Review: Dexim AppSpeed Gyro Controlled Monster Truck
In theory, turning iOS devices into remote controls for battery-powered toy helicopters and cars shouldn't be too difficult -- even the earliest iPod touches were a thousand times more capable and sophisticated than the controls sold for RC vehicles. Yet iOS developers have wrestled with the right way to make their toys play nicely with Apple's devices. Parrot's AR.Drone quadricopter relied upon Wi-Fi, eliminating the need for a plug-in dongle while requiring users to change wireless networks for their 15-minute flying sessions. Griffin's much less expensive Helo TC helicopter depended on a line-of-sight-dependent Infrared blaster, which wound up creating all sorts of problems. Now Dexim has come up with something totally different: the AppSpeed Gyro Controlled Monster Truck ($70), which is a little more expensive than Helo TC, and not quite as ambitious, but a lot more fun and reliable thanks to a packed-in RF dongle.
The complete AppSpeed Monster Truck kit consists of a motorized toy truck with roughly the same footprint as an iPod touch or iPhone—smaller than one might guess from the company’s pictures—plus a USB charging cable, a plastic portable battery pack, and the aforementioned dongle. There’s going to be a larger line of AppSpeed toys, including cars, but the Monster Truck turns out to be a really smart first product in the family. It’s capable of going surprisingly fast on flat surfaces, and even can traverse carpeted floors, using its treaded tires to get over somewhat uneven terrain. Though it’s almost entirely made from plastic, it still looks pretty cool, featuring bright white headlights that illuminate whenever it’s moving forwards. While it’s not as menacing in person as Parrot’s or Griffin’s helicopters, the Monster Truck is big enough to bulldoze or roll over Matchbox cars and Lego sets without a problem, and nowhere near as dangerous to stand around as a flying machine. At top speeds, it would be hard to bruise a baby with the Truck, but it’s fast enough to run behind, and split-second responsive to the iOS device’s control. Two trucks can be used at once over two different RF channels.
We particularly appreciated Dexim’s power strategy with AppSpeed: the USB cable’s there to refuel the truck, bringing a internal rechargeable cell fully back from the dead within 15 minutes if you’re near a computer. If you’re not near a computer, you can put three AAA cells of your own into the battery pack to charge the truck on the go. AppSpeed’s RF transmitter dongle doesn’t require any special batteries. It just pops into the iPhone’s, iPod touch’s, or iPad’s bottom port and shares the device’s internal power source, with modest power drain. You can control the Monster Truck from a distance of roughly 60 feet away before signal strength begins to become an issue; line of sight is not in any way required, and the truck can run for 30 minutes or more on a single charge.
While attaching a dongle isn’t as easy or power-efficient as Parrot’s solution of just changing Wi-Fi networks, the dongle’s a lot better than Helo TC’s, which requires you to strap a huge box with four AAA cells onto the back of your device. The single biggest issue with Dexim’s dongle is that it’s not case-compatible, so you’ll need a bare device or a flip-open case such as Speck’s CandyShell Flip or Wrap to plug it in. As well as the dongle works overall, we’d like to see Dexim further improve the shape and power draw in subsequent versions, or find a way to make AppSpeeds use other wireless connectivity options.
Controlling the Monster Truck is relatively easy thanks to the nicely designed, free DF Speed application—an app that contains Retina Display artwork for iPhones and iPod touches, but runs in low-res upscaled mode on iPads. You’re given two control options, one called “Touch Sensor” and the other “Gravity Sensor.” Dexim’s “Gyro Controlled” billing for the Monster Truck comes from the fact that the app’s Gravity mode lets you tilt your device in any direction to steer, using a flat horizontal orientation as a neutral starting position. While this mode works well and is completely intuitive for steering, your maximum speed is capped at “8,” or roughly half of the Monster Truck’s maximum capabilities. There’s no turbo button on this screen to kick the Truck into high gear, either.
In Touch mode, the screen is divided into a road that you swipe diagonally left to move forward, and diagonally right to move backwards. Up and down arrows turn the wheels right or left, and a << button gives the truck a turbo boost for extra speeds. This mode has a maximum speed of "15," which is seriously peppy -- enough acceleration to startle a dog when tapped by the truck from behind. Touch mode's major failing is that the arrow buttons are needlessly confusing in two ways: a touch screen can serve as a virtual joystick without the need for button combinations, and Dexim's directional controls felt all turned around relative to their natural positions. Up for forwards, down for backwards, left for left turn and right for right turn would just make sense. The secret: in this mode alone, unlike the rest of the DF Speed interface, you should turn your device to portrait orientation.
Both of the modes have a common issue: Dexim includes some useful tricks—a spin button, a zig-zag button, a “bop to music” button, and a speed setting button, all useful to make the truck do cool moves. But DF Speed hides these buttons unless you bring them all up together by touching a spinning wheel icon off to the side of the screen. It would be trivial to redesign both of the control screens to integrate these buttons rather than hiding them away; we’d also like to see Dexim offer some better music choices than the odd retro song that’s currently in the app.
Overall, the AppSpeed Gyro Controlled Monster Truck is a good product, and worthy of our general recommendation. What it lacks in ambition relative to its predecessors, it more than makes up for with bona fide fun factor and ease of use—there are no gimmicks or serious limitations apart from the need to recharge its battery. Yes, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that the same dollars could go towards an even nicer, iOS-free RC truck, and that there are no iOS-specific gaming or other features that exploit the broader capabilities of either Apple’s devices or the Monster Truck itself. But what’s here is enjoyable and practical in a way that other iOS toys should aspire to match or beat. Our feeling is that this is a good start for the AppSpeed series, nicely combining the truck, wireless dongle, charging solutions and app together in a fun package. We look forward to seeing what Dexim and others will do with future models.