“Chris, what’s the best phone for kids?”
We receive this question all the time!
And now that there are multiple kid phone options, parents are hungry for guidance.
When Lauren was going through the tween years (now age 17), the options were a flip phone, a dorky-big tech watch, an iPhone, or an Android! Basically, all or nothing.
In the United States*, the most popular “first phones” for kids are Gabb, Pinwheel, and Troomi, with Bark (exciting!) set to release their own kid-friendly phone by the end of 2022.
*Cell coverage is tricky in each country. This post focuses on the USA. But, one of these devices does work in Canada! Keep reading! (Oh, and in other countries, we are going to start compiling a list – right now, start with “best kid phones UK” or “AUS” in your search)
Bottom line – Gabb, Pinwheel, and Troomi are great, mission-minded organizations that want to protect kids online. We love this.
Any of the three is an amazing and safer option than an iPhone or Android during the critical “training” years.
But there are differences.
Our testing dug into each phone, testing their backdoors, and listing out pros and cons. We love providing deep research, poking around like a tech-savvy tween. Also allowing my children to use them!
Full disclosure – clicking on the links in the post earns us a little money as affiliates and often gives you a special deal! It’s a win-win.
- Gabb affiliate link (or use PYE for $25 off)
- Pinwheel affiliate link (or use PYE10 for 10% off)
- Troomi affiliate link (or use PYE for $50 off)
Tech in Steps #delayistheway
Give kids the right tech at the right time.
This simple sentence shapes much of what we teach at Protect Young Eyes. It’s the foundation for our hashtag campaign: #delayistheway – slow tech, not no tech.
Back in 2015, we were a lonely voice telling parents “No smartphones or social media until at least age 15!” But that doesn’t mean we remove ALL tech from their lives. We have followers from all over the tech spectrum, ranging from “no” to “go” to “slow.” We prefer the “slow tech” approach.
And this is particularly true with it comes to PORTABLE digital devices. We’re firm believers that the elementary and junior high years simply don’t need smartphones.
Their hearts and minds aren’t ready for the pressures, targeted marketing, and porn lurking in mini-supercomputers (aka: iPhones).
We’ve gone as far as saying:
“No middle school child will become a better version of themselves – emotionally, spiritually, relationally – because of the presence of social media in their life.”
Which is why I’m so pleased that parents now have multiple, great kid-phone options. Options that give parents peace of mind and allow children to be prepared, balanced, and protected.
What does Tech in Steps Look Like?
Just the hardware side of “tech in steps” could look like this, with a kid phone right in the middle:
- Start with a Family tablet, used by kids (that’s the important ownership piece).
- Maybe an Echo Kids in their room accompanied by a Gabb Watch.
- Gabb, Pinwheel, Troomi, or Bark Phone.
- iPhone with Family Sharing and Screen Time. Android with Family Link.
- Turn age 18 – we’ve trained you! You’ve got this!
In other words, a kid-friendly phone like Gabb, Pinwheel, or Troomi is a critical step in training a child how to handle sophisticated technology.
What do Gabb, Pinwheel, and Troomi Have in Common?
All three of these kid-friendly phones:
- Have a strong mission.
- Are designed for kids. Yeah!
- Look like a smartphone.
- Use GPS tracking.
- Eliminate social media.
- Have a parent portal of some kind.
What are the Differences between Gabb, Pinwheel, and Troomi?
1. Kid Phone Prices (as of the time of this post)
- Gabb Phone: $149.99
- Gabb Phone Plus: $199.99
- Gabb Watch 2: $149.99
Gabb Plans (ranging from no contract – 2-year contract)
- Gabb Phone: $17.99 – $24.99/mo.
- Gabb Phone Plus: $22.99 – $29.99/mo.
- Gabb Watch 2: No contract = $9.99 – $16.99/mo.
Accessories include fun bands, speakers, screen protectors, ear buds, and more.
Pinwheel Devices: you can select from multiple Android devices that are compatible with Pinwheel’s software. They range in price from $199 – $329 as of the time of this post.
- $14.99/mo. for the first phone, and $4.99 for each phone after that to use the Pinwheel operating system.
- Plus, whatever plan you want to add from your own wireless carrier.
Troomi Devices: $180 for the Samsung A12.
- Do: $19.95/mo.
- Dream: $24.95/mo. (adds unlimited picture texting)
- Discover: $29.95/mo. (adds KidSmart™ Safe Browser and Safe Apps)
2. Gabb has an Awesome Smartwatch!
The Gabb Watch 2 is a strong elementary and early junior high device that looks and functions great. The steps counter is fun, and Gabb offers playful accessories.
For families following a “stepped” approach to technology, Gabb has a clear advantage with a watch that provides an awesome on-ramp to portable tech. My 12-year-old son Cole uses the first generation Gabb Watch (soon graduating to a Gabb Phone Plus) and I love it.
