TonieBox with delighted user

Teardown: Toniebox music player

Image credit: TonieBox

Inside a thoughtfully designed audio player for kids.

Technology for kids is controversial. There are the worries about youngsters encountering inappropriate content. Privacy and predatory hacking rightly worry parents. The competition among social media companies to attract teens and pre-teens disturbs many too.

The Toniebox audio player from German start-up Boxine aims to enter this challenging market in the UK and Ireland later this year, having already convinced 300,000 families across Austria, Germany and Switzerland to sign up since it launched two years ago.

What is Boxine’s business model and, more important, how does it seek to win over sceptical mums and dads? There are four noteworthy elements.

First, a Toniebox has tightly constrained functionality. It is a player for audiobooks or content recorded by parents via an app. More features are planned, but the design of the player and the company’s slow roll-out of these show it taking appropriate care before extending the product.

Second, Boxine has partnered with recognised content providers. For its launch in the British Isles, these include Scholastic, Penguin’s Puffin imprint and Macmillan Childrens Books. Lead authors include Julia Donaldson and Raymond Briggs. These are names that parents will feel they can trust and thus provide an important endorsement.

Third, the hardware design is child-aware inside and out. Each brightly coloured Toniebox has a soft fabric cover. The internal electronics sit inside a foam cushion, anticipating bumps and scrapes in the playroom. A rechargeable nickel-metal-hydride AA pack is used to provide the claimed seven-hour battery life, on the grounds that it is safer than lithium-ion should any little darlings attempt their own teardowns.

Fourth, the user interface is simplicity itself. Each book is represented by a Tonie figure (a Snowman, a Gruffalo, a Stick Man etc). A child places the figure on the top of the box or removes it, and this acts as the on/off switch, starting or ending playback. The figures identify favourite books visually to the earliest of readers (the Toniebox is aimed at kids from three-upwards). The only other controls are two intuitive ‘ears’, one large and one small, that raise or lower the volume.

The Toniebox necessarily has Wi-Fi to download content, but the player will only connect after NFC-based authorisation. Each figure contains an NFC chip programmed with the book to be downloaded and played (there are special ‘creative Tonies’ for parent-provided content). The chip communicates with a reader in the main device. Otherwise, silence.

There is no microphone for voice control, which some might see as surprising, but it does stop predators listening in. We are talking about the very young, so it is worth remembering existing concerns over snooping via baby monitors and their potential knock-on effect on parents’ consumer choices.

Boxine’s success in the German-speaking world suggests that the design has the balance more or less right.

Given the target market, an iFixit teardown found that the Toniebox is also easy to repair. It is held together with standard Phillips screws and there is no glue. “The box is easy to disassemble and reassemble, without damaging it or leaving any marks,” its experts add. “Battery pack and flash memory are also pretty common and easy to change.”

There were quibbles about the bottom cap and its susceptibility to repeated opening, and also that some plugs might be hard to detach without damage. But in the hands of a professional repairer, fixing playroom pratfalls should be child’s play. All the key components are easily obtainable.

One aspect that might cause consumers to baulk, however, is the cost. The Toniebox retails in Germany at €80 (£71) for a starter pack with the player, one figurine and a charger. Each additional figure/audiobook is €15. That is high given that you can now pick up Bluetooth speakers and headphones with built-in SD card readers for as little as £10, and e-books from Amazon for, in the case of ‘The Gruffalo’, under £5.

But as Apple has long shown, good industrial design integrated with solid technology can command a premium. Boxine appears to have put plenty of thought into both for the most sensitive consumer market.

Key components: Boxine Toniebox

Toniebox teardown image

Image credit: iFixit

Exploded view

1  Inner container

 2  Outer container

 3  Fabric cover

 4  Bottom cap

 5  MicroSD card

 6  NFC daughterboard

 7  Foam pad

 8  Loudspeaker assembly

 9   Inner assembly

 10  Volume controls (above and below)

 11  Antenna

 12  Loudspeaker

 13  Motherboard

 14  Motherboard assembly

 15  Volume control cable

 16  Tonie Figure

 17  RFID (Tonie Figure)

 18  Battery

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