James Bond would love these spy toys

There have been spy toys in the past, but this season’s batch will make you think that Q has quit his gig for MI5 and set up shop in toyland. With high-powered real audio and visual capturing capabilities, these “toys” pose real privacy issues. But just looking in terms of technology and design…they’re pretty amazing. (Of course, these are all prototypes and we have not tested any of them with kids yet.)

Spin Master has taken control of the Spy Gear line from Wild Planet and given it a real “spy like” make over.  We were intrigued by the Laser Defense Network ($19.99). Here you set up the devices to create a red beam of light.  If someone breaks the red line by passing through, an alarm will sound. Their Spike Mic Launcher includes an audio mic dart that you can shoot off onto a wall and grab 30 minutes of sound. (We don’t recommend projectile toys as a rule but we thought the design/function were worth a mention). The Panosphere 360 Spy Cam really got our attention.

Spin Master's Panosphere 360 Spy Camera

Spin Master’s Panosphere 360 Spy Camera

The small probe like device (close to the size of a tennis ball) can be rolled into any room and then allows you to capture video (and sound) with a full panoramic 360 degree view.  The software platform will enable users to access different perspectives each time they look at a video.  Amazing if it works.

Spy Net Let Detector from Jakks Pacific

Spy Net Let Detector from Jakks Pacific

Now once you’ve captured your spy…you’ll want to test whether the information he’s giving you is reliable.  To assist with your interrogation, you may want to consider Jakks Pacific’s new Spy Net Lie Detector.  (At first I thought this was the name of the evil company  in the Terminator movies–but that’s Sky Net). The three biometric sensors scan your body for temperature and brain activity – all meant to help determine the veracity of a statement. There is a free downloadable APP (of course there is) to help with the questions.

We will be testing these toys and posting our reviews to


What did Cookie Monster say to Elmo?

Cookie Monster

We moved! Did you notice last year that there was no new Tickle Me Elmo? That’s because the Sesame Street license moved from Fisher-Price/Mattel to Hasbro, but not in time for Hasbro to roll out a new collection.  In the absence of an Elmo novelty doll, last year Fisher-Price introduced Dance Star Mickey. He made our Platinum List.  Our testers loved how he danced not to mention his ability to moonwalk!

This year, here’s what you’ll need to know:

1. It will be a battle of the Rock Star Mickey and Rock Star Elmo. We previewed both today.

Rock Star Mickey is pretty snazzy!  He moves, he sings, he dances…and he can even do a Rock Star split (guitar in hand).  Move over Mick Jagger!  He is also interactive…teaching kids how to rock on! The demonstrator would not play along when it got to the split.

Rock Star Elmo is cute, although he doesn’t move the way Mickey does. But I think fans of Elmo will be happy to see him back. In his favor, he plays the drums, a tambourine and he also sings into a mic (all come with Elmo).  There are also musical toys for your child that also magically sync with Elmo–so that your child can play a small guitar, a small keyboard or sing into a mic — and Elmo will be able to sing along.  Rock Star Elmo will retail for $69.99 (the add on toys are $19.99 each).

We look forward to testing both. Both are planned for fall 2011 release.

2. Cookie Monster.  Ok, I have to admit it…I LOVE Cookie Monster.  I don’t really know too many people that don’t put Cookie Monster into the favorites category.  This new interactive version, eats cookies.  They disappear into his mouth and then the cookies will reappear in his backpack.  He sometimes counts the cookies…that’s fun, but I have a sense just feeding him will be the big pay off.

Watch our video of both at

What’s IN and What’s OUT in toyland 2010

Our list of What’s In and What’s Out in Toyland for 2010.  Every year there are trends that emerge in toyland. Last year there were dinosaurs everywhere…this year they have been replaced by bugs. Elmo is no where to be found (he’ll be relaunched next holiday season by Hasbro), and like everything else in our world these days, toys have also gone 3-D. We’re not sorry to see some the OUT toys go bye-bye and the same is true of many of the IN toys. This is more our observation from a year of testing rather than an thumbs up to either list.

