Hot Toys! Separating the Best From the Rest

(Image credit: Tom Starkweather/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

It's almost like election season all over again. But this time kids, not voters, are the main targets.

Instead of Obama vs. Romney, it's Mattel vs. Hasbro. Marketers have launched a barrage of advertising for hot toys, games and other gifts for the holidays.

Toy consultant Richard Gottlieb of Global Toy Experts has seen it all before. "Most hot toys are 'hot' because they're promoted and advertised," he says.

"It doesn't mean they are not great toys. It just means that somebody somewhere decided to invest a lot of money on television or the Internet to get the word out."

For parents and grandparents, walking into a big toy store can be a bewildering experience. Each year thousands of new products take the place of last year's brands.

"It's very easy to get caught up in the frenzy of getting that particular toy that your child is screaming for just because they've seen it on television 8,000 times," says Gottlieb.

All year long Joanne and Stephanie Oppenheim of the consumer website supervise tests for a huge range of toys.

One of the biggest trends they've seen this year is the impact of tablets and technology. "The traditional toy industry is trying to stay relevant in the age of apps," says Stephanie Oppenheim.

But some brands try too hard to incorporate technology for very young children. "I don't think they enhance the toy experience so much that they are worth the added investment."

The Oppenheims do like some technology-based brands. The LeapPad2 Explorer gets a top rating for the holidays. Priced at $99 this new tablet for kids is an updated version of last year's LeapPad.

"You're really getting a tablet that's designed for kids. Everything on it is designed for them," says Stephanie Oppenheim.

Some technology experts recommend the iPad for children, but Oppenheim says the Apple product "is far more expensive and you really have to be careful about what you are putting on it, and looking at the content."

Not every trend involves technology. Far from it. Chris Byrne of says "It's a big year for girls: there are five doll lines out there that are competing."

Among the most popular new ones are Monster High Dolls. "They're a little bit goth, a little bit funky but it's really all about telling kids it's alright to be different," says Byrne. Monster High characters are the teenage children of classic monsters.

The Oppenheims like many of the new construction toys available this year.

"Lego has done a wonderful job of using licenses in a way that entices kids to build, which is great," says Stephanie Oppenheim. Lego's Star Wars and Lord of the Rings toys have "so much educational value."

Another top-rated toy is Augmented Reality Puzzles from Ravensburger. "Technology meets the jigsaw puzzle," says For $20 you get 1,000 pieces, a free app to download, and a video that asks a child to find the image on the puzzle.

If you are still searching for ideas, consider looking for today's version of a toy you loved when you were a child.

For Richard Gottlieb finding a great gift for kids comes down to play power. "If you take a product and you talk about the amount of joy you get out of it divided by the cost, it gives you a pretty good idea of how much play power a toy has."

"It doesn't have to be expensive. It doesn't have to be on TV to be a great fun experience."

Richard Davies Business Correspondent ABC NEWS Radio