After accepting this assignment I'm $66 poorer, but I guess I can take solace in the fact that I can worry a little less about Christmas.
In a nutshell, I still love browsing a good toy store, but my $66 bought me a few really nice toys with little aggravation. I also learned that, unlike last year, there are choices beyond eToys--sites people might like better because they're simpler, cheaper or nicer to look at.
For sheer volume, though, eToys (www.etoys.com) is still the place to go. The site is well organized, responds quickly, has lots of photos and, judging by the notes on the Web site, has virtually everything in stock. But there's so much stuff here, it's hard to decide, even with the site's gift suggestions.
Among the new entrants into the online toy business, none is better known than Amazon.com (www.amazon.com). The site is easy to navigate, well edited and fun. Its list of top sellers (updated hourly) is a neat feature, and I was glad to stumble on the recommendations of such experts as Child and Parent magazines.
ZanyBrainy (www.zanybrainy.com) also impressed me, despite having only launched its site Nov. 10. This is a great-looking, polished, quick site with good pictures and an easy-to-browse format. It's a little rough, but ZanyBrainy also has an interactive tool to let you see how a few toys work. But that taste of interactivity makes you want more. I never bought a baby book online--I had no way of flipping through the pages, and I couldn't judge them by cover alone.
Toysmart.com (www.toysmart.com), a good new entry , is loaded with products, organized every which way. But the cluttered design is distracting, and too many listings lack age-appropriateness notes or pictures.
SmarterKids.com (www.smarterkids.com) is a good place to find toys with an emphasis on development and learning. Searching is done by grade level rather than age. I'm not sure if that's helpful, but it does emphasize the learning approach of the site. It also rates toys.
Totally outdone in the online toy business are two of the most well-known off-line stores. FAO Schwarz (www.fao.com) offers too few choices, high prices and what seems like a lack of commitment to the site; Toys R Us (www.toysrus.com) has improved a lot over last year's disaster and offers a large selection, good sale prices and free shipping, but it's still short on pictures, slow and sometimes simply unreachable.