Toys that Are Out for 2o1o                   Toys that Are IN for 2010

Cute Hamsters                                                 Hamster Ready for Battle

Barbie al natural                                             Barbie with an (video) implant

Hannah Montana Doll                                  Justin Bieber Doll

Wireless Controllers                                      No Controllers

Elmo                                                                 Dance Star Mickey

Scrabble                                                           Scrabble Flash

Avatar Toys                                                     Anything Iron Man

Hand Held Electronic Toys                         Your Smartphone

Remote Controlled Dinosaurs                    Remote Controlled Bugs

Friendship Bracelets                                     Toy Handcuffs

Dolls that Wet                                                Dolls with simulate

Rococo Plastic Toys                                      Wooden Toys

Bubbles and Chalk                                         3-D Bubbles and Chalk

Polly Pockets                                                    Zoobles

Zhu Zhu Pets

Product Details Product Details Product Details Product Details Product Details
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Product Details Product Details

For a list of the toys we do recommend–visit where you’ll find all of our Platinum, Gold, SNAP (special needs adaptable products) and Blue Chip Award winners.

Barbie Video Girl: Barbie is the Video Camera

Barbie Video Girl

When they first brought us around the corner at the Mattel showroom to look at Barbie Video Camera, I looked around thinking perhaps we were being punked.  No, it’s real.  Barbie is a Video Camera.

Barbie’s video camera is in her chest.  Maybe this was inspired by Ironman?

Barbie Video Camera: Camera in her Chest

Now you don’t have to be a teenage boy to see the humor of this placement. While we had just been taken through all of Barbie’s careers-it seemed to be balanced by the location of this camera. While we tell men to look at a woman’s eyes, not her chest…here you really do want to look at the chest to get the best video.

Barbie has a LCD screen in her back and will plug into both PCs and MACs. I do think watching the world from Barbie’s point of view could be fun and kids will probably enjoy the $50 video camera interacting with their other dolls. I just wish I could have been a fly on the wall when they came up with this one and the Glitterizer.  It does almost seem as if it’s an episode of Seinfeld…where one of them would suggest an outrageous idea – and some unsuspecting executive would say “yes!!”

My favorite toy…so far/ sing-a-majigs

Fisher-Price's Sing-a-majigs!

We saw the Sing-a-majigs at toy fair preview last month and we weren’t allowed to talk about them. It’s like being told what your best friend is getting for their birthday — and not being able to tell for weeks.  So we were really excited today to see them again.

I thought maybe we had romanticized them…yes, at this point you can say–it’s a toy, get over it. But hey, this is what we do for a living. So when a really fun and innovative toy comes along–we get excited.

I’m happy to report that these cute little dolls (that will retail for a reasonable $12.99 each) are just about the best thing going. They babble to each other, they sing together and perhaps most remarkably they harmonize!  AND they’re easy to make work.

Watch the video.

Pick of the Day: Leapfrog's TAG and TAG Junior

If you’re looking for a high tech learning toy this season, we high recommend Leapfrog’s TAG and TAG Junior reading systems.  Both marry technology with collections of award winning books. Do they replace reading a book with your child? Of course not–but they will encourage your kids to explore and “read” books on their own.

Full review and shopping info for both

TAG Reading System

TAG Junior Reading System

We’d skip their My Pal Scout–this is designed to be an interactive pet for toddlers.  We found him to be less than huggable and the skills he’s meant to teach are better taught with real life experiences.  All of the current interactive, downloadable dolls on the market pale in comparison to the old Actimates from Microsoft.  Their original Barney really became Barney for little children. It was truly magical to watch kids interact with this doll.  This doll doesn’t  compare.

If you can't find Zhu Zhu Hamsters…Don't Panic

Alternatives to Zhu Zhu Hamsters

Zhu Zhu Hamsters are getting all the media coverage (yes, I participated in some of it), but they are certainly not the only really special novelty toys of the season.  Here’s a list of other toys that may just do the trick!

Other cute animals that have a little extra something.

Yakety Yaks (Mary Meyer)  Each of these animals make a noise.  There is a pig, a monkey, an owl, a lamb, a bear and dogs.  They don’t run around like Zhu Zhus but they are pretty cute on their own. Read our review.

