On the outside, robots don't come much simpler than a ball, but that doesn't do justice to the tech inside the gadgets from Sphero. New Atlas went hands on with the company's latest offering, a tiny app-connected robot ball called the Sphero Mini that's both drivable and programmable.

Sphero Mini doesn't have anywhere near the same wow factor as the company's Star Wars line, but on the plus side it also doesn't have a $300 price tag. The new addition joins Sphero's original lineup of round robots, packing many features found in its bigger siblings into a ball just 42 mm (1.7 in) wide. Inside that tiny shell is a gyroscope, accelerometer, LED light, Bluetooth chip and a battery, and cramming all that in there might be Sphero Mini's most impressive feature.

There's no induction charging like you'll find in some of Sphero's fancier bots. Instead, you crack open the plastic shell and plug the Micro USB cable directly into the robotic guts of the Mini. One hour of charge gets you about 45 minutes of play time. The LED light can be set to shine in millions of colors, adding a bit of pizazz to proceedings as well.

All of that technology opens up a range of things to do with the robotic ball. Like all Sphero robots, you can drive the Mini around using the iOS or Android app, with the default setting being a virtual joystick. There's a few other driving modes to try as well. Slingshot, for example, has you flicking the joystick like a pinball launcher to send the bot careening in the opposite direction, while Tilt mode drives by tilting the phone itself.

Those modes are pretty stock standard for Sphero bots, but there's a strange new one in the ranks called Face Drive. With this, users steer the ball by pulling faces into their selfie camera. A smile moves it forwards, a frown brings it back, and angling your head left or right turns it. At least that's what it's supposed to do. In our experience, the app has a hard time recognizing facial expressions.

Sphero Mini also goes the other way, as in you can use the ball as a controller for three games on the smartphone app. Round Trip is a Breakout-style game where you turn the physical Sphero to rotate a hexagon, destroying bricks by bouncing a ball against them. Lightspeed Drifter has you turning a tunnel around a speeding car to give boosts, avoid obstacles and collect power-ups. And in Exile II, turning the Sphero Mini steers a spaceship as you shoot and avoid asteroids.

The games are fun, and Sphero promises more are on the way eventually, but it's not the most intuitive control scheme. Holding the ball between your thumb and forefinger, it's hard to do a full 360-degree rotation, and while we had more luck putting the ball on the ground and rolling it around with our palm, the whole thing is pretty awkward. Like Face Drive, it's an interesting gimmick but probably not a very enduring one.

Instead, the appeal of Sphero Mini seems to be that it's up to you to make your own fun with it. There's a set of bowling pins and traffic cones included in the box – maybe set up an obstacle course and see if you can navigate through it using just your face. Or try racing a few of them against each other. And we can't help but wonder if it could be used to play remote-controlled billiards.

If you're feeling particularly creative, one of the biggest sources of fun with Sphero Mini could be the programming stuff. The robot links in neatly with a whole range of DIY systems, like Arduino, IFTTT, Tickle, and the Sphero Edu app, which lets users build simple programs out of a visual language or JavaScript.

Those who aren't tinkerers themselves can still take advantage of that openness. There's a whole community of makers out there constantly developing new things to do and new games to play with Sphero. Again, it's just a matter of getting out there and finding them.

Sphero's toys are always technological marvels in search of something worthwhile to do. They have plenty of tricks up their sleeves, but the novelty is fleeting and before long it'll be gathering dust on a desk. One of Sphero Mini's key selling points is that when that moment inevitably comes, your wallet won't have felt the sting quite as bad. Driving around on the floor gets old fast, but with so much tech under the hood Sphero Mini is a bit of a blank canvas, and it's up to you to get creative with it.

Sphero Mini is available now in a range of colors, for US$50.

Product page: Sphero Mini

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