Lego Spike Prime: should you buy it?

Update: I have just got my set and updated this article with my first impressions.

Also, I wrote about the new Scratch-based programming environment for Spike Prime here.

More than two years ago, I wrote a piece about my experience using an EV3 alternative (sort of) from Chinese small electronics manufacturer XIAOMI.

Recently, Lego announced a new set called Spike Prime. How does compare with the WeDo and Boost series and NXT/EV3? What are the new things brought by this new line? Should you consider pre-order it?

First of all, some basic facts.

  • This set (number 45680) contains 603 pieces, and is priced at $329.95.

Who Is This For Again?

If we take WeDo line as targeting elementary schools and EV3 for middle/high schools, then who is the target audience of this line? The official story is that this set is to fill in the gap between the two existing lines and targeting for higher grades at elementary school or lower grades middle school, namely 5–9.

In terms of its over-stimulating color, and the Scratch-derivative app, it seems to cater to a smaller age group (I’m thinking K-4). However, these younger children will certainly have some difficulties with the precision required to work on technic pieces. In reality, therefore, I myself see this as a potential upgrade solution for EV3 itself. Here’s how the four current lines compare:

  • WeDo: brick system, severely restricted hub, tablet coding interface

Clearly, if in the future Lego wanted to consolidate and get rid of some of the above lines, a sensible solution would be to keep only Boost and Spike while adding desktop/Python programming capabilities to Spike. This shouldn’t be a difficult task at all.

The HUB

The hub itself constitutes almost 75% of the total price. So its specs are crucial in the success of the set.

Here is the official description:

The LEGO® Technic™ Large Hub is an advanced yet simple-to-use brick-shaped device featuring 6 input/output ports for connecting a variety of sensors and motors, a customizable 5x5 light matrix, Bluetooth connectivity, speaker, 6-axis gyro, rechargeable lithium-ion battery and a micro USB port for connectivity with compatible computers and tablets. The Large Hub can also be built together with LEGO Technic and System elements to create fun robots, dynamic devices and other interactive models.

Needless to say, all the bolded phrases are much welcomed addition to a seriously outdated EV3 block. The light matrix replaces the monochromatic LCD screen on NXT/EV3 which are incredibly hard to read. It is the kind of things that remind you of what technology was three decades ago!

However, the light matrix technology doesn’t offer any high resolution display uses such as menu navigation or even change settings. So I wonder how is this achieved. Maybe everything is to be performed on the tablet?

The rechargeable battery was an optional accessory on EV3 and it costs around additional $50(?).

In terms of the overall design, the new Spike hub reminds me of the Mi intelligent block that appeared two years ago, with some interesting addition and subtraction of features. For instance, LEGO sticks to its proprietary connector while the Mi alternative uses USB-C. The use of micro-USB is also quite baffling — it seems the design decision was made 10 years ago and people at Lego were not aware of any new development since then.

The App

The Spike Prime line of robots will be controlled using a derivative of Scratch, a visual block-based programming language which has been somewhat popular among early childhood coding educators. In the grand scale of things, does this new interface make robotics more teachable? How does this new interface compare to Boost, WeDo and EV3?

It is still early to say what exactly are the limitations and how does that affect the usability of the set. But here are some thoughts.

First, you can already use Scratch to connect to both Boost and WeDo. You just need to do a little extra tinkering. In fact, the existing software that comes with Boost or WeDo is quite comprehensive in terms of visual programming. If there is something they cannot do, Scratch won’t fare much better.

Second, Google has developed a platform called Blockly. Connected toy vendors such as Wonder Workshop have made apps using this platform to control robotic toys such as Dash & Dot. The new Spike Prime app looks very much like taking this route.

On the other side of the spectrum there is the native programming interface of EV3. It is initially a desktop only product, called Labview. Many other options are available but all require third party support. In my experience, this interface may look fine with adult engineers who are paid to do their job, but it is somewhat intimidating for kids to look at.

A typical block that controls the motor
This is Labview

It is often believed that the so-called “visual programming” can lower the threshold of coding education. Having dabbled in coding education myself I found it to be a misconception. To replace blocks of textual statements with graphical blocks isn’t much. What really needs to be visualized is the execution of algorithm itself. If this idea resonates somewhat with you, proceed to read Bret Victor’s excellent essay here.

Finally, Apple’s hobby into coding education, the Swift Playground, has evolved in recent years into the arena of connected toys. It currently supports some of the major players in the field, including EV3.

I do not have extensive experience using this. But it seems to me a very promising direction, much more promising than any block-based programming. However, there is one critical shortcoming. Unlike the native programs that you can download to EV3 and run independently, this solution is currently tethered, which means you need to run the code on your iPad, which needs to maintain a finicky bluetooth connection with the EV3 block. However, the potential to expand your playground into a native iOS app is way too exciting to bypass.

FIRST IMPRESSION

The Spike hub is significant smaller than the EV3 hub! So are all other key components such as motors and sensors. The almost flat shape of the large motor will certainly make the FLL competition robot significantly more compact.

It comes with a rechargeable battery! There is in fact no way to use AAA or AA batteries with the hub.

The boot-up time is amazing! Once you get used to this speed, it is really hard to go back to EV3’s ridiculously long startup and shutdown time.

Connecting time (bluetooth) is also significantly improved. I had a lot of difficulties with EV3 over bluetooth on Mac computers. This problem does exist with the Spike hub. Again, hard for me to go back to EV3.

The sensors and motors no longer need to go to either the head of the rear end of the brick (one marked by numbers and the other marked by letters). Instead they go to the side of the brick where each side has three ports. Although the combined components are less, the new universal ports actually make the arrangements more flexible.

The built-in gyro works great!

The cable that connects both the sensors and motors are non-detachable. This means that you cannot switch out longer cables for shorter ones for or vice versa. But this also eliminates the possibility of not securely connected cables. BTW, the cable is softer and much more comfortable to bend.

The expansion set is totally worth it! It contains so many interesting pieces (large wheel, extra-long axles etc.) that are not part of the core set.

Reading, Writing, Parenting

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