3. Carrier Differences Between Gabb, Pinwheel, Troomi
Gabb and Troomi have their own wireless service that uses Verizon (Gabb) and AT&T (Troomi) towers, respectively, for coverage. This means that you pay for service directly to Gabb or Troomi.
Pinwheel is different. Remember – you’re essentially paying for Pinwheel’s operating system to use on a compatible Android phone, which could use any carrier (including Mint Mobile).
Why might this matter? Let’s say you live where Verizon or AT&T have poor coverage, so you use T-Mobile. Or maybe you simply want all your mobile phones on the same “plan” for simplicity – mom, dad, tween. In either scenario, you would only be able to use Pinwheel.
4. Managing Contacts on Kid Phones
During the training phase, it’s important for parents to know who their kids are communicating with.
Gabb takes a different approach to contact management than Pinwheel or Troomi. Instead of using an allowed contact list, Gabb uses Gabb Guard, its proprietary text and call filtration service.
“Gabb Guard stops over 90% of potentially harmful content from being texted to your child from unknown numbers, including URL links, image and video attachments, profanities, dirty slang, and solicitation messages.”
Even with this feature, a popular parent forum and a few PYE followers have struggled with spam texts and calls making their way through. We’ve been assured by Gabb leadership that this issue has been fixed and recently we have noticed far fewer comments about this issue.
Pinwheel and Troomi use an “allowed contacts” approach. This just means kids can only text and call individuals on the contacts list. Interestingly, the Gabb Watch also uses an “allowed contacts” list, which we would love to see used on their phone.
Pinwheel allows three different phases for contact control (we love these):
- Strict – parents control all contacts on the phone via the Caregiver Portal.
- Less strict – kids can add contacts and request parent approval, which parents clear in the Pinwheel Caregiver Portal.
- Least strict – kids add any content but parents can see them anytime in the Caregiver Portal.
- Strict – parents control all contacts on the phone via their Parent Portal.
- Less strict – kids can add contacts and request parent approval, which parents clear in the Parent Portal.
Based on conversations with our parents, they prefer what Pinwheel and Troomi are doing here. Gabb made this choice to be more “kid first,” but parents seem to want the control while training their kids.
5. Monitoring Text Messages on Gabb, Pinwheel, and Troomi
There are key differences here.
On the Gabb Phone Plus, the texting application is their own. Parents can’t see text messages without looking at the phone, but children can’t delete messages. Gabb also depends on their Gabb Guard to keep texting “clean” and safe. What Gabb lacks right now is the ability for parents to view a child’s text messages remotely from the parent portal. Gabb has told us they’re considering a change here.
Pinwheel and Troomi both handle texts similarly – they use the Android SMS texting app, and their parent portal allows remote visibility into all text messages, which parents seem to prefer. Even deleted texts!
Pinwheel is also compatible with Bark, which monitors texting for keyword issues.
Quick note about GROUP TEXTS – we’ve received quite a few messages from parents who were frustrated by how these devices manage text groups. Because contacts are often limited to who has been added as an “allowed contact,” the phone often doesn’t handle groups texts well. But this is by design. Just ensure that the kids your child is communicating with are included in his/her contacts!
6. What Apps are Available on Kid Phones?
Some key differences in the Apps and Internet sections.
- Gabb has historically only had their own, proprietary apps. These include 15 apps like a radio, camera, and calculator. This historically guaranteed zero possibility of internet backdoors. They will soon allow third-party apps, and we suspect they will be very careful with what they allow, since Gabb has always been very proud of the fact that no third-party apps were tracking kids who use their devices.
- Pinwheel has a large, curated app list (300+), that have been vetted by parents and therapists. Some have backdoors to the internet, which Pinwheel notes in their “app store.” Useful apps allowed by Pinwheel include Google Drive, Docs, and even banking. Pinwheel’s website has a detailed and honest description of the apps it allows, noting which apps have potential backdoors or features that could expose children to mature content. It’s impressive.
- Troomi has a smaller (50+) set of approved apps that are also useful for kids. But the descriptions are lacking. Example – parents wouldn’t know that Spotify and Amazon Music allow access to explicit audio content in their podcasts.
Slight concern – Google Maps is allowed on both Pinwheel and Troomi, where businesses upload pictures. Kids have figured out that they can look for strip clubs and see suggestive content.
“Backdoors to the internet” – this is important. For Pinwheel, they are very forthright with where backdoors in apps exist. And if they are accessed, according to a direct response from their leadership, “Pinwheel has a global ‘blocked sites’ list that includes many common adult websites.” In other words, even if a child found a backdoor to the internet, many porn sites aren’t accessible – awesome.
For Troomi, when backdoors are discovered, they are supposed to be blocked, but we couldn’t test all of them.
7. What Kid Phones have Access to the Internet?
With Gabb it’s simple – there’s no internet. At least not yet. We’ve been told third-party app added for the Gabb Phone Plus will be closely evaluated for backdoor internet access.
Pinwheel doesn’t have a browser, but has some internet backdoors, which we just explained in the Apps section, and clearly called out in the Parent Portal.
