Who should get this
A robotics kit should be of interest to any parent who wishes to encourage a child's interest in the STEM fields. Schools often turn to kits to teach physics or math concepts, but at home they can also serve as a creative outlet and source of fun. We think the best beginner robotics kits challenge you to build the robot in a creative, open-ended way using hundreds of pieces. You'll then program it on your mobile device or computer to walk, talk, and play games.
How we picked and tested
To choose which beginner robotics kits to test, we scoured websites like Amazon for reviews and considered existing guides from publications such as Tom's Guide and Make. We also consulted three experts on the most important functions to look for in an introductory robotics kit. We eventually settled on seven kits to test, based on these criteria:
- Encourages both building and programming the robot
- Includes everything you need in the box
- Thorough, easy-to-follow instructions
- Open-ended design, and easily expandable with optional kits
- Intuitive graphical programming software (not text-based)
- Priced between $85 and $300
For each kit, we began by following the included instructions to build one of the suggested models. We timed the process, noting any difficulties we encountered and how much fun we had. Then, we downloaded the required app or desktop software, and went through the steps to build a basic program. We considered the difficulty level of each coding language, and if it would satisfy builders both young and old.
Our pick: Lego Boost
The Lego Boost robotics kit offers the best overall experience for those with no programming experience. The 847-piece kit is made from Lego pieces, making it the most fun and the easiest to build among kits of its size, thanks to Lego's familiarity and versatility. And the fact that any Lego block can be used in a project creates a massive opportunity for expansion right out of the box.
The instructions for building and programming the robot are provided via a simple tablet app that even nonreaders can follow. Its programmable sensors can detect movement, distance, and color. However, the Lego Boost app is tablet-only, so it won't work with a smartphone.
Making an easy-to-use robot comes at a price. Lego Boost is one of the most expensive kits we tested, but it's also the most expansive for building right out of the box—especially if you have other Lego kits at home.
Runner-up: Jimu AstroBot
If the Lego Boost kit is unavailable, we recommend the Jimu AstroBot kit. It's a smaller kit that comes with three suggested builds, two fewer than the Boost, and its sensor is less sophisticated—it can detect objects, but not color or movement like Boost's. It also costs more, and because it isn't Lego, it doesn't offer the same amount of expansion possibilities. AstroBot is just as simple to put together and program as the Boost, but it also includes hands that can grip objects and eyes that can be programmed to show different colors and patterns. It's also one of the cutest robots we built.
AstroBot's app is the best we tried. There's a "story" mode that adds a plot to the curriculum meant to teach the basics of the robot, which makes building the robot more appealing for kids. You can also jump straight into more traditional directions. We thought controlling AstroBot's hands and eyes made the programming stage particularly exciting.
Budget pick: Robotis Ollobot Play 700
The Robotis Ollobot Play 700 is one of the least expensive kits we tested, but it also offers one of the widest ranges of programming options—from Robotis's version of Scratch to a more advanced C++ environment—which means the robot's abilities can grow with your level of experience. The software is compatible with iOS and Android devices (both phones and tablets) and Windows PCs, though we ran into some issues getting the Android app to connect properly.
The Robotis was one of the simplest kits we attempted, with only 233 pieces and four suggested builds. However, each suggested build has some unique features, and the robots can follow courses and respond to stimulus such as clapping.
Upgrade pick: Vex IQ Super Kit
The Vex IQ Super Kit is one of the most expensive kits we tested. For roughly twice the price of the Lego Boost kit, you get more advanced building and programming features that will be appealing if you want to get deeper into robotics, as well as ample documentation. Vex also offers a suite of programming options, including an iPad app and desktop Scratch and C-based desktop options.
Vex provides a lot of context for its eight suggested builds, including explanations of different build steps and the purpose of each sensor. You come out of the process knowledgeable about the name and explicit purpose of each part of the robot, something we can't say is true with the Lego Boost.
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