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Holiday Buyer's Guide: 3 Smartphones For Kids, Tweens and Teens

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Let me start off with one very strong caution here: if you're buying a smartphone for young children, let them know from day one that you have every right to monitor what messages go in and out of that phone if they give you a reason to. In addition: all apps downloaded onto the device must be approved by you, all music or movies added to the device must be approved by you and the same rules that apply to content they are, or are not, allowed to view on the computer applies to their phones. Lastly, go to and download that onto their phones. Not to freak you out, but giving a child a smartphone without guidelines and discussion is like putting a screen door on a submarine. There's a sea full of stuff out there online and you don't want it all rushing in at your child. Safety first!

With that out of the way, this holiday shopping season, you may be in the market for a new phone for your little one(s). We're going to take a look at three different devices that make for great first smartphones for tweens and teens who are ready to handle such a responsibility. How do I determine what a "great first smartphone" is in this context? Price first, then come build quality and features.

Waterproof And Kid-proof?

Available off contract and on multiple carriers, Metro PCS sent over Kyocera's Hydro XTRM. Even though I've reviewed phones like Samsung's venerable Rugby Smart which is another military spec phone, the Hydro XTRM had flown below my radar. I'm now putting it on yours! This phone features Android 4.1 aka Jelly Bean and is water-resistant, shockproof and dust proof, making it an ideal phone for accident prone kids. To clarify one matter, the marketing speak will tell you that this phone is "waterproof" and it has indeed received that certification (IP57 certification) but I think that's somewhat misleading for those of us not familiar with such things. What that really means is defined in the small print for IP57 which states that the phone is protected against immersion, "up to 30 minutes in up to 3.28 ft (1 meter) of water. Phone will not operate under water and should be dried as quickly as possible when wet. To ensure that your phone maintains its waterproof capability, make sure battery door is properly sealed." That said, I can't tell you how many times over the years I've heard of children being pushed into a pool or dropping a phone in a sink or toilet and the Hydro XTRM should be perfectly capable of handling those "ooops" moments.

Inside the XTRM you get a formidable processor in Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4 Plus which is found in other higher-end phones like Nokia's 1020 so you won't have a child complaining about how slow or laggy the phone is. The only "cons" you'll need to be aware of are the screen quality and battery. Coming in at 800x480, the screen resolution is lower than many smartphones on the market today and the battery clocks in at only 2000mAh. The upside to that is that with a lower screen resolution, the battery lasts longer at that capacity than if it were say, a full HD screen supporting 1920x1080. When you buy this phone make sure you also purchase a micro SDHC memory card to go inside as it is outfitted with a minuscule 4GB of internal memory and your kids will take pictures. Lots and lots of pictures.

The Kyocera Hydro XTRM is definitely a compelling choice at around $170 unsubsidized and one I would've purchase specifically for my youngest son when he was in junior high. At that price point you get an LTE equipped phone that can withstand the abuse of a rambunctious pubescent boy without the worry and they've even included a very cool technology called Smart Sonic Receiver which conducts sound vibrations through the touch screen so that when the phone's user is in a noisy environment, calls still come through crystal clear… and it works! It's called "tissue conduction" and works by agitating the air molecules using the display. Bottom line, if you're looking for a rugged phone, this one gets top billing for cost and quality.

Woah. Upgrades.

Better spec'd in almost every way, for only $10 more than the Hydro XTRM is Motorola's disruptive Moto G. If you have a child who can handle the responsibility of hardware that isn't military-grade certified, then this is the phone for them (and, maybe you)! Why call an entry-level phone "disruptive?" Because for $180 off contract you get a device which redefines both the entry and mid-level Android markets. A phone running Android 4.3, with guaranteed upgrade to Android 4.4 KitKat, that also comes equipped with a 720P HD screen, great battery life and the option to customize the phone with a colorful array of backs they call "shells."

This is the stock Android experience straight from Goo- er, I mean, Motorola and that, along with the price, is ultimately what makes this phone a winner. It should receive timely updates to it's operating system since Google now owns Motorola, which means you stay somewhere just behind the cutting edge of what smartphones are capable of- at least in terms of what Google's Android software can do. Honestly, this phone is as fast and does just as much as many higher end phones which require two-year contracts just to get close to this pricing.

