Pros: Makes the toy ball fun again; Available with several free apps; Super durable
Cons: Prohibitively high cost; Inaccurate controls
Verdict: Orbotix's Sphero takes the toy ball to the next (expensive) level.
Developed by Orbotix, the Sphero phone-controlled ball is one of the coolest appcessories that's bounced onto our desk in recent memory. We first laid eyes on Sphero back in January at CES, where we saw it rolling down flights of stairs and chasing attendees. Since then, we've been able to spend some hands-on time with the $129 white robo-ball. Here's what we thought.
Sphero's most defining characteristic is the friendly blue face painted on its exterior. Beyond that, its aesthetics are limited to a few textured rings running across its surface. The roughly 3-inch orb weighs in at about 6 ounces thanks largely to the accelerometer, gyro and compass packed tightly into its white, high-impact polycarbonate shell. In addition to its complex innards, Orbotix also stuffed Sphero with a multicolored LED capable of creating thousands of customizable colors.
Orbotix wisely chose to outfit Sphero with a conductive charger, eliminating the need for any unsightly port covers.
The charger is a simple blue holder that cups Sphero as it charges. Just drop the ball in and Sphero will briefly glow. A blue LED will then light up in the charger's base letting you know Sphero is getting juiced.
To take control of Sphero, you'll first have to download the free Sphero app through either Apple's App Store or Google's Android Market. After installing the app, make sure that your phone's Bluetooth radio is active and give Sphero two quick shakes. You'll get a message on your phone asking you if you'd like to pair Sphero; tap yes and you should be ready to rock.
If you've ever played a video game, you'll have no problem figuring out how to control Sphero. The device features two apps, including Drive and Sphero Draw N' Drive. Drive is the most basic app and helps give you a feel for how the ball works. Just push the joystick in the center of the screen forward to move Sphero forward, pull back to move it backward and so on.
In the center of the screen, you'll see a large Sphero logo flanked by option buttons at its four corners. In the top right corner is a joystick icon that lets you quickly switch between the standard Sphero controls and the Drive controls. Below that is a button that gives you access to Sphero World, a portal that lets you view your activities history with Sphero such as distance traveled and color changes, and Sphero Apps, which links you to the Sphero app store.
If you're not sure which way Sphero is facing, you can long press on your phone's display to bring up a navigation circle. When the circle appears, a blue light will show up on the side of Sphero indicating the rear of the ball. Rotate the circle on your phone and Sphero will spin accordingly. Point the blue light in your direction and Sphero is now set to move away from you. It's a great feature and one that we found ourselves using quite frequently during out time with Sphero.
Drive also includes a boost button that gives Sphero a little bump in speed. It's nothing incredible, but pressing it will help you get the ball up onto thick carpeting.
Draw N' Drive is a quirky app that gives you a blank canvas on which to draw shapes and designs from one continuous line. When you lift your finger, the design will be sent to Sphero, which will then sketch the exact pattern you drew with its movements. But while the app is fun to use, it's hard to accurately gauge how much space Sphero will need to follow a pattern drawn on a smartphone screen. As a result, you will more than likely find your Sphero colliding with walls rather than completing your pattern.
We were genuinely impressed with how well Sphero worked. Generally, the ball offers an hour of drive time, which is nothing to sneeze at considering we've had remote control cars die faster than that. When your hour is up though, it's up for a while. That's because it takes an average of three hours to fully recharge Sphero. Naturally, you'll get the best performance out of the little guy right after you've finished charging it. The longer you play with it, the slower Sphero will move.
To really put Sphero through its paces, we switched on the ball ran it around with our golden retriever, Daisy. Orbotrix execs said they were at first hesitant to promote the idea of using Sphero with pets because they didn't want the ball to be considered nothing more than a chew toy. They eventually relented, though, and made their own video using Sphero with their cat.
As soon as our dog, Daisy, caught a glimpse of Sphero, it was go time. She first just stared the ball down, but when we turned it away from her, she made her move. She spent the rest of the time either trying to bat it or staring at it with a confused look. Suffice it to say, playing with Sphero with a pet is pretty fun.
What's truly remarkable about Sphero is its massive range. We were able to drive the ball roughly 50 feet before it was out of range of our phone, and that includes around corners. At times, controlling the ball was a bit difficult. The controls felt disconnected at times and more often than not we had a hard time even getting Sphero to move in a straight line.
On the plus side, we were glad to see how strong Sphero's casing truly was, especially considering how many times we inadvertently ran it into a wall. But it's not just hard crashes that Sphero can withstand. The device's casing is sealed tight enough to keep its innards dry in up to 15 feet of water. On top of that, Sphero floats, meaning it can be used in the pool without fear. However, you'll want to make sure that you keep your phone at a safe distance from the water.
In addition to Drive and Sphero Drive N' Draw, Orbotix has made three additional apps available for free through the Apple App Store and Android Market including Sphero Drive, Sphero Cam and Sphero Golf. Sphero Drive is essentially the same thing as Drive, with the exception of RC car-style and accelerometer control schemes. Of the three, we preferred the standard joystick control.
Sphero Cam lets you can control Sphero and shoot video and capture pictures at the same time using your smartphone's camera. Sphero Golf, meanwhile, lets you play a quick game of office golf with Sphero, flicking the onscreen ball to move Sphero around your office.
If you get tired of those, fear not. Orbotix is currently developing two new apps, including Sphero Chromo, a memory game that uses Sphero as a controller and Sphero Space Fighter, which tasks you with waving Sphero to make its onscreen counterpart navigate across a screen full of alien spaceships. We were able to get a quick trial of Space Fighter and were surprised with how fun it was to use.
Despite its inaccurate controls, Sphero was a blast to use. And thanks to Orbotix's promise to release new apps through its Sphero store, you should get plenty of play time out of Sphero. But $129 is a lot for a toy. Overall, Sphero is a blast to use, but it costs a bit too much for what you get. If you're looking for a more affordable appcessory that's still just as fun as Sphero, you might want to check out Griffin's Helo TC. For $37.99, you get a durable helicopoter. But if you've got the money to spend, Sphero is a nice choice.
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