Pros: Lots of games, educational, portable, fun, my son LOVES it
Cons: L-Max connectivity isn't the best, Significant changes between old leapster and new...
Many moons ago now it seems, we purchased this Leapster L-Max for my son (who is now 6) to replace his beloved Leapster handheld that had suffered a fatal accident. He'd used his Leapster EVERY day (just about) for a good 18 months and it had survived amazing use (for hours on end) and abuse (dropping onto tile, falling down stairs - to name a few). But.. it was unfortunately unable to survive an accidental drop into the potty (not sure, that I'd want to play with it afterwards anyways...But, for what these cost I did hope it worked). My son was really devastated without his Leapster so I headed to Target to replace it.
Since receiving his Leapster handheld game, the Leapster had gone thru some changes and upgrades. My son's Leapster purchased in 2004 was the original triangular type of style and the current Leapster out there (in 2006) is more of a rounded edge rectangular shape. Plus, there was a more pricey version of the Leapster (59.99) called the L-MAX (79.99) which boasted TV-connectivity. It looked that many of the new titles coming out were for L-MAX, I decided to spend the extra and get my son the L-MAX. Looking back, I'm not certain it was the right decision but at the time it seemed the best.
So, this was good news for my son that he was getting an upgraded system. But, bad news too as it also means that our Case which had a special shape to it to protect the old style unit, and our Recharging System were now no longer compatible. Turns out, the old case does still fit the new L-Max since the L-max is smaller, so we've made due with that. LeapFrog has come out with other fancy accessories good for the current rectangular style Leapster, and the Leapster L-max including a backpack (17.99), cartridge wallet (5.99), Ac Adaptor (9.99), L-Max recharger (34.99). As you see, these all can add up - and are purchased separately. The good news is that the cartridges we already owned that are designed for the Leapster handheld CAN be used on the Leapster L-Max for handheld use they just can't be used on the TV portion. Also important to know, the special Leapster L-Max game cartridges cost about $7-10 more.
Comparison between the "old style" Leapster and the current one:
There are a few key differences from the former triangular designed Leapster to the new rectangular one, and the L-max. First of all, its a form thing. The new one is definitely more lightweight. This may make things less clunky and easier for kids to hold, but it also means its less sturdy. In less than a year ours has taken a big beating and looks like it may need replacing some time soon. The warranty is only 3 months, so if your child uses their game ALOT, as in daily - or is rough in any way with it as kids may be it may not take the beating. My son has PDD-NOS (mild autism) and his Leapster is kind of like his best friend, since he doesn't really make people friends all that well (if at all).
The screen on the L-max (and on the current leapsters) is also noticably smaller by about an inch. I see this as a step in the backward direction actually, because the screen on the older version was great! Now, the graphics are smaller, that's less kid-friendly in my book. However, on the flip side its now much easier for a small child to hold and the buttons have been redesigned - mostly the keypad for Up, Down and Side to Side. I think the new design is much more child friendly.
The battery compartment has been completely redesigned and is more parent friendly. It is also easier for kids to open too, not so good. If you have an old style recharging system, it will no longer work with your new Leapster or L-max, because the battery pack is a totally different shape. The old compartment required a philips screwdriver and had multiple screws and was "H" shaped with 2 AA batteries on each side. The new one is a plastic square that takes 4 AA batteries and slides into the bottom of the Leapster/L-max and then locks in with a single flat screw. It can be easily opened with a coin, or even a fingernail. Its too easy for curious kids to get into the battery compartment now!
Leapster and L-Max now have spots to store the stylus when not in use. On the L-max its a slot on the back of the unit, and on the Leapster handheld it clicks into place on the under the display screen on the front of the unit. The older style Leapster, the stylus just hung free all the time. I'd love to see the stylus cord lengthened just a tad because ours is showing signs of wear where the stylus attachs to the cord from the sharp angle that my son uses to write with it. I think this would be remedied by a slightly longer cord, or a retractable cord.
Also very interesting is that the new Leapster they are selling now only comes with 2 games on it. The old style had something like 5 games on it. The new Leapsters and the L-max only have 2 games built in that are the Color Corral and Rabbit River. It also has a built in commercial for other games that are available for the unit (gee thanks Leap Frog!). I think it really stinks that they took away the majority of the games like the chicken coop, the birdy bonanza and the shape shop. My son loved those games and they were very educational. And now instead of those learning games, they put a commercial there instead for kids to want their parents to buy MORE GAMES instead.
About the Games
The 2 built in games on the unit are fun. The Color Corral is an interactive coloring book sort of like a photoshop or paint program that you'd use on a PC. Rabbit River is the one my son uses more and that reminds me of the old arcade game Frogger. At the simple levels you need to guide a rabbit across a river by jumping on logs and collecting carrots. There's also an ABC mode where you need to jump on logs to make words. Or, a math mode where you jump on logs and complete increasingly more difficult (but still quite simple) math problems. My 6 year old son is way better at Rabbit River than I am! I admit though, I've played it while he's at school when I was in need of some stress relief!
Still, because the Leapster only comes with 2 games built in, you'll start collecting more cartridges in no time. We have more than I can keep track of and have lost a few. The cartridges are carried wherever leapster is sold and when they go on sale we buy a few new ones. My son's favorites have changed from when we first got the unit (at age 4) when he loved Finding Nemo, Kindergarten, and Reading with Phonics. Now, his favorites include Scooby Doo Spooky Snacks, Letters on the Loose, and the Spongebob Squarepants Saves the Day card. He tends to go in phases on which games he plays and at 6 years old he can play the ones that are intended for 3rd and 4th grade.
