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Sphero Ollie review

Our Rating :
Price when reviewed : £80
inc VAT

Compact and very fast, the Sphero Ollie has great potential, but it's held back by oversimplified controls and it struggles on grass

Orbotix made the original Sphero, a smallish ball that you controlled via your smartphone and quickly grew in popularity, with many apps designed to work with it. The product came to define the company so Orbotix renamed itself Sphero, and so now we have the Sphero Ollie – a bigger, tougher, faster take on the same idea.

At 110mm wide and 80mm high the Ollie is fairly compact and not too heavy at under 600g. In fact that’s what immediately made it appealing to us, you can chuck it in your bag and barely notice it, there’s no messy cables or controller (as you use your phone) so it’s like a remote control car you can carry with your everywhere and whip out to race about whenever you find somewhere suitable.

^ Removable tires and hubcaps make the Ollie somewhat customisable

You will have to carry it about though to get the best out of it though, as it’s simply too quick to use properly indoors. Its top speed is an impressive 14mph, that’s around 6m a second if you’re thinking how long it will take to cross your living room.

So it’s an outdoor toy, but it has a big downside in the UK, it struggles on grass any rougher than a bowling green (trust us, we tried). This severely limits where you can play with it, the road isn’t a good idea, the park is out, and we ended up whipping it up and down pavements. If you happen to be a student and live on a campus it would be great, pathways, steps, squares and quads would make for a great environment, but for most of us it’s a bit puzzling where to race it about.

The second issue we have is the user-centric control system. A remote control car for example has an obviously front and back, and the steering wheel turns the cars left or right regardless of where you are in relation to it. The Ollie, though, has a simplified control system where you just push in the direction you want to go and the Ollie works the rest out.

^ We ended up using the recalibration arrow far more than we were happy with

It’s all fine if the Ollie is moving around a space directly  in front of you, but if you drive it around you and turn to follow it then the directional control goes off, and it’s very hard to work out which you’re supposed to press to control it. This also means you can’t easily run after around a corner as when you both turn the controls are realigned. It’s easy enough to get the Ollie tweaked back to your new idea of what is ‘forward’ but doing this repeatedly becomes tiresome.

There’s LED lighting on the Ollie, so despite its symmetrical nature it’s fairly clear where the ‘front’ is. Because of this, we’d like to see a tank-style control system where you control the two wheels with two sliders and can get full, direction-independent, control over it. Sphero have stated that they don’t intend to release such a simpler, ollie-centric, control system, though with an SDK available for developers we hope it won’t be long before one appears.

Even in its current state, the Ollie can do some pretty cool things, spinning on the spot, backspin, bouncing crazily about, even skidding (drifting) around corners at full speed on the right surface – there are going to be slick tires available to help with this soon.

^ Sphero has ‘gamified’ the control system, giving names to all the cool tricks you can pull

Sphero describes the Ollie as a robot, and in tandem with your smartphone it certainly could be, as the range of apps for the original Sphero have proven. At present though it’s essentially a rather peculiar remote control car, with plenty of possibilities for the future if and when app support arrives to allow it to do more.   

At £80 the Ollie looks like fairly good value for money, at least compared to the Sphero. We’re a little disappointed with its current control set-up and inability to cope in our local park, which is why we’ve given it 3 stars for now. If you have somewhere big and flat in mind to drive it about, then we’d add a star to that score, though even then we’d hold off and wait for the software to be improved before splashing out.

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