Smart robotic toys come in a wide range of forms – from fun-but-dumb units that are essentially remote-control cars in robot shape, to phone/tablet-connected models that help you learn to code yourself, or to inspire your kids. You also get robots that you can communicate with using your voice rather than a device.
If you’re interested in coding, a phone-connected robot is one of the best tools for getting started because it lets you connect your first programs with something in the physical world and build tactile games along the way. Plus, robots are cool.
You don’t need any coding knowledge to play with the robots in our round-up, but with a little know-how you can make them do specific things. We also have a guide to the best coding games for kids if you’re looking for more ways to introduce coding to your kid.
So whether you’re interested in coding or just want a robot friend, here’s our guide to the best on the market.
The Cozmo by Anki is hands-down one of the smartest robots we’ve seen. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, Cozmo packs an impressively big brain, and is capable of recognising people’s faces, playing games, and learning as he goes.
Cozmo comes with three LED cubes, which are used in games that test reaction time and colour matching. He learns how you play and adjusts his own skill level – and reactions – appropriately: beat him and he’ll throw a tantrum, screwing up the eyes on his LED screen.
The built-in camera can learn, recognise and then associate faces with a given name, which he will say out loud when he sees them. You can program Cozmo to say other phrases, too.
You can even remotely control Cozmo while watching the view from his camera on your phone- or tablet screen. There’s also a host of coding mini-games to teach kids basic programming.
Above all, though, Cozmo is packed with personality. He’s lively, vibrant and fun, telling you what games he wants to play at any given time, reacting to you and expressing his emotions. It sounds silly, but you really will find yourself caring about Cozmo and what he wants, which is a huge accomplishment.
If you want to find out more, you can see him in action in our hands-on video.
Sphero may be known for its spherical robots, but its best creation yet instead focuses on the company’s other great success: the Star Wars-inspired BB-8 droid. The result: a decidedly non-spherical, but very brilliant, R2-D2.
Controlled using a smartphone app, this diminutive droid boasts a host of animations drawn directly from the films, including authentic sound effects and LED flashes. You can control him directly from the app, set him to patrol, or even leave him to react autonomously as you watch one of the Star Wars films with R2 at your side. There’s also an AR mini-game to enjoy.
Sure, he’s more remote-control toy than robot in the strictest sense, but R2 is one of cinema’s most famous robots, and this is the most authentic R2 toy we’ve seen. You can also use him to learn how to code with the free Sphero Edu app.
And speaking of spheres, here’s one of Sphero’s more traditional robots: the Sphero Bolt, its most advanced offering yet.
This is the next step on from the SPRK+ – which you’ll find further down this list – and pairs the traditional Sphero tech with new features like an LED light panel, an ambient light sensor, and infrared communication between multiple Bolts.
From programming animations and games to making multiple Bolts act out little scenarios, there’s a massive amount of potential here. And thanks to an array of graphs providing live feedback from the various sensors, there’s the chance to learn as much about physics and engineering as there is coding.
Read our Sphero Bolt review.
Vector is an attempt by Anki to create a version of its popular Cosmo robot for adults – and to bring warmth and personality to the sterile, transactional relationship you have with virtual assistants like Alexa and Siri.
However, it feels like a beta product that’s got some way to travel before being useful as well as endearing.
Read our full Anki Vector review.
UBTECH Jimu Meebot kit
The Meebot is a robot aimed at kids, available from Apple stores for £109.95. It comes in kit form, which means you must build it like LEGO, but rather than paper instructions a mobile app provides an animated 3D model for reference.
Construction takes a couple of hours (fewer if your kids aren’t helping), and you can then connect the Meebot via Bluetooth and start controlling it.
The preset moves are great: it can do the ‘crazy dance’ and even the ‘man flag’, where it balances on one arm.
The idea is for kids to have fun building and playing with Meebot, then learn how to program it to move themselves. They can do this using a graphical block interface, but can also see the code itself.
They can even dismantle the kit and build their own version of the robot, connecting the six servo motors in whichever combination they like.
littleBits Droid Inventor Kit
littleBits started out making kits of tiny colour-coded electronic components that you can connect together to build more complex circuits and gadgets. Then it had the brilliant idea of taking all that tech and putting it inside R2-D2.
The Droid Inventor Kit lets you assemble both R2’s casing (including customisable sticker decals) and his internal components, with an accompanying app to walk you through the various configurations step-by-step.
One setup lets you drive R2 using your phone as a controller, while another gives him a microphone and speaker to record and play voice messages, and another lets his head rotate.
The Bits connect magnetically, making them easy to assemble and disassemble, and the app does a great job walking you through putting R2 together and taking him apart.
