Lego’s Mindstorms kits take the boundless possibilities of Lego blocks (and the mechanical potential of the Technic system) and add robotics components like servo motors, sensors, and a brain you can program. The Lego Mindstorms EV3 wowed us seven years ago, and the new Lego Mindstorms Robot Inventor kit proves to be well worth the wait. This $359.99 set features a much more sophisticated brain with Bluetooth connectivity and LED lighting, an additional motor, plenty more blocks, and uses a more standard Scratch programming language. It’s expensive, but if offers endless potential for engineering and programming different projects, earning our Editors’ Choice.
The Mindstorms Robot Inventor kit comes with 949 pieces, nearly twice as many as the EV3 set. They include four motors (EV3 has three), a color and light sensor, a distance sensor, the new Intelligent Hub, and more than 900 additional Lego Technic and System pieces for building the five robots on the box, with plenty of extras for accessories.
The Intelligent Hub is the brain of the Robot Inventor Kit, packing all of the processing power and communication capabilities needed to drive your robots, along with a speaker, a six-axis gyro/accelerometer, and Bluetooth connectivity. The top of the block features a main power button with two direction buttons for selecting different programs you can load onto the hub, along with a Bluetooth pairing button. It also holds a 4-by-5 LED array that serves as a display, and can show off simple graphics and animations. Three connectors each sit on the left and right sides of the block, supporting all four motors and both sensors at once. A micro USB port is on the back for charging and connecting the hub to a computer.
The Lego Mindstorms Robot Inventor software handles both building instructions and programming for the robots in the kit. It’s available for MacOS, Windows, Android, and iOS, and provides full sets of step-by-step guides to assembling the five robots on the box, along with a complete programming interface and the sample programs to drive each robot.
The software is separated into individual sections for each robot you can build: Charlie, Tricky, Blast, M.V.P., and Helo. Charlie is a cute basic robot, with a squat body and expressive LED eyes thanks to the new hub. It can roll around on its own, wave its arms, and play with toys. It’s the only robot you can’t directly control.
Tricky is a small wheeled robot that looks like a utility vehicle, with different attachments for grabbing objects, tossing balls, and even writing with a pen. Blast is an aggressive humanoid robot on long, wheeled legs, with arms that can fire darts, swing hammers, and punch. M.V.P. is a multipurpose robotic platform with a flat bed that can hold more complicated attachments than Tricky, like a crane and a dart-firing turret. Finally, Gelo is an almost lizard-like robot, and the only one that actually walks on articulated legs rather than rolls on wheels.
Each robot can be built in multiple steps, first constructing the basic version and then layering on complexity with attachments and accessories that let it do more. This structure is useful, because building each robot and attachment can take a while; Charlie took me over an hour to assemble completely, and M.V.P. took me over two hours to build the base robot, and another two to put together the crane. Assembling every robot in the kit, along with every accessory and attachment, can easily take dozens of hours.
Coding In Scratch
After each building step, the software jumps into a view of the programming, coded in Scratch. From this screen, you can stream the code to the robot or upload it to the robot’s memory to run on its own later. Scratch is a simple, block-based programming language that has become popular for teaching kids how to code without requiring strict syntax. The instructions for the robots are colorful and clearly labeled, with comments showing what each collection of blocks is supposed to do. It’s a good starting point for learning the logic of programming, and how that translates into instructions for robots.
The hub can hold multiple programs at once, and run them autonomously to engage in preprogrammed behavior. If you want to directly control the robots, you need to stream the program and use the on-screen controls (or a connected Bluetooth gamepad like the Sony PlayStation DualShock 4 or a Microsoft Xbox Wireless Controller) on your computer, tablet, or phone. You can’t pilot your robot without a connected device.
The on-screen controls are best used on the mobile version of the software, as they’re designed for use with a touch screen, specifically on a phone or tablet. I tried controlling the M.V.P. I built through my Lenovo Yoga laptop, and both clicking with a mouse and using the laptop’s touch screen felt laggy and awkward.
The Scratch program for each robot lets you get a good look at exactly how it’s controlled, with plenty of space for experimentation and modification. That said, it doesn’t offer very good feedback when there’s an error. Occasionally I would load a program into a robot and it would simply do nothing, or the controls wouldn’t respond. Even streaming a program, the software won’t show any error feedback, like if a motor is turned too far and gets stuck, or if all the components won’t engage because they’re connected to the wrong ports. Error messages for issues like these would be a big help.
Do Even More
Of course, you can also design and build your own robots, and program them to do whatever you want with the motors and sensors available. The software lets you open fresh Scratch projects with dozens of premade blocks for controlling motors and getting input from the sensors, along with the standard conditionals and other instructions to make your project properly complex.
If your kid is getting bored with Scratch and wants to learn more serious coding, the software also supports programming in Python. Currently the Python programming component of Mindstorms is in beta, and the software doesn’t have Python versions of the Scratch projects for each robot to study from, but the capabilities are there if you really want to get technical.
The Best Mindstorms Yet
The Lego Mindstorms Robot Inventor kit takes the concept a step forward with a more advanced Intelligent Hub, more motors, and many more blocks. It lets you or your kids build five different robots with multiple variations on each, and provides all you need to create your own, with easy-to-learn Scratch programming driving it all. It’s pricey, but it provides countless possibilities in one box, and earns our Editors’ Choice for robotics kits.
If you don’t want to spend quite as much, the Lego Boost Creative Toolbox is an attractive set for younger builders, with a much simpler tile-based programming language and processing that comes entirely from your phone or tablet rather than a dedicated Intelligent Hub. At $160, it costs less than half as much as the Mindstorms Robot Inventor, but it’s also much more limited.