Robotics

Review: Sphero Bolt is a fantastic, rolling educational toy for young and old

Sphero's new Bolt robot adds an 8x8 LED matrix display
Sphero's new Bolt robot adds an 8x8 LED matrix display
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Sphero's new Bolt robot adds an 8x8 LED matrix display
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Sphero's new Bolt robot adds an 8x8 LED matrix display
The Sphero Bolt has more sensors than its predecessors, including an ambient light sensor
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The Sphero Bolt has more sensors than its predecessors, including an ambient light sensor
The Sphero Bolt is about the size of a tennis ball, durable, and waterproof
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The Sphero Bolt is about the size of a tennis ball, durable, and waterproof
You can control the Sphero Bolt via a phone app or the web
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You can control the Sphero Bolt via a phone app or the web
The LED display can display text, images, and colors
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The LED display can display text, images, and colors
Sphero Bolt charging is via an inductive cradle
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Sphero Bolt charging is via an inductive cradle
The Sphero Play app lets you drive the Bolt and play games with it
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The Sphero Play app lets you drive the Bolt and play games with it
The Sphero Edu app encourages you to code your own adventures for the Bolt
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The Sphero Edu app encourages you to code your own adventures for the Bolt
The Sphero Bolt can respond to light, barriers, and other Bolt robots
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The Sphero Bolt can respond to light, barriers, and other Bolt robots
The Sphero Bolt connects to a smartphone via Bluetooth
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The Sphero Bolt connects to a smartphone via Bluetooth
The Sphero Bolt is on sale now for US$149.99
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The Sphero Bolt is on sale now for US$149.99

The latest robot ball off the Sphero production line is the Sphero Bolt, part toy and part coding tutor. We've been sending the tennis ball-sized spherical gadget zooming around various rooms and obstacle courses to see if it's worth investing in, for you or your kids.

First and foremost, the Bolt is a lot of fun. Control is via two iOS/Android smartphone apps, Sphero Play (for games and freestyle maneuvers) and Sphero Edu (for more educational purposes), and setup is simple and done in a minute – the most crucial bit is getting the app configured with the way the bot is pointing.

You can use the Play app to pilot the Bolt around the room however you like – there's even a choice of control methods, including joystick and tilt. The 8 x 8 LED matrix on board the Bolt makes this more enjoyable than on previous Spheros – you'll even see a red glow and hear a slight cry of pain if the bot hits something.

That LED display might only have 64 dots, but it can show emoji faces, scrolling text, and plenty more besides. It's one of the key upgrades over previous Sphero robots.

We could have spent all day just driving the Bolt around through makeshift obstacle courses, but there's more: a handful of games where you actually use the robot as a kind of rudimentary controller, rolling the ball to avoid aliens or hit walls.

The LED display can display text, images, and colors
The LED display can display text, images, and colors

Again, it's guaranteed to bring a smile to your face or the faces of any kids playing (or watching). It's simple, but it works. Sphero says it's toughened up the casing on the robot this time around, and it feels like it – you won't worry about this hitting chair legs or falling down a few stairs. Oh, and it's waterproof, too.

It's the programmable app, Sphero Edu, where the Bolt really comes into its own though (it can also be accessed through a web browser as well as your phone). Basic commands can be put together in seconds – go in this direction, at this speed, for this length of time, for example, or fade from this color to that color over so many seconds. It's as simple as dragging and dropping blocks into place and then setting variables.

If you've ever used the IFTTT (If This Then That) service on the web, then the control of the Bolt is very similar. If you can drag actions and triggers into an order on screen, then you can get the Bolt to do your bidding.

Even if you've never done any robotics coding before, you'll be racing your Bolt around the room in no time, adjusting its display and sounds along the way. As you get more confident, you can add more adjustments and variables – thanks to the on-board sensors you can have the Bolt react to lights, barriers and more.

Switch to the drawing mode and you can just have the Sphero Bolt follow a route you draw with your finger. Behind the scenes, everything is being controlled by the Scratch coding language, and the app lets you view and edit the raw code too – it's a fantastic introduction to coding where you can learn by doing.

The Sphero Edu app encourages you to code your own adventures for the Bolt
The Sphero Edu app encourages you to code your own adventures for the Bolt

Even better, you can read some of the location, orientation, light level and velocity data collected by the Bolt on its travels, making the compact device even more useful as an educational aid.

We spent hours getting the Sphero Bolt to do our bidding, slowly becoming more and more ambitious, and there's a lot to explore and experiment with. By the time you've finished playing around with one idea, another 10 will have come to mind, assuming you've got at least a passing interest in coding and robotics.

Add to the mix the sample programs you can find inside the app, most of which are put together with the intention of educating as well as entertaining, and it's an impressive package all round. It's no exaggeration to say the possibilities are almost limitless.

Even the inductive charging cradle that comes with the Bolt is cool-looking, and juices up the robot for a solid two hours of use, which we found we hit more often than not.

From the build quality and the design of the Sphero Bolt, to the ease-of-use and intelligence of the apps, this is an impressive (albeit pricey) bit of kit. Kids will love using it to learn coding or just cause havoc, and even adults will find a lot of enjoyment here. The US$149.99 asking price isn't bargain basement, but the Bolt offers lots of value. It's available direct from Sphero now.

Product page: Sphero Bolt

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