8 school-smart tablets

Is a tablet on your child's back-to-school list? Check out our tech expert's top picks.

By Christina Tynan-Wood

Pick your tablet

These days, electronic tablets are springing up everywhere — with good reason. Tablets are portable, powerful, affordable, easy to use, and bring an astonishing arsenal of learning tools to your fingertips. There are hundreds of educational apps for tablets — from calculators to books to educational games. A tablet makes taking notes a matter of turning on a voice recorder, snapping a picture, and typing a few facts. A student with a tablet can download research materials and class assignments in a snap, or rather, a tap. So if your student is clamoring to get in on the craze — insisting an electronic tablet will improve his school year — he may have a point.

Tablets aren't for everyone, of course. For many families, the cost is prohibitive; others may be unwilling to introduce yet another screen into their child's life. And no matter what your child tells you, a tablet won't transform a bad student into a good one. Tablets are simply another electronic tool that can make life a little easier — and a lot more portable.

If you're considering a tablet for your student, remember that these days, the tablet universe is a lot bigger than just the iPad. Many of the tablets on the Android platform, for example, are cheaper, smaller, and more suited to student life. In the end, the right tablet will depend on your student, his school, the size of his backpack, and your budget. So check out your options; you may find that your student's request for a tablet is easier to fulfill than you thought. And how often do you get to buy school supplies and be a hero at the same time?

Nabi 2

Ages: Preschool and up

The Nabi 2 ($200) is a cool idea: A 7” Android tablet that’s built just for kids — and it's a genuine tablet, not a toy. Its interchangeable bumper case makes it small-hand friendly and tough enough to survive the school day without turning Mom into a hovering worrywart. And it comes with access to a music store offering songs from Disney and Nickelodeon, as well as multimedia books preinstalled by MeeGenius, so right out of the box, your child will be able to turn it on and play. If this sounds like a device that will turn your tot into a vidiot, relax. It also features built-in math, science, and reading tools and a chore manager to help you raise a helpful adult. Will it keep your tot happy through high school? Probably not, but it will likely be her favorite source of fun and learning for quite a while. And unlike your fragile iPad, it will keep her away from games and content too mature for little minds.

Bottom line: Young kids love iPads but they aren’t really kid-proof. This 7” Android tablet is designed just for small kids, with content — and a price — to match.

Kindle Fire

Ages: Elementary school and up

The Kindle Fire ($199) transformed the tablet market last year by expanding the popular Kindle reader into a slick, touch-screen Android tablet that plays video, delivers magazines and books in rich color, and accesses a host of learning apps. The tablet offers access to Amazon’s Kindle Store so if you like to shop for e-books there, it's a no-brainer. Add a subscription to Amazon Prime, and this device will compete with your TV for video entertainment. Your child can also surf the Web, keep track of his schedule, and download a calculator or the book his teacher assigned (while he’s still in class). All this will make your student happy and productive — unless he can’t resist the siren call of all that video entertainment at his fingertips. He won’t be able to claim he has nothing to read, though, because Amazon has over two million free (out of copyright, pre-1923) books, including classics like Pride and Prejudice and Treasure Island.

Bottom Line: A tablet that doubles as an e-reader and costs only $199.

Nook Tablet

Ages: Elementary school and up

The Nook Tablet (starting at $199), like the Kindle Fire, is both an e-reader and a tablet. Your child can purchase e-books through Barnes and Noble’s Nook Bookstore and since the tablet is preloaded with Netflix, your student can watch her favorite TV shows and movies wherever she has a Wi-Fi connection. She can also download educational games and read her favorite magazines without cluttering up your house. And, of course, she can keep up with her friends via email and connect to the Web to research school projects — unless you use the Nook’s parental controls to disable the Web browser.

Bottom Line: If Barnes and Noble is your preferred bookstore, this tablet and eBook reader is a great student tablet.

