Review: Sphero Mini

Good things Come in Small Packages

Sphero Mini (Sphero $49.99)

Good things come in small packages. After a surprisingly rough set-up, the Sphero Mini has demonstrated itself to be one of the more fun-packed robots of the year. About the size of a ping-pong ball, and without any legs, the robot has most of powers of the original Sphero, in a more compact design.

Like a fully charged Sonic the Hedgehog, Sphero Mini propels itself across the room by spinning really fast! You control the color of the little bot's lights, speed and direction by linking it to your smartphone.

As with the  Sphero 2.0 and its Stem emabled sibling, the app sports a software joystick control, and the ball can also be directed by tilting your phone. You can even use your phone's camera and control it by moving your head. There is also a "slingshot" mode, where you pull back on the joystick in the opposite direction you want the ball to go, then lift your finger causing the ball to shoot forward as if being propelled by a rubber band.

By the way, Mini may be small , but it is really fast, as in 3 feet a second fast! This translates to about half the speed of the original, but it balances the trick of speed with control. Unlike the original, this one is intended strictly for indoor use; no puddles or mud, please. Like the original, you get about an hour on a charge.

Four games are included that use the ball in your hand as a controller. They are very lightweight, one might even say casual in the extreme. Additionally, the bot ships with 3 mini-sized traffic cones and 6 tiny bowling pins to help you develop your driving skills.

The robot will also be able to draw on the Sphero EDU app. This is a trick the latest Star Wars Spheros don't come with, and gives it extra value. However, at the time of writing, this feature was not yet enabled.

Inital setup

Mini and I got off to a rough start. I charged the unit overnight. This morning, after downloading the app, I immediately ran into problems. The app complained that the Mini had a critically low battery and that it needed to be charged. Hmmm.... not a good sign. Then, without warning, that screen vanished, replaced by one that said that the software was going to be updated. That was odd since all the lights on the Mini were off. It looked dead. Nothing seemed to be happening, so I plugged it in. The lights turned on. When nothing seemed to happen for over a half an hour I decided to reboot my phone, replug the Mini and see what happened. I noticed the Mini had a mild smokey smell, so I was pretty sure it was dead.

Surprise, surprise. This time the update zoomed by in a matter of seconds and we were fully bonded. Still, this kind of "is it dead" moment is not a good feeling after opening a new toy.

A couple of other caveats. Unlike the original, this one doesn't have wireless charging. You have to break the robot out of its outer shell to reach the USB charging port. Also, similar to the new R2D2 robot, if the robot turns itself all the way off, you have to plug it back in to reconnect it. (The original could be started by giving it a shake; an easier design to use "on-the-run".) The Mini is not water proof.

On the other hand, the removable shell means that new designs may be coming, to keep the relatively inexpensive robot refreshed.

All in all (and after the initial setup issues) the Mini provides an inexpensive and fun introduction to robotics. The way it moves without legs or visible wheels is maxi-magic in a mighty-mini package.