LEGO Boost Review

Since it was announced at the CES 2017, LEGO Boost has been anticipated as finally filling the robotics curriculum gap left by the highly successful EV3. As we all know, most kids under a certain age are not up to the challenge of the many esoteric aspects of EV3 software, which is completely designed for adult engineers.

EV3 software: not for kids!

The truth is, we don’t even have to get innovative here. And LEGO was already falling behind in delivering a visual programming environment on a tablet. There are currently many robotic toys on the market which all follow the same formula: tablet+bluetooth+block programming language. One of the more well known of these is Dash & Dot, which uses Google’s Blockly platform.

Dash & Dot

But LEGO has one advantage that these competitors do not have: everybody knows LEGO.

Okay, so what about WeDo?

One question that everybody will ask, though, is this: what happened to the WeDo line of products? Is this supposed to replace or supplement the line?Well, I am not sure we have that executive decision made. The way I see it, Boost is clearly built on the WeDo platform, but is somewhat marketed differently. WeDo was never targeted for home users; most of the people who got this set got it from the education channel. This probably explains why WeDo users are never bothered by the lackluster design of the whole experience. I have a brief review of the product here. The following is a nice table comparing some of the technical differences between the two platforms.

shared platform-different marketing

The idea of LEGO education may have a certain aura for some, but for me it seems more like an awkward way to justify the exorbitant price of its products. WeDo 2.0 kit currently goes for $175.95: you need to pay more money for a third of the pieces in LEGO Boost! Perhaps the blue tray is really expensive!

WeDo 2.0 kit

Key technical facts

The set contains 845 elements, including a mixture of regular pieces and Technic elements. The most notable is the new integrated Move Hub.

Move Hub

As you can see, the Move Hub is a downsized control block. It has only two I/O ports; but it has two built-in servomotors. It also has a 6 axis tilt sensor inside.

The main difference, for those who are familiar with the NXT/EV3 block, is that the Move Hub doesn’t have a memory/storage unit. It receives commands through its bluetooth controller and execute it. It is a slave to the tablet who controls it — it needs constant connection. This could be a potential problem for power consumption, and I suspect that is the reason it demands newest hardware that has low-power BT modules.

Besides the 3-in-1 hub, we have one more sensor which is also a 3-in-1 sensor that has distance, light and color abilities.

The final member of the team is an independent motor with rotation sensor.

Cables are in the style of WeDo platform, incompatible with Windstorms or Power Functions.

Obviously, once you plug these two guys in, you are already at the maximum capacity of the Hub.

max capacity already!

The APP

The app seems to be reasonably polished. It has a builtin journey where you unlock things step by step — this means you can’t jump right into the most sophisticated model you want to build.

models/modules

The room level shows six models you can progressively unlock and build. For each model, there are also activities you can progressively unlock.

activities unlocked
activities locked

For each activity cluster, there is usually three activities you can do, which involves slightly changing the model or using different blocks. I believe the three are rated by difficulty (noticed the number of studs goes one, two, three)

activity level

To give you a better idea of how this works, let me just explain with a little detail of how the above activities are group together. Each activity, once selected, will lead to the following coding canvas.

typical block programming canvas

Not only is this visual, it is very three dimensional the skeumorphic.

Sometimes the activity requires additional building. Then building instruction will be given, when it is needed. For kids that get stuck, no need to panic. A convenient cheat sheet can be dropped down any time.

not sure what to do?

The interface gives clear and intuitive indication of what has been been accomplished. The UI design team behind this really did a good job!

Need more models to build?

I was surprised to see that, in addition to the six highly visible models the app actually has a mechanism that teaches you more stuff. You don’t want to tell your kids about this. The best way is to let them discover by themselves.

But I will give you a hint: it is a world of spirals.

all these models have cute names!

Here you can add more models to build.

The actual experience, aka, is your kid going to love it?

As you can see, the app has a self-paced curriculum built in. It is designed in a way that kids can progress on their own, with no adult help. And most impressively, each task is bite-sized, so there is no question of your young learner losing attention.

From my observation, my son seems to have a good time with it. But I don’t think he is really impressed by anything he sees. He likes what I would refer as the decorative aspects of the design: e.g., the three faces of Vernie. Or clever way to use motor to control the eyebrow. Frankie the cat has really nice meows: my wife heard it and then was trying to look for wild cats in the yard!

The limitations

Some of the robotic toys I have seen really emphasize on community. But LEGO Boost is not one of them — at least not yet. Build/Code/Play, yes. But Share?

The obvious limitation of the system is the maximum number of accessories the hub can take. This is a serious limitation. But on the other hand, limitation is not always a bad thing. It is about doing creative things with limited resources.

Programming blocks wise, I am reasonably surprised by the variety of functions being offered. But understand this is for beginners, so it is on the same level of Scratch Jr. but not Scratch.

For more detailed information on the different categories of blocks and what exactly can be programmed there, please see the official guide here.

Final verdict: to pass or to buy?

If your kid is K-2 and have never done much programming before, this would be an eye-opening experience. If he/she has done some advanced stuff, this would be less exhilarating but still fun. The best part of LEGO robotics is that the building component always plays an important part of the whole experience. From what I see, kids at this age are less enamored with controlling something with coding than actually building stuff and then just play with it. To this end I think LEGO Boost is a well designed product. Just make sure you have a reasonably new iPad. I have seen a lot of people complaining about the old iPad cannot use the app. But that’s not the product designer’s fault.

Whether you should buy it depends on several things: your addiction to Lego collection, your level of dedication to robotics. But this is actually not a hard decision to make. Just think this way: have you ever wondered what the WeDo line is all about? You get to find out with less money and 3 times more pieces! And it is a very carefully designed experience package that would guarantee some hours of fun.

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