Reviewed by Louise Totton
We have had a fantastic time over the past few months playing with and reviewing a few toys from Sphero’s range. We started with the Specdrums, which is a musical composition toy and then reviewed the BOLT, an app-enabled robot that encourages adults and kids alike to get take their first steps in coding. The BOLT is Sphero’s flagship app-enabled ball-robot and is a serious piece of coding kit and features some super high-end bits of tech: conductive, wireless charging, infrared communication and a programmable LED matrix. As well as the BOLT, the range also includes the mid-range SPRK+ and the least expensive option, the Mini, which we were sent to review. Now, if the BOLT is the big daddy of Sphero’s app-enabled robot range, the Mini is its cute, nimble little brother – it has a more limited range of features and sensors, but contains just as much fun and opportunity to learn.
The Sphero Mini is available either on its own or as part of the Sphero Mini Activity Kit which as well as the Sphero Mini unit also includes a number of accessories and activity cards to use with the robot and to really challenge the user. As a solo unit, the Sphero Mini retails at £49.99 and the Activity Kit is £79.99. Sphero robots are controlled via two different apps: Sphero Edu and Sphero Play. The Sphero Edu app is focusses on the educational and coding side of the robots, whereas the Sphero Play app is for the more ‘fun’ and play-sided aspects of the products. The Mini is great fun even without the Activity Kit, but we were really excited to try out the kit as a whole and see what else the accessories would add. The full contents of the kit is:
- 1 x Sphero Mini Robot
- 1 x Sphero Mini silicone cover
- 10 x construction set walls
- 4 x construction set curves
- 14 x construction set posts
- 3 x cones
- 6 x pins (skittles)
- 15 x activity cards
- 1 x USB charging cable
As with all tech-toys, the first thing we had to do with the Sphero Mini was to charge it. Unlike the more expensive BOLT, the mini doesn’t have wireless charging and instead charges via a Micro USB charging cable. In order to charge it, you need to pop the removable shell off and plug the cable directly into the robot. A slowly flashing blue light indicates that the Mini is charging, and it turns solid green approximately an hour later when it is fully charged. Then it’s just a case of popping the outer shell back on and you’re ready to play!
As you might expect from a spherical robot, there are no buttons or controls on the Mini itself, and it is controlled fully via the apps on your mobile or laptop. If there were buttons on the robot, there wouldn’t be a smooth surface for the ball to roll and being able to control it via an app opens up far more possibilities than if it were controlled via buttons.
Pairing the Mini to your phone couldn’t be easier. All you have to do is download and install the app, select the type of Sphero device you have and hold the Mini close to your phone. Technology does the rest and the device is then paired to your phone. The Mini is compatible via the Sphero Edu app with iOS 9+, as well as Android devices (mostly Android 6+ but check as some Android devices simply aren’t compatible), Kindle, Mac and Windows. The Sphero Play app is available on iOS and Android only. We have an iPhone, a Samsung Note 9 running the latest version of Android and a Windows laptop, so had no issues finding a device that was compatible.
The Sphero Play app (iOS and Android only) will control the robot without the need for coding, and it’s definitely the place to start when you’re looking to get a handle on controlling the Mini properly. There are several different ways for the app to ‘talk’ to the robot – We started with basic driving, where you have the choice of Joystick, Slingshot, Tilt, Scream Drive, Kick, Golf and Blocks. These are great fun are a fantastic introduction to how the Mini moves – the Joystick method uses the touchscreen on the phone as a joystick, and the Tilt mode uses the gyrometer within your phone and the Mini will mirror the movement and tilt of your phone. The Scream Drive, Kick and Golf are probably the modes that we wouldn’t use quite as often as they’re a bit more difficult to control and involve using the app to fling and flick the Mini, but that’s where the silicone jacket comes in, as it provides a safety bumper for when your Mini ricochets off the skirting boards! Our favourite was definitely the Blocks mode.
The Blocks mode is a fun, accessible and very basic introduction to the principles of coding, and uses logic and sequencing to programme a series instructions into the Mini before setting it going and running the sequence in its entirety. The Blocks function allows you to programme up to 16 different actions into the sequence, the instructions being movement either left, right, backwards and forwards, eleven different light colours and turning the lights off all together. All of us in the house have absolutely loved driving the Mini in all of the driving modes, and it truly is a great fun introduction to the capabilities of the device.
The app also includes three built-in games, which are also fantastic fun. With them all three, you use the Sphero as a joystick to control movement on the phone screen, in many ways as an inverse function of the Tilt drive function, moving the BOLT around in your hand to play the games. There are currently three games in the app: Exile II which is a version of Space Invaders, Lightspeed Drifter where you are driving through a tunnel and use the Mini to spin the tunnel to avoid obstacles and Round Trip which is a surprisingly difficult special awareness game. We loved all three games and felt they really added to the experience of using both the Mini and the app.
The Activity Kit aspect of this set really adds an awful lot of fun and play value to the fantastic capabilities of the Mini. The cards are a fantastic starting point for giving some context to the use of the robot, and for giving the user a bit of direction when they’re first getting to grips with the device. There are three different levels of cards, from beginner through intermediate and into advanced. The cards use the components of the construction set to create obstacle courses, mazes and even towers to encourage the kids to concentrate on the challenges and use logical, sequential thinking to work out solutions.
The Sphero Mini is a smaller device (hence the name!) than the BOLT and is about the size of a golf ball. This makes it pretty nimble for nipping around the obstacles that we have set up for it, and we have had great fun with it. The activity cards are genuinely good fun, and the fact that they add a physical dimension to using the robot makes the set particularly appealing and accessible for kids who might not be ready for you to decide to invest £150 in a BOLT, or who like the extra contexts of driving the robot around the obstacles.
Using real coding to work your way around the challenges set by the cards as well as setting and creating your own mazes demonstrates just what an open-ended and flexible toy this really is. It is a real hybrid between something that is just good fun and addictive, and something that is genuinely educational. It performs both functions seamlessly and incredibly well, and everyone in the house has had great fun with the Mini. The Edu app also includes plenty of challenges, tutorials and tasks for you to work your way through, as well as the ability to create and share your own code within the Sphero community (Sphero coding is opensource, so is perfect for kids to tinker with and share). We’re not quite ready to progress to this just yet, although my eldest isn’t far off and is getting much more confident ‘coding’ her way around mazes, obstacle courses and challenges that we have set up on the playroom floor.
I think this would make a superb Christmas present for any child who is beginning to show an interest in coding. The packaging says it is suitable for ages 5+, but that’s not to say that it’s a product that is aimed at young children. I do think that with supervision, there will be some able 5-year-olds who can make some use of the Sphero Play app, but it is slightly older kids (I would realistically say 8+) who will really benefit from something like this and begin to use it to its full capabilities. Both of the kids in our house as well as the adults have had great fun playing with it, and because both the educational and play sides are so open-ended, you will find something within it to challenge yourself, irrespective of your age or experience level with coding and tech. I can well imagine lots of parents waiting for the kids to go to bed on Christmas night so they can get their hands on this and put it to good use themselves!