It’s Force Friday II, that day of the year when manufacturers wow us with the latest Star Wars news, tech, and toys, and once again Sphero is leading the pack. Not only do we finally have a Sphero R2-D2, we get a first glimpse of BB-8’s evil doppelgänger, BB-9E, appearing this December in The Last Jedi.
You know I’m going to say it, so we might as well get it over with:
These are the droids you’re looking for.
Now that’s out of the way, allow me to also say:
No, seriously, these are the droids you’re looking for!
Look, I loved the Sphero BB-8 when he first came out, and the new BB-9E with its glossy black exterior and light up head is even more impressive. However, this R2-D2 is something different. Something special. I’m usually the last one to get all twitterpated over new tech in an online review, but I’ve been waiting on this toy for 40 years. This is now the standard that all other R2-D2 toys are going to be measured against.
First, let’s talk about the design. Even if it did nothing but sit on a shelf, the Sphero R2-D2 is a thing of beauty. While it’s a little cleaner than I would like an R2-D2 to be, the details are spot on. The scale is also perfect, which is no small feat for a functional remote controlled toy. The engineering involved in keeping it looking correct yet still movable is impressive.
The real magic, though, happens once you fire up the app. After a brief load up screen that plays the quintessential Star Wars music to get you in the mood, the app scans for nearby droids and prompts you to connect. What came next was such an unexpected delight, I’m still smiling thinking about it.
If you’re still reading this and haven’t left to order one for yourself, let’s talk about features.
Controlling Your Droid
Note: The “Droids by Sphero” app works with R2-D2, BB-8, and BB-9E. Unless specified, all of the features mentioned work with all three droids.
There are three different modes for controlling your Star Wars Sphero App-Enabled Droid: remote control, drawing, and patrol mode.
In R/C mode, you drive the droid using the standard Sphero controls. Spin it around until he is facing away from you in the case of R2-D2, or turn the blue light until it is pointed at you with BB-8 and BB-9E, and drag the touch screen to move it forward, backwards, left, and right. When you drag backwards, the droid does not go in reverse, but spins around to head back the direction it came from. To have it go in reverse, hold down the reverse button while steering with the same joystick control. There is also a speed boost button to give the droid a little extra get up and go.
As for how easy they are to drive, while you can forget being able to replicate the results seen in the promotional video down below — there is a lot of rocking back and forth with BB-8 and BB-9E after they stop moving — they are all surprisingly easy to control. Here is a video of me and my kids controlling three different droids, acting out a scene entitled, “Go outside and play!” while maintaining enough control to keep them relatively in frame. I suggest going into the settings and reducing the maximum speed until you get used to how they handle.
Also included on the R/C mode screen are nine different expression controls. You can make your droid shake its head, spin in circles, run away screaming, and even malfunction and fall over. R2-D2 has an additional control that allows you to move his dome independently from his body with a slider. Also, unlike BB-8 and BB-9E, the sounds R2 makes come from the droid itself rather than from your mobile device.
In patrol mode, the droid will roam around the room, switching directions when it hits something, and keeping track of how far it has traveled.
Finally, in draw mode, you can sketch a path on the screen and the droid will follow it. I recommend having plenty of floor space for this feature. You can draw tiny shapes and the droid will follow them, but it is much less jerky the larger you draw.
In both draw mode and patrol mode, you can be connected to more than one droid at a time and switch among them. However, if you change over to R/C mode, the app will only remain connected to the currently active droid.
Watch With Me
Fire up the app and start your favorite Star Wars film, and your droid will react to scenes in the movie. At the time of release, only Rogue One, A New Hope, and The Force Awakens are supported, but the others are coming soon.
The app also includes an augmented reality feature that lets you explore three different ships from the Star Wars universe: the Millennium Falcon (R2-D2), The Raddus (BB-8), and the Supremacy (BB-9E). Move your mobile device around to see different parts of the ship, and use the joystick control to walk around. For BB-8 and BB-9E, you will need a “training module” to put your droid on, as walking through the ship also moves the droid. For R2-D2, he simply turns his head when you move your mobile device around, but he doesn’t actually move.
One thing to keep in mind: with motion detection, constant Bluetooth connection, and interactive sound and video, your mobile device battery is going to drop faster than Darth Maul in a reactor shaft. Sphero recommends keeping both your mobile device and your droid plugged in while in “Watch With Me” mode. My son picked up a hefty portable charger for his Nintendo Switch, so I was able to use that while I was testing both devices.
I was provided a BB-9E and R2-D2 for this review. All opinions are my own.