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LeapFrog unveils Leapster Explorer handheld gaming device and e-book reader

Facing increased competition from the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, LeapFrog is bringing out a sleeker, faster Leapster that features a sharper touch screen.

The Leapster Explorer will be available on July 12 for $69.99.

Doing it's best to compete with handheld devices like the Nintendo DS and even the iPhone and iPod Touch, LeapFrog has announced its next-generation Leapster educational gaming device, the Leapster Explorer.

This Explorer features a sharper, 3.2-inch 420x420-pixel touch screen and improved processing power that allows the device to run video, 3D graphics and Flash-based games. The $69.99 Explorer launches on July 12 with 12 games and 18 Leaplet Learning Apps, which are are akin to some of the smaller, simpler educational games found in Apple's App store. A two-pack of the Learning Apps will run $14.99 while the game cartridges will retail for $24.99. Launch titles include Toy Story 3, Disney Fairies, The Penguins of Madagascar, Wolverine and the X-Men, Disney Princesses, Ben 10, and Dora the Explorer.

At least according to the San Francisco Chronicle, LeapFrog is also billing the Explorer as an e-book reader (isn't every device an e-book reader these days?) and says that kids will be able to read e-books from the Tag library. This fall a camera accessory ($24.95) will be available that will apparently "unlock new gaming experiences such as visual scavenger hunts."

Like many of LeapFrog's new educational toys and devices, the Explorer has an online component that includes LeapWorld, where kids can pick up virtual goodies, and LeapFrog Learning Path, where parents can monitor their kids' learning progress.

It's good that LeapFrog is making this move, and the relatively affordable $69.99 price tag should appeal to parents on a budget. But the low-cost educational apps in Apple's App Store, which retail for anywhere between 99 cents and $4.99 (and some are even free), have certainly had an impact on the educational gaming market. Last year, LeapFrog released Number Rumble for the iPhone, but we're not sure why it hasn't been making more iPhone games. We'll ask in person when we hit its showcase later this week in New York and get a hands-on demo of the Explorer.