A few years ago, the team at Orbotix invited me to a private demo of their RC creation, Sphero. I remember liking the concept and getting some footage of it in action, but I never actually got to use one.
Now, on the cusp of the third market iteration of Sphero, I’ve gotten my hands on Sphero 2.0. As the name suggests, it’s the second generation marketed as a vast improvement over its father. The basic “story”: Sphero is an interstellar machine that’s broken free of its shackles, and must complete challenges to get stronger.
So is it any good?
Well ... Sphero does work. If that was the only factor that determined Sphero 2.0’s success, I’d end my review there. But it’s not, and this little ball inspires more mixed emotions than my college girlfriend. Less frustrating, at least.
Let’s start with the positives. It doesn’t come with a physical controller; instead, the ball is controlled through apps on smartphones and tablets (unless you have a Windows device, sorry bro) via Bluetooth. You control the little white ball with on-phone controls, either with touch or tilt. There’s a plethora of applications you can download, so you can do more than just drive around aimlessly with Sphero.
The casing for Sphero is fantastic. I’ve tried to break this thing in a reasonable manner (running it into walls, dropping of off my desk); I put a few scuffs on the ball, but it’s no worse for wear. It’s a durable little bugger, so if your kids get ahold of it, it should cope just fine. The LEDs stashed inside provide a cute visual touch.
And the voice for the main menu of the Sphero app is none other than Brent Spiner, who you may know as Lieutenant Commander Data.
Unfortunately, it’s downhill from here.
There’s no real way to soften this, so I’ll just come out with it: Sphero 2.0 is $130. That’s a lot for a toy that isn’t as versatile as it seems to be.
It’s too slow to bother racing. It’s too expensive to be on pet-amusement duty. The main app is far too empty.
No, seriously. The presentation is nice, but if you want to do anything other than roll around with Sphero, you’ll have to download and open separate apps, most of which are made by Orbotix.
So they’ve made a dozen apps for their product, but instead of integrating some of them into the main hub app, they spread the features around. Points for trying to keep the main app uncluttered, but I don’t want to keep ten apps just for one device.
The main Sphero app is competent - the interface is pretty, responsive, and lets you customize Sphero’s color. I wish I had more nice things to say about the extra apps. Three of the 10+ available apps in the GooglePlay store were enticing enough to download: the Rolling Dead (a zombie game), Exile (Galaga clone), and Sphero Golf.
I assume the Rolling Dead is a play on The Walking Dead. It’s supposed to be a zombie-killing game where you use Sphero to run over holographic zombies. The zombies appear on your phone’s screen and the camera is enabled, so you can see when Sphero needs to go to attack the creatures. The problem is that the game looks like the 99-cent handheld toys from the 90s, and there’s no real way to figure out what you’re hitting. Or how.
Exile is okay. It uses Sphero as a handheld controller; you hold Sphero and make motions to control a spaceship fighting leagues of alien ships. It’s reminiscent of Galaga, which isn’t a bad thing. The controls are a bit imprecise though, so it takes some getting used to. This is the only app that was fun for more than two minutes.
Sphero Golf: I wanted this one to be so much better. It could have been a decent office-putt simulation, but again, the controls are just too sloppy to accomplish any accurate shots, let alone have fun.
Bottom line: This would be a nifty little toy if it was 50 bucks. I admire the build quality, but it’s hard to recommend Sphero 2.0 at its price point.