Review: Brookstone Rover App-Controlled Wireless Spy Tank
Helicopters. Trucks. Cars. Motorized balls. Thanks to recent toys and accompanying iOS apps, iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads have been able to wirelessly control all of these vehicles over the past couple of years, and now there's a new option. Fresh off the success of last year's flying quadricopter AR.Drone, which it sold under an exclusive agreement with Parrot, Brookstone has returned for the 2011 holiday season with Rover ($150), an "app-controlled wireless spy tank." Sold for half the price of AR.Drone, Rover doesn't fly, has less ambitious application support, and only packs a single onboard video camera, but it's still a lot of fun -- a more expensive alternative to Dexim's smaller and simpler vehicles, with its own pros and cons.
Unlike Dexim’s AppSpeed vehicles, which you steer within the same room using an RF transmitting dongle, the idea with Rover is to let you control a tank-like vehicle even when you’re not in the same room with it—something that would typically be a challenge given that you need to see where you’re going. Brookstone accomplishes this feat by adding two things to Rover that AppSpeed vehicles don’t have, the first of which is Wi-Fi. Because Rover has a screw-in wireless antenna on its top and 802.11b/g support, it can actually operate at a distance of 200 feet from your iOS device—several rooms away—a distance reduced to 100 feet if there are major obstructions in the rooms. Pairing is as simple as turning Rover on, switching your iOS device to its Wi-Fi network, and loading the app; we had no problems with interference when using it in the same room or from multiple rooms away.
The other way Rover allows you to explore beyond the current room’s borders is an on-board video camera, which is surprisingly good at what it’s supposed to do. We weren’t expecting much from it given that it’s only specced at 320x240 resolution, yet the camera still manages to look surprisingly good, even when it’s blown up on an iPad’s screen. That’s thanks largely to a 30 frame per second refresh rate; you can even zoom in to 200% to magnify details that the camera is capturing, flip an Infrared night vision light on and off, and snap still images—all cute examples of the “spy” features at work. Because of the conspicuous sound of its motorized treads, kids won’t actually be able to spy on anyone, but they will be able to enjoy only split-second-delayed, video-enhanced room-to-room adventures as it moves from place to place. There’s even a microphone built in so that you can monitor sounds in another room, which might give some users a way to “spy” with Rover even if it’s not actually moving.
Brookstone’s app works well to let you have fun controlling Rover. In keeping with tank steering conventions, one of the control schemes uses separate buttons for the left and right treads, challenging you to steer forwards, backwards, left, and right by using the right button combinations. There’s also an accelerometer/gyro control scheme that’s tricky in its own way, though it’s harder to see what’s going on with the on-screen video camera. Additional on-screen buttons help you deal with tricky terrain, though Rover proved surprisingly adept at handling bumps, carpet, and other sorts of obstacles—the treads and motors are more powerful than Dexim’s, though Rover by design isn’t quite as peppy.
Speed aside, Rover only has a couple of issues relative to AR.Drone and the most impressive iOS toys we’ve seen. Brookstone’s app is universal—a plus—but unlike Parrot and Orbotix, the company’s not making much of an effort to turn Rover into more than just a roving around-the-house toy; there aren’t any sort of collaborative game apps or other long-term lures to keep it interesting. Additionally, while the industrial design of the toy is quite nice, it implies a little more functionality than is actually here—the front camera can be tilted up or down but has no in-app mechanism to do so, and what look to be lights on the front and back of the unit don’t really do anything; only power and Wi-Fi signal lights on Rover’s top let you know it’s on.
Overall, our impressions of Rover were decidedly positive, and though the $150 asking price will seem too high for some users—those who view the $50-$60 toys released by Dexim, Griffin, and others as the upper end of what they’d pay—we tend to view it as a further expansion of the superior Wi-Fi/camera-equipped iOS toy market that AR.Drone helped to define last year. While Rover’s tank-like action isn’t as gee-whiz amazing as the quadricopter flights of AR.Drone, and little tweaks could make it even cooler, this toy’s longevity and fun factor are definitely good enough to merit our general recommendation. If you can afford Rover, you’ll enjoy what it has to offer.