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Sphero is back as a coding robot, with improved SPRK+ and Lightning Lab

Faster Bluetooth pairing and a better app come to Sphero's educational platform. From painting to swimming to maze-running, we put it through its paces.

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Coding has turned into a kid-targeted playground lately. Minecraft for education, Apple's Swift Playgrounds, and Sphero has its SPRK robot (say "spark"), which launched last year along with a Lightning Lab app full of crowd-shared projects and educational ideas.

Sphero, of course, got its big break last year with its faithful reproduction of BB-8 from "The Force Awakens." But the "Star Wars" paint job and little magnetic head was really a small modification on a remote-controlled robot that dates back to 2011. I'd used those Sphero products for years, but had never tried SPRK or Lightning Lab. Now, however, Sphero has a new version of its educational robot and app, and it seemed like a good time to hop aboard.

Sphero SPRK and Lightning Lab have a lot of fun challenges and projects that feel like interactive lesson plans, mostly because they are. Some activities involve actual step-by-step coding that's drag-and-drop simple, while others involve thinking how to creatively use the Sphero's motions. They also show how much this $129 (equivalent to £90 UK, or AU$175) robot can do: Painting, maze-running and precise turning. And this little ball is waterproof and shockproof too.

Sphero has LED lights and inductive charging, and its motors can make it spin at various speeds and directions, using Android, iOS or Amazon Fire tablets and phones to remote-control it. Sphero makes a number of accessories that snap onto this or other, older Sphero models. A snap-on chariot accessory, for instance, has a Lego-friendly top to build on. My son used it to add a bunch of minifigures.

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SPRK adds a few tweaks, but it's mostly the same idea as last year.

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Sphero SPRK+ costs a little more than last year's SPRK, but adds a scratch-resistant coating and a better tap-to-pair Bluetooth Smart connection to the rolling robot. Like 2015's SPRK, it's transparent. You can see the motor, circuits, and other cool tech guts inside. It functions the exact same way as older Sphero robots, but that better Bluetooth can come in handy for the market SPRK is targetting: Educators who have to set up multiple Sphero robots at once.

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What coding with Sphero SPRK looks like.

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Much like Sphero's BB-8 toy, the SPRK+ is mostly silent. But the updated Lightning Lab app adds programmable sounds to make it feel like your little coding buddy is beeping and booping. There are hundreds of free activities to browse -- some made by Sphero, others from the community. Some use coding, or building and completing tasks like chariot or boat enclosures to win races, or designing and completing a maze. Others model systems like planetary motion, or using the Spheros to make art, or just having them dance. A number of activities are designed as STEM (Science, Technology, Education and Math) challenges, and the included course instructions can organized into classes in-app.

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Painting with Sphero.

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In my opinion, the only real shortfall of the Sphero SPRK+ is that it can't recognize other Spheros. That type of robot-to-robot emergent behavior could be fascinating, but it's not possible yet.

Sphero is already in use in over 1,000 schools. I haven't tried it in an educational setting. But it's another example that coding toys for kids are everywhere. Even without a class of my own to teach, I still had fun with the pre-release app and the SPRK+. As a fun little toy with a lot of fringe benefits, Sphero is finding a lot of ways to hang around.

How many coding toys does a child need? I'm not sure which option I'd pick for my almost-eight-year-old. But Sphero's SPRK+ is physical, and kinetic, and it makes messy paintings. That's something you can't do in Minecraft.