UBTech Alpha 1S review: A £400 robot that’s literally all-singing and all-dancing
UBTech Alpha 1S: Educational value
For it to be worth anywhere near £400, it has to be a lot more than a 15-minute novelty act, and that’s where its educational value comes in. Like the Sphero SPRK+ I looked at recently, its aim is to instil a sense of enthusiasm in children for coding. The Raspberry Pi or BBC micro:bit come cheaper, but these educational robots offer a far more immediate reward, which is ideal for kids (or, to be fair, adults like me) with short attention spans.
So there are two ways of controlling the robot – and you’re pretty much on your own for figuring this out, since the robot comes with no instructions in the box. (They might not have been too helpful in any case – the text on the box has some dubious translations – unless you really believe that the “colour of [the] robot may change without notice”.)[gallery:1]
In any case, the box has logos for both Google Play and the iOS App Store, and a simple search finds the software. It’s not amazingly user-friendly or well designed, but it does the job. You pair with the robot and can then download routines added by others. Right now it seems to be exclusively free official add-ons, but given both the price and how new it is, it’s not surprising the list isn’t all that heavily populated yet.
To program the robot from within the app, you move its joints like a mannequin and tap “add”. From there, you can change the length of time the move lasts for (between 0 and 3000ms), and watch your routine come to life.
Elsewhere in the app, you can control Alpha 1S with a quasi-gamepad, although he’s so slow-moving that this isn’t actually as fun as it sounds. In that mode, you have “Soccer player” and “Gladiator” modes, which each come with the associated moves you’d expect of such athletes, allowing me to play a bit of football with my new tiny buddy.
To be clear, this is all controlled by remote, and the robot can’t detect the ball itself. It’s still impressive, but again: £400? Really?
The desktop software is a bit more user-friendly, and is downloadable via the UBTech website. Don’t be put off by the fact the Mac App Store download page is in Japanese: the software itself is in English once it’s installed. Here you have two ways of “programming” the robot: the first, by dragging the onscreen robot’s arms and limbs and adding them to the program one by one; the second, by moving the robot’s limbs into position and letting the desktop application capture them via the included mini-USB cable.
UBTech Alpha 1S: Verdict – did I mention it’s £400?
The UBTech Alpha 1S is, in many respects, amazingly impressive. The way the robot can balance and replicate the dance moves of “Gangnam Style” is genuinely surprising and guaranteed to get a small crowd gathered around.
After that initial wow factor has gone, though, I’m less optimistic. It’s a clever toy, and certainly more educational than most, but even as someone who doesn’t know a lot of code, I’m not convinced this bears much resemblance to the real thing.[gallery:4]
Like the Sphero SPRK+, it may teach the necessary logical and creative steps of coding, and it lets you get your creation off the ground without the huge learning curve. In terms of transferable skills, however, it’s very limited indeed. And while the Sphero SPRK+ seemed an expensive gamble at £100, this is off the charts at £400.
In some ways, that’s a hugely unfair comparison. Alpha 1S can move and dance a bit like a (very noisy) human, and clearly, has much more going on than a ball with a motor inside. But at the same time, if neither are the guaranteed educational magic bullet you need to kickstart your child’s interest in coding, wouldn’t you rather go for the cheaper gamble to find out?