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Sphero BOLT review: doubling down on hardware and software

The latest app-enabled robot from Sphero has arrived in a stroke of lightning.
Image: ZLATA IVLEVA/MASHABLE
Sphero BOLT
$149.99

The Good

8×8 LED Matrix gives it a personality • A very customizable experience through SpheroEDU • Three distinct modes to engage with BOLT • Fully redesigned hardware leads to impressive breakthroughs • A long term product you can grow with

The Bad

Slow 6-hour charging time • No internal speaker

The Bottom Line

BOLT is the most refined product from Sphero yet, compete with hardware that finally matches a great app experience that merges fun, creativity, and learning. Most importantly, BOLT will last a while and can grow with the user.

Mashable Score4.25

Cool Factor4.0

Learning Curve5.0

Performance4.0

Bang for the Buck4.0

Licensing deals don’t last forever, but product iterations do. Sphero’s latest robot keeps the original ball design, but BOLT has even more technology than the original.

It is a refinement of a design, as it’s still the same core base inside, mixed with new hardware that enables new features.

BOLT is launching today for $149, as both a playful fun toy and a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) device. Combining the aspects of play from previous robots, like the Disney ones and the Sphero Mini, with better hardware, it aims to refocus the company on the original app-enabled ball.

It hits a sweet spot regarding price robots, undercutting Anki’s forthcoming Vectors and Mattel’s Alpha Training Blue. But it does represent a price increase for Sphero. 

The extra $20 isn’t going into thin air — BOLT has IR sensors, a bigger battery, an LED matrix, and an upgraded charger. It also moves the see-through design of SPRK+ into the mainstream, which nerds like myself will love. 

So at $149, can Sphero’s BOLT survive in a home and a classroom alike? 

You can see what’s inside

It still looks like a Sphero on the outside, but redesigned internals steal the show.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA/MASHABLE

Not only is the Sphero BOLT see-through, but the team labeled all of the tech inside to a painstaking degree. It’s the attention to detail like this and the openness of the product, that is still intact with the young company, that makes it extra-cool for geeks. 

At first glance, you can tell something is different with BOLT. Not only has the entire inside, meaning the physical hardware inside the clear ball, been redesigned but most notably the main center mast is gone. This allows for the battery to be bigger and one solid piece, along with the rest of the technology inside being redesigned to fit this new mold. The other big difference is a white screen of LEDs, which is an 8×8 LED Matrix. This is the first screen on a core Sphero app-enabled robot ball. Facing outward on the four corners at the top of the hull, you will see four black sensors and these are IR or Infrared. This allows the Sphero to map out the room to an extent and provide some sight.

You still have an accelerometer and gyroscope inside, along with a motor that can go up to 4.5 miles per hour. More importantly, Sphero has added a compass which can deliver a long wanted feature, but more on that in a bit. What you won’t find with BOLT is an internal speaker, an area of weakness for previous Sphero’s as well, but the company is not solving this as of yet. I imagine its exclusion has to do with the keeping the design sealed, as well as achieving a 2-hour battery life.

Even with all the new technology, sensors, and even a simple screen, Sphero has kept the size the same. Bolt is 73mm in height and width, with a weight of 200 grams. If you can hold a baseball, you can hold BOLT, as it is roughly that size. If you want something smaller, look towards the Sphero Mini, but it won’t be as advanced.

That polycarbonate outer layer is durable. During a briefing with founder Adam Wilson he slammed BOLT down on a table several times, and in my testing, I had it roll down a flight of stairs and even fall off a table. With each drop, I got a little nervous, but then remembered that it’s designed to take a beating. BOLT is a road warrior destined for education and rough terrain at times. So, don’t drop it from high distances on purpose, but if it happens, the damage will likely only be cosmetic.

Spotlight turns to coding

The BOLT works hand in hand with SpheroEDU, giving you three distinct modes to code and program— BUT you now have an LED matrix built-in.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA/MASHABLE

Even with the licensed products like BB-8 and R2-D2 that brought their companion apps and delightful experiences, Sphero was still focusing on STEM and STEAM. Since the original Sphero and the iterations that followed, especially the SPRK+, a software development kit (SDK) was made available. Moreover, there was also SpheroEDU, which is how this robotics company can allow people of all ages to learn to code. 

This isn’t a dry experience, but rather a fun and collaborative one— I’ve spent the past few weeks playing with SpheroEDU and the BOLT. The experience is pretty powerful, and I’ve already learned quite a bit. Sphero doesn’t take the approach of having you learn a made up coding language that is only exclusive to this robot. Rather the strategy is built in a way that BOLT can grow with you.

You can chose between Draw, Block, or Text for ways to program.

Image: screenshot by jake krol/mashable

The core block system makes for users of all ages to design a program.

