updated 12:10 pm EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Latest Lego robotics generation gives, and takes away
With kids in the house, we're about hip-deep in Lego here, including some past iterations of the Lego Robotics kits. Late last year, Lego released the newest iteration of its Mindstorms set -- the Mindstorms EV3. Coming in at $349, the app-enabled kit purports to teach children (and tech writers) about practical robotics. Does the kit do what it says, or is it destined to be stepped on in the middle of the night by irate parents?
The set has a ridiculous amount of pieces, small and large, and is daunting when freshly presented. Besides just 594 Lego Technic pieces, there are three motors, one color sensor, one infrared beacon, one infrared sensor, and one touch sensor. The centerpiece of the set is the EV3 Intelligent Brick -- the brain of the set.
Previous versions of the set used clumsy serial or USB connections to send programming from a PC to the device. Robots equipped with the EV3 Intelligent Brick are controllable over Bluetooth 3.0 and WiFi directly, which is a huge advance over previous versions. The Intelligent Brick runs a variant of Linux on an ARM9 chip. While the 64MB of RAM and 16MB of flash memory doesn't seem like a lot, given modern device capacities, and considering that all that's stored on-board is text, this is generally far more than enough. If a truly epic program is needed, the flash memory can be expanded by a MicroSD card.
The Intelligent Brick can control four motors, and get information from four sensors simultaneously. Not quite wireless yet, the sensors and motors connect by way of what look similar to Cat 5 networking cables. They do pose some engineering problems, but that's not a problem with the set -- part of the design process is dealing with limitations of the connections, and proper wire routing.
Lego includes step-by-step instructions on how to build a singe robot, including basic programming for same, of varying complexity. Other Lego-official instructions are online. The Lego-given instructions step up in difficulty, with each robot building on the skill-set necessary to build larger and more complex constructions. Just the same, even the most complex starter-set construction, the Ev3rstorm robot, pales in comparison to what can be found in one of the many Mindstorms tomes available, or the robust online community -- don't let these resources lay fallow.
The development language is icon-based, and similar to the old-school Logo in many respects. Most of our testing panel's programming experience is decades-old, but the compatible applications for the set do a great job of explaining logical choices, and preventing true programming errors. Not to say that users can't mis-program something and the robot does something unintentional -- that's all part of learning logical thinking and basic programming skills.
Lego's modus operandi for years has been to give builders the instructions for the set itself, and some pictorial ideas, and let the player go wild -- the Mindstorms EV3 is no different. Some long-time users have decried some of the changes, like the Intelligent Brick being significantly heavier than the previous version, or the light sensor no longer being able to flash LEDs, but this isn't much of a real detriment especially to new owners. Electronista and MacNN aren't Lego enthusiast sites, so if you need a breakdown of the differences, you'll need to go elsewhere.
The point of Lego is building. Lego builders try to construct what they want, with what they have. There are two solutions to not having a needed piece -- you either work around it, or get more. If a cable or element gets in the way, its time to re-engineer. If a program does something unexpected, figure it out. The Mindstorms EV3 is a prime example of this Lego philosophy, which carries well over to other aspects. Overall, despite complaints from some of the Lego faithful, the kit is a fantastic robotics starter set, well integrated with the iOS and Android for the eight to adult set, but if you really want it to sing, the Mindstorms EV3 is not the be-all end-all solution -- and that's fine!
Who the Lego Mindstorms EV3 set is for: late childhood and adult fans of Lego with an eye towards robotics and programming.
Who the Lego Mindstorms EV3 set is not for: Lego players younger than 8, or those with no patience for logical thinking.