Tag Archives: Other Robots

The Orbotix Sphero – Very Cool Robot Waiting for Your Killer App

This robot doesn’t clean carpets, and as the title would imply, the theme here is definitely going to be intriguing potential. The Orbotix Sphero is one third high-tech toy, one third smart phone or tablet accessory, and one third blank slate waiting for you to find cool things to do with it. Software is available on both the iOS and Android platforms. My Sphero from Orbotix came in today. I’m one of the lucky few who pre-ordered and got one before Christmas. As you know, here at Robot Vacuum Cleaner dot Org, we are serious about robots that run around floors.

Orbotix Sphero Boxes

Packaging and Contents

Mine came in a shipping box like so. I am compelled to comment that the inner packaging is pretty much impossible to open in a way that makes any sense.

Sphero - what comes in the box

Here is what comes in the box (with an iPhone included in the picture to give a sense of scale). I had thought from photos of the device that the Sphero would be smaller. I’m guessing that it’s a little smaller than a baseball. You have the Sphero itself, the charging stand, the charger power supply, a “Product Information Guide” and a Quick-Start Guide. The Product Information Guide is mostly warnings and admonitions. Everything from a warning about flashing lights causing seizures to exploding lithium polymer batteries; from keeping a safe distance from the ball to warranty terms. This is exactly the kind of stuff that makes me proceed gratefully to the Quick Start Guide.

The Quick Start Guide is a long fold-out cleverly printed with a different platform on each side. One side gets you started with the Apple iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. The other side is dedicated to Android devices. The basics are, as one would expect: Charge the ball, turn it on, pair via Bluetooth it with your smart phone or tablet, download the software, PLAY! Each set of platform instructions is punctuated with charging information.

The robot and charging base tell you about their status with lights. A solid light on the base means that the Sphero is charged. When you take the Sphero off the base, it is asleep and you shake it to “wake it up”. Upon waking, the ball lights up. Depending on what the lights are doing, it may indicate that the Bluetooth isn’t currently paired, or it may indicate that the robot is ready to get a move on. The robot flashes red when it needs a charge, and cycles through a rainbow when it is placed on the charging base. It charges in three hours and you get about an hour of play out of a charge.

The Hardware

The Sphero is loaded with technology:

  • RGB LED system
  • compass
  • gyroscope
  • accelerometer
  • induction charger
  • Bluetooth wireless
  • motor drive

I think that this is a great idea. The reason being: The more technology they can pack into this device, the more likely it is that people and developers are going to find exciting things to do with it. Think about how much more useful and suitable for games a smartphone is with an accelerometer.

The Apps

Currently there are five apps for the Sphero. There is the main Sphero app, which is described as being your main activity hub for the Sphero. It is also the app which provides any firmware updates for the robot. There is Sphero Drive, Sphero Cam, Sphero Draw, and Sphero Golf. All of these titles are self-explanatory with the exception of the Cam. The name “Sphero Cam” might make you think that there’s a camera in the ball. Instead, the program supplies a way to use the camera on your smartphone or tablet and drive your Sphero around at the same time. In Sphero Draw, you draw lines and the robot does its best to follow them.

Something you need to do before (and sometimes during) use is to calibrate the Sphero. The robot inside the ball has a definite front and back (or, as the calibration software puts it, the Sphero has a “tail”). When you calibrate the unit, you’re making it so that you and the robot are agreeing on what direction is what. If you get out of calibration with the device by doing something like turning yourself around, for example, things can get a little confusing. The nice thing is that you can calibrate the device from almost anywhere in the provided apps. All you have to do is place two fingers on the screen and rotate. A blue light shows up on the equator of the Spero, and you twist your fingers until the light it pointing at you. Then you let go and get back to the fun.

The Sphero Drive app makes the user calibrate every time it starts, which is simultaneously a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because it cuts down on confusion. It’s bad because they make you “test” that you got it right by moving the robot a couple of feet away from you: Every. Single. Time. Hopefully in the future there will be a way to skip the test part of this initial calibration.

The settings area in the apps lets you choose between three self-descriptive speed settings: Cautious, Comfort, and Crazy. Also available are a sound effects volume slider and a way to adjust the color that the ball lights display. I have to admit that I’m a little confused about the sound effects slider. It doesn’t really seem to do anything right now. I’ll update this section if/when I have more information about this setting.

The apps can all be configured to report your activities to an online “Sphero World”, which keeps a record of what you and your Sphero have been up to, and unlocks “achievements” for doing things like changing the color of the lights 500 times, or driving the ball “around the world” once or twice. These items will sound underwhelming to most, but I think that this is another area of obvious future potential.

