Hardware, setup and battery life
Setting up Sphero is fairly simple. In its clear plastic box, you'll find an alabaster orb, a blue induction charging base and the power cord. Plug the base into a wall outlet, set Sphero in the cradle and a blue LED will light up to let you know the power is flowing. The ball takes about three hours to fully charge if it's out of juice, and the company claims that gives you over an hour of playtime. Once it's topped off with power, you simply shake Sphero to turn it on and pair it to your iOS or Android device via Bluetooth using any of Sphero's various apps. One niggle: most of the time it took at least two or three attempts (and a couple of times it took six tries) to pair Sphero with our handset regardless of which app we were attempting to use.
In our experience, we found the quoted battery life to be pretty accurate, as it rolled around for at least an hour and 11 minutes per charge during our testing. We should mention that time was accumulated over the course of several stints of playing with the ball, as opposed to one marathon play session.
There are five free Sphero apps available for both iOS and Android owners -- Sphero, SpheroDrive, Draw 'N Drive, SpheroCam and SpheroGolf -- with more to come, as Orbotix has released Sphero's SDK (available at the source link) so devs can add to its software arsenal. As this humble editor owns no iOS devices, Sphero was put through its paces exclusively using the Android apps, though the Apple-friendly versions provide an identical experience. The Sphero app is the gadget's main bit of software that not only facilitates firmware updates, but also duplicates some of the functionality in the other apps. It's got basic joystick driving controls built in, draw and drive capability and a magic 8-ball-like feature called "Answer Me" where you can verbally ask Sphero yes or no questions. It then answers by flashing red for "no" or green for "yes" while displaying its answer on your smartphone's screen. Speaking of flashing colors, we should mention that Sphero's innards include LEDs, so you can change its color at random or tailor it to match your mood via a "Color Picker" function present in every app.
SpheroDrive is exactly what it sounds like: a driving app. It lets you choose from three control modes: joystick, tilt and RC. Joystick mode lets you move Sphero with a digital D-pad akin to what you'd find on an NES Max controller; tilt allows you to you steer using your phone's accelerometer; and RC gives you separate speed and steering controls. You can also change the toy's throttle response by selecting "Cautious," "Comfy" or "Crazy" in the settings menu, and there's a "Boost" function that fires off a quick burst of speed on request. In our experience, we found Sphero's handling to be somewhat inexact and boat-like; planning turns and routes was a must for precise maneuvering. To maintain a satisfactory level of control, we kept it in "Cautious" mode most of the time, though that would likely change if we had more time to acclimate to Sphero's steering. Orbotix claims that you can maintain control of Sphero up to about 50 feet away, and during our time with the device, we confirmed that range prediction was spot on.
Draw 'N Drive is another straightforward app that allows you to draw a route for Sphero onscreen, then sit back and watch the robotic ball do your bidding. We had few issues getting Sphero to faithfully follow our routes, but upon exiting the app we were always greeted by a force close window, so it seems there's still a bug in the code somewhere. Unfortunately, this wasn't the only software glitch we found. The SpheroCam app overlays a joystick driving control on top of what your phone's camera is pointed at so you can shoot stills or video of Sphero in action. While taking photos of Sphero was a snap, we were met with a force close window on our Thunderbolt whenever we attempted to record a video. We informed Orbotix of the issue, and while its engineers haven't had such difficulties using their own Android handsets (including a Thunderbolt), the company is working to correct these problems.
SpheroGolf is the last app we used, and it's the one that really begins to tap into Sphero's potential as an augmented reality toy. In practice mode, you control Sphero's trajectory via onscreen swiping in the direction of your choosing. Swing mode lets you use your phone in Wiimote-like fashion to get Sphero to maneuver the course you've created, while driver, iron and putter options determine how far the ball rolls in both modes. It's a neat idea, and it works well enough as is, but we can't help feeling that the game is just scratching the surface of Sphero's golfing potential. For example, we would love to see an app leveraging our phone's camera to display an AR course onscreen -- we think playing Pebble Beach in a parking lot or our living room would make for a far more engaging and entertaining experience. Here's hoping some enterprising devs can craft something similar (or better yet, superior) using Sphero's recently released SDK.
During our time with Sphero, we found it to be an intriguing enough toy, but we tended to grow bored with it within minutes. There's only so much time you can spend watching a ball roll around at walking pace before you look elsewhere for entertainment. Furthermore, the controls take some getting used to, so we most enjoyed playing with the robotic ball in wide open spaces, where there was no danger of it getting stuck behind a chair or lost under a couch. No doubt that's largely due to our own lack of steering skills, but we're not so sure we'd have the patience to put in the time needed to become pros even if we owned one.
That said, Sphero is a great toy to have if you've got any furry friends -- this reporter spent a good thirty minutes making Sphero chase a friend's dog, and it seems the pup had even more fun with it than his human friends. We should also note Sphero's worth as a conversation starter, as most folks haven't seen anything like it, and are keen to take it for a spin. All told, our biggest concern about Sphero is its cost. $130 is a fair chunk of change for a toy, no matter how unique it is, and is ultimately too much to pay for a novelty item whose novelty wears off rather quickly. However, it is quite an interesting plaything, and we'll be watching to see if additional apps can make for a more compelling experience.