- Kids love the camera
- School mode
- SMS limited to 57 characters
- Location tracking poor
- Call quality could be better
Xplora is one of the few startups to have survived since kids’ smartwatches first appeared a few years ago. While the likes of Gator and Tinitell made the fatal error of overlooking issues of data security, Xplora is now onto its second generation model, the Xplora 3S, which bills itself as your child’s first mobile phone – in watch form.
With a fully waterproof design and a camera for shooting stills on top of its core messaging, telephone and geo-location functions, it certainly sounds tempting.
Essential reading: GPS trackers for kids
Is there enough here to keep your kids wearing it or are Garmin and Fitbit onto the right idea with junior fitness trackers? We guinea-pigged our very own Wareable nine-year-old to find out.
Xplora 3S: Design
Picture your typical kids’ smartwatch. That’s exactly what the Xplora 3S looks like. Biggish, blue or, yes, pink, depending upon your gender stereotype; a 1.33in colour touchscreen with pitifully low resolution but responsive and colourful enough; kind of rubbery/plasticky.
It doesn’t feel shonky and it doesn’t feel premium either and you wouldn’t want it to. Let’s face it, nine-year-olds don’t really have the best grasp of the value of money, and there’s a reasonable chance that a kids’ smartwatch may get lost or stolen or broken. What you get with the Xplora is something that isn’t going to crack if it gets hurled to the playground concrete and doesn’t look expensive enough to get nicked – unlike, say your old smartphone.
The other advantage, of course, is that it’s physically strapped to their wrist – though of course they could still take it off.
The three other key areas of the design to note are the SIM card slot and micro USB socket on the underside for charging, each covered with rubber to maintain the Xplora’s IP67 waterproof rating. And, finally, there’s the VGA resolution camera, which sits on the broad section of the strap just off the face and which turned out to be very handy for grabbing snaps of Bob’s mates and teachers at school before I put the kibosh on that one through the parent app. So design-wise, it’s a thumbs up. Not a huge one but, for the time being, Bob continues to wear it. It’s not broken or been lost and no one has beaten him up for looking silly either.
Xplora 3S: Calling
Our nine-year-old – let’s call him Bob – has been champing at the bit to test out another kids’ smartwatch since we last had a crack at a set of them about two years ago. Bob was chuffed to bits to try out another smartwatch, simply for the power to make and receive phone calls, send messages and take pictures too.
What this meant in the first few days was that I, my wife, mother, mother-in-law and other family members whose contact details I’d allowed through the app, were bombarded with Bob phoning up for a chat. Only with nothing to say. A few days in, that particular thrill wore off and it was mainly me who bore the brunt of it – and, actually, it’s rather nice to get lots of messages from my first born when I’m away from home.
This has been going on for a couple of weeks now. The Xplora app allows the parent to schedule the times of day and days of the week that the watch will function for calls and such, so that children do not get too distracted at school. So far, Bob has continued to wear the thing along with his uniform – and so far, no teacher has told him not to. It’s proved quite useful.
On the days that Bob is in after school club, I’ve been able to give him a call and tell him to get his coat and bag together so that I don’t have to stand around for an extra 20 minutes when picking him up. This is great – but how long this will continue is unclear. What I’m saying is that, while I can tell you plenty about the Xplora 3S, what I can’t say for sure is whether or not the novelty will wear off. Because, of course, if your Bob stops wearing it, then it’s over.
Xplora 3S: App (for parents)
The Xplora app does what you need it to do but it’s not very pretty. It’s stark, list menu-based and generally basic in terms of GUI. In terms of functionality, it’s largely fine – but because it looks basic it does set off those start-up alarm bells. Will Xplora really be around that long? Am I investing in a product that’s going to cease to work in six months? I’m pretty sure that the answers to those are yes and no in that order and this is probably a note to Xplora more than anyone else – spend some time on making the app look good. Look and feel go a long way.
As for parents out there, you’ll have few bothers with the app. It’s lite and clear and allows you to add more than one watch, as well as to phone and send messages to your child. There are 24 emojis to play with, voice messages and picture messaging too.
As mentioned earlier, it’s also easy to schedule School Mode by time and day of the week. At these times the Xplora will essentially become a standard watch, and won’t allow incoming or outgoing messages or calls. The camera will also become inoperable. All that remains is the ability to tell the time and the step counter, which works away in the background. Maybe the one bug we found was that we had to switch between calendar days sometimes to make the Xplora reach out for a live update on the steps.
