comes with what at first appears to be a decent range of pre-loaded apps.
But those apps are not exclusive to the Galaxy Tab 3 Kids, plus several of them are money-with-menaces freemium options that soon have kids asking for credit card details to unlock extra features, which is quite an affront in a device aimed specifically at youngsters without access to their own ready supply of money.
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The standalone Kids Mode home screen is a clever thing. It's an entirely new launcher, with PIN-protected, clearly labelled parental control options that let mum or dad easily choose which apps kids can have. And there's a timer too, for ensuring kids stick to a certain use limit.
Samsung's selling it with two cases, a rubberised case and a very impressive flip stand that doubles as a carry case -- and includes a fat stylus in the hinge. Both are thick and sturdy, and worth paying a premium for to protect the tab.
In fact, the build quality is superb throughout. Samsung's tablets always have a solid feel to them, and you wouldn't worry too much about this taking bashes and knocks even outside of its protective cases.
The stylus is fat and chunky. My son loved using it, as it adds a level of accuracy to presses and, as a parent, it's nice to see younger kids learning pen control as a side-effect of gaming and generally playing around.
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The screen resolution is a low 1020 x 600. This is fine on Kids Mode where everything's chunky and colourful, but back on the standard Android side of things it makes text look blocky and Samsung's grey and bland TouchWiz interface appears even more depressing than usual.
Also, when being used in standard Android mode, it's slow. The Galaxy Tab 3 has morphed into Samsung's equivalent of the budget models offered by others, and its 1GB RAM and 1.2GHz dual-core processor make it ponderous and glitchy. It's not a complete disaster, but Hudl and the new wave of cheaper budget tabs are much faster and slicker.
App choice is terrible. For a start, many aren't even pre-installed -- the shortcuts on the Home screen prompt you to download 70MB of data. To make matters worse, some are 'free to play' apps, which will ask for money to unlock stuff.
The app choice is so poor that even my three-year-old got bored of everything on here within an hour. If it wasn't for Google Play stalwarts like Toca Hair Salon and Train he'd have lost interest even more quickly.
"I like the train game. Can I be the train driver again?"
Kids Mode is great, with big, simple icons leading the way. The problem is, there are no exclusive games or learning tools on offer, with Samsung simply sticking on some popular free and 'free' games from Google Play.
This means that most games on here contain in-app purchases too, meaning buyers might be faced with the nightmare prospect of handing their child a brand new tablet to play with, only to be badgered for £1.50 in-app purchases by a talking dog with an American accent after just ten minutes of play.
I can't help but be disappointed that Samsung hasn't used its mass of talented coders to knock up a range of exclusive toys and learning apps to go on the Galaxy Tab 3 Kids. If it was packed with great, properly free and exclusive apps, that'd be a huge selling point.
My three-year-old enjoyed counting to ten by clicking on farm animals with the chunky stylus, but daddy wasn't best pleased when this app - obviously aimed at toddlers - then asked for permission to install Samsung's own IAP buying tool and coolly demanded my credit card details and £1.50 to open up more mini games.
It shouldn't be on here, and makes you think the Galaxy Tab Kids is a Trojan horse, designed to get kids badgering their parents for more money and Samsung's in-app purchasing tools in as many homes as possible. Not what you want from a gadget with an inflated price tag to start with.
As it is, with the apps sourced from Google Play and tablet hardware that was slow and crappy enough when TechRadar reviewed the standard Galaxy Tab 3 a few months ago, all you're really paying the premium price for here is the case and the Kids Mode interface.
Kids Mode is indeed a very nice interface, but it's poorly used, and my son quickly grew tired of the majority of the disappointing pre-loaded apps. A Hudl, a cheap case and a selection of apps installed yourself would do the job for less -- and would run grown-up Android better too.