Troomi has two browser options – an unfiltered Chrome browser or their “allow list only” KidSafe™ browser (sometimes referred to as a “whitelist,” although this term is being rightfully phased out). This means you can only visit websites that are put on the allowed list.
One concern – I want to make sure parents understand that the Troomi KidSafe™ browser isn’t a filtered browser. The name “Kid Safe” maybe implies a bit more than what it does. It’s a browser for whatever websites are added in the Parent Portal. This means any website can be added and accessed on the phone, including explicit sites.
**Pro tip (password vaults) – for all kid phones with a parent dashboard, like Pinwheel, Troomi, or even Bark (the software), parents will want to make sure they DO NOT add the username and password for the parent portals to their password managers (sometimes called password vaults). Example – LastPass or One Password. The risk is that a sneaky kid could use that computer, login with the parent password (which auto-populates), add mature websites to his Troomi KidSafe™ browser and watch them on his Troomi phone.
8. What about Clean Music on Gabb, Pinwheel, and Troomi?
Both Troomi and Pinwheel allow Spotify, Spotify Kids, Apple Music, and Amazon Music, which have some vulnerabilities. Pinwheel is forthcoming about the mature features present in a few of these streaming music apps. These exposures aren’t included in the Troomi app descriptions, so parents need to be aware (here’s our Streaming Music parental control review).
Gabb solved the music problem by creating their own, proprietary service called Gabb Music. It uses AI and hand-selected tracks for an upcharge of $4.99/month. The upcoming Gabb Music Plus will be a true Spotify Premium experience for $9.99/month.
All three allow kids to use Bluetooth headphones.
9. Which Kid Phone has the Best Camera?
- Gabb Phone and Plus: 8MP back/5MP front camera.
- Pinwheel: depends on the device, peaking out around 50MP.
- Troomi: 16 or 48MP camera.
10. Screen Time Limits (Who has the Best Parent Portal?)
The original Gabb Phone has no screen time limits. With only 15 custom apps, they didn’t think limits were needed. This means there isn’t a portal for managing many of the phone’s features. We suspect this might change as features are added to the Gabb Phone Plus.
Pinwheel’s parent portal is user-friendly and customizable. Limits can be set for school time, homework, and bedtime, including individual app access. There’s even a fun “chore” mode where kids can earn phone time. It’s really extensive.
Troomi’s portal and screen time user experience is similar to Pinwheel.
11. Which Device has the Best Customer Service?
All three companies depend on self-help online, email, and live online chat.
- Pinwheel also has phone support 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. CST, call or Text: (888)903-7977.
- Troomi also has phone support Monday – Friday (8:30 am – 5:30pm CT) at (866) 545-4222.
- As of the writing of this post, Gabb does not have a customer service phone number – they depend on live chat support Monday-Thursday 7AM-6:30PM MST; Friday/Saturday 7AM-2:30PM MST.
Misc. Notes about Kid Phones
Gabb has attempted to make their brand more approachable for kids with their Gabb Life campaign. This includes partnerships with local kid-friendly businesses (yogurt, climbing), and tween & teen ambassadors. This might work well for younger Gabb users.
The Troomi phone is the largest device (see the top image). It’s too large for my 10-year-old son but some families might not mind it!
Important note for our Canadian friends – The Team at The White Hatter was successful with using a Pinwheel phone in Vancouver!
“…we used a SIM card ($10 + tax) from a Canadian company called Public Mobile that piggybacks on the Telus cellular network ($15 a month + tax).”
What Should we Expect with the Bark Phone?
I believe the Bark Phone will be a game-changer. PYE has been one of Bark’s strongest supporters since their 2015 start, and we’re excited.
Imagine the flexibility of Pinwheel and Troomi, with the full power of Bark AI monitoring woven into the Android operating system! They’re also promising a great camera, which is important to kids.
They already have Bark Home for routers, their legacy monitoring software, and the Childhood 2.0 documentary in their ecosystem. I can’t wait to test one!
Bottom Line: What Kid-Friendly Phone is Right for You?
Gabb makes the claim that it’s the safest phone for kids. Without a browser or internet access and backdoors, it’s tough to argue with this claim. It’s just a dead-simple device. We also love the Gabb Watch as a training device.
If you family wants more options, then that’s what you’ll get with Pinwheel or Troomi. Pinwheel is more robust in its app selection, portal, and parent education, but either will serve your family well.
Like I said at the beginning – all three companies are in this for families, doing great things:
- Gabb affiliate link (or use PYE for $25 off)
- Pinwheel affiliate link (or use PYE10 for 10% off)
- Troomi affiliate link (or use PYE for $50 off)
We love spreadsheets, so here’s the grid! Which device are you using? Comment with your experience below.
*There might be affiliate links throughout this post because we’ve tested the heck out of these resources 🙂 We hope the information is helpful. If you decide to purchase something, we may earn a small commission and you often get a better price. Woot!