Review: Marbotic Smart Letters for iPad
We've seen a few iPad-based children's toys over the years, and Marbotic has entered that still mostly-ignored market with Smart Letters ($50), a physical set of letters designed to be used on an iPad. The wooden letters interact with Marbotic's own apps — three different compatible apps are currently available. In conjunction with those apps — which are free when you buy Smart Letters — the letters work on any iPad, with the exception of the original iPad. The Smart Letters are passive pieces which use static electricity, so they can be used without Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or batteries. A full alphabet's worth of letters is included in the $50 package. Marbotic also offers a Smart Numbers package for $35.
The Smart Letters themselves are wooden, with a small metal piece used to pick up each letter and hold it. Soft pads are found on the back of each letter — these pads are used to communicate with the iPad, and to ensure the screen isn’t scratched up. A light press is all it takes for the letters to register on one of Marbotic’s apps, and not once did we see the wrong letter identified. We appreciate that these letters act as physical toys, as well, but at this price, the main appeal comes from how the Smart Letters communicate with the available apps.
Marbotic offers three apps that are compatible with Smart Letters — Alphamonster, Bla Bla Box, and Vocabubble. You can also buy the non-Smart Letter compatible versions of the apps for $3 each — you drag onscreen letters in those cases, which doesn’t have the same appeal as using the wooden letters. All of the apps are well-designed, with fun noises and charming illustrations.
Alphamonster is probably the best app, overall. Users can match capital letters to lowercase (and lowercase cursive) equivalents, try to figure out the first letter in a word, or even match a letter to a sound, which is recited over and over. Some of the sounds can be a bit confusing at first, but it’s still a great way to get children to associate sounds with letters. Bla Bla Box is for kids who are ready to start putting letters together — you can make letter combinations, and the iPad will vocalize the words (or sounds) onscreen. It’s very cool. Vocabubble is probably the most basic app, as it, like many other apps, shows young users a number of vocabulary words for each letter. All three apps have their own special aim, and together, they make for a great crash course in the ways of the alphabet.
If you were to buy Marbotic’s apps and a separate, unrelated set of high-quality letter blocks, you’d probably be paying about half as much. And we’d understand going in that direction. But after watching a 4-year-old (who already knows the alphabet) have fun interacting with the letters and the app together, we think these apps are more fun — and likely more effective — when used in that manner. It’s beneficial to bring a physical element to digital learning, especially at a young age, and Marbotic has done this in a fun and intuitive way. Not to mention that these letters act as toys on their own.
While we believe iPad time with young children should always be limited, this is one of the better learning experiences we’ve seen for preschool age kids on the tablet. It shouldn’t be the be-all, end-all way of learning about the alphabet, but it can be a nice piece of the puzzle, and it earns our strong general recommendation.