The droid R2-D2, a longtime favorite of "Star Wars" fans, raised the question of how cool it would be to have a personal droid of your very own. BB-8 the App-Enabled Droid by Sphero helps to fill the void of this imagined dream. Sphero created a working remote control model of the new BB-8 droid from the new "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" movie. From the moment that you take the RC droid out of the box, it is as if you have added a mechanical celebrity to your home. BB-8 is a hot Christmas present option for any "Star Wars" fan ages 8 and up – and, at $150, is comparably priced to middle-tiered RC cars.
The experience of using BB-8 starts with the sleek packaging from Sphero. The design helps to set up the "Star Wars" motif that fans will appreciate. The instructions are somewhat lacking, with the quick-start guide being a single piece of paper with pictures showing the four steps needed to start. What is not included in the box is information that there is an excellent video tutorial on the Sphero site and YouTube, which we recommend you watch online.
Like any RC toy, BB-8 must be charged before you can start playing with it. The charging cradle is painted to fit the "Star Wars" motif and uses inductive charging. The coil is connected to the bottom of the inner orb, so you simply need to connect the charger to a powered USB and it automatically starts charging. A light indicator on the side of the cradle blinks when charging is in progress and turns solid when the charge is complete. A full charge takes roughly three to four hours, and we found that the droid runs for over an hour of continuous use.
One nice feature Sphero added is a side button on the charging cradle that brings BB-8 to life while it charges. Its lights change color and the head adjusts around the sphere of the body. This is a slight thing, but it makes the charging cradle less utilitarian and more of a show piece for a desktop or workstation.
The outer shell of BB-8 is about 1/8 of an inch thick, which is more than we expected and gives durability to the toy. This doesn't mean that it is designed for outdoor use or rough surfaces. We tested BB-8 on a variety of surfaces, and it did struggle on thick carpets and tiled surfaces with grout ruts. It performed best on flat hard surfaces, like concrete, engineered wood flooring and thin carpets. In our tests, it did reach the top speed of 4.5 mph that Sphero claims.
BB-8's body is about 3 inches round – roughly the size of a navel orange. The head adds about an inch and a half on top of the sphere. As you drive BB-8, the head remains on the sphere using magnetism on runner wheels. You can also control the direction the head faces, and it reacts to the controls as it rolls. The head can become detached during travel, but it's resilient and pops back on top when you tap it onto the larger orb.
You control BB-8 using a free downloadable app. This app is compatible with most Apple and Android devices. The control app will give "Star Wars" fans chills. John Williams' classic theme plays with a quick intro video, and then you're ready to sync BB-8 with your touchscreen device. The app connects to BB-8 through Bluetooth, and we found Sphero's claim of a 30-meter control range to be accurate.
The pairing of the device is quick and simple. The app begins by asking you to position your touchscreen device next to BB-8. When you do so, the sphere lights up, and a progress bars shows you when the pairing is complete. During our testing, there were no missteps with syncing the device.
There are three main modes within the control app – Drive, Messages and Patrol. Drive is the main control menu for BB-8. The interface is very user friendly. In the course of our testing, we had multiple users driving BB-8, from young children to adults, and the learning curve to master the controls is about the same as any RC car's. The unique element with BB-8 is Sphero's sphere design. There is a blue light that you use to align the sphere with your controlling position, which is an easy process. However, as you follow BB-8 around the corner, it requires you to either realign how you steer on the touchpad or realign the BB-8 sphere. It isn't a major issue but takes some practice.
The set moves included in the Drive screen add a dimension to the BB-8 toy. It allows more of the programed personality of the droid to come out, and it gives novice users a way to enjoy the orb without mastering the controls – which is great for small kids.
The Messages menu is a nifty addition, setting it apart from the BB-8 versions that only have the remote control and not the app. In the message screen, you can record custom hologram messages up to 12 seconds. You can then display and hear them through the app by pointing the camera at the BB-8 sphere. This is a cool feature, but you can only create the messages on the single device – there is no way of sending the messages to other devices or users. While this is somewhat limited, the feeling of seeing a recorded hologram message pop up on your screen is wish fulfillment for anyone who's thought of what they would say to General Kenobi to convince him that he is your only hope.
The patrol mode is a hidden gem for the toy. When you place BB-8 into patrol mode, it starts exploring its environment autonomously. The artificial intelligence is programed to adapt its actions as it interacts with you. So the more you operate BB-8, the more it becomes customized to your controlling patterns. It is fun to have the droid rolling around the floor like a mechanical family pet.
In addition to the set menu, BB-8 includes a voice control section. You can activate the voice control in the settings menu. Then you can open the voice control screen in the app by saying "OK, BB-8." The voice control screen shows a variety of voice controls, with the favorite of all our testers being the classic "Return of the Jedi" phrase, "It's a trap!" BB-8 scurries to safety in response.
BB-8 is a delightful pairing of Sphero technology and the "Star Wars" cinematic universe. The design of not just the droid, but also the packaging and the charger, enable the fantasy of owning your very own droid. The price tag is somewhat steep compared to more generic RC devices, but this is a good present for any "Star Wars" fanatic this holiday season.