A robotic ball you control with your phone? What's not to like? Well, we managed to find a few things when we took a look at the first generation back in 2011 -- that's what we do. Most of the criticisms of the original Sphero came down to pricing and the admittedly short list of things it could actually do at the time. Sure it was pretty great at driving feline friends completely nuts -- but that alone wasn't enough to justify the $130 price tag. Orbotix has made some improvements since then, and more importantly, the open API has given users a much fuller experience, with around 20 or so compatible titles currently available on the iPhone.
This month, the company is refreshing the device itself, with the simply titled Sphero 2.0. The particularly astute among you will no doubt notice that nothing has really changed here from an aesthetic standpoint. Nope, it's the same white plastic ball with the cartoony Sphero mascot on one side and all of the fine print (FCC info, "Made in China," etc.) on the other, with a series of interlinking, barely visible lines across its surface. There have been some hardware changes to the toy, but everything's on the inside, namely brighter lights and faster speeds -- as the company insists in its press material, it's "only slightly slower than a Lamborghini." Of course, scale's important here.
The new Sphero tops out at seven feet per second, a speed due in part to a lower center of gravity. We had the opportunity to play with the ball at top speed, and indeed the thing hauls. In fact, it's a bit hard to control out of the box. Thankfully, there's a speed controller in the app -- better still, you'll actually have to work up to those sports car-like speeds. Our unit was, admittedly, topped up. When you buy Sphero through standard means, you'll start off at a slower speed. By playing games with it, you begin to level-up, making the ball faster and faster as you go along.
The color lights inside have been improved as well, with three times the brightness of its predecessor. Though, like the last version, the entire body doesn't actually light up due to the opacity of internal components. Orbotix suggests you put on some sunglasses so you don't blind yourself, but don't worry. We think you'll be just fine. The company also claims the 'bot is "smarter," though we've yet to see those brains really manifest themselves -- perhaps when more apps take advantage of the brighter ball. The Bluetooth has also been improved -- and indeed, we didn't have any problems keeping the ball connected with our handset.
The packaging is also surprisingly cool this time out. Lift up the top of the box, and you'll see the Sphero sitting on a stand sandwiched between two triangular pieces of plastic. Those are, get this, ramps. Orbotix says you'll be able to get around a foot of air at full speed. We weren't able to get it quite that high -- mostly because we're still working on getting it to go over the ramp just right when it's moving that fast. The company insists that the ball can handle that much air, and indeed we found it to be quite tough as we rammed it into a few walls when we were first getting started. If you're still worried, though, Orbotix is offering up silicone "Nubby Covers," cases that slip over the ball for added ruggedness. They also offer up a bit more traction for off-roading with the thing.
Pre-orders for the second-gen Sphero open up today. It'll run you $129, when it starts shipping at the end of the month. The first-gen will also remain available, now priced at $109. Interested parties can also pick up the special edition Sphero Revealed, a $129 Apple Store exclusive, which features a partially transparent shell, giving you a peek at the ball's inner workings.