Hey parents, do you want reassurance that your kids' screen time is valuable and educational? Nobody does that better than PBS Kids.
Hot on the heels of the Playtime Pad tablet, PBS Kids is selling its first TV gadget. Called Plug & Play, it's a streaming and gaming stick that plugs into your TV's HDMI port. And it looks like a toy car.
At $50, the Plug & Play costs the same as my favorite media streamer, the Roku Streaming Stick. And Roku and other streamers, like the Amazon Fire TV Stick and Apple TV, have the PBS Kids video app with access to full episodes and clips of favorite shows like Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood and Odd Squad.
The little car-shaped stick, intended for kids ages 2 through 8, offers the same shows for streaming, but that's not all. It can also serve up PBS Kids' live 24-7 channel and includes a microSD card slot that allows you to play your own videos. The coolest part, however is the games and big-screen apps that come preloaded on the device.
I took the P&P home and let my Roku-savvy daughters, ages 6 and 7, give it a spin. A co-worker's daughter, age 3, also checked it out. They all really liked it, especially the games. In my tests I found a couple of issues like so-so video quality and longish load times, but no deal-breakers.
Of course a Roku or Fire TV Stick have access to tons more children's content, such as the kids' sections of Netflix and Amazon Video, as well as apps like Disney Junior and Nick Junior. But for wary parents, those devices also stream plenty of videos you might not want your kid to watch. Give a kid the Plug & Play's little green remote and you're assured he or she can only access PBS Kids' stuff. Until they learn to switch inputs on the TV.
The PBS Kids Plug & Play goes on sale exclusively at Walmart for $50 starting May 24. It arrives at other retailers in September.
'It's my not a stick!'
Yes, it looks like a car, with an HDMI plug as the exhaust pipe. The little wheels even roll. But I wouldn't want my kids to risk breaking it by actually playing with it like a toy car.
Like other streaming sticks and dongles it's designed to hide discreetly behind a TV. The car form factor is fun but bulky compared to similar devices, so I'm glad PBS includes an HDMI extension cable in the box.
The remote and menus are dead simple to use. Every kid in my test group figured it out quickly. The remote is sized perfectly for their hands, and since it uses Bluetooth, it doesn't need to be aimed at the TV. There was a second or four of unresponsiveness while the device woke up and before the remote could pair, but it always ended up working perfectly.
The home screen consists of a big wheel that lets kids choose from the main options. It's fun and responsive, and the screen even changes color when you move to another selection. The settings and Wi-Fi icons are tucked up in a corner, although they're not locked or otherwise designated "for parents."
The Video section is broken down by show, and features all of the all of the on-demand episodes and clips found on other streamers' PBS Kids apps. My oldest daughter said she preferred the layout here to that of the Roku app, because the clips each get their own thumbnails, making them easier to browse. The main videos page also offer access to the 24-7 channel, which is localized to your area. Happily, there are no passwords or authentication involved anywhere on the device.
Another section called Word of the Week introduces new vocabulary and "unlocks" a new word every week, encouraging kids to check back. It's also featured between shows on PBS's live channel.
Big-screen playtime, on- or offline
You'll need a Wi-Fi connection to stream videos, unlock new Words of the Week and get software updates, but all of the other apps and games on the stick are available offline, so they'll also work at a hotel or grandparents' house, for example, where Wi-Fi isn't available. Here's what comes preloaded at launch:
Rail Riders: A side-scrolling train ride where kids click to collect objects as the train moves through a carnival, space, underwater and beyond. It's procedurally generated and basically endless, like No Man's Sky, and my 6-year-old loved it.
Road Trip Adventure: A board game designed for kids to play together, with each other or their parents. A click spins a wheel and the tokens advance toward the end, and activities ask kids to hop like a bunny or find objects in the room, for example.
Sound Box: This was a favorite of my older daughter, age 7. It allowed her to "compose" songs of various sounds, from musical instruments to animal noises, as well as control tempo and even double-up certain beats.
Scenes: A more mellow experience where kids can interact with a fireworks display, space-scape and other areas, clicking the remote buttons to make things happen.
Sing-Along: Here kids will find videos and songs from PBS Kids shows complete with on-screen lyrics. And no, there's no karoke-style mic, so kids have to rely on their own voices for amplification. That wasn't an issue with my daughters.
Overall the selection is solid, and the games are thoughtfully designed for the remote-and-TV experience -- as opposed to simply ported over from PBS Kids' myriad mobile apps. But that does mean it can't access popular mobile games, and there's no official app store. Hopefully the company supports the Plug & Play with regular infusions of new games.
Streaming growing pains
PBS Kids' representatives touted the fact that, unlike a Roku or Amazon device, they have complete control over the entire experience. It's based on Android, but customized according to their specifications. The downside of the system I tested, however, is a few rough edges.
Video quality on streaming shows was the biggest issue I saw. There was blockiness and lack of detail during all of the streams, whether watching on-demand shows or PBS' live feed. PBS' reps tell me they're working on it, however, and for what it's worth, my kids didn't notice the difference.
It's also worth noting that the Plug & Play's output didn't completely fill the screen when the TV was set to a mode with no overscan, such as "Just Scan." To fill the screen you need to select a different mode. Finally, the device didn't seem to recognize any of the SD cards I tried, so I wasn't able to play any home videos or other personal content using the stick's video player.
A few of the games took awhile to load. Road Trip Adventure was the worst offender, making my kids wait about 55 seconds -- through a couple of load screens and one selection screen -- before they could start playing (but we should be teaching patience, right?).
Walled garden on a stick
The standout thing about the Plug & Play compared to competitors is that it's designed from the ground up to be used by kids -- and kids can tell the difference. But what will likely appeal most to parents is its lack of access to the wide world of streaming. This thing provides PBS Kids apps and videos, and that's it. For parents who prefer their kids' TV time be spent under the auspices of Daniel Tiger and friends, it's a great option for big-screen screen time.