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Sphero BB-8 review: Hands on with your new favourite Star Wars character

The Good

  • Irresistibly cute
  • Plenty of options
  • Roomba-esque Patrol mode
  • Cats will love this

The Bad

  • Not cheap
  • 1 hour battery
  • Hard to control
  • Hologram selfies are weak
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In case you’ve been frozen in carbonite for the last few years, you might have noticed that there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out. 

New Star Wars movies of course mean new lines of merchandising rolling out, quite literally in the case of Sphero’s BB-8. 

Building on the original Sphero, the BB-8 droid is a mainly spherical construct that gets about thanks to a clever combination of gyroscopes, gears and magnets. It’s also very lovable and silly and if it’s not already at the top of Christmas lists, it soon will be​. 

BB-8 featured in the first big teaser trailer for The Force Awakens and now it's at the top of Xmas lists.

BB-8 costs £130 and is available to order from Firebox, Amazon and PC World now. Read our full BB-8 review to find out if *obvious and totally lame joke siren* this is the droid you’re looking for…

And if you’re not the reading type, here’s our BB-8 video review where we try steering the wee blighter through our special obstacle course in a death-defying time trial.

Sphero BB-8: What’s in the box?

The box BB-8 arrives in is deceptively large. We’re not sure if the amount of foam padding inside is necessary to stop its internal components getting damaged in transit (we would imagine so) but for whatever the reason, we included the shot above to show you just how whelmed we were when we opened the crate. Not underwhelmed, not overwhelmed. Just whelmed. We were honestly expecting it to be a little bigger… 

In the box itself, you get a charging dock and a USB wire alongside the droid itself. There’s no mains adapter, but if you’ve got an iPhone charger (or any multi-part charger), you can just swap the cables out or charge it from your laptop. Aside from an instruction card and warranty bumf, that’s all you get. 

In the box itself, you get a charging dock and a USB wire alongside the BB-8 droid.

Sphero BB-8: Design

Sphero’s BB-8 toy stands about 11 centimetres tall, which is, as we’ve noted, a bit shorter than it’s celluloid counterpart. The main body of the toy is a 7.3cm diameter sphere inside which sits a gyroscope and a pair of wheels to keep the little critter upright. 

BB-8’s head magnetically attaches to the main body and rolls across the surface thanks to a pair of wheels. The undercarriage of BB-8’s head as a tendency to pick up dust and dirt really easily, not unlike the innards of pre-optical computer mice. The wheels feel sturdy enough but like those dated PC peripherals, we’d recommend a gentle hand when coming to clean off your BB-8. 

The Sphero BB-8 toy stands about 11 centimetres tall, shorter than it's film counterpart.

The paint job faithfully recreates the design of the movie prop and is coated in a clear, glossy protective finish. We’re not sure how long the exterior’s shiny lustre will keep for, but in the time we’ve had it, it’s sustained more than a few knocks, bumps and shocks – and it hasn’t picked up a single scratch.  

The on-board battery gives you up to 60 minutes of juice. Luckily the supplied charger seems to fill up the tank quickly; we got BB-8 rolling again after giving it a quick 20 minute spell in the dock. 

The BB-8 comes with a 1 year warranty, so in case something happen to its innards in the first 12 months, you should be able to get a replacement faster than you can say ‘Han Shot First’. 

The BB-8 toy has a clear and glossy protective finish.

Sphero BB-8: How easy is it to control?

Sphero describes BB-8 as an ‘app-enabled droid’, which is normal person-speak means, you’ll need a phone or tablet paired via Bluetooth to control it.

There’s three main sections to the app – Drive, Message, Patrol – and a settings menu. Drive is the feature you’ll probably be getting the most use out of. This consists of two thumbstick-style controls that more or less translate to ‘move’ and ‘look’. If you’ve played any FPS-type console game ever, you’ll quickly feel at home here.

When you press up on the d-pad, it’ll move forwards, depending on where the black eye is ‘looking’. So if BB-8’s head is facing to your right, pushing up of the d-pad will see it trundling off in that direction. At first it can be confusing, especially if it dives off underneath a table or a desk and you can’t see which way the head is pointing. 

BB-8 is an app enabled droid. Which means you'll need a phone or tablet to control it.

It’s really, really easy to accidentally decapitate BB-8. This is funny the first hundred times it happens, but can quickly tire when you have to spend minutes figuring out where exactly it’s absent head has got to. 

BB-8 is at first, an annoying little sod to control. Your first few minutes will be spent unintentionally colliding with chair legs, walls, other people and fretting as it bounces off of everything like a demented shuttlecock. 

As you’d expect, it works better over hard surfaces like wooden floors and desktops than it does thick carpets and rugs. It’s a shiny, glossy sphere with no tread whatsoever, so it’s terrible at moving over any surface that’s remotely textured.

Equally, BB-8 is not very good at clearing things like the metal trims of doorways or, well, any gradual incline to be honest, unless you get a good run up. It’s incredibly lightweight (68 grams) and momentum is, of course, proportional to mass times velocity. 

