Compatible: iPhone 5/5c/5s, iPod touch 5G
Although there are a good number of remote control cars that simply replicate physical controls onto the iPhone or iPad screen, some take advantage of apps in fun new ways. Take Orbotix's Sphero 2.0, which has an ecosystem of dozens of apps, each one doing something unique. Romotive's Romo ($150) is another example. Released in 2013, the dual-tread rover is much more than just a remote control car. Available with either a Dock Connector or Lightning Plug — we received the latter for review — the robotic base station works with iPhones and iPod touches. There are two different modes: one allows the docked device to control Romo, and the other requires a second iPhone or an iPad to drive it.
Romo is built to look like a tank, albeit a cute tank. Its plastic body is 5.5” long, 4.5” wide, and just about 2” tall without an iPhone installed. Two different textures of plastic are used, along with rubber tire treads on either side. In the center is the plug that, like all Apple-authorized Lightning docks, isn’t case compatible. It’ll fit any bare iPhone 5, 5c, or 5s, as well as the fifth-generation iPod touch. Rubber supports on either side help hold the device in place. Inside, a battery that recharges with the included mini-USB cable lasts for two hours of play on a single charge.
When you connect an iPhone and launch the Romo app, you’ll see a mostly blue screen appear, with eyes and a mouth. This is Romo, an alien robot sent to Earth to prepare for the Robot Space Race. The app quickly establishes Romo’s personality as a precarious, fun spirit ready to learn and teach. As it delivers its story through text-based dialogue, the rover moves along, with the dock rocking back and forth, and the treads turning. You’re then walked through a series of missions that teach basic programming. For example, you start by putting together steps that move Romo forward and backwards, and as you advance, can adjust aspects such as speed and distance. A free play mode called the Lab allows you to play with these moves however you’d like, stringing together steps and then letting Romo execute them. As you advance, the robot will be able to identify colors, follow faces, and even move along paths you set on the floor.
On its own, Romo doesn’t travel long distances unless you tell it instruct it to do so. To enter the instructions, you leave the iPhone docked and tap away at the screen. This means you’ll need to be at eye level with Romo. If you’ve got Romo up on a table, beware of edges — if it’s directed to go too far, it may fall off.
A second app, Romo Control, requires you to have a second iOS device. The first remains plugged into Romo with the main app running, while the second serves as a virtual remote control. There are three different control methods, allowing you to zoom around and adjust the angle of the docked iPhone’s display. The control app shows what the other iPhone’s front-facing camera is seeing, and you can take pictures. Romo moves quickly and easily, even over carpet.
We had a lot of fun playing with Romo, and we appreciate that there’s an educational component to the toy. It’s strong enough to earn our general recommendation. The physical hardware is nice, and the dock works well, even though you can’t use a case. Integration between the app and rover is done really well, and it’s clear a lot of time and effort went in to making it a great experience. It’s definitely made for kids in the 4-12 range, but even adults will appreciate it. The biggest downsides are the price, and the need for two devices to use Romo with a remote control. If Romo had Wi-Fi or Bluetooth and could be driven with a single iOS device, the price would be better justified. Romo’s personality might take a hit when used in that mode, but it would give users a way to guide the bot around with just one iOS device.