This is the Droid You’re Looking For: Rolling With Our Homie, Sphero’s BB-8 [Review]
In the days leading up to Force Friday, all eyes were on the standard flag bearers of Star Wars collectibles like Hasbro and Lego. The anticipation for new figures and block-building sets was all anyone on collector channels could seemingly talk about. Then the timed-release of several advanced looks at Sphero's remote controlled BB-8 changed the conversation completely. Suddenly, all anyone could talk about for the next few days was the little rotating droid. Even I wasn't planning on getting one of the little buggers right off the bat, but after seeing those first few videos of BB-8 in action, I changed my tune. BB-8 had become the "must have" Star Wars toy of the season.
Of course, with all that immediate hype comes the potential for extreme letdown. It's rare when a single toy met with such fervor in such a short time can be capable of shouldering the expectations of the purchasing public. Just because something is hot and new doesn't mean it's worth the investment, either from a money standpoint or from the time it takes to track one down. Fortunately, Sphero's BB-8 is one of the few ballyhooed collectibles of the past few years that measures up. That is, as long as your expectations can be tempered back to rational levels after the hype subsides.
I had struck out a a few retailers locating a BB-8 in person on Force Friday. While in line to purchase some of the figures I could actually get my hands on, I hit up Think Geek, which was one of the few retailers that still had the droid in stock that night. Though the luster of Force Friday had worn off by the time BB-8 arrived (technically it wore off that same night due to how poorly the event was handled just about everywhere on the planet, but I digress), seeing that little box show up outside my door got me excited again. It's been about 20 years since I had any vested interest in anything remote controlled. Barring that one year when everyone got really into those RC mini-helicopters, the last vehicle I can remember actually owning was one of those Animal trucks from the '80s.
BB-8's packaging is sharp, simple and modern, and does a good enough job giving you the pertinent details about the toy contained therein. Inside, it's a rather Spartan affair, with nothing but a USB charging cable and a single card of instructions to keep BB-8 company. There are almost no directions at all, with the main details being to put the body of BB-8 in the base, plug the base in, and let the little guy charge. It also advises you to download the app to your phone so you can actually control the toy once its fully charged. Now, it must be fully charged before you can use it, at least in our experience, which is something I wish would have been detailed better from the start. I was antsy and kept trying to pair the toy to my phone via Bluetooth, but I had no luck until all the blue bars on the charging base were solid.
The base is a nice piece itself, and provides wireless (inductive) charging for BB-8. When you first place him in there, he snaps in tight thanks to magnets, and you will have to exert a little bit of force to pull him back out. That's good because you don't want him popping out of the base every time you bump it by mistake. Even when not plugged in for charging, BB-8 stays locked in.
When you do first drop him in there, you have to attach the head piece as well. Magnets again do the heavy lifting, and after orientating a bit, the head is (mostly) securely fastened by the toy. He goes through quite a bit of restless motion in the base, lighting up and rotating around as he gets used to being made active for the first time. After a few minutes, the movements subside, and BB-8 charges quietly for the remaining few hours.
Once he's ready to go, and you've got the app loaded up, it takes but a few seconds to connect to BB-8 through Bluetooth. It does tap your phone battery fairly hard, but not to the point of draining a full charge during a play session. BB-8 himself only has enough juice to get through an hour of continuous play before needing a charging break. Using BB-8 for that long dropped my phone by 30-40% each time, but since I'm not playing with him on a deserted island, that speedy drop in battery life didn't concern me much.
There are three different ways to use BB-8 with your phone. 'Drive' lets you take full control of BB-8; 'Patrol' puts him on auto-pilot; 'Message' lets you record a short "holographic" message for replay later.
For the most part, I've spent my time in the Drive option, as taking full control of BB-8 is much more fun than letting him roam around the house until his battery drains. It's also because manual control is the only way I can ensure he doesn't get stuck on the carpet. While tight, short-fibered carpet isn't a problem for BB-8 to traverse, thick, shaggy carpet is. He just can't get enough momentum built up on the thicker carpet to get moving in any sort of consistent fashion, and gets stuck spinning and chirping at me through the phone's speakers.
There is no on-board audio for BB-8, and all of his bleeps and bloops and whistles come through the app itself. It would have been great to see the droid capable of presenting sounds on his own, particularly in Patrol mode, given that he's got a 30 meter range. People at the far end of that range might not get the full benefit of the toy since all the noises are generated out of the control device. However, adding the tech needed to provide sound through BB-8 himself would both greatly increase the cost and make the toy substantially bigger than its 4.5" height. Having sound come from the phone is a serviceable method, and likely gives a better audio mix anyway.
