Sphero battle-worn BB-8 and Force Band hands-on review: The must-have toy of the last 12 months just got an upgrade by way of a new battle-worn paint job and the power of the Force.
Sphero’s original BB-8 app-controlled droid became the hottest ticket at the tail end of 2015, coinciding with the launch of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and serving as one of the coolest brand partnerships in recent memory. Despite its steep price tag, we praised the original for its cute aesthetic and rich feature set. One year on and Sphero’s BB-8 is making a return in a special edition flavour that boasts a distinctive new paint job and a new, suitably Star Wars-inspired control mechanic.
The box is a little larger than the original to accommodate the extra hardware and features the star attraction and its new counterpart on the front, along with a few highlights surrounding the extra functionality it boasts on the side. Sliding off the card sleeve you’re presented with basic setup instructions front and centre and some Aurebesh (read: Star Wars letters) adorning the side, that when translated spell out ‘Force Band,’ which is a nice touch.
The new BB-8 is sealed within its own hinged presentation tin, which holds the droid’s head, body and charging base in purpose-cut foam alcoves. Sliding all the pieces out you immediately notice differences against 2015’s model, firstly with the finish. To give the impression that BB-8 has spent years rolling around the interiors of various starships, traversed the dunes of Jakku and potentially taken cover amidst shoot-outs during run-ins with the First Order, the glossy plastic of the original has been replaced with a satin sheen that diffuses more light and feels as though it offers slightly more grip in the hand.
The paint job too reflects BB-8’s weathered life thus far, with grime and dirt running along the seams that make up the panels of his spherical body and magnetically detachable head. Overall BB-8’s new aesthetic not only just looks like a better quality product, but also more closely apes its cinematic counterpart, making it a great prop for kids (and adults) who want to recreate scenes from the film.
Positioned in a card mount under the tin containing BB-8 lays its intriguing new accessory, the Force Band. The whole card assembly pulls out so you can unfold the band from the mount, but there’s also a card drawer that contains two microUSB leads for both the droid’s new battle damaged black (the original was white) wireless charging base and the band.
Much like BB-8, what grabbed us first was the finish and attention to detail that Sphero has put into the Force Band. To hold or wear it’s obviously made of plastic as a result of its feel and weight, but to look at it’s decidedly more convincing as if lifted straight out of the Star Wars universe. Fans of the franchise will notice the red Starbird insignia and the paint job, which looks as though it’s based on Poe Dameron’s dark-hulled Resistance X-Wing. The ‘exposed metal’ touches along every edge of the Force Band’s surface look great too and really sell the overall finish.
It’s also a comfortable accessory to wear, with an easily adjustable wide Velcro strap and a magnetic clasp that snaps together along the top of your wrist instead of underneath like a conventional watchband. On the front, there’s a speaker grille and a hardware button that’s integrated into the design, under which sits an LED, whilst the rubber tab on the side of the body conceals the microUSB port for charging.
To actually use the Force Band with BB-8, Sphero has developed a separate app (to the standard BB-8 app) that lets you pair the band to the droid, breaking the experience up into distinct modes. Force Training takes you through the gesture controls that the Force Band is capable of recognising by letting you control a virtual BB-8 on your smartphone.
Force Awareness offers an experience not too dissimilar from Pokémon GO, where the Force Band alerts you to ‘holocrons’ nearby that you then search out with an outstretched arm and vibration feedback from the band before checking them out within the app once you’ve ‘captured’ them. Holocrons contain information on Star Wars characters, planets, vehicles and weapons, the last of which then becomes an unlockable in the Combat Training section of the app.
Combat Training lets you choose from iconic Star Wars weapons like Chewie’s bowcaster or Luke’s lightsabre and their distinctive sounds are then piped through the Force Band’s surprisingly punchy little speaker in time with the flailing and waving of your arms.
There is also, of course, the ability to control BB-8 directly with the Force Band. Using the same gestures taught in the Force Training experience, you can push the little guy away from you, bring him toward you, turn corners as he’s rolling along using wide sweeps of your arm and make him stop dead. As with the mobile app, you can also re-orient the BB-8 by tapping the button on the Force Band and twisting your wrist. It’s a more limited range of motion than is available from the mobile app, but removing the screen and relying solely on gesture input feels a lot more interactive and arguably makes for a more fun experience too.
The Force Band also outputs voice commands so that once initial setup is complete, subsequent play sessions don’t rely on the smartphone, with the band instead relaying different options by way of an Obi-Wan voice that sits somewhere between Ewan’s and Sir Alec’s interpretation of the character.
We’re impressed with the additional functionality and interactivity Sphero has squeezed into the Force Band experience, giving both it and BB-8 greater longevity in the playroom, but you have to bear in mind that at £179.99 this duo makes an already pricey experience even dearer.
It ultimately hinges on how much you love Star Wars and whether you deem the ability to wield the force a big enough draw for the extra cash. At the very least you don’t have to commit to the Force Band purchase and if you want just want the battle-worn BB-8 and likewise you can pair the Force Band (sold separately for £59.99) with any of Sphero’s Bluetooth Smart-compatible offerings, including the original BB-8, but also older products like the SPRK+ and Sphero Ollie.
Sphero’s battle-worn BB-8 and Force Band launch on September 30th in the UK.