Review: Sphero R2-D2 and BB-9E from 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' are great toys, better Swift learning aids
Toys, and particularly tech toys, can have very short half lives. AppleInsider has been playing with three of Sphero's "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" app-controlled droids by a dad who was there in 1977, and by a pair of children who long to be a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
In case you missed it the first time around, the app-controlled BB-8 was a big hit around the release of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," even with relatively rudimentary software. Since then, BB-8 has seen several software and firmware updates, and has been joined by evil twin BB-9E. Also joining the fracas is long-time droid hero R2-D2 and his evil twin R2-Q5 who was shown briefly in "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi."
In October, we added R2-D2 and BB-9E to our droid squad, with the pair joining BB-8 after more than a year in residence. And, we're back with extended play thoughts.
Made to suffer
BB-8 remains solid and sturdy, with design decisions made for durability. For instance, the antennae on the top of the droid's head is flexible, and has only bent over the last year of children's play sessions with the droid, and now with extended Swift Playground sessions, and consequent miscues.
The new additions are no exception. The plastic on the droid casings are thick, and not easily damaged with even exuberant use. BB-8 has taken a few confirmed to be intentional trips down a carpeted flight of stairs. Many giggles were had — but nothing broke off.
R2-D2 has taken several falls, with the most severe a fall down the cement front step in front of the house — all with no damage from the incident beyond a few minor scuffs in the paint job.
BB-8 and BB-9E have heads held on with magnets. As such, in a particularly dire collision or any fall, the heads will pop off. Realignment is easy — the user places the ball part of the droid down on a hard surface and it auto-aligns allowing for the waylaid head to be put on the top of the ball.
Our original thoughts is that they were solid devices, built to last. Two solid months of nearly daily play sessions with all three droids confirms that.
It gets everywhere
But, do you remember mouse ball roller gunk? Break out your techniques you used to use to deal with it, because it's back in spades with BB-8 and BB-9E's head. Nasty.
This hasn't gotten any better with use. We've taken to hitting the rollers with alcohol and this helps — to a point. It seems to be aggravated by pet coat oils. When we've played with them in areas that our family creatures haven't ventured forth in, it takes longer to accumulate.
Most of the time, we discovered that the gunk accumulated made the droid have an even harder time getting started on any carpet. It's gotten so bad, that we play on tile, wood, and concrete exclusively now. It's just not worth the effort on any carpet at all, even the very short nap ones.
I could almost see the remote
The two new droids are able to be controlled through the Star Wars App-Enabled Droid by Sphero companion app for iPhone. The app offers an augmented reality Droid Trainer, allowing users to drive a virtual version of their toy when it is charging, and can also enable the droids to perform reactions to some of the "Star Wars" movies through its Watch with Me function.
We originally thought that Watch with Me would lose attraction with the younger set — but it is still a staple around here. One droid isn't enough, though. It's all three chatting away, or nothing.
Even as an adult fan, if you're inclined to let your kids use this feature a lot, find someplace far, far away in the house to do so. It gets grating after the first one or two viewings. But, all the kids we've tried this with just can't get enough.
For more extensive control, additional playgrounds have been added to Apple's Swift Playgrounds app, which teaches users how to code in Swift using games and activities. The new R2-D2 by Sphero playground tasks users with helping R2-D2 find Obi-Wan Kenobi in the deserts of Tatooine, evade Stormtroopers, and explore the Death Star, all using Swift commands.
The second, the Sphero Template, allows users to create programs to control one of the droids in a more complex, and less structured activity.
The droids are great as toys. They are even better for motivating kids to learn Swift.
We've been using Swift Playgrounds since it launched. Admittedly, while they are both younger than Apple recommends for the lessons, they don't fall far from the tree and have a technical aptitude that even the schools they attend comment on.
Even with the genetic imperative, the kids still got frustrated after a few lessons before the integration of the droids. A new fire has been lit underneath both of them to keep going, so they can do more and more in Swift to control the droids better.
Your arguments are vague and unconvincing
Like we said earlier, the Sphero "Star Wars" droids are probably close to the ultimate extension of the use of an iPhone and other mobile technologies as a toy enhancer. Rather than taking center stage, the iPhone is a controller, with the toy itself shining out.
But, this isn't easy to see. As with any remote controlled toy, it takes a little adjusting to the controls to really get the most out of the set. The patrol mode is a good start to see what the droids can do when properly driven — but its really up to the user to get the most out of the toy.
With "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" imminent, many stores including Best Buy and Toys 'R Us have demonstration stations. While we like the droid collection very much, it's really in your best interest to actually see them work before you buy.
Always in motion, the future is
We continue to have a great time with BB-8, and now with R2-D2 and BB-9E. The new droids, with corresponding software updates, are additive to BB-8, beyond just two children, and their father, each having their own.
Sphero hasn't been shy about firmware updates. The Swift Playgrounds implementation was added just before we looked at the droids in October, and we're glad it's there. It re-inspired the children to keep working on Swift Playgrounds, which may literally pay dividends for them later in life.
With the new wave of releases for "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," we expect that support for the line will continue, as will app enhancements extending the life of the toy. In fact, we're expecting one later this week, after the movie opens to our little, evil, BB-9E.
If you've got a hardwood floor, or concrete basement, don't be shy — you'll be pleased with your stop in the "Star Wars" universe. As an educational enhancement here on Earth, it may be worth its weight in gold.
4 out of 5