Sphero SPRK+ review: A little ball of educational fun

£100
Price when reviewed

Coding is the future. I’ve seen first hand the brilliant projects children have been able to build using just a Raspberry Pi and their own imaginations, but it’s possible to start even earlier. Meet the Sphero SPRK+, the spherical robot you can easily program from an app.

Sphero is a company that’s no stranger to rotund robots. You may remember its BB-8 toy that tied into Star Wars: A Force Awakens last year. The Sphero SPRK+ is like that, only without a head, the branding and with a hell of a lot more potential.

The robot comes with an app that lets you program it how to behave. As someone whose knowledge of coding extends only as far as being able to hyperlink text in web pages, could I finally be about to learn something?

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Sphero SPRK+ review: Design

Given the large box the Sphero SPRK+ comes in, you’d be forgiven for expecting something the size of a mini-football to roll out onto the floor. In reality, what you get is closer to the dimensions of a tennis ball. Unlike a tennis ball, its hard plastic shell is completely clear, laying the technical innards bare: there’s a circuit board, cogs, screws, discs and a motor – all plainly visible to the outside world.

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That’s not to say it’s fragile. In fact, the SPRK+ is designed specifically to be manhandled by clumsy children and sharp-clawed pets alike. The shell is shock and waterproof, allowing you to program routines that involve water and sharp falls (one of the demo designs includes the LEDs changing colour as you drop it).

The transparent design makes the Sphero SPRK+’s intent clear from the outset: yes, this is fun, but it isn’t a toy. Children are encouraged to make the link between their first steps in programming and the circuit board within. The transparency isn’t an aesthetic choice. It’s a deliberate move to ensure that wannabe coders see the device’s full potential from the get-go.

Because the Sphero is waterproof, there’s no micro-USB charging port, but rather than an awkward proprietary cable that’s easy to lose, the SPRK+ comes with a concave plastic dock, which the SPRK+ neatly sits within. It will automatically rotate to the correct position so you don’t have to worry about putting it in the right way up, and a single charge delivers an hour’s use. It’s all very intuitive and easy to get going. A decent number of accessories are available to help young coders think outside the box, too, from plug-on chariots to ramps.

Included in the box, though, all you get are the basics for creating your first coding experiments. Remember those Roamer robots you got in schools in the 1990s, which could be programmed to perform simple tasks? Sphero SPRK+ is the follow-up to that, only cheap and accessible enough that it needn’t be tied to limited shared hours in the classroom. Duly, the box comes complete with a selection of extra materials to ensure the coding is more than just mindless play: there’s a protractor for measuring angles and “maze tape” so you can map out a path to programme Sphero to follow.

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Sphero SPRK+ review: The app

Which brings me to the app. There are several Sphero apps on Google Play, but only the Lightning Lab app is compatible. The others won’t connect, and your brand-new robot won’t respond to instructions. Assuming you don’t make that mistake, it’s pretty easy to get up and running: simply boot it up, then touch your phone to the ball and it springs into life.

You’re then presented with a coding tutorial, which demonstrates how to simply drag and snap commands, reordering them to make the ball do your bidding – a bit like Scratch. At its most simple, these instructions control acceleration, direction and the colour of the robot’s light. As you get more advanced, you can add commands based on the Sphero’s myriad sensors using the usual operators – “equal”, “less than”, “greater than or equal”, and so on. Start your program, see if the robot does everything you want it to, and if it doesn’t then go and edit it until it does.

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In a nutshell, that’s coding – just fast-tracked. The beauty of Sphero SPRK+ is that it offers impressive and fun results much more quickly than learning HTML would, but the principals are the same. There’s also a community built into the app for getting advice and passing your programs on for other people to share and edit.

Finally, there’s a free driving mode, where your smartphone becomes a gamepad, allowing you to roll your sphero around the room, changing colours as you go. Although the Sphero is labeled pet-friendly, my cat was Sphero-phobic and would swiftly run upstairs whenever the lights flashed, warning that the robot was about to make its move. Your mileage may vary.

Controlling Sphero with the smartphone works reasonably well, but the see-through nature of the SPRK+ sometimes makes it a little tricky to get your bearings. There is a button to flash a light on the front so you can figure out which way is forward, but even then it’s often tricky to keep it on the straight and narrow. Fortunately, it’s hardy design means it will shrug off the inevitable wall bumps and accidental trips down the stairs.

Sphero SPRK+ review: Verdict

Sphero SPRK+ is a hard product to rate, and without wanting to completely abdicate responsibility, a lot will come down to the child in question.

There’s little that Sphero SPRK+ does wrong, as far as I can tell, although at the age of 32 I’m somewhat outside the target demographic – even if my coding ability is in the right wheelhouse. If you think your child would be interested in coding, but would find it too frustrating and complicated to get started, then the Sphero SPRK+ is a good candidate. It can help children build up the right temperament, and figure out the logical steps in building a physical program and fixing problems.

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On the other hand, we’re not talking directly transferable skills here. The Sphero offers a drag-and-drop interface and a robot ready to do your bidding. It’s quite different to being given a Raspberry Pi 3 or a BBC micro:bit and programming a simple game. That, too, is reflected in the price: at just under £100, it’s quite a gamble to purchase on the off chance it inspires a lifetime love of coding. You know how your child learns: if the keyboard and mouse leave them cold, this might be a better way of maintaining their attention, especially if you have the time to help them get the most out of it.

Either way, the Sphero SPRK+ will provide hours of entertainment, even if that’s limited to driving the Sphero repeatedly into walls. Take away the educational element and it’s still a blast, just an expensive blast. But with the right parental guidance, the Sphero can be the best kind of toy: one that entertains while it slyly engages the grey matter.

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