When I wrote about the original Orbotix Sphero robotic ball back in December 2011, I said some people would think it was pretty clever and some would think it was pretty stupid.
Judging from the split reaction my colleagues had to Sphero 2.0 as I took it for a stroll around the office using my iPhone as a steering wheel, that love-it-or-leave-it sentiment remains the same -- and so does the exterior design of the ball itself. But the new, second-generation Sphero, due to hit stores on August 30 for $129.99, is twice as fast and glows three times as brightly. Its software has also been upgraded, so it seems a bit more responsive.
The ball connects via Bluetooth and works with both iOS and Android devices. Standard Bluetooth has a range of 10 meters (33 feet) but the Sphero 2.0's range is 30 meters, which gives you some room to drive it around. It's easy to set up and get going, though it takes a lot of practice to become a truly adept Sphero driver who's able negotiate Formula-1-style indoor circuits.
Because it's hard to control at first, the Sphero 2.0 doesn't reach its new top speed out of the box. You actually have to level up to top speed by driving it around for a few hours, gaining experience and your Sphero driver's license so to speak.
The Sphero is completely waterproof and more durable than it looks. It also makes an endearing little chirping sound that gives it a bit of personality, and you can change its color. As for battery life, it gets about an hour of drive time before you have to charge it using the included induction charger and stand (it takes about 3 hours to fully charge).
The Sphero moves along at a good clip. With the increased speed, when you open up the throttle it becomes very difficult to control in tighter spaces. However, if it gets stuck somewhere, the power boost does help you get the ball out of jams.
The novelty of driving the Sphero around does wear off somewhat quickly, which is why Orbotix has included a set of ramps in the box (they're actually integrated into the packaging, which is pretty ingenious) to pull off miniature Evel Knievel-style jumps.
Orbotix has also developed a variety of free apps to challenge your driving skills and allow you to use the Sphero in various games, including some multiplayer and augmented-reality games. A growing number of third-party apps are also available (some of those aren't free) and some apps have you hold the Sphero in your hand to control something on your phone or tablet screen.
It's worth noting that the Sphero does swim, by which I mean it floats. However, to make it move better in water, you need to buy an optional accessory called a Nubby cover that's a silicone rubber case with bumps on it that provides traction in fluids and on off-road terrain. That cover comes in a few different colors and costs $14.95.
As I said in my initial musings on the first Sphero, it's something of a technological feat to remotely put a ball in motion, and the software upgrade and performance boost make the user experience a little more thrilling. But ultimately, you'll either look at Sphero in action and think, "Wow, that's cool," or you'll just see a ball rolling around and wonder what all the fuss is about.
As noted, the Sphero 2.0 ships on August 30 for $129.99 (Orbotix is taking preorders now). The Sphero 2.0 Revealed, a special version for Apple Stores, arrives on September 4. That model also costs $129.99 but has a partially transparent shell that gives you a glimpse at the engine inside the ball.