17 October 2017

REVIEW: Sphero Mini

The ball is back.

A few years back we reviewed an innovative little product called Sphero. Sphero was essentially a remote controlled ball, one you could drive around using your phone and also use it to play games. Well, after spending the last few years working on their follow-up product, Ollie, and creating the best damn toy from The Force Awakens in 2015, they are back, this time on a smaller scale. We review the Sphero Mini.

Whereas the original Sphero was about the size of a cricket ball, Sphero Mini resembles a ping pong ball. Seriously, this is way smaller than we were expecting, but it works in exactly the same way. Using the smartphone app you can drive the ball around, use it as a gamer controller for three included (and actually fun) games, and also use simple coding language to programme actions.

However, as well as differing in size, the Sphero Mini is also physically put together differently. For example, to charge it you have to pop it open, something quite strange to do if you're used to the original gadget. Instead of induction charging via a cradle, the Mini has a Micro USB port on the inside. Opening it up is no bother at all, and it does mean it is easier to change the colour of the outer shell should you fancy another, but it does mean the Sphero Mini is not waterproof unlike its older, bigger sibling.

But, once charged and glowing bright green, the good times start to roll. The Sphero Mini operates in the same way as the original, so the internal, weighted section pushes itself around inside the outer shell. It rolls smoothly and quickly, but as it is smaller and lighter, it won't make it over rougher terrain quite as well. Still, across flat and even flooring it tears it up, seeming to move just as quick as the big Sphero (from memory, mind).

You can control it using the classic Joystick, where you slide your thumb across your phone screen and the Mini copies your movements very effectively, or set the app to Tilt mode, using the accelerometer to steer it. There is also a Slingshot mode, where you draw your finger back and release to send it hurtling along, but also the new Face Drive. This one is interesting. Using the phone's selfie cam the app detects what facial expression you're pulling, and the tilt of your head, to drive the Sphero Mini. Smile for forwards, frown for back. It does work - most of the time - and is a fun, if slightly novel, way of controlling the ball.

There are three games included, all showcasing how the Sphero Mini can be used as a very effective and sensitive game controller. Here the Mini takes on a new life, as playing the games with it makes for a completely new way to interact with your phone. We do hope Sphero, and other developers, bring out more games for it, as even if it couldn't drive around, light up and make sounds, we'd still buy it just for playing games. The smaller size also better suits a mobile gaming platform, and we can imagine taking the Mini with us on trips to make phone gaming more interesting.

Kids into coding will love that the app supports drag and drop programming, making it possible to set up simple routines to alter the Mini's position and colour. There isn't a huge amount you can do with that, but for children who want to get into coding, it is a good way to see direct and immediate results of thinking through problems.

So, we really love this thing, and we think the size is a definite improvement over the previous model. It's cheaper, easier to carry and store, and better for use as a game controller (and for little kids' hands). You get 45 minutes of play time out of the battery, its quick to to charge, and bags of fun to play with, regardless of your age. We like.


Available from www.amazon.co.uk

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