Operating the Sphero

Sphero Drive is fun. As the name indicates, it is a simple driving app. You are given three ways to drive: Joystick, Tilt, and RC. Joystick basically makes the Sphero drive in the direction you tell it to go with an onscreen virtual joystick. Tilt does pretty much what joystick does but you control it by tilting your smartphone or tablet. RC drives the device like a radio control set would. You steer the Sphero with a steering slider while manipulating a speed slider to make it go. This lets you drive the Sphero more like a radio controlled car with a definite back, front, right, and left. When driving, there are Boost buttons available, and these compel the robot to give an extra burst of speed. Once the ball builds up some steam, you can use a ramp to make it jump.

Remember how I mentioned that the Sphero has a front and a tail? One thing that takes a little getting used to is that the Sphero has to literally turn around in order to move in another direction. It’s a little hard to explain, but I WAS thinking that the ball would be omnidirectional, which is to say that I expected that you could make it move in one direction and then make it reverse or change direction on a dime. Not so. To reverse directions, the Sphero has to make a U turn, because it has a tail. This is easy to see in the above video.

The Fish Tail

Strangely enough, the device does have a shadow projected by the lights that looks exactly like a fish tail, and the fish tail is oriented to point backwards. I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but it does provide a frame of reference when you’re driving the thing around.

So What’s the Big Deal?

I know that I’m not alone in thinking that this is a very intriguing piece of technology. Make no mistake: It’s just a matter of time before a cute or funny YouTube video of a cat, rabbit, or frog interacting with a Sphero goes viral. It’s inevitable, and if I had a cat, this is what I would be working on first thing tomorrow. Likewise if I was 13, I would probably spend hours with a Sphero, cat or no cat. As an adult, however, I think that the Sphero is a very cool robot waiting for someone to come up with an addictive piece of software or a ridiculously fun thing to do with it. The folks at Orbotix have carefully crafted a most intriguing technological blank slate. The potential is definitely there. I can’t wait to see what people come up with.

Everything You Need to Know about the Neato Robotics XV-11, iRobot Roomba, and Evolution Mint

We’ve tested the Neato Robotics XV-11, iRobot Roomba 780, and the Evolution Mint and Mint Plus robots, and decided to put together something like a consumer reports style buying guide which compares and contrasts these products. All of these robotic floor cleaners are great labor-saving devices, but which device is going to be better for you depends on your preferences and situation.

In our testing, all the robots did a good job of cleaning floors, so cleaning in and of itself isn’t a reason to choose one brand over another. One of the things to keep in mind is that these devices have cumulative effect. So the more you use them, the more clean your floors will be overall. Here are the strengths and weaknesses of each of these robots:

Neato XV-11

Pros: Powerful vacuuming, maps the room, avoids bumping furniture, can vacuum whole house in one go, can be scheduled, has auto charging dock. Mostly easy to maintain and in our limited testing requires less maintenance than the Roomba.
Cons: No dirt-detect, no side brush, misses corners and areas right against furniture. Noisy. Will occasionally get lost or stuck. Can and will eat cords.

iRobot Roomba

Pros: Thorough vacuuming from a product which has been around a long time and thus has been improved and upgraded over the years. Many models can be scheduled, will detect dirty areas, and have auto charging docks. Newer models like Roomba 780 detect when they’ve sucked up cords and will spit them out.
Cons: Noisy, brushes and beaters require regular maintenance, robot runs into furniture,

Mint and Mint Plus

Pros: Silent, thorough, easy to use, maps the room as it goes, extremely easy to maintain. Can do double-duty, mopping as well as sweeping. Doesn’t require much room prep. Doesn’t eat cords. Takes up less storage space than the competition.
Cons: Can’t be scheduled, doesn’t do carpets, won’t automatically dock to charger.

There really are some differences. Check out these two movies which compare how these three robots handle the same tasks, cleaning around a table leg and cleaning a corner.

Head to head

Neato XV-11 vs iRobot Roomba
Executive Summary: We think that if the XV-11 had a side brush, and could stop eating cords, it would beat the Roomba, but for now, iRobot has the lead with the 700 Series robots.

By virtue of the fact that it runs into everything in the room, the Roomba is generally more noisy than the XV-11, which has a louder vacuum and beater. The Roomba strikes me as being more thorough, since it has a side brush, gets into corners better, and can fit under more furniture. The iRobot vacuum cleans sort of randomly, whereas the Neato maps out the room and cleans methodically, but our opinion is that, in the end, this doesn’t make that much of a difference to how clean the robot makes the room.

