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“Screen-free” has become a big buzzword among parents this past decade. It was a reaction to the proliferation of phones and tablets in children’s lives, but now it’s felt especially timely over the past year with so many kids spending their school days remote learning. Their little eyes need a break from staring at pixels. And, while many adults can turn to smart speakers for their audio entertainment, they may not be as comfortable putting one in their kid’s room. Enter a crop of audio products designed with children and their developmental needs in mind, like the $100 Yoto speaker.

The Yoto Player is an enormously appealing piece of tech. While gadgets for adults seemingly try to be as unobtrusive as possible (this week’s colorful new iMacs notwithstanding), kid’s electronics have to be something a child would actually want to touch and handle. And the Yoto Player definitely aspires to that — though it takes a decidedly different tack than the Toniebox, which I checked out last year. The latter went for a more “cuddly” approach with its speaker, with a fabric covering and cute ears on top you squeezed to adjust the volume. The Yoto Player looks more like the machine that it actually is.

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Kris Naudus / Engadget

It’s a solid block thing of plastic, with the speaker vents on the side and a translucent front that lets the LED lights shine through. This is no fancy LCD or OLED touch display; all it does is show designs on a pixelated grid, reminiscent of retro video games or a Lite Brite. When the Yoto Player is not in active use it shows the time plus a weather graphic. After a while the player will turn itself off, along with the display. The back of the Player is wedge shaped so the player can be placed in front of a child at an angle when they’re playing on the floor. If you place the Yoto Player facedown on a surface, it becomes a nightlight.

To get started you’ll need to download the Yoto app and follow the instructions there to get the player set up; it’s not dissimilar to any other IoT device you’ve set up in your home. An internet connection is required to download content. And thank god, the charger is a round magnetic disc that clicks onto the player, so you can leave it around your kids without fear that they’ll stab themselves (but obviously keep it away from chidren likely to wrap the cord around their neck).

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Kris Naudus / Engadget

The base player doesn’t include any cards in the box other than one that serves an instruction manual, but even without any additional content there’s still plenty to do with the Yoto Player thanks to two audio streams delivered for free. Clicking the orange knob on the right side of the unit brings up Yoto Daily, a 10-minute podcast designed just for kids.

There’s a new episode every day that changes according to the day: Wednesdays are five facts about various countries, and Friday features jokes sent in by children. The announcer plays little guessing or word games with the kids, then each episode ends with a birthday roundup. My heart just melted when I heard that for the first time, as the announcer got to wish his own child a happy birthday. (Unfortunately, the birthday shout-outs are only until the end of 2021.)

Tap the orange button again brings up Yoto Radio, which is just a continuous stream of kid-friendly music. And we’re not talking Raffi and The Wiggles, but songs from Disney movies and popular artists like One Direction and Florence + the Machine. (As I type this, Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” is playing.)

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Kris Naudus / Engadget

So there’s a lot of value in the Yoto Player out of the box, though I wouldn’t necessarily say $100 worth. To get full use of the player, you’ll want to pick up some of the content cards from the Yoto store or a site like Amazon. There’s a starter pack of five cards you can buy for $10, while other cards run the gamut from $6 to $12. The price is generally correlated to program length, so you’re getting more content with the most expensive cards.

This is a nice difference from Tonies, which are $15 apiece regardless of how much content they contain — a 30-minute Disney program costs just as much as a 90-minute collection of public domain stories. Yoto doesn’t lean into brands the way Tonies does, but there is some licensed content in its library, namely popular children’s books from authors like Roald Dahl and Beverly Cleary. There are also a few BBC programs in the mix, including old recordings of children’s stories like Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows, which deliver the high level of quality you’d expect from the BBC. In fact, none of the content feels cut-rate; even the in-house Yoto stuff sounds great.

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Kris Naudus / Engadget

Aside from stories and music, Yoto also has a pretty diverse range of content, including some educational cards and a meditation program. Each card is roughly the size of a hotel key card, and slides into the top of the Yoto Player with a bit of effort — it actually requires some strength to insert or take out each card, which is good in that it avoids kids taking them out willy-nilly and losing them, but bad in that smaller children with less strength may require adult assistance to switch programs.

That’s where Tonies probably have the biggest advantage, as playing content is as easy as plopping a figurine on top of the unit, and removing it when done. The controls on the Yoto Player are also a little less intuitive, but still fairly easy to learn. The left orange knob adjusts the volume, which is displayed on the front of the player as a colored bar. When a card is playing, clicking on the left knob lets you go back a chapter, while the right knob lets you skip ahead one chapter. Turning a dial after a click skips or goes back tracks. The number of the chapter is displayed, but it’s kind of slow to respond and I often overshot my target.

ccttoys, ccttech, children, cct toys, cct tech, kids, commerce, yoto, speaker, centralcommerce, feature, podcasts, hands-on, entertainment, yoto player, handson, audio, gear, kid, audiobooks

Kris Naudus / Engadget

Still, I really like the Yoto Player. It’s small and can fit in a bag for travel easily; if there’s no internet connection available you can still play previously downloaded content or send tracks to the Player from your phone, even if you don’t have the card handy. The app also allows you to create your own content and attach it to blank cards, like reading your kid’s favorite stories, creating playlists of their favorite songs or just sending them a friendly message. I’ll probably end up making a few for my niece, as the app makes it super simple.

The biggest stumbling block to purchasing any of these screen-free audio devices: We don’t know how long they’ll be supported. The content isn’t saved on the Tonies figures or inside the Yoto cards. They have to be downloaded onto the unit. Once the servers die, so goes the ability to re-download your content. But right now, Yoto has a strong enough user base that you’ll probably get a few years out of it, and if the content ever dries up it can still be used as a Bluetooth speaker. I’d say $100 is a pretty fair price for a well-designed podcast-radio-clock-nightlight.

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