Review: Sphero Mini, the programmable robot

As we roll up to Christmas, you’ll be looking for presents for your technology loving kids, teenagers or even pets. Well this may just be the present you need....

As we roll up to Christmas, you’ll be looking for presents for your technology loving kids, teenagers or even pets. Well this may just be the present you need. The Sphero Mini is the latest in a long line of smartphone connected gadgets, but this is one of the smartest and most affordable yet.

Sphero works by using a little gyroscope, accelerometer, and LED lights inside an interchangeable coloured plastic shells.

After connecting to the Sphero Mini with your your phone via Bluetooth, you can command your robot to roll in any direction you wish. With the motion, the LED, the sound, its an incredibly entertaining invitation for your cat. Not having cats myself, I took the ball over to my neighbours house, which provided plenty of entertainment as the cat worked out what this surprise guest was all about.

The robotic ball can also be driven with a new method, your facial expressions. The new Face Drive feature uses is available as a controller for different games. This works by enabling the camera, then doing facial recognition to detect you smiling (forward), frowning (backwards) or turns to the side to move left and right. A word of warning, you should have a large space for this as moving between face gestures is something that’s pretty abnormal and will take some time to master.

Probably my favourite bonus feature is the ability to pickup the Sphero mini and use its internal sensors as a controller for mini games. These games are custom built for rotational inputs that translates to rotating objects in the game. This works surprisingly well and actually a great activity to play in the car where you’d otherwise have no use for the Sphero Mini.

Program it yourself

While its tempting to think of this little gadget as a fun gizmo (it is), its talents are actually much broader. Sphero are big on education and their connected devices being an entry point for young minds to enter the world of programming. While software based programming is rewarding, its far more appealing for kids when they get to see hardware actually move, speak and react to their own programming. That’s exactly what’s on offer, for free, when you own a Sphero Mini.

Just download the Sphero Edu app and connect to your Mini. From there, your kids (or you) can create custom programs that roll, stop, change colour and even speak using an built-in speaker. The interface is an easy drag and drop experience, while providing easy configuration of variables like orientation, speed, timings, RGB values. It also allows you to detect events like collisions or if its on the ground or in freefall or the current velocity or location in relation to the starting position.

There are literally thousands of combinations available here for young creative minds to flourish.

Its only once you dive into the statistics of your program that you really appreciate everything that’s happening here. The little sphere is actually data logging all of its sensor data and reports that back to your mobile app.

This also doesn’t just have to be a local experience, if you build something you’re proud of, you can upload the program to the Sphero for others to try out.

The app also provides the ability to see the Javascript code that actually runs your program. This takes the basic drag and drop experience and lets you learn about the raw code behind that interface, which is likely to entice you further into programming.

While this definitely gets second place in the marketing material, I think this could easily be the entire reason you buy this device.

Battery life

With one charge, you’ll get around an hour of play time, which to be honest is perfectly fine. This isn’t a smartwatch, phone or laptop you need to last all day, you just need it to last long enough for some fun and an hour is plenty.

Charging is simple, just remove the external case by pulling gently apart, twisting can help. Then you’ll see the exposed micro-USB charge port. Just connect to any USB power, your computer or a port in your Xbox or even TV will work.

Price and Availability

While the larger Sphero 2 costs AU$199 + delivery, the Sphero mini also comes with a mini price of just AU$79.00 from your favourite electronics retailer like JB Hi-Fi, Kogan and EB Games.

There are also accessory kits for the Sphero mini, like little traffic cones, bowling pins or even a terrain park (read jump) that you use to setup a course or challenges. There’s also additional external shells (our review unit was green and white) to suit your or your kids favourite colours.

Overall

While manufacturers would love you to stretch your Christmas budget to hundreds of dollars per gift, thankfully this is one that’s actually affordable. Its cheap enough to give to the kids and not be concerned with extracting years of value out of it. Its a platform that’ll give them an opportunity to learn, as well as be entertained, which actually sets a high benchmark for other gifts this Christmas.

Its a neat little robot that does everything the larger Sphero does, just smaller and importantly is price appropriately.

8.3
Sphero Mini
The Good
  • Features
  • Multicoloured LEDs
  • Different control inputs
The Bad
  • Battery life could be longer
  • Features
    8
  • Gameplay
    8
  • Value
    9.0
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Creator of techAU, Jason has spent the dozen+ years covering technology in Australia and around the world. Bringing a background in multimedia and passion for technology to the job, Cartwright delivers detailed product reviews, event coverage and industry news on a daily basis.