Galaxy Tab 2

Ages: Middle school and up

Welcome to the wild world of choice. With the Galaxy Tab 2, you can select a 7” or 10.1” screen, and connect via cellular and Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi only to fit your student’s backpack and your budget. In fact, with all the tools she’ll have on this tablet, she might opt to skip the backpack altogether. For an on-the-go student, though, I like the 7” Galaxy Tab Wi-Fi ($250) because it’s affordable and amazingly portable. It has a camera so she can snap photos of the blackboard or whatever else she needs to remember. Heck, she can even record the entire lecture rather than scratching notes on paper. It keeps her calendar handy, lets her make video or voice calls (using an app over Wi-Fi), read books, listen to music, and surf the Web. And the Google Play Store has everything a student could need — from calculators to books to student planners — most of it for free. All she’ll need is a Wi-Fi connection and teachers who appreciate her savvy use of tech tools.

Bottom line: The Wi-Fi only Galaxy Tab 2 (Wi-Fi) won’t break the bank but it will give your student an arsenal of tools to help her keep on track, organized, and in touch.

Nexus 7

Ages: Middle school and up

Sporting the very latest version of Android — Jelly Bean — the Nexus 7 ($199) was built by Google for Android. So if your student lives on Gmail, Google Voice, and Google Search, she'll have it all — as well as all the educational tools and games available in the Google Play Store — in the palm of her hand. The screen on this device is 7”, and it's Wi-Fi only, so you can deflect requests for a cellular data plan. This is cutting-edge, nerd-level technology at a stunning price — especially since, for a limited time anyway, the purchase comes with $25 to spend at the Play Store. Got a geek for whom the cool is all about tech? This is the tablet for him — and your budget.

Bottom Line: The latest Android technology at a fabulous price. Who doesn’t want that?

The Toshiba Excite

Ages: High school and up

At first glance, it’s difficult to understand why the Toshiba Excite 7.7” tablet costs $499 — significantly more than other tablets this size. It turns out that this tablet is far more versatile than others, because it has USB ports for connecting to your TV or other devices, HDMI (for connecting to many new TVs), and more. It even has a slot for a microSD memory card. It also has a ton of power under that slim hood. Add a portable keyboard and this is essentially a laptop you can hold in one hand. In fact, it's a machine that could last right through college and into the workplace. Your student will be able to call up every digital resource he knows about with the tap of a finger — in a device the size of the Day-Timer you once carried to keep track of your schedule and phone numbers.

Bottom line: The power and connections within this little package are enough — when you add a wireless keyboard — to replace a computer for many students and adults.

Sony Tablet P

Ages: High school and up

If that backpack bursting with binders, crumpled assignments, tennis shoes, and the remnants of yesterday’s lunch has you shaking your head and saying, “I’m not letting a tablet near this kid!” the Sony Tablet P ($350) may be the solution. This device folds in half to protect the screen when you aren’t using it, but when you open it up, it’s a full-featured Android tablet with two screens, so you can view two different documents, apps, or games at the same time. It’s not indestructible, but it clams up tight to protect that delicate screen. And if chaos rules that backpack, it probably has a grip on your student’s mind as well — but some new tools may help bring him to order. On this tablet, he can get organized with Google Calendar, a camera to capture blackboard shots, a recorder to save lectures, and a student planner app.

Bottom line: A unique, folding, dual-screen tablet that might withstand a bit more backpack abuse than the typical tablet. The larger on-screen keyboard will also be useful in the classroom.

The new Apple iPad

Ages: Elementary and up

The new iPad (starting at $499 for 16GB Wi-Fi only model) is an amazing device — with beautiful retina display, an excellent camera, and (in more expensive models) a fast 4G cellular connection; it also gives students access to the endless variety of educational apps in the App Store. The size is more suited to using at home than porting in a backpack, but the doors it opens may be worth the effort — and the price tag. The tablet gives a young child access to hundreds of educational games — which run exclusively on iPad — that bring to life everything from the periodic table to the night sky. If your child's older, he can race ahead — even if he’s trapped in middle school — to take classes at the world’s best colleges through iTunes U. If you're considering buying for a student, perhaps the best thing about the new iPad is that its arrival made the iPad 2 cheaper (starting at $399). The iPad 2 is also an amazing device. Maybe get the new version for yourself?

Bottom Line: The new iPad is an amazing tablet. But the best part — at least if you are buying for a student — is that is means the iPad 2 is now cheaper.

Christina Tynan-Wood has written for Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Science, PC World, PC Magazine, InfoWorld, and many others. She currently writes the "Family Tech" column in Family Circle and blogs at GeekGirlfriends.com.