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Sphero Bolt Review

The Sphero Bolt is the most advanced Sphero ever, packing in an LED matrix display, an ambient light sensor, and even infrared so that multiple Bolts can talk to one another.

PRICE WHEN REVIEWED
  • $149.99
Sphero is back with the Bolt, its latest generation robot: part toy, part educational tool, and entirely free of any sort of Disney tie-in.

After a string of big releases taking advantage of lucrative properties like Star Wars, Cars, and Spider-Man, Sphero is going back to its roots with the Bolt, which packs in new tech and a renewed focus on education - though it’s undeniably still a toy at heart. Here’s what we think.

PRICE AND AVAILABILITY
The Bolt is available to order right now from Sphero.com, priced at £/$149.99 - right in line with most of the other full-size Spheros. It will be then available from Apple, Amazon, John Lewis, Selfridges and Harrods from mid-September.

That’s undeniably a lot for a toy, so it’s really only worth it if you expect your kid - or yourself - to get long-term use out of it, which means really engaging with the educational coding side of the device. It's also similarly priced to other robot toys on the market, most of which offer similar coding tools.

That’s part of why Sphero is also offering a Power Pack aimed at teachers and schools. At £/$2,499 it doesn’t come cheap, but it gets you 15 Sphero Bolts in a sturdy travel case - which doubles as a charger for the lot - along with a bundle of extra accessories suited to the classroom. There’s also a cheaper 15-pack for £/$1949.99 which drops the charging case.
HARDWARE
We’re going to split this review down into two halves, tackling the hardware and software changes in turn.

First up, the hardware. This looks pretty similar to the Sphero SPRK+ from 2016: it’s a roughly tennis ball-sized sphere, weighted so that it stays upright while rolling about, and made out of transparent plastic so that you can see all the tech-y innards at a glance.

That’s partly to let you see all the various sensors and gizmos that drive the Bolt, but also to take advantage of the headline new feature: an 8x8 programmable LED light display. This can be used to display different colours, to play animations, and even to show scrolling text, adding a new layer to the programs and games you can create for the Bolt.

That’s not the only new feature, and there are two important new sensors in the bolt. The first is a light sensor, so that you can create programs to react to light levels and trigger certain actions in response to them - lighting the LED matrix up when the room goes dark for example, or even animating a light meter on the display to measure how bright it gets.

Then there’s the new infrared sensor, which the Bolt uses to communicate with other Bolts. We can’t really test this ourselves since we only have the one device, but we got to see a brief demo of a program in which two Bolts could act out a story in which one was a superhero and one was a victim, each Bolt signalling to the next that it had completed an action to trigger the other Bolt to respond.

What we saw was a little clunky and imperfect (it never quite managed to work right) but the company insists that, while basic at launch, the IR features will be expanding significantly over the first few months, with the aim of making complex swarm robotics possible for people who can get enough Bolts together in one place.

As with the SPRK+, the Bolt is built to last, and should survive plenty of bumps and bruises without any damage - except a charming animation when it unexpectedly rams into a wall. It’s also waterproof, and floats, opening up a range of aquatic activities for the really creative.

There’s one other major improvement here: the battery. As before, it charges inductively on a provided cradle, but should now last about two hours on a single charge, making it easier to use for extended sessions or for teachers to use for different class groups across a single day.

SOFTWARE
OK, so that’s what’s inside the Sphero Bolt - but how do you take advantage of it all?

Sphero has revamped its software for the launch of the Bolt, with an updated Sphero Edu app and the new Sphero Play app, both designed to work with the Bolt along with the Sphero Mini and the SPRK+.

Let’s take Play first. As the name suggests, this is for those who really just want to enjoy the Bolt as a toy. It includes a few different ways to drive the Bolt around, from the familiar touchscreen joystick or tilt controls to more esoteric options like Scream (it accelerates based on how much noise there is) or Kick (which plays a few football sound effects and lets you flick across the screen to curve the ball) - though for some reason the Mini's Face Drive (which let you drive using facial expressions) isn't supported by the Bolt.

Beyond just driving the Sphero around, you also get three games to play, which will be mostly familiar from previous Sphero devices. There’s a top-down spaceship shooter, an obstacle-based runner, and one where you have to spin barriers to keep a ball bouncing between them.

The games are fun enough - and make some use of the new LED matrix to display animations or changing colours as you go - but realistically they won’t keep you around for long. That’s where the Edu app comes in.

The Edu app is the real heart of the Bolt, including everything you need to code your own mini-programs using the device. The app has been around for a while, but it’s getting a fresh coat of paint this week to take advantage of the Bolt’s new features, along with a new side-by-side mode which lets you see activity instructions and your program on the same screen.

Getting back to the core of what the Edu app is, it’s designed to teach coding - either block-based through Scratch, or with JavaScript - letting you program animations, actions, and even games that use the Sphero Bolt.

There’s a range of programs included for you to try out, both from Sphero itself and from the community, and you can take any of them and tweak them to suit your preferences. Examples so far range from simple instructions for the Bolt to draw a square through to ones that turn it into a magic 8-ball and even one that re-builds the classic phone game Snake using the 8x8 matrix.

The Edu app lets you use basically every feature of the Bolt, including the matrix, light sensor, and IR sensor, triggering spinning, movement, the LEDs, noises, and more, down to minute detail.

If throwing yourself in at the deep end with the programs is a bit overwhelming, the activities section lets you run through lessons on specific types of programs or elements of the Bolt, with instructions sitting side-by-side with your programs. This is built in part to make things easy for teachers, who can set it up so that they can monitor their students’ programs and progress, but individual users can also use it to work through stuff.

One thing worth noting is that the Edu app doesn’t really do a lot to intro young users to the concepts of block-based programming, and unlike some rivals there’s not a clear, structured series of lessons to work through. That means that as a coding tool, the Bolt is really best suited to kids (and adults) who’ve already mastered the basics elsewhere and want to use the Sphero to explore more complex options.

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