Every year innovative toy makers think of new ways to use technology.
This year, many of those tech toys have found their way onto this season's "hottest toys" lists. But the burning parental question is: Are these tech toys really worth buying? Here's the inside scoop on three of this year's hottest smart toys:
Jakks Pacific, www.EyeClops.com, $49.99, for ages 6-up, plugs into TV
What's the Buzz? It's a 200-magnification microscope that you plug into your TV.
Shaped like a big plastic bionic eye, EyeClops is simple to fire up after installing five AA batteries and connecting it to your TV's video jack. Kids can view a world they didn't know existed by looking at their skin, their hair, salt, paper and even live bugs placed in a special tube.
Does It Deliver? Yes. The bionic eye has three built-in LED lights, so it easily illuminates the things kids are looking at. While it can be a little tricky to get it to focus on things that aren't flat, once you get the hang of it, the possibilities are endless. Make sure to take a close-up look at a $10 bill -- it's amazing what is hiding there.
Fisher-Price, www.Fisher-Price.com, $100, for ages 3-6, plugs into TV.
What's the Buzz? Touted as a video game system for preschoolers that is played by riding on a stationary bike. With childhood obesity becoming a big concern for parents, games that get kids moving are hot.
Does It Deliver? Yes and no. Kids sit on the stationary bike and pedal to move around a virtual world presented to them on the television screen. As they pedal, educational activities appear as off ramps to the road. Unfortunately, those educational activities, while good, don't require any pedaling. Rather, they use a joystick housed on the frame of the bike.
Only two of the seven activities that come with the system require you to pedal: In one, you pedal and move the handlebars to run over letters, numbers and shapes; and in the other, you pedal like crazy to win a race.
So while Smart Cycle gets children moving for some of its activities, others are just video games you play while sitting on the bike. However, kids can always pedal even when the system is turned off.
Parents, if you are giving this as a present, it takes about 30 to 45 minutes to assemble, so you might want to do it beforehand. And have plenty of batteries on hand, since it uses up size D batteries quickly. Six add-on software titles are available at $20 apiece and include such childhood favorites as Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob SquarePants, Barbie and Hot Wheels.
Easy Link Internet Launch Pad
Fisher-Price, www.Fisher-Price.com,, $30, for ages 3-7, works with a PC.
What's the Buzz? It creates a safe way for young children to play online at designated educational Web sites.
This device plugs into a Windows-based computer via a USB plug. When one of three small plastic figurines (keys) is attached to this device, it immediately launches educational activities from a related Web site. For example, when the Elmo key is plugged into the Launch Pad, games and activities from the SesameWorkshop.org Web site appear on the monitor.
Does It Deliver? Yes. This device does a good job at keeping young children safe while allowing them to explore age-appropriate educational Web sites.
They cannot surf the Web to other sites or get into any of your adult files. Kids are locked into the site until a parent enters a password to unlock them and the computer. Parents can even set a timer to limit how long kids can play online. Add-on Smart Keys come in two-character packs for $7.
American Academy of Pediatrics Warning: All three of these toys use either a TV or computer monitor screen and thus create "screen time" for children, something the American Academy of Pediatrics advises should be monitored. They recommend that children over age two have no more than one to two hours a day in front of media screens.
Jinny Gudmundsen is the kid-tech columnist for Gannett News Service and USA Today.com, and is also the editor of Computing with Kids Ezine.