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Review: VTech MobiGo Touch Learning System an engaging device

As the progeny of a game and gadget reviewer, my five-year-old daughter comes into contact with a lot of technology. Consequently, she's become a bit jaded. Gadgets are just too commonplace around here for them to take on the attractive, exotic air they possess in some households.

However, when she put her hands on VTech's new MobiGo Touch Learning System, she was as hooked as she's ever been on any piece of technology. She didn't get angry when I told her that it was time to stop playing, but she often went in search of it on her own (something she doesn't do with gadgets like the iPad, DS, or Wii), and would be completely engaged with it for a full thirty minutes -- the longest play session I'd allow. Her mild obsession might have been worrisome had she been occupied by some mindless action game, but the activities she tried were surprisingly educational.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start with the device itself.

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The $69.99 MobiGo Touch Learning System is a mobile game platform for three- to eight-year-olds. Roughly the size of a paperback novel, it sports a colourful, rough-and-tumble casing well suited for the sort of punishment kids are prone to dish out. Its bright three-inch touch screen offers a highly intuitive primary interface, while more traditional controls include a d-pad, an action button, and a full QWERTY keyboard that's revealed by pushing the screen up, rather like a smart phone.

It's a full-featured, well-made and robust piece of hardware that's clearly more powerful and versatile than, say, LeapFrog's competing . There are some questionable design decisions -- you can't mute the volume completely, but instead just turn it down to a very low level -- but there are also some commendable ones, such as a dedicated help button that calls up game instructions while playing.

Of course, like any game platform, the MobiGo will sink or swim based on the quality of its software. My daughter and I tried only the title that it comes with -- a sextet of educational mini-games dubbed Touch and Learn -- but that was enough to occupy her off and on for a couple of weeks.

One of the games had her tapping the keyboard to spell out words as their corresponding letters moved across the screen on the wings of floating ducks. The words repeat frequently, but she didn't seem to mind. In fact, it may have helped. A day after her first two play sessions she was telling me how to spell words from the game, including "milk" and "kite."

Meanwhile, a math-based game had her solving simple problems by tapping saucers bearing possible answers as they flew by. Another had her sliding pieces of ice around to create a path for a penguin to find a fish. And still another had her analyzing groups of cartoon animals to identify the odd one out.

Clearly, these are very simple activities. But she found them highly engaging. What's more, I had the distinct impression that she came away better for the experience.

There are currently about a dozen educational games available for MobiGo, most of which are licensed titles based on properties like Toy Story and Shrek. I'd prefer to see more original games and fewer commercial characters. I'm holding out hope for some Hollywood-free downloadable content. Starting later this month parents will be able to grab a download manager from VTech's website that will allow them to connect the MobiGo to a PC via USB and search through additional free games. I suspect these games will be short, but it also seems likely that they'll be more interested in pedagogy than brand promotion.

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Much as I like the MobiGo, I'd recommend holding off for a bit to see how its library of games develops. Plus, keep in mind that LeapFrog will soon be rolling out the Leapster Explorer Learning Experience, a brand new educational game system for kids that will likely be a little more expensive but promises to provide a completely safe and secure online community for children who aren't yet old enough to be allowed onto the wild, wild Web. It will be a first for the category.

There's no shortage of affordable mobile gaming options for kids right now, so there's no reason to settle for second best.

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