Kota & Pals Stompers (Hasbro) –   These little dinos are seriously fun–they not only roar they walk.  Read our Review. Watch our video.

FurReal Friends Newborn Puppy (Hasbro)- This a very sweet little puppy that wags his tail and makes little barking sounds. This is one of many in this line–there are dogs, cats, a panda, a bear.  We like the dogs the best. (In interest of full disclosure -we’re not big cat people.) We also have not received safety verification forms on these little guys–so there is no official review on our site.

Two other really cool novelty toys that should not be missed:

Hexbug Nanos (Innovation First) -Each of these small robotic bugs come in a test-tube like container.  We see that the price has come down since we first reviewed them–they are now $7.99.  Turn them on and they really are like little bugs!  They come in lots of colors and are fun to pull out of a pocket or bagpack.  Read our full review.
Watch our videos:

Zhu Zhu Hamster play with Hexbug NANOS

Mr. Robot Dances with Hexbug NANOS

Doodle Car (Day Dream Toys)- We love these super cool cars that follow lines you draw with a washable marker.  Pretty cool. Company also has seasonal downloads of roadways you can print and use with their cars. Read our full review Watch our video.

Zhu Zhu Hamsters: Group Questions their Safety

The consumer group Good Guide has raised issues about the safety of the Zhu Zhu Hamsters.   To read more about our take on them, read our article Zhu Zhu Hamster Pets: What You Need to Know about the Hot Little Critters.   We have not received a signed  safety verification form from Cepia LLC for the Zhu Zhu Hamsters.  (Hence we can not consider them for an award from our Unlike Good Guide we do not do independent testing–we do require companies to sign a safety verification form. However we do not look at the wide range of chemicals/minerals/toxins that Good Guide indicates it looks at on their site.

In Defense of LEGO

Hilary Stout’s article in The New York Times,  With New Toys, More Assembly Required , correctly points out what we’ve been observing and writing about for years.  You need to be ready to roll up your sleeves, arm yourself with a screwdriver, sometimes a power drill — all to put a toy together.  If you’re not particularly handy, we  recommend that you enlist the assistance of the  store or a relative that doesn’t break out in a cold sweat when confronted with complicated assembly instructions.  And whatever you do, don’t start at midnight on Christmas Eve–it’s almost a surefire recipe for tears and spousal strife.

That said…the article then goes on to talk about LEGO sets with too many pieces.  Here, we have to disagree.  The beauty of LEGO sets is that there are sets for all builders…beginners to the most advanced.  Most hard core LEGO fans will tell you that the company has made it too easy for builders with the new bagging technique.  Rather than open the box and find several hundred pieces — the company now pre-sorts the builds.  For LEGO builders of the past– this new approach has been labeled strictly for whimps!  You can hear many a parent say “in my day, we had to go through each and every piece” after we walked five long miles from school.

One of the big messages we try to get out each year is to start at the beginning.  If you are doing all of the building and your child is just watching you–you’ve brought home the wrong set.  The idea of these sets and why they appeal to kids — is that they build a child’s sense of what they can accomplish.  Learning how to read and follow step-by-step instructions is huge.  Having the patience to stick with a project – that not everything is instantaneous – is an important life lesson.

It is no surprise to us that LEGO has continued to do well in these tough times and has maintained a strong presence in an otherwise  shrinking and battered  toy industry.  They have maintained their core mission by giving kids fun kits to build, they’ve improved their directions and they have stayed current by bring in themes and licenses that are attractive to their target audience. The most sought after LEGO kits from our testers are in fact the smaller sets where kids can build a car or Star Wars vehicle and then play with it.  It is that sense of accomplishment that makes them ask for more. The focus is on building self-esteem and confidence and having fun–not how many pieces you can handle.

We also know that building develops the following skills: visual discrimination,  fine-motor, spatial relations, math, reading, ability to follow directions in sequence and problem solving skills.   We want both our sons and daughters to be competitive in math and engineering – it begins with these hands-on experiences. So start small.  It’s like my grandmother always used to say, don’t worry about the size, buy what fits.

For  reviews of our top-rated construction toys–visit