There are even guides on how to customise the body using household objects – such as a flowerpot head dome or a juice carton body – so that keen inventors can make R2 entirely their own.
The littleBits app has recently been updated to include coding, too.
If you don’t want to pay for the full Sphero experience of the SPRK+ or one of the Star Wars droids, you might want to consider the Sphero Mini.
As the name suggests this is a smaller version of the company’s spherical robots, fortunately with a lower price point to match.
As with other Sphero droids you control it using your phone, and there are a few options: you can use standard touchscreen joystick controls; a ‘slingshot’ mode in which you pull back and release to send the robot flying forwards; a gyroscopic mode where you tilt the phone to steer; and even a facial recognition mode where you can smile to move forward and frown to reverse (fun, but it doesn’t work as smoothly as the other modes).
The Mini is available in a few different colours, and you can also customise the colour of the internal LED, which glows through the translucent plastic shell. It charges over Micro-USB (cable included) and comes with a set of mini plastic bowling pins and traffic cones to set up obstacle courses.
Beyond driving around the Sphero there’s also a set of games that use the internal gyroscope, so you rotate the Sphero itself to move around objects on your phone screen within the game. It takes some getting used to the controls, but it’s fun once you get the hang of it – if little more than a novelty.
You even get the more complex programming features of the bigger Spheros through the Sphero Edu app, so at just £50/$50 you’re really getting the full Sphero package in the palm of your hand.
Wonder Workshop Cue
Wonder Workshop makes a few different robot toys – we’ve previously reviewed the Dash – but the Cue is arguably the device that skews the oldest, and has the most tech packed inside.
These are played out with one of four different robot personalities, which you can interact with through a chat interface as you run through the story. That’ll expose you to the basics of Cue’s tech and controls, which you can then explore more thoroughly in the standalone modes dedicated to coding and manually driving it around.
A couple words of warning. Firstly, Cue is still very much aimed at kids. Unlike the Sphero Bolt or even the Anki Cozmo, which could be a fun way for an adult to get to grips with the basics of coding, Cue is loud, obnoxious, and filled with ‘jokes’. Kids will probably find it tremendously fun, adults definitely will not.
Second, compared to some of the competition the experience is a little less polished, which is a shame for the price. We ran into a few bugs and setup glitches using the Android app, and annoying problems like two audio tracks trying to play simultaneously. It’s not enough to ruin the overall effect – Cue is still overall going to be pretty great for a techie kid – but it does make it a bit trickier to recommend over Sphero’s latest.
Another robot available from the Apple store (£119.95) is the Sphero SPRK+. This is an evolution of the original Sphero, and is designed to be fun to play with and to inspire kids to learn to code.
At its simplest you can use the Sphero app to control where the ball rolls, just a like a remote-controlled car.
But you can also program it to travel a certain route, and you can hold it and use it as a controller for other apps and games.
Read our full Sphero SPRK+ review.
LEGO Mindstorms EV3
No robot roundup would be complete without LEGO Mindstorms. The latest kit is the EV3, which lets you build 17 robots that can drive, shoot, slither, walk, slam and spin.
Coding is the name of the game here, and you can install the EV3 Programmer app on your tablet to make your robot do your bidding. If you don’t have a tablet, the software is also available for Windows and Mac.
The phone- and tablet app can also be used as a remote control for your robot and, because it’s made from LEGO Technic bricks, you can rebuild it into whatever you like, and add your own bricks and pieces.
A faster version of the Sphero (and BB-8) is the Ollie. This is designed exclusively for fun rather than education, and instead of an internal mechanism driving a sphere Ollie has two wheels.
These can turn in opposite directions for some great spinning- and trick-action, but when working together they can propel the robot to around 15mph.
It’s tough enough to be launched into the air from ramps, and comes with rubber tyres for outdoor use (the plastic wheels are slippery, which is great fun on smooth surfaces such as wooden floors).
LittleBits Gizmos & Gadgets
LittleBits also sells a kit where kids (ages 8 and up) can create their own crazy contraptions, including a Bitbot robot that you can wirelessly drive around a room.
This is all about children learning to invent using electronic building blocks that snap together with magnets. It’s simple to use, and comes with a 60-page invention guidebook. The kit includes all you need for 16 set inventions, and then you can create your own and share them online.
There are 13 ‘Bits’ and 56 accessories, including a buzzer, DC motor, fan light sensor, slide dimmer and ball caster, as well as mounting boards, wires, splits, mechanical arms and so on.
The company rather cruelly suggests you can use Bitbot to “prank your pets”, and maybe more humanely turn your room into a race track.