Controlling BB-8 takes some getting used to, as the digital control stick isn't quite as precise as a physical one. There's a bit of a learning curve involved in figuring out how much pressure to apply to adequately maneuver him around while maintaining speed. His turning radius is immediate when slow or at a standstill, but when he's at full bore, BB-8 takes a wide berth. This has led to more than a few crashes, and heads popping off the little guy. Fortunately, BB-8 is a durable dude, and can withstand bumping into bookshelves, walls and doors without sustaining any damage. His head might pop off, but it attaches again with ease, and before you know it, BB-8 is off and running like nothing ever happened. I do wonder if we'll see something similar happen in the film as a bit of comic relief.
If you do lose your center, which is easy given that BB-8 is constantly rotating, a virtual version of the droid appears on the control panel where you can adjust the direction he's facing in relation to you. It's the easiest way to ensure that up on the controls will always mean forward, and you don't get turned around with reversed driving mechanics.
There's also a set of pre-programmed maneuvers and responses you can access from the Drive menu. BB-8 can do figure eights, drive in a perfect square, dash full speed ahead in one direction, or call out to you with positive, negative and "freaking out" responses. All of the noises he makes sound like they've come from a classic arcade game, which too were limited in the way they could express success and failure. Unlike R2-D2, BB-8's got a little bit more range in how he can emote, and the result is some rather hilarious "dialogue."
With Patrol, BB-8 will automatically run around, surveying his surroundings. He's basically like a Roomba that doesn't do any cleaning, but still constantly bumps into every possible thing in the room, all while chirping along as he goes. It's fun to watch, but doesn't offer much incentive for repeat performances. It's worth doing to show off to people who haven't seen him in action, but controlling him yourself is still more fun.
The readout on the phone shows you data based on BB-8's movements, including a measurement of where he's crashed into something. They make a nice distraction on the mobile device, but don't really give you any true information with regard to how BB-8 is operating. The most laughable is the distance traveled, which has often reached hundreds of feet, when in fact BB-8's barely made it out of the kitchen.
With Messages, you can finally send Obi-Wan that urgent message you've always wanted to, only with a small caveat. While you do record a brief video message directly in-app, which can be saved for use for however long you want, BB-8 doesn't directly play it back himself. Instead, the message springs forth from an augmented reality overlay on the phone, which makes it appear as if it's being projected from BB-8. If you want people to observe your message, they'll have to be huddled around your phone to see it.
Again, like the audio, inserting a projection camera in BB-8 would have increased the price and size of the toy exponentially. It would have been amazing to send BB-8 rolling into another room and have him display a message on the wall, but from a cost effectiveness standpoint, I can understand why Sphero opted for the AR route. Also, while users are likely to run around with BB-8 to their hearts' content, the number of those people who'd get enough use out of an on-board projector would be drastically smaller. It's a cute party trick, but that's about it.
Despite having a full motor and whatever else inside to keep him going, BB-8 is surprisingly light. I know he's a diminutive droid, but the whole thing weighs maybe a pound or two at the most. The lightweight construction also might make you think this thing will fall apart at the first sign of distress, but Sphero's construction is solid and durable. The only issue I encountered with BB-8 while driving it around had to do with the wheels under the head.
In order to keep the head consistently at the top of the sphere, there are little wheels underneath to keep it rotating with the gyroscoping ball. If you have any stray hairs or dust balls lurking beneath furniture, BB-8 will immediately attract them. They'll also then get stuck under the wheels in the head, and you'll have to remove them by hand. It's not a dealbreaker, but you'd be surprised how much of your furniture BB-8 can actually fit under, and how negligent you can be of what's under your bookshelves.
Bringing BB-8 to life in a somewhat affordable fashion couldn't have been easy, but the finished product was clearly worth the efforts of Sphero and Disney to make it happen. BB-8 is sure to continue drawing attention through the release of the film this December, and hopefully Sphero will continue pumping these out well into the new year.
At $150, Sphero's remote-controlled BB-8 is not a minimal investment, and as such, it won't be for everyone. Even though I'll still be playing with this thing for weeks and months to come, if I packed it away today after a dozen or so hours of playtime, I'd feel like I got plenty of value already. Simply put, BB-8 is a magnificent little toy that perfectly captures all the awe of the franchise it represents.
This figure was purchased for review. You can still order a Sphero BB-8 directly from Sphero for $149.99, though the next wave won't be released until later this fall.
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