Sphero Ollie hands-on review: Cylindrical, fast, and totally cool

Ollie is finally out.

The Sphero team first showed off Ollie at CES 2014 in January, but its latest robot toy was called something different then: Sphero 2B. It has been renamed and is considered the follow-up to the original Sphero, a smartphone-controlled ball that debuted in 2011.

Ollie is smartphone-controlled as well, though it looks a little different, works with add-on accessories, goes a lot faster, and can do a few new tricks.

Pocket-lint has played with Ollie for a couple days now and can safely tell all Sphero lovers they should consider upgrading to Ollie now that it is available for purchase - and the same goes for people who have yet to experience anything from Sphero.

Keep reading if you'd like to learn about all the reasons why we think Ollie is worth your money. We also go over a couple downsides worth noting, including that ridiculous learning curve, which you must also master to even get started with Sphero.

Design

Ollie is a two-wheeled, cylindrical, high-grade polycarbonate toy with detachable ends.

The entire device is about as big as a Progresso soup can and similarly pill-shaped, though it's much lighter than a soup can and seems quite durable. When looking at Ollie, you should immediately notice all the LED lights in the center. There's a Sphero logo that glows, for instance, and several rectangle-shaped lights above that. These will blink and shine and flash as you wake up Ollie and perform tricks, among other things.

Both ends of Ollie - the hubcaps - have textured, space-influenced symbols. The rubbery tires - called Nubby Tires - have rows of bumps for grip, and they work on just about any terrain. You can get different tires for different terrains, but the standard set is enough to make Ollie move anywhere in your home (over shag carpet, tiles, wooden floors, you name it). The Nubby Tires slide over something called Prime Hubs, and they're just smooth wheels.

The only other element on Ollie isn't really for design. It's the microUSB charging port, and you'll find it under the Ollie brand stamp.

What's in the box?

You can get the actually Ollie in white or black colours schemes (we have the white version), while most of Ollie's optional accessories are made of a flexible, tough polycarbonate material available in a variety of colours.

The box includes one Ollie, one set of Prime Hubs (we have the clear ones), and one set of Nubby Tires (we have blue ones). There's also a microUSB charging cable and instructions on how to assemble and get started.

If you go to the accessories store on Sphero's Ollie page, you will see all sorts of tires and hubs including Agro Hubs, Flux Hubs, Turby Tires, and Ultra Tires. Each one has a different colour, price tag, purpose, and function.

What's different?

Apart from the obvious design changes, Ollie is still very much different from Sphero.

The Sphero team said Ollie is for driving and tricks, for instance, while Sphero is for varied gameplay. In addition, Ollie features USB charging for 1-hour of drive time. Sphero offers the same amount of drive time but through inductive charging instead.

At launch, when it comes to app options, Ollie also isn't as robust as Sphero. Ollie has just four apps for driving and programming. They're called Ollie, MacroLab, OrbBasic, and Draw N’ Drive. But, by holiday season, the Sphero team anticipates there will be many more apps available. Sphero currently has more than 30 apps for driving, multiplayer, augmented reality, programming, etc.

We only had the opportunity to play with the one Ollie app during testing, and we used our iPhone to play because the Android version wasn't available. It should be at launch however. Sphero is available for iOS, Android, and Windows. But you'll have to connect Sphero manually over Bluetooth to your device, whereas Ollie has instant connection through Bluetooth LE.

And finally, Ollie goes 14 miles per hour and isn't waterproof. Sphero goes under 5 miles per hour and is waterproof.

Getting started

It's very easy to setup Ollie and start playing straightaway.

1. Assemble Ollie. That means you should slip on the Prime Hubs and Nubby Tires or whatever accessory you separately purchased. Also make sure to snap on the hubcaps to keep everything into place. The included instructions will give you a visual step-by-step guide on how to properly assemble.

2. Charge Ollie via the included microUSB cord. A full charge time is around 1-hour. Plugging in and then unplugging Ollie will make its LED lights go crazy, and that just means you're waking Ollie up.

3. Download the Ollie app from Apple's App Store and Google Play. They're free. Once you open the app, you will be told to either charge your Ollie some more or go ahead and wake it up. An awake Ollie can connect to your iPhone or Android device with just a tap, and the range goes up to 30 meters.

4. Follow theOllie app's on-screen tutorial for more details on how to use the Ollie app.

And that's it. Simple, right? Well, almost. There is still that learning curve....

Conquering the learning curve

First thing you should know: The Ollie app we used is hard to understand. It will take a few minutes to figure out, mostly because there are two separate control setups on the same screen. There's one for simple navigation, another for tricks, and both combined unlock more cool ways to make Ollie move.

Once you get the gist of how the Ollie app works, you will still need a lot - and we mean a lot - of practice before you feel comfortable steering the Ollie. It's difficult to move backward, forward, spin around, hop, etc. And there's nothing we can advise to make the learning process go a little smother.

Time and copious amounts of patience are needed. And to be honest, even after a few days of use, we're still far from professionals with this thing. We're good at chasing a cat around the room, sometimes going up a ramp that the Sphero team provided, making Ollie spiral in place, and that's it.

We're still trying to master getting out of tight spots like corners, slowly moving across the floor (Ollie effortlessly whips around), and tricks. When you watch Ollie's promo video, below, the Sphero team makes everything look so easy. It's not. But hopefully one day, with practice, it won't be so tough.

Final thoughts

Wow.

Ollie's battery life actually seems pretty great. The Sphero team claimed it Ollie runs about an hour, but we got closer to two hours, and we could control it from nearly 100 feet away. The only thing that got annoying, aside from the learning curve, is that Ollie often became disoriented, which meant we had to use the Ollie app to calibrate. Calibration involved rotating Ollie until its glowing logo faced us, and we had to do this about every 10 minutes.

We slightly wished Ollie was waterproof like Sphero or had more apps at launch, though it's ability to go twice as fast as Sphero and do plenty more tricks are major advantages. You can make Ollie absolutely fly across your floor or outdoors - and run into anything. It's a rush. We imagine that being able to masterfully do some of the tricks only increases that feeling as well.

Is Ollie totally cool? Yes. Is it worth $100? Yes. Will your pets love it? Yes. More importantly, will you love it? Yes. And as more apps launch this Christmas, the experience is only going to get better.

Availability

Ollie starts shipping worldwide on 15 September. You can pre-order Ollie at GoSphero.com. The starter kit costs $99.99, while the Limited Edition kit, which starts shipping 1 November, costs $149.99. It looks like most of the accessories aren't yet available for pre-order.