Image: screenshot by jake krol/mashable

From a student perspective, through the Draw control tool for coding, a kindergarten student could start with BOLT switch to the Blocks tool in 5th grade, and then move to the Text (aka Javascript) tool for high school. SpheroEDU lets you see how the code translates from one another, even though it starts pretty basic you begin to get a feel for it. In Draw mode, I could learn geometry by drawing different triangles and have a visual representation by BOLT mapping it out in front of me.  For learning styles, this is crucial, as BOLT engages the user with the process— from telling it what to do and then seeing it come to life. 

Moving into Blocks, Sphero isn’t reinventing the wheel with this drag and drop based interface. However, the organization of each block category and the color representations, make it intuitive. For instance, you can set up a distance to travel within a loop block that makes Bolt repeat it. However, thanks to the new technology within BOLT, some blocks let you have text appear on the LED Matrix or ones that allow you to draw emojis on it. You can even customize what graphics for games and activities. 

In a demo with Sphero’s team, I was able to play duck duck goose with BOLT, which had some neat graphics appear. But through SpheroEDU I can create my program and run it, or pull from the community of creators. A lot more will populate post-launch, but in the meantime, you can have it become a magic 8 ball, deliver a surprise greeting, or even play tic tac toe. The last one makes use of the board on the screen, with x’s and o’s, but you place each one by tilting BOLT and shaking it to confirm. Once you’ve progressed through Blocks, you can move to Text and bring your code with you. It allows you to see the work you’ve done in real Javascript code. It’s pretty remarkable and part of what makes BOLT and Sphero as a whole a unique offering. This isn’t some one-off toy robot, but rather a fun and compelling one that won’t soon grow old.

BOLT auto senses direction thanks to a compass

A compass inside will let BOLT auto aim, but it doesn’t work everywhere.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA/MASHABLE

A significant pain since the beginning of the Sphero was telling it the direction to travel in. You would turn the motor on the inside, and Blue light would appear, this would point towards the direction that Sphero would move in. 

With BOLT though, a compass is now onboard, and it works the same way that the one inside your iPhone does. It uses magnetic north to sense the correct direction of travel and this feature is called “auto aim.” In areas with a lot of signals and metal, it likely won’t perform that well, but Sphero is taking a novel step forward in the direction of making the product more comfortable to use for everyone. Plus, it’s easier than ever to get a Sphero rolling.

The core fun Sphero experience doesn’t go away

The BOLT still strikes as a lightning bolt of fun like previous Spheros.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA/MASHABLE

You can put auto-aim to more use, as BOLT still does a core thing; generate fun through use. If anything that fun and joy that this app-enabled robot gets heightened thanks to the new technology and the coding aspect. Sphero has many games that will be available at launch, including bowling that you can use with household objects. But you can also just drive BOLT around, while it goes slightly slower than previous models, 4.5 miles per hour is still pretty good for a robot of this size.

Even better, that core Sphero experience mixed with the app enabled coding one doesn’t impact the battery life too much. In fact, BOLT can last around 2 hours on a full charge thanks to that larger battery inside. This gives you plenty of time to drive it around and have a dog chase it, in addition to spending some an ample amount of time coding the next big program. It gives you times to develop the code, test it, and make adjustments without the need to take breaks for a charge in the middle. Sphero is still using wireless charging, but this larger battery is working in conjunction with a faster charger.

While the charger isn’t a fast one, seeing the large coil might give you the feeling it is working better.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA/MASHABLE

The base has the same clear design language which lets you see what is going on, and the new charging coil is quite larger. You plug the charging base in with the included micro USB cable which can deliver a full charge in about 6 hours, so this isn’t really fast charging, but one can hope it arrives with future updates. It would also be nice to see Sphero switch to USB-C.

BOLT sets the course for the future

You won’t be disappointed with Sphero BOLT.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA/MASHABLE

I am thoroughly impressed with Sphero BOLT. It beats out other connected robot toys in its price range for the sheer fact that the company has a track record of software updates, has an innovative STEAM approach, and the fact that it is a joy to use. 

The addition of an LED Matrix provides some visual cues to BOLT itself and rather than focusing on a character personality, Sphero put the focus on hardware and software for experiences that can be built upon. It is not the type of product that will be thrown away after a year; instead, BOLT shows this merge of creativity and education that results in an experience that you want to interact with. 

Inside the hardware, processors, motors, and sensors speak for themselves. The specs themselves don’t matter so much here; it is what you can do with it. The application unlocks the power of BOLT through three innovative modes that teach you to code. The community is also invested in a consumer and education experience, as people like to share what they have managed to make this robot do.

A key element is the price; at $149 the Sphero BOLT is great value. For the money, you get a cool little robot that might also inspire you to build something yourself. 

Read more: https://mashable.com/review/sphero-bolt-review/

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