Instead of thinking about which device is best, think through what you want your child to gain from a tech-based experience. Do you want them to learn pre-reading and math? Do you want them to mainly watch videos? Do you want something to read them stories when you're not able to?
Your smartphone is the most basic electronic device – but don't discount it as a preschool learning tool. Of course you don't want to hand over your phone all the time, but if you like showing your kids photos and short videos, FaceTiming, and playing educational apps a phone is more than sufficient. Moving up from there are tablets. If you want an all-purpose device for a toddler or preschooler, an iPad or Android tablet will allow you to download a huge variety of apps to give kids exposure to learning app, fun games, music, and streaming video. Little kids pick up technology quickly, especially the tapping and swiping motions on kids' apps, so tablets might be a nice place to start. And, while laptops offer more robust programs, you probably want to delay buying a laptop until kids are older. For one thing, keyboards or small buttons can be a challenge because of kids' developing fine motor skills. For another, by the time your young child will need a device for school, the laptop you buy now will be outdated.
If you're interested in a more interactive screen experience, there are basically two categories of devices, with different benefits and drawbacks. One category is tablets and consoles made specifically for kids, such as those from LeapFrog and VTech. They're designed for kids' hands and generally will offer high-quality, kid-friendly content. Compared with all-ages tablets, the downsides of these kid-friendly devices are that there's less content; the games and apps are usually more expensive; and they won't age up much past early elementary school.
Tablets, interactive ereaders, and consoles designed for all ages, such as the iPad Mini or iPad, Kindle Fire, and Android tablets, generally are more expensive than devices made just for kids. But the apps and games for them are generally cheaper – although the quality is variable – and can be used by both parents and kids.
Finally, choose a device you will enjoy using with your child. You want to make media a shared experience, so pick something you can use and learn together. And by the way, you may have no need for media at all, and that's totally fine.
Common Sense Media is an independent nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out our ratings and recommendations at www.commonsense.org.