The biggest caveat which will determine whether or not this is the phone for you is the network capabilities. In a time where carriers are feverishly building out their LTE networks, the Moto G leaves that radio out of its line up to keep costs down. Speed wise, the best you'll do is HSPA+ which reaches LTE speeds (sometimes faster) if you're in good coverage. In my own tests the HSPA from T-Mobile and AT&T is terrible in my home, which as I've stated in other reviews, seems to be a black hole for all cellular signals except Big Red and more recently T-Mobile's LTE bands. Where I'd be most concerned about my own children having access to a strong network, which is at school and other places in our city they may frequent without mine or my wife's supervision, the HSPA+ is pretty darn good pulling down speeds of up to 3MBPS (via the app). This is much more than sufficient throughput for someone who isn't paying the bill. Yet.

Just like the Hydro, the Moto G comes with a 5 megapixel camera on the back, which is covered in that lovely soft-touch plastic, and just like the Hydro you can't help but hold the G and appreciate its solid feeling build quality. This is a phone that feels like it can take your child's daily use and abuse and keep them connected when you need to reach out. Currently, this phone works only on GSM networks so you'll have to pick up service with either T-Mobile, AT&T or one of the MVNO's like the recently launched and currently expanding AIO Wireless which runs on AT&T's network. In short, the whole industry should take notice right now. If your HSPA+ coverage is good, this is the phone to beat and would be more than enough phone for many users, not just children.

Wearable Tech For Pre-Tweens

Last in this lineup, but definitely not least is the FiLIP watch. This innovative device is definitely worthy of its own stand alone review, so watch for that forthcoming! Part cellphone, GPS tracker, personal emergency system and watch, consider this a "fist cellphone" for a child (ages 5-11) too young to have their own smartphone, but in need of a "digital leash" so you have piece of mind if say, they walk home from school while you're at work. With Google's Project Glass and Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch heating up the news, wearable gadgets are all the rage right now and this product should be no different. There is some serious tech built into this compact package! The functionality of the FiLIP watch is built around the parent companion app that is, thank the tech gods, available for both Android and iOS. After being programmed by the app this watch will: allow children to call up to five pre-programmed phone numbers, allow those pre-programmed folks to call the watch, report back the child's location at intervals you set from the app, allow your child to press the panic button for three seconds to call the first number in the list then try all the others in succession, send a push notification with a link to the child's current GPS location to the primary account holder and record the ambient sound from the child's location. Of course, with the GPS unit built in, you can also set up "geo-fencing" so that you can receive notifications via the app when your child enters or leaves a designated area or areas, called SafeZones.

The FiLIP is waterproof, but not swimming safe and is rugged, having achieved an IP63 rating which means your watch is safe on your child's wrist in a heavy rain downpour and protected against dust and shock. You can also pick up different wristbands other than the stock green, in Rocket Red, Bubble Blue and Starfish Pink. You can tell that the folks at FiLIP Technologies put a lot of thought into this product as a whole. When I went to set up the parent app, it was done in only a few easy steps and adding phone numbers and SafeZones was straight forward. The user interface is well designed and laid out so that even the least tech savvy among us shouldn't have any trouble navigating not only the setup but moving around the interface to interact with the various features and receive relevant information about their children (see the gallery above for screenshots of the setup process from an iPad). Right now the watch only comes in one band size, accommodating 41/4" – 57/8" wrists but first quarter 2014 one more, larger wristband will be available. Of the three devices featured in this write-up, the FiLIP has the highest initial cost, coming in at $199.99 but has the least expensive plan costing only $10 a month on AT&T's network exclusively. The good news is that the setup here is flexible so you don't have to be an AT&T customer yourself. The companion app will work on any Android or iOS device, regardless of carrier.

For the wearer of the watch, making calls is very easy. The watch has only two buttons on it, one that matches the color of the wristband and the other, red. Pushing the button that is the same color as the wristband allows you to cycle through the five names pre-programmed into the phone and when you land on the name you want to call, you just hit the red button. The only caveats for some parents may be that the watch is a tad large and clunky (personally, I like it) and the battery will last you around two days which means you really should be charging the device nightly. One other drawback, the wristband better fit your child well because it isn't adjustable, per se. It's open on one end so there is some flexibility with sizing but it isn't adjustable like a traditional watch band. For future versions, I'd really like to see a traditionally adjustable wristband as an option.

Tshaka Armstrong Tech Ninja Tshaka Armstong writes about the latest technology and helping FOX 11 Viewers understand how to be safer, smarter users of the internet and their "gadgets. He's also one of our social media guys, helping guide the station's online efforts and social media outreach.
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