Get a grip.
We review a lot of things; some amazing, some not so. Many of the things we review have been recognised with various awards and accolades, but not really any of the toys and games we've taken a look at... until today. After having been declared the Educational Toy of the Year 2016, the Robotic Arm from Vex Robotics – part of Hexbug – has a lot to live up to. Lets take a look, shall we.
First up, this is not just a robotic arm for kids to play with and learn how to master – it is in fact a construction kit similar in style to LEGO Technic. It features more than 350 individual parts, some of which are large plastic plates, others are teeny tiny plastic pins and pegs. Following the included instructions, you built the arm from the ground up, pinning together the parts just as you would most Technic sets. If you're accustomed to LEGO's system, this will feel all very familiar.
To complete it took us about two hours, with the base section and main gears taking up well over half of that time. To be honest the building process wasn't overly enjoyable, as most of the parts are black and following the instructions can at times be slightly confusing. Plus, we discovered a mistake in the instructions whereby a pin is inserted on one page, only for it to disappear from the diagrams on the next, with something else taking that place. Annoying, but easily fixable once you spot it.
The upper arm and claw are far more enjoyable to put together, with fewer fiddly little pieces and more bigger bits and plenty of progress. Once completed the arm stands about 18 inches tall and looks very impressive.
To control it you twist two large yellow knobs near to the base which both control the angle of the main arm. You then twist the smaller wheel at the back of the arm to open and close the claw, which can open as wide as five inches. Turning the arm through 360 degrees on the round base is achieved by simply pushing it to and fro, but with the additional purchase of the Vex Motor Kit, all these actions can be motorised.
Still, even without the electronics, this is heaps of fun. It takes a bit of practice to learn how to quickly raise and lower the arm correctly, but soon you'll be picking things up and moving them to other places. Although the box says the kit is suitable for ages eight and up, we had a three year old playing with it, and very much enjoying himself, in no time at all (although, to be fair, the construction element would have stumped him).
We can really see why this won the Educational Toy of the Year Award, as everything from build with the many gears and cogs working together, to the final product and the tactile controls, screams a toy perfect for encouraging STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) in kids. But as well as that, this is a new construction toy system that works really well, and seems to have bags of potential. Even with this one set there are two other alternative builds; a helicopter and a scorpion. We're excited to see what other things could be made from these parts, and especially how using the motor kit could be somehow used to programme the arm via a computer. Code your own robot arm, kids?
An interesting if slightly frustrating build, resulting a fun open-ended toy with lots of future potential. Check it out.