Review: Orbotix Sphero 2.0
Announced at the 2011 CES and shipped in 2012, Orbotix's original Sphero wasn't entirely ready for prime time: the uniquely self-powered toy ball was capable of rolling, rotating, and changing colors with or without assistance from a handful of iOS apps, which ranged at the time from snooze-worthy to cool. Originally pitched at $100, Sphero's actual $130 price point struck us as a bit too high given its initial slate of apps, and we hoped aloud in our review last year that Orbotix would learn from the experience and release an improved sequel. Just over one year later, that's exactly what has happened with the release of Sphero 2.0 ($130), an upgraded model that primarily improves upon features that the company apparently found deficient in the original Sphero. Some of Orbotix's marketing of Sphero 2.0 has been over-the-top crazy, but the toy is certainly better than before. Its appeal will depend on what you thought was wrong with the initial version, and -- at least initially -- the pack-ins you get with your purchase.
Regardless of the bundle you consider purchasing, you’ll find that Orbotix has improved Sphero 2.0’s packaging and pack-ins. The new version arrives in a largely black box that uses a handsome mix of glossy and matte textures, with strong visual contrasts coming from white and colored images on each side. Made from thick cardboard that separates into two overlapping pieces, the box feels like something Apple could have developed, holding two large green plastic ramps inside with a matching plastic tray to hold the Sphero ball. Also inside the package are a blue inductive charging tray and wall power adapter to refuel Sphero, largely the same as ones previously shipped by Orbotix. While the base model’s $130 price hasn’t changed, the included ramps and premium packaging are two of three factors that make this model feel like a better value than its predecessor.
One part you won’t find in standard Sphero 2.0 boxes is an optional accessory called Sphero Nubby—a silicone rubber sleeve that slips over Sphero, adding elevated nub-like dots for grip. Nubby is billed as giving Sphero 2.0 “better traction in water and on uneven surfaces,” and though the new model generally does quite well unassisted on non-plush carpeting, Nubby can help it outdoors and on other challenging terrain. For whatever reason, Orbotix has opted to sell Nubby as part of a same-priced Bonus Pack through retailer Brookstone, also including two extra glow-in-the-dark ramps with one Nubby and a soft black drawstring travel pouch. It will also sell Nubby in three different colors through its web site at a currently undisclosed price; we’re somewhat mystified as to why it isn’t including the same parts in every package.
Without Nubby on, Sphero 2.0 looks virtually identical on the outside to its predecessor, and has the same basic specifications and features. Still made from glossy white plastic with thin swirling lines around its body, an assembly seam down its center, and Sphero branding on two sides, the ball remains roughly 3” in diameter—baseball-sized, and large enough to fit comfortably in an adult palm. While Sphero 2.0 continues to use Bluetooth 2 rather than the newer Bluetooth 4 standard, this preserves compatibility with older iOS devices, and Orbotix has boosted its stated wireless operating range from 50 to 100 feet. We had no issues with the Bluetooth, apart from finding pairing difficult when other Bluetooth accessories were in the same immediate area. Gyroscope and accelerometer sensors have been kept intact, enabling Sphero 2.0 to know, report, and adjust its own orientation.
The biggest changes are found inside Sphero 2.0: both the motion engine and the glowing lights have been upgraded. While the motor is billed as twice as fast as its predecessor, Orbotix quantifies the speed as up to seven feet per second, up from over three feet per second before. This is a speed difference you can actually see when you’re using the ball: Sphero 2.0’s normal motion is now akin to the “burst” speed the original Sphero achieved for only limited times. Yet the new model also feels more responsive to controls than before, coming close to turning on a dime at lower speeds. Even at higher speeds, we were easily able to move Sphero 2.0 to avoid collisions with feet and objects, as well as to roll around rather than into a curious dog. So while Sphero 2 doesn’t have new tricks, it’s better at the key things it did before.
Additionally, Orbotix has upgraded the color-shifting LEDs inside Sphero 2.0 to deliver a claimed 3X improvement in brightness. The lights are now powerful enough to be entirely obvious across half of the ball’s surface even in bright indoor light, with the ability to shift from red to pink, purple, blue, green, yellow and orange on command. Yet Sphero 2.0 still offers an hour of continuous play time between three-hour battery recharges, no simple feat for any motor-powered toy. Recharging is again as simple as placing the ball in the included charging tray, making sure it’s aligned such that the bottom of the tray begins to flash blue, and waiting until the blue light switches from flashing to solid.
Although all of the hardware and pack-in changes above are certainly welcome, one critical issue we identified with the original Sphero was the state of its software: as we said last year, “more than six months after it began to trickle out, Sphero has only a handful of available apps, and though some of them are cool, it’s hard to imagine playing with any or all of them enough to justify the $130 asking price.” That too has changed, and although Sphero 2.0 still doesn’t have a single “killer app,” the available free options are certainly more numerous than before—and a few are decidedly more compelling.
Orbotix’s own app Sphero is far smarter than the version we tested last year. This will likely be the first app players will use, and it now provides a seriously fun introduction to controlling the ball on the ground using a swipable ball-shaped control pad. Thanks to a redesigned interface with significant gamification elements, the Sphero app looks edgier than before, and makes learning the ball’s features enjoyable. Better yet, points are awarded for continued interaction, enabling players to earn their way to brighter colors, higher speeds, speed boosts, and collision recoveries (shields). Additional points give players rainbow color displays, “spaz” ball motions, more boosts, and more shields. We really liked what Orbotix did with this app—it figured out how to make the initial user experience more than just pointing the ball in a direction and watching it move. This app also can update Sphero’s firmware automatically with minimal user involvement.
There are now at least 20 additional apps with Sphero support, and though they still vary from snooze-worthy to pretty cool, the latter type of apps are becoming more memorable. The Rolling Dead uses an augmented reality interface to display whatever your iOS device is seeing through its rear camera, adding virtual zombies that your ball must attack before it’s eaten.
Sharky the Beaver lets you control a 3-D beaver model in augmented reality settings. It’s one of the rare paid apps from Orbotix, but only $1.
And there are numerous others that use Sphero in at least interesting if not fully compelling ways. Several let you grip Sphero and use it as a basic game controller for steering spaceships or paddles in a comet-busting game. Another lets you play virtual golf with Sphero as a ball. Regrettably, many of the apps are holdovers from last year, and not all of them have been reformatted for the four-inch screens on recent iPhones and iPod touches. However, most work on iPads, and virtually all of the apps are universal.
In conclusion, thanks as much to improvements on the software side as tweaks to the hardware and pack-ins, Sphero 2.0 is finally starting to become the compelling toy we’d hoped for when it was previewed in 2011. While we’re not totally thrilled by the odd pricing structure of the basic version, which still seems a bit too high for the currently $130 basic package, Orbotix’s same-priced Sphero 2.0 Bonus Pack version delivers better value for that price—assuming you can purchase the toy from a retailer offering that version. Hopefully, the Bonus Pack will pave the way for the standard version to hit the originally-announced, highly mainstream $100 price point. Regardless, Orbotix has come a long way in the last year, and Sphero is now worthy of our general recommendation; the Bonus Pack version is the one we’d choose for the same price.