So, with that said - I think that the age recommendation of 4-10 years old is a bit "off". I think that 3rd of 4th grade kids will want a "real" gaming system and not an educational one like this where most of the games are geared at PreK and K-2. For the 4-6 year old this gaming system is great, AND the games are mostly educational. I say mostly because they do drive home basic concepts like matching, writing, problem solving, math, reading, and using the game system is a way for kids to work on hand-eye coordination. But, lets face it this is entertainment too its not ALL learning as Leap Frog would like to present it to be.
Leapster L-Max comes with a cord that you can use and hook it up to your TV. This way the handheld unit serves as the controller but the image is up on your TV and the sound comes thru your television set up. To do this you plug the yellow cord into the end of your Leapster and then plug a white jack, a red jack and a yellow jack into your television (or DVD or cable, however you are set up). On L-Max enabled cartridges there is special interactivity that goes along with it and kids can see what they are doing on the big screen. For example in the Letters on the Loose card they can make an album of alphabet letters and when they trace a letter using their Leapster styler on their L-max - what they are doing shows up on the screen. Its fun but the graphics could be a bit better and the sound is reminiscent of an arcade game. Our connectivity cable (or the plug in jack on our L-max) is very touchy. Its a pin connection and it needs to be positioned just so, or it disconnects. This is frustrating so we are no longer able to connect to the TV, and my son doesn't seem to care!
Now, if you are reading this you may think I'm giving the Leapster L-max a negative review. We're just not big users of the L-max portion of this toy in our house. I think that because my son had the standalone handheld leapster first, he just prefers to just use it as handheld.
Leapster just came out with a brand new product (of course) called Leapster TV. Well we've got a Leapster TV (sells for $49.99) in the closet that will be gifted to him soon and we'll use that for TV gaming going forward. You can get an additional controller for $19.99 and this way 2 kids can play on the dual player arcade games. Plus, the advantage that the Leapster TV system has is that it can use ALL Leapster cartridges including Leapster, Leapster Arcade AND L-Max.
So, is L-Max worth an extra $20?
I feel it would be only if it worked seamlessly and there were more cartridges out specifically with L-max, yes. Otherwise I'd recommend you think about how your child will be using their Leapster. If you want something strictly for 'on-the-go' and portable use, then save the $20 and get the regular handheld version. If you don't mind spending an extra $20 so that you have a system that can use all the current cartridges out there and take advantage of occasional TV connectivity then get the L-max. I recommend the L-max wholeheartedly for that. But, I wouldn't recommend getting the L-max for full time television hooked up play.
I know I've given lots of info here about the Leapster (old and new) and the L-max. I wish that all this info was available to me when our old-style Leapster passed on it was time for me to upgrade. Getting into Leapster isn't a one time buy. This system can be costly when you add up all the initial unit cost $60-80, the cost of additional games $18-30, the accessories like the case, backpack, cartridge wallet, batteries, the A/c unit, or recharging system, and the stand alone Leapster TV. My son easily has several hundred dollars of Leapster products and there are still plenty of games and accessories that he wants and begs us to buy (thanks to TV commercials).
As much as I hate to admit it that we've been sucked into this. I know I'll be buying him these things eventually too, because he loves it so much. He plays with his leapster and we use it to reward positive behavior and keep him occupied in the car or when we are places where I need to keep him busy, quiet and waiting patiently - the Leapster is our answer. We use ours with headphones in the car or if we are out most of the time. But, if we forget the headphones it has a volume range on it so that its not too loud. Used in restaurants while we wait for the food to arrive its not so loud as to disturb neighboring tables (I'm talking kid-friendly places not fine dining).
Battery life is about 7-10 hours or so of play per set of duracell batteries. I've not timed it - thats an estimate based on how much my son plays with it and how often we replace the batteries. We do buy our AA's in bulk at Costco, and keep spares on hand at all times. Consider getting the A/C Adaptor, recharging system or rechargable batteries - you will not regret it with the amount of batteries you will go through.
Good luck with your Leapster/ L-max purchase and Happy Playing!
Some Related Leapster reviews:
LeapFrog Leapster handheld without L-max, triangular style
LeapFrog Leapster Recharging System (triangular style)
LeapFrog Leapster Case (triangular style)
LeapFrog Leapster Finding Nemo cartridge
Leapster Game Titles Available
Leapster: Games retail for $24.99 and can often be found on sale for $17.99 approx. Leap Frog has a buy 1 get one free sale through Toys R Us that is a great time to stock up. Also I've picked up several games on clearance for under $10 (perhaps if they are being discontinued?)
Scholastic Animal Genius
Scholastic Math Missions
The Letter Factory
Talking Words Factory
Mr. Pencil Draw & Write
Reading with Phonics Mole's Huge Nose
Dora the Explorer
Thomas & Friends Calling All Engines
Junie B. Jones Top Secret Beeswax Journal
Schoolhouse Rock - Grammar Rock
Schoolhouse Rock - America Rock
Leapster Arcade: Gameplay is stripped down to a single game arcade style. These retail for $17.99
Dora the Explorer Pinata Party
Scooby Doo Spooky Snacks
Leapster L-Max enabled: Games retail for $29.99
Dora the Explorer Wildlife Rescue
Letters on the Loose
Numbers on the Run
Rock the World
Spongebob Squarepants Saves the Day
Spider-Man: The case of the Sinister Speller
For more info