The XV-11 generally takes 30 minutes to clean our living room, and the Roomba takes about 50 minutes. The place where the XV-11 really outshines the Roomba is when it cleans multiple rooms. If you have thoroughly prepped all the rooms on one floor of your house, you can set the XV-11 running (or schedule it), and it will vacuum the entire floor with no human intervention and no need for arranging lighthouses. In our case, that’s a kitchen, bathroom, living room, office, and bedroom. Also, the XV-11 doesn’t bang into furniture and walls. Although it will gently bump things here and there, it is much more gentle with your furniture.

Neato XV-11 vs Evolution Mint Cleaner
Executive Summary: If your house is mostly hardwood floors/linoleum or you’re only interested in cleaning your kitchen and bathroom, the Mint is the clear winner. If purchasing a robot to clean lots of carpeted areas, then the Neato wins.

As with all comparisons to vacuum cleaners, the first thing that must be mentioned is that the Mint doesn’t do carpets. So if your house is mostly carpeted, your choice to get an XV-11 instead is a no brainer. Our seriously unscientific timing indicated that the Mint is usually faster to clean a room for some reason. The Mint is almost silent. The Mint doesn’t suck up things like cords and cables, and so the Mint is less obnoxious and requires less room prep before running.

The Mint is shorter than the XV-11 and thus can fit under more furniture than an XV-11. So once again, in an uncarpeted room, the Mint is going to be a little more thorough because it can get in more spots and also because it does corners way better. Sadly, the Mint cannot be scheduled. Again, as with the comparison to the Roomba, the XV-11 outshines the Mint in multi-room cleaning, and is also (just a little tiny bit) more gentle on furniture and walls than the Mint.

Evolution Mint Cleaner vs iRobot Roomba
Executive Summary: As with the above comparison, if your house isn’t mostly carpeted or you’re only interested in cleaning your kitchen and bathroom, the Mint is the clear winner. If you are interested in cleaning a carpeted house then the Roomba wins.

Yep, the Mint can’t do carpets. So that should be your number one factor in deciding between the two robots. The Mint cleans rooms much faster and is methodical where the Roomba is thorough with repetition. The Mint is quiet enough that you can have a phone conversation in the same room, whereas the Roomba you will want to run it when you’re not at home. The Mint doesn’t require as much room prep and almost no maintenance

Besides being the carpeting champ, the Roomba can be scheduled and also handles multi-room situations better than the Mint. The Roomba requires much more maintenance.

Mint vs iRobot Scooba
Executive Summary: Problems with the Scooba line make it a robot we can’t recommend. For instance, see this Amazon page for user reviews of the iRobot Scooba 380. This is true of the older Scoobas, as well as the new Scooba 230, which we reviewed here. Please see our comparison article, here.

If you’re looking for a mopping robot, you should really spring the extra money for the Mint Plus (a.k.a. the Mint model 5200), which has a special mopping head. See our review of the 5200 Mint here.


And so there you have it. If you’ve got a house with a lot of carpeting, we recommend the Roomba 700 series robots over the Neato XV-11. There are cases where a person might want to go with the XV-11, which can clean a whole house floor in one go and is more gentle on the furniture. It’s also a little less expensive than most of the Roombas. For someone who is just buying a robot for kitchen and bathroom floors, the Mint is the obvious choice. With the Mint you get good performance and reliability at a much lower price. For a house that is mostly hardwood floors, the Mint might be the best choice there, too, depending on how many area rugs and how important some of the Roomba features (like scheduling) are to you.

Further Information

Neato Robotics XV-11 Reviews on Amazon

Evolution Robotics Mint on Amazon

Evolution Robotics Mint Plus on Amazon

Get the iRobot Roomba 780 Vacuum Cleaning Robot at Amazon

Click here to see more information on the Roomba 780 robot on iRobot’s website.

Orbotix Announces Pre-Ordering Available for Sphero Robots

OK OK I know it’s not a vacuum cleaner, but it rolls on floors, and technically it’s a robot. (It’s not the first time I’ve covered non-vacuum cleaners – For instance, I’m still waiting for the DreamBots WheeMe massage robot, alas.)

Later note: I got mine in and have posted a review of the Sphero..

I pre-registered to get one of these little robot balls and got an email from Orbotix this morning notifying me that I can reserve one today. So I did.

For those who don’t know, the Sphero is what the company calls a “mixed reality” toy. Meaning that it’s meant for playing virtual games that are mixed with real objects. In this case, it’s a ball that you can control via a Bluetooth connection from your phone. So far, it works with iPhones, iPads, and Android devices. To me, it seems like the kind of thing where maybe it’ll end up being an expensive toy, or maybe it’ll change the world. Who can say?


The price is currently $129.99 US. Something about their store page makes it looks like if you didn’t pre-register, you may be out of luck until 2012. More information can be found at their website, here.