Once you get to grips with BB-8’s design, controls and its natural limitations, it becomes a lot more enjoyable and you can then start exploring the other features.

The app tells you how to move BB-8 around.

As well as the two main controls, there’s a couple of hotkeys that’ll let you quickly flip BB-8’s head around 180 degrees (useful if you get stuck in a corner) and another that provides a quick turbo-style burst of speed.

There’s a sub-menu on the Drive dashboard that lets you pick from eight pre-set commands. These are little animations and gestures that make BB-8 say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ by nodding and shaking its head. You can also make it move in a square, do a figure or eight, or just wobble around while bleeping exasperatedly.

It’s worth noting at this point that the sounds don’t actually come out of BB-8 itself, they come out of your phone’s speaker. It’s a little weird to hear the droid’s yelps in this disembodied fashion, but building a speaker would have added to the already considerable price. It makes sense from a design and cost-cutting point of view, even if the end result is a little odd.

One thing that really bugged us about the app is that every time you exit, you have to go through a pretty labourious process of reconnecting with BB-8 when you open it up again – even if you exit the app for a few seconds to take a quick call. The app itself also felt a little sluggish on some of the phones we tested it out on (particularly the Samsung Galaxy Note 3), so we hope over the air updates will iron out performance issues.

We’d have liked it if the app gave you the ability to film and take snaps of BB-8 while still controlling it. There’s plenty of scope of humourous mishaps and not being able to document these without having someone else filming seems like an obvious oversight. 

The app can be a little sluggish but this could be resolved by updates.

Sphero BB-8: Minimum requirements for iOS and Android apps

At the moment, there’s only iOS and Android apps available but we understand that a Windows Phone version is also in the pipeline.

In order to get the Sphero BB-8 apps working, you’ll need to at least have the following:

iOS – download from iTunes App Store

  • iOS 8.0
  • iPhone 4S
  • iPad 3
  • iPod 5th gen

Android – download from Google Play

  • Android 4.4.2 KitKat
  • Bluetooth 4.0

You can record selfies and have BB-8 'project' them.

Sphero BB-8: What else does it do?

Annoyingly, despite media reports to the contrary, we weren’t able to make BB-8 run away and hide when we shouted ‘It’s a trap!’, Admiral Ackbar-style, into the phone. This only served to draw concerned looks from co-workers. Oh well. 

Besides running into stuff, you can also record selfies and have BB-8 ‘project’ them through the Message tool.

This essentially lets you recreate the ‘Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi’ message from the original film, which is a brilliant idea. 

It’s an AR (augmented reality) feature that makes it look like the video is being projected from the droid’s head. Once you’re done recording your bit, you can then hold the phone’s viewfinder up to BB-8 and the AR element will begin playing, making it look like it’s beaming the video on to your desktop. 

The reality is a lot less exciting than the idea, sadly. The ‘projections’ look small and cramped on your phone’s screen (see our before and after shots above and below) plus you can only record up to ten seconds’ worth of video. Recreating Darth Vader and the Emperor’s patter from Empireis therefore impossible. Most unimpressive. 

The BB-8 projections are an augmented reality feature and look a bit cramped.

Luckily, Patrol is a much better feature. Activating Patrol will see BB-8 heading off under its own steam. It’ll make a note of when it collides with walls and attempts to build up a picture of your room, a bit like a Roomba, only one without a vacuum cleaner attached. 

That said, after rolling around on our office floor for a few minutes, BB-8 got pretty filthy. Dust, grime, hair, desiccated bits of Sellotape and other detritus rescued from under our desks were returned to us. While it’s not designed to be a cleaning bot, we suppose it’s a good way of reminding you that you should perhaps do some dusting. Thanks, BB-8! 

We’ve not been able to get any paws-on time yet, so we can’t tell you how well pets react to BB-8. We imagine that out cats will either want to murder it or be utterly indifferent to it. Given the tennis ball-sized dimensions of BB-8’s body, we’d be wary about introducing it to any dog that’s fond of playing fetch. You can definetly get a more suitable dog toy for less than £130. 

Sphero’s BB-8 is a hell of a lot of fun and is undeniably charming.

Sphero BB-8: Verdict 

Sphero’s BB-8 is a hell of a lot of fun and is undeniably charming. But it’s also £130. For something that’s essentially a remote controlled car that can’t handle thick carpets or traverse gentle inclines, it’s a bit steep (pun intended). 

The fact that you also need to own a compatible phone or tablet in order to be even able to control it may also put off cash-strapped folks who don’t have any of the devices listed above.

On the other hand, having to use a phone as a control means there’s scope for more features to arrive via app updates. We expect that by Christmas, after The Force Awakens has hit cinemas on December 17, more content (potentially spoilery content) will have been unlocked. We hope so, because right now, the little droid feels limited in terms of what it can do, other than patrol, trundle about and make cute noises. 

That said, BB-8 will no doubt bring smiles to many if it’s unwrapped ‘neath the tinselly boughs this year. 

Specification

Price£130
DevicesiOS, Android

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