There are two types of people in the world: those who love Star Wars and those heathens who've never shed a tear for Alderaan, or the prequel trilogy.
Still, there's hope yet for the unconverted. Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens in all good cinemas this side of Mos Eisley on 18 December, and it comes with a whole host of new droids and heroes to cheer on against the intergalactic forces of evil.
One of these droids is BB-8 and, thanks to robotics-maker Sphero and the magic of official merchandise, you can own it this Christmas. Pay US$150 for the privilege and you’ll get a grapefruit-sized robot that’s controllable with your smartphone or tablet.
Sounds awesome, right? We put it to the test to see if the force is strong with this one.
God bless magnetics
While there’s no getting round the fact that the BB-8 is a glorified movie tie-in toy, it is a lot of fun to mess about with. As per The Force Awakens’ trailer, the droid is a ball with a separate, dinky head stuck on top. This means when your BB-8 moves, its head is designed to stay (roughly) in place. It’s the coolest use of magnetics since the Large Hadron Collider. Probably.
Mercifully for parents with impatient kids, it takes less than five minutes to get set up with the BB-8. You just download the free Sphero BB-8 app for iPhone, iPad or Android, turn on Bluetooth and hold it close to the droid for the two to connect wirelessly. Just like that, you’re ready to roll.
Keep rollin’, rollin’, rollin’
As with previous Spheros that we've tested, controlling the BB-8 takes a little bit of getting used to. Having made several non-Star Wars branded products before, this robotics manufacturer has plenty of experience in teaching you how to handle its balls.
The BB-8 app gives you two virtual control sticks to wrap your thumbs around: one for motion and direction and the other for orientation. This latter stick is particularly important once you’ve whirled the BB-8 around your living room for a bit. Because it’s a ball, this robot picks up a lot of pace very quickly (hooray for physics!) and will lose track of where ‘forwards’ is. With the help of the app’s orientation stick and a guiding blue light that runs around the front of the BB8, it’s easy enough to reset where the droid is going.
Unlike the Sphero 2.0, which had rugged cases you could buy for it, you can't really take the BB-8 and its plastic shell outdoors. Otherwise, you'll find its Star Wars-themed paint job gets scuffed up faster than you can say, 'C-3PO'.
Taking to you to a galaxy far, far away
Until lightsabers are legalised or someone makes a life-sized Millennium Falcon, then the BB-8 is the closest you’re going to get to having a real life piece of Star Wars in your home, and it doesn’t disappoint. This may sound awfully silly, but you can’t help but feel a grin etch itself across your face when you take control of the droid. This remains in place, even when you’ve smashed it into every piece of furniture in your house.
To make sure the BB-8’s novelty effect lasts longer than an Ewok's attention span, it comes with a few extra trimmings. When controlling it, you can press a button to make it do one of several pre-programmed tricks, like spinning around in circles. There’s also a Patrol mode, where the droid wonders around remotely, and an augmented reality Message mode where you can record video clips and watch the BB-8 play them back as though they’re holograms.
Many people will use this for swearing, but we used it to recreate Princess Leia’s message to Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope. Don’t judge us.
One real disappointment with the BB-8 is its voice recognition tech, which flat out didn’t work for us. Also, it doesn't come with the Level-up mode that you got with the Sphero 2.0. This earned you points and unlocked extra tricks, like speed boosts, for accurately controlling your robot, and crucially made you want to spend more time with your Sphero once its initial wow factor had worn off.
There’s a lot to be said for putting the BB-8's controls in someone else’s hands and watching their eyes light up like they’re heading into hyperdrive. A few more tricks to aid this droid's longevity wouldn't have gone amiss though.
BB-8 Droid verdict
When you strip away its lights, high-pitched chirps and Star Wars regalia, the BB-8 is essentially a ball that you roll around with your smartphone. One that costs US$150, which is US$20 more than the Sphero 2.0.
That's quite some markup considering the BB-8 doesn't offer the 2.0's Level-up mode and optional outdoor capabilities.
Still, as balls go, the BB-8 would rank highly in a rotund Stuff Top 10. Like the best Star Wars movies (ie the original ones), it captures your imagination with an array of futuristic thrills. Try one for yourself and you’ll see. If they’re not all sold out already.