The good: The pen is amazing, a real marvel of teaching technology. The kids like it.
The bad: It's the most techno-savvy leapfrog product yet. The pen needs to be connected to the computer a lot as your child learns. Not only do you have to "download" the books onto the pen, but there is a feedback loop where the child earns rewards. Most of the "rewards" require printer paper and ink. I wish you could turn off the pen's requests to be plugged back into the computer, but you can't.
Should you buy it:
If you are used to performing regular "maintenance" with your ipod, and you don't mind that, then definitely buy it.
If you don't like maintainin computers (firmware upgrades, syncing, troubleshooting, etc) then consider very carefully before buying.
Don't get this as a gift for a person who either doesn't have a computer, or has a relic of a computer that they never use.
I have owned a lot of leapfrog toys. This is the first one I've used which is very similar to owning an ipod.
Upon receiving this product, the pen comes with a demo book. The demo book works out of the box, of course. The technology itself is cool, there is a little camera underneath the pen point and it can "see" where you are on the page. Touching the pen to the page makes the pen announce whatever is in that location. You can switch "modes" by touching in the corner of the book. For example, you can switch to "play a game" or you can "read".
The demo book is fine for maybe a couple hours play, but it doesn't have enough play value for you to be satisfied with the demo book alone. You're going to have to buy more books, which you expect if you have some experience with these leapfrog devices.
So I bought several books to test this out with. They included: LeapFrog Tag Activity Storybook I SPY Imagine That!, LeapFrog Tag Learn to Read Phonics Book Series Short Vowels, and LeapFrog Tag Learn to Read Phonics Book Series Long Vowels, Silent E and Y. I waited to post my review until those items arrived.
It was only after I received these books that I realized what it was like to use this product. Here is my journey, in steps:
STEP 1: I had to install Leapfrog software on my computer. And each time you buy a book you have use your computer to "install" that book on the pen. You can't go to a store and pick up a Leapfrog book and use it right away. You either have to download the audio ahead of time (more on that in a minute) or come home and download it after you buy the book. This IS NOT a cartridge system, like many previous leapfrog products.
STEP 2: I had to set up a leapfrog,com ACCOUNT with a username and password. I didn't appreciate the need to set up an account. I am receiving occasional rare email solicitations from Leapfrog now, even though I indicated that I didn't want any emails.
STEP 3: I had to set up each CHILD in the account. You do this to track their progress. I actually don't care about that very much, and I would have appreciated an opt-out on that feature. So each child has a little account of their own.
STEP 4: After I installed the software I plugged the pen into my computer with a USB cable.
STEP 5: Then I had to update the software on the pen. (Thats "firmware" to us geeks). Thats right, Leapfrog felt the need to change the software that makes the pen work between the time the pen was made and the time you bought it. So bringing the pen "up to date" is your responsibility.
STEP 6: Then I had to find the books I bought (one at a time, even though they aren't sold separately) for download from leapfrog's website. You can download every book they have, even if you don't own the paper version of the book. You could download the audio for a book, and then go to the store and buy the paper version, and then use the paper book immediately. This was kind of nice if you are planning ahead.
I hope you see what i'm saying - to use any book you need to have (1) a paper book and (2) a digital download for that same paper book which you got on your computer. If you only have one or the other, you can't use that book.
STEP 7: Next I had to use the computer program to move the books I wanted to use onto the pen. This is called "synchronizing". Fortunately, all 12 fit on the pen at one time. You'd have to buy a lot of books before you filled up the pen (maybe 20?).
STEP 8: I had to hit a button telling it to Sync.
STEP 9: Then I unplugged the unit to let my child play with it.
STEP 10: (the unexpected step!) The toy instructs my child that she has won a reward! And to plug it back into the computer to claim the reward! The reward is a color bookmark for me to print out on my printer! In 1 book (the I spy) she earned all four rewards in an hour. Each time she stopped what she was doing and came to me to plug it in, view the reward, and print it out. The first time, the software said I didn't own the book (which was funny because I had downloaded it using the same software) but after restarting it, restarting the pen, and resyncing the pen to the software it finally agreed that I did, in fact, own the book and could redeem the reward. Personally, I didn't like step 10 very much, I was done at step 9, but modern technology is demanding.
Will you (as a parent) like this experience?
1) Obviously, if you one of the millions of people who are used to having your iphone, ipod, or whatver, you are used to all of this. You get to do it all again when you buy this device.
2) If you are one of the millions of people to whom this sounds like a pain in the [...] and makes you want to call your son in law, then, maybe, just maybe, this product is not for you.
As for the product:
The product is really quite good. Its amazing what it can do. And the kids really love to use it. It will help them to learn to read, spell, and some other things too. I'm very pleased with the product overall.
It has a headphone jack, but no headphones are included. My kids prefer over-the-ear headphones because those little earbuds just keep falling out. We use these: Sennheiser HD 202 Dynamic Supra-Aural Headphones
The demo book that comes with it is just ok. Being optomistic, its worth 2 hour of fun. Its got a huge variety of stuff. Its almost too random an assortment, but it does show you what the pen can do. They had to include something. But the demo book is not very "deep". You absolutely will have to buy more books. The books range from $10-$20 each. They can be used without the pen in a pinch. I think the books are a "fair" value.
The instructions were "clear enough". They are good considering how much more software is involved. I felt comfortable with the instructions and had no problems getting it set up. I'm complaining about how much "setting up" there was, but, it wasn't "hard".
Overall, to enjoy this product you are looking at a total expense of around $100 between the reader and a reasonable assortment of books. And its really cool and really fun once you look past the other details.