Incidentally, Xplora has just announced a deal with PlayStation so that reaching certain step goals will translate to unlocking in-game perks for the PS4 title Aces Of The Multiverse. This could well encourage more physical activity or incite a spate of dogs wearing kids’ smartwatches.
Alarms are another section of the app to have a play with, perfect for setting and then freaking your child out at random times. It’s not something anyone’s likely to need for the morning though. Bob is my alarm, charging in at 7am every day with his brother and bouncing on the bed like a pair of puppies, as they do, so I can’t say we got into the alarm function that much. That said, I will be trialling it as a series of reminders of when to brush his teeth and put his shoes on so that we can get out of the house on time. I imagine that Bob will learn to ignore it as easily as he ignores my decreasingly gentle requests to do the same but still, if it saves my vocal cords…
The final big function of the app is the geo-location and tracking abilities, along with the setting up of Safety Zones, but more on that in a moment. In fact, more on that now.
Xplora 3S: Child Tracking
Kids’ smartwatches are not sold as trackers and there are some very good reasons for that. Firstly, of course, GPS isn’t the best indoors, so actual live tracking is going to be patchy. Accuracy of GPS can also be a little buggy but, most significant of all, these watches cannot be guaranteed as safety devices because the companies who make them cannot guarantee that your child will keep it on their wrist at all times. They may take it off or, worse still, someone else may, so do not rely on kids’ smartwatches as trackers.
There’s another reason not to think of the Xplora 3S’s location features as a tracker either, and that’s because they’re not very good – but to be fair, we’ve never found a kids’ smartwatch that has been good at this.
At best, the location accuracy on the Xplora app is around 30m, but when it’s a bit confused, which is quite a lot of the time, it can be more like 2km. In a small town like ours this is not very useful. Is Bob at school? Is Bob at the sweet shop? Is Bob down the allotments having his first pack of Marlboros? You wouldn’t have a clue. Combined with the fact that GPS is next to useless when someone’s indoors, it’s really not worth it. So the fact that you can set up safety zones for school or home is fairly pointless.
As for using it at festivals, as suggested on the Xplora site, well, I’ll be heading to a festival with Bob in the summer – I told you I was middle class – and I will certainly not be relying on the watch to keep tabs on him. That’s what his mother is for.
It’s kind of a pity on the geo-location front, then but Xplora is very clear that this watch is marketed as your child’s first mobile phone and not a safety/spying device. Lucky because otherwise it’d be looking at a two star review here.
Xplora 3S: Call quality and battery life
Not great and not great, in that order. We know from our interview with Xplora that the company has been mindful not to put too strong a radio antenna in its kids’ smartwatches but, judging on what we’ve seen, it might have played it a little too conservative here. Calls between Bob and I could be very buzzy and usually were. It was good enough for short conversations but anything beyond that was a bit of a strain.
That may also have been a calculation for the sake of battery life, which is so-so. Xplora says up to five days on standby, but there’s no way that any child is going to not fiddle with their watch for long enough to reach that. Realistically, we got nearly two days use out of one charge which, in practice, means charging it every night just like your mobile phone.
Xplora 3S: Cameras and costs
Obviously, you need a SIM card to get the calling and messaging working and that costs money. With Bob’s current fascination for phoning people up, it’s also going to run up the bills pretty quickly. And then there’s the picture messaging.
Some kind of WhatsApp-on-watch would be really handy but as things stand the Xplora 3S is only 2G anyway, so it’s all still MMS which comes at a huge premium on most networks. In some ways it would be nice to be able to disable this feature, but that’s currently not possible without contacting your network provider – also these messages are a big part of the appeal for children. The Xplora 3S is Wi-Fi-enabled, so there is some scope for making it cheaper, but the app doesn’t appear to exist to make that possible.
Obviously, the VGA quality of the pictures is pretty low-end but, given that the Xplora 3S screen is not a high-res piece of kit, it’s not a problem. It means that the watch can store 1,000 photos, which is handy because you’ll likely find that your child will rattle them off. Bob also worked out pretty quickly that he could use his snaps to customise his home screen, which is a lovely touch.
Fortunately, there is no subscription to an Xplora service. It’s a question of buying the £179.99 device and then sorting out the service yourself, so there is scope to try to mitigate expense depending on your child’s typical usage. Of course, the price tag itself is not an inconsiderable amount of money. Given that this is billed as your child’s first phone, one might suggest giving them a cheapo PAYG handset or your last mobile instead but, as Xplora says itself, you may find that they lose them quite quickly as they’re not actually strapped to your child. That’s the pitch and it’s not a terrible one in our view.
How we test