Editors' note: This review has been updated to reflect the fact that the Adidas Smart Ball app is now available on Android as well as new information about an in-app battery indicator.
Want to be the hero, playing in the next World Cup? Adidas says its miCoach Smart Ball can make you that star -- for a steep price.
After practicing with the ball for a season, I saw an improvement in the curve and power of my kicks, which is what you'd expect from a $200 smart ball. (It's available in the UK for £145, but pricing and availability in Australia has yet to be announced; £145 converts to AU$290).
At that price, the Smart Ball is a terribly expensive practice-only training tool for an individual -- paying top dollar for a practice ball is an expense usually reserved for top traveling teams.
Using Bluetooth sensors suspended inside, Adidas is able to provide in its app immediate feedback about a kick's speed, spin and curve. And, in doing so, it can give a coach or player invaluable information for correcting (or preventing) bad habits.
Adidas wants to get everyone playing like a pro, but it hasn't nailed the price. The Smart Ball is a useful tool for improving your game, but right now it's too expensive to seriously consider.
Even though the Smart Ball is within FIFA standards for circumference and weight (barely), that doesn't mean you should make it your game ball. It feels a bit too heavy and definitely not as balanced as a good game ball should -- probably because of it what it's packing inside.
The regular 32-panel, size 5 ball has 12 separate Bluetooth sensors inside, as well as a charger, but other than some symbols on the top and bottom of the ball, there are no overt signs that the ball is any smarter than the next. And when the battery is drained, it's just a halfway decent practice ball.
Charging the ball after practice is finicky. You're supposed to match the charge symbol on the bottom of the ball to the one on the charger pod, making it look as though your smart trophy is on display.
Once you set it to charge, you'll see either a rapidly blinking green light at the base meaning it's misplaced, or a slow, pulsing green light to indicate the ball is charging. It's not easy to line up the connections, and it takes more time (and patience!) than it should.
Time to fully charge the ball is about an hour, which is great if you need to quickly juice it up before practice. Adidas claims the battery will last 2,000 kicks or just under one week on standby, and I usually had no trouble using it during a two-and-a-half-hour practice.
One major oversight and drawback of the Smart Ball is that is doesn't feature a battery indicator. Adidas says that in the Settings of the app you can see the ball's battery status, and when the battery gets low, a notification should appear on the main screen. I never once saw this notification, even when I purposefully drained the battery.
In fact, after the 2-hour mark, practicing without knowing how much battery I had left felt like taking my life into my own hands...OK, not quite that dire, but I was never sure if it would die in the middle of a kick. I will update this review if I get the indicator to work, but I still think push notifications would be best.
The app connects to the ball using Bluetooth and after an initial pairing, it's ready to start being used. It doesn't track anything except stationary kicks, and even then it has some requirements. Before kicking, you first have to be sure to set up the ball so the Adidas logo is facing you and the arrows on top are facing the goal; if you don't, the measurements will be skewed.
Other requirements when you kick include making sure the ball travels at least 10 yards, and gets at least 3 feet (about 1 meter) off the ground. I have no idea why the height requirement exists, since it still registered almost all of my grass-grazing kicks.
In fact, in my experience, distance was much more important than the height of the kick, perhaps so it can gather enough data on the ball's speed and spin. A shot on goal from the penalty spot barely off the grass would record as a kick, but a shot from the 6-yard line, 3 feet off the grass would not. I would suggest only taking shots from well behind the penalty mark for the best data.
Once you've kicked the ball, you'll see the speed, spin and a visual representation of the curve of your kick in the app. Most annoying is that if you want to save the kick for future reference, you'll have to immediately favorite it, because the app doesn't automatically keep info about every kick. Under Record Book you can always see graphs of your past top power, spin and knuckle kicks (but not individual kicks).
Under Ball Mastery in the app are tips and tricks for improving certain skills. There are power, bend and "no spin" categories, each with their own pointers and basic training videos.
These training videos are probably the best part about the free app; they cover everything from doing foundations for better ball control to how to perfect an outside rollover move. While there's no talking in the 30-second videos, there are short descriptions of the moves plus demonstrations of them in slow motion, which is very helpful for beginners.
There are also Challenges in the app, where you can test either yourself, a friend or a pro player...sort of. The power challenge lets you compete against a friend to see who has the fastest kick. The pro challenge tests your ability to replicate a certain type of "pro-level" kick -- from a wide, low shot around a wall to a more direct, over-the-wall shot. Both types of challenges were a fun way to practice with (and battle) teammates.
If you want to improve your shots, being able to visualize the curve and speed of a kick is more than just a novelty, it's extremely helpful for training. But at $200 or £145, Adidas' miCoach Smart Ball seems geared to highly competitive teams -- or the parents who really want little Susie to have a professional soccer career.
And yet, all players can benefit from being able to see their kicks onscreen and learn from their mistakes. From a coaching standpoint the feedback the app provides is invaluable as a training tool for correcting bad habits or improving good ones.
For $200, though, the Smart Ball is the perfect investment only for a team that can afford it. But players or families on a budget would be better off getting a regular ball and bringing it to soccer camp -- or just practicing frequently.