We first saw Orbotix’s Ollie by Sphero ($100) at CES 2014 and were immediately impressed — unlike the prior Sphero and Sphero 2.0 models, Ollie isn’t a robotic ball — it’s a speedy robot with two wheels. Although it’s not waterproof like the prior Sphero balls, Ollie can move at speeds up to 14 mph, and Orbotix claims it can run for one hour of play on a full three-hour USB charge. It connects to an iOS device using Bluetooth LE for a range of 30 meters (98 feet).
At its core, Ollie is a small, white polycarbonate cylinder roughly 3” in diameter. It comes with two white hubcaps, two nubby tires, and a micro-USB cable for charging. It’s about 3.5” wide with its hubcaps off, and about 4.5” with hubcaps on.
As contrasted with the prior Sphero balls, which offered a number of apps for varied gameplay, Ollie’s focus is on driving and doing tricks. There’s currently one free iOS app available for Ollie — the official Ollie app. Portrait mode lets users steer with one hand, while the landscape mode opens up “trick mode,” enabling users to steer and press different sections of a square to make Ollie do all sorts of tricks. Orbotix claims there should be four separate apps for Ollie, but so far, we’ve only seen one in the App Store.
Setup is a breeze. After downloading the app, you simply tap your iPhone to Ollie, and the robot should automatically connect within seconds. Another short period of time initializes Ollie, and that’s it — Ollie glows and you’re ready to go. We never had any problems reconnecting Ollie to an iPhone 6 Plus, whenever necessary.
Just like the Sphero balls, Ollie’s driving experience can take a bit of getting used to, as the robot’s compass directional positions are set when the device is initialized, and you steer with one thumb inside a circle. However, you can guide your thumb around the steering circle to reset its position. With a bit of time, you’ll get used to the steering. Trick mode is great, and even a beginner can open up the app and start making Ollie do some pretty awesome things — simply holding down certain sections of the trick “control square” can cause Ollie to start jumping and spinning wildly. It’s extremely easy, and lots of fun.
Compared to Sphero, we think Ollie is a better option for outdoor use, especially with the included nubby tires strapped to the wheels. We sent Ollie down inclines, crashed it into curbs, and made it hop like mad across a parking lot, and the bot seemed no worse for wear. Playing outdoors also lets Ollie reach its top speed. Once you hit that rate of movement, you’ll be out of Bluetooth range pretty fast.
Orbotix claims Ollie can get one hour of play after a three-hour recharge, and though we didn’t break out the stopwatch, we saw nothing to suggest otherwise. We were perfectly satisfied to play with Ollie for a great deal of time, then bring it back for a charge — Ollie was ready to go again by the time we were. Compare this to Parrot’s recent Jumping Sumo (review) and Rolling Spider (review), which arguably can do more, but also offer far more disappointing play-to-charge ratios. There’s a big difference between playing for 15 or 20 minutes per session and playing for an hour, though we wish Ollie recharged more quickly.
Orbotix is promising a number of accessories for Ollie, just as it did for Sphero — you’ll be able to buy different sets of tires and hubcaps if you want to customize. But it’s doubtful any of the accessories will change the play experience too much, and you should be fine with what comes in the box. A limited black edition, Darkside Ollie, should be released in November for $150.
Ollie is another cool robotic iOS-compatible toy from Orbotix. Whether or not you’ll prefer this to Sphero 2.0 depends on whether you’d rather use the toy to play a number of games, or if you’d have more fun setting a fast toy loose and driving like mad. We think the majority of people will probably choose the latter, especially given Ollie’s lower price. Kids will love this toy, and though it’s more expensive than most remote control cars, it’s also more impressive, and more fun. For all of these reasons, Ollie earns our strong general recommendation.
Company and Price
Compatible: iPads, iPhones + iPod touches