The Makeblock mBot Ultimate 2.0 is a robotics kit for people with a lot of patience (or with kids who have a lot of patience. The entire kit is a beast and allows you to build up to 10 different designs including a robotic pincer and crane system and a number of tanks, spider-looking things, and even a mobile tripod. In short, it’s a very impressive, very complex, and very frustrating kids’ toy.
I’ve been putting off this review for quite a while simply because there is a lot to wrap your head around when it comes to Makeblock products. While they are great, the instructions often leave a lot to be desired and complexity of the builds – from the wiring plans to the chassis assembly – make it a bit frustrating. The $334 price tag is also a decidedly hard sell for anyone except the most loving of rich aunts or uncles or folks who are really serious about their child’s STEM education.
First, let’s talk about what this is not. It’s not a Lego or Technics product and it’s far less complex than similar Adafruit DIY products. It definitely straddles that fascinating space between an Erector Set and a complete robotics kit and honestly errs closer to the Erector Set than something like Lego Mindstorms.
If that comparison sounds weird, that’s because this product is weird. It’s hard to build, the things you can build are pretty cool, but that coolness wears off when you realize that you have to take it back apart when you want to build something else. See all of those little girders and things in between the longer metal pieces? Those required an Allen key to remove and were very difficult to attach in the first place. Add in a wide range of different screws and bolts as well as press fit connectors that hold down the motors and boards and you’ve got a miasma of difficult to manage parts.
I personally didn’t have the patience for this thing but my wife, who loves puzzles, sat down and gamely built the pincer robot over a period of about three hours. That’s definitely not a long time for something like this but it frustrated her quite a bit and when she was finished we realized we had installed some of the motors incorrectly, leading to a robot that could go forward but not turn. To fix it, we learned, would require a disassembly and reassembly.
All of that said, I’m very glad that kits like this exist. As a kid, I loved these kinds of things. They were complex, difficult, and frustrating but they gave you the inspiration to build your own, well, everything. I distinctly remember trying assembled robots out of spare parts and motors, bolting together metal wood to create something that wasn’t quite what I wanted. With toys like this one you’re at least guaranteed a positive outcome, even if you put the motors in the wrong way.
The kit itself includes a very basic ATMEGA2560-16AU processor and an ultrasonic sensor, line follower sensor, gyroscope, shutter-control module. To program it you use something called mBlock. It’s a Scratch-like coding language that was easy enough to pick up even though we mostly just controlled the robot with the included iOS app. As you can imagine, getting very deep into the coding language and interface were poorly constructed. If you’re just looking to move the robot around a little or follow a line, however, it was easy enough to code.
Basically, this kit requires patience. With that in mind, let’s figure out why you’d buy this.
Who is the Makeblock mBot Ultimate 2.0 for?
This product is for kids ages 12 and up. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone younger unless you’d like to help them build the thing. The whole kit is difficult to assemble even for an adult so you’re going to want to get this for a kid who truly has the patience and desire to build it. Like most STEM toys, the potential for this thing to end up at the bottom of the toy bin, unassembled and unloved, is extremely high. I’ve gone through countless kits like this with my own kids and our youngest enjoyed messing with this for a few days until we decided to buckle down and build something. This turned him off the prospect immediately.
Therefore, you definitely need the right kid for this kit. It’s complex, difficult, and the instructions are often unclear. The coding language requires some real dedication. If you have a STEM loving lad or lass then you’re in luck: this thing is great. If they are mildly interested in robotics or prefer easy-to-assemble Legos, steer clear.
This the Makeblock mBot Ultimate 2.0 a good present?
Now you’re probably asking whether or not to buy this for a kid for Christmas, Hanukah, or their birthday. If you know the kid intimately i.e. they are yours and you’ve followed their STEM-interest with some precision, then you will need to weigh the pros and cons of bringing a massive kit into the home that they might not want to build. This thing has a lot of parts and it takes up a lot of space. If you absolutely know your kids loves this kind of toy then by all means spend the $340 it costs to make their life a little more interesting.
If your kids is only mildly interested in this kind of toy and if they rarely complete Lego kits or puzzles, steer clear. This is like bringing a Master’s Exam in Engineering into the playroom. They will dump it as soon as they see you leave the room.
If you’re an aunt or an uncle or family friend or grandma or grandpa or some other interested party, you damn well better know the kid in question very well. You’re introducing so many fiddly metal parts into this kids’ life that the parents will probably eject you from their house if you make the wrong call. This is a very specific type of toy for a specific type of kid and it doesn’t pay to gamble.
That said, if you’ve got the cash and you know the kid loves STEM, you could do worse.
As I wrote before, I want this product to exist but I know from experience that STEM toys like this one are often dumped by the wayside when less complex stuff enters the picture. Be ready to accept that you might be stepping on hex bolts and circuit boards for the next three years as the kit slowly disassembles itself on some distant shelf and you’ll be fine. If you know your kid will love it, however, I really think it’s a good call.