If you're a fan of Legos and robots -- and, really, who isn't? -- you'll love Lego's new Mindstorms EV3 robot set.
The EV3 represents Lego's second major update to its Mindstorms system since it first started selling robot kits some 15 years ago. The update represents a conscious effort by the company to make Mindstorms both more fun for kids and a more powerful system for robotics enthusiasts.
The company has succeeded on both counts. The EV3 is a bit pricier than I'd like, but it offers a lot of play, educational and creative opportunities for everyone from young kids to adults.
Like previous Mindstorms systems, the EV3 is built around an electronic "brick" that contains a computer processor, onboard memory, a small display and various ports. The brick serves as the brains of your robots, storing programs that drive attached motors and directing their reactions to information from connected sensors.
The EV3's brick has a more powerful processor than its predecessor, meaning it should be able to run more complicated programs. Perhaps more importantly, it has significantly more storage space, plus the ability to add even more through a miniSD card slot. On previous versions, you couldn't store more than a handful of programs on the brick before you had to start deleting some to make space for new ones; that shouldn't be a problem any longer.
The EV3 comes with two large motors that were basically designed for turning wheels and a midsized one that's designed to rotate attachments, like arms or propellers. Some Mindstorms fans may miss having the third large motor that Lego shipped with the previous model, but I think most users will appreciate the capabilities of the new, smaller motor. For example, one of the sample robots for which Lego provides building instructions uses the new motor to turn a snakelike head, something that would have been more difficult with the bigger motor.
Lego ships the EV3 with three sensors: a color-detecting camera, a touch sensor and an infrared detector. The first two sensors are basically iterations of ones that came with the previous model and allow users to create robots that respond when seeing particular colors or when touching an object.
The infrared sensor is new. When paired with an included infrared remote control, it allows users to create their own remote-controlled vehicles, creatures and robots without having to get deeply into programming. The remote control includes four channels, which allows it to send signals to up to four motors attached to the EV3's brick. So you can move a vehicle forward and backward, rotate an attachment or make a creature turn its head.
My kids and I had fun steering a Lego snake that we made and driving around a robot with treads and a spinning propeller.
The EV3 takes the idea of remotely controlling robots an extra step with a new app that will be available for iPhones, iPads and Android devices. You can use the app, which connects to the EV3 over Bluetooth, to control any one of five robots for which Lego provides instructions.
You can also customize it to control any robot you create. The app utilizes the touch-screens and motion detectors in smartphones and tablets, allowing you to trigger different functions on your vehicle or robot by shaking the device or tilting it one way or another. For example, the snake we built rattled its tail when we shook our iPad.
Lego is releasing another app that could prove useful to robot builders. The app, which at launch will only be able for Apple (AAPL) and Android tablets, provides 3-D building instructions for the five basic Lego-designed robot models.
If you've ever pored over a Lego building guide with your kids and struggled to distinguish particular pieces or determine their placement, you'll appreciate being able to rotate a virtual model on a screen, zoom in on particular sections and tap on particular parts to identify them. I only wish the app provided instructions on how to build more than just five models.
In addition to releasing new apps, Lego has also revised the software you use to create programs for the EV3 to make it easier to use. One cool new trick: The new software can keep track of a robot's progress through a particular program, allowing users to figure out more easily the cause of any errors.
The new kit isn't perfect. At $350, it's not only pricey but $70 more expensive than its predecessor. While it supports Wi-Fi, it doesn't have a built-in Wi-Fi radio. Instead, you'll have to plug a Wi-Fi radio into its USB port. Unfortunately, depending on how you build your robot, you can easily block that port, because it's located on one of the sides of the brick. The battery compartment has a similar problem; it's located on the back of the brick, an area which is often inaccessible in completed robots.
But the EV3 is worthy update to the Mindstorms line. I wish it were less expensive, but my kids and I are still eager to get one of our own.
Contact Troy Wolverton at 408-840-4285 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.mercurynews.com/troy-wolverton or Twitter.com/troywolv.
What: Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot-making kit
Likes: New "brick" includes more powerful processor, far more storage and supports Wi-Fi; new IR sensor and remote allow users to make remote-controlled creatures and vehicles; new remote-control app allows users to create custom controls for their own robot designs; new tablet provides cool 3-D building instructions for basic robot models.
Dislikes: Pricey; Wi-Fi isn't built-in; placement of battery compartment and USB ports makes them hard to access in completed robots.
Specs: Includes one robotic brick; two large and one medium-sized servomotors; three sensors; cables; infrared remote control and more than 550 Lego pieces