As is inevitable with any new Star Wars movie, the launch of The Force Awakens brought with it a wave of new toys but none were as impressive as Sphero’s BB-8 droid.
UPDATE: A new ‘Watch With Me’ app update is available now - allowing you to watch The Last Jedi and other films from the Star Wars saga with BB-8, BB-9E, R2-D2 and R2-Q5, who visibly react to events in the movie with animations and sounds, as well as each other.
It was a fantastic achievement, not only in its construction but the way it married smart connectivity with fun. Controlling BB-8 through the smartphone app, or subsequent Force Band add-on, was a joy. Occasionally a bit fiddly but still a joy.
Since then Sphero has launched a battle-worn version of BB-8 and dived into a number of new franchises (all Disney owned) releasing a whip-smart Lightning McQueen for Cars 3 and a voice-controlled Sphero Spider-Man device for Spider-Man: Homecoming. Oh, and with the release of BB-9E there was also a little-know droid announced to: the Sphero R2-D2. Nope, never heard of it.
Now it’s back to the place it knows best and it looks like Sphero has turned to the Dark Side.
BB-9E is a brand-new character for Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi. It’s so new that when we chatted to Sphero about it, they were only given barebones information to work with - Disney holds tight its Star Wars secrets, even hiding them from those who have official licensed kit.
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This lack of knowledge hasn’t done the toy a disservice, however, as a similar thing happened with Sphero’s BB-8 droid. It was released before the movie and quickly tweaked with a software update or two when The Force Awakens was released as its mannerisms weren’t quite what they had programmed into the droid. This is one of the big plus points when releasing a connected toy - you're only a software update away from a fix.
Here’s what we do know about the new droid - look away now, if you don’t want even the mildest of spoilers.
Design and features
BB-9E is being billed as The First Order’s “new menace”. Not a phantom one, but a droid that has “sophisticated tech” within it to help support the First Order in its push to dominate the Star Wars galaxy.
BB-9E is an astromech that likes to intimidate, so expect the boisterousness of BB-8 and then some.
What this means for the toy is a few new upgrades and bleep and boops that sound far more menacing than anything BB-8 can conjure up.
The design of BB-9E is beautiful. Sphero has improved the way it prints onto the shell of the device and it shows, the pattern is detailed and its blacks and greys are a nice contrast to the orange of BB-8.
The biggest change - other than the chassis color change - is the head of BB9-E. It’s a lot flatter than BB-8’s for a start but it also something a little extra: LED lights. These add a nice amount of personality to the droid - not only does it head move around its body but these lights interact and bring the droid to, well, life.
Sphero explained to us that they managed to charge the lights through BB-9E’s body but they require little power so you won’t see any detriment in the battery life of your droid. And in our tests this was the case. A full charge for BB-9E takes up to three hours and you'll have about an hour's play from this.
Like BB-8, it comes with its own inductive charger but this time it’s been given an enhanced radio system so it’s a little more sensitive when it can feel your presence in the room.
Controlling the BB-9E is all done through the dedicated app - something you will be familiar with if you have used the BB-8.
There is now one app to rule them all, called Droids by Sphero. So if you have BB-8 already, its battle-worn iteration, and are thinking about buying the newly announced , then you can control them all from one app.
There is also some (albeit limited) interaction between the droids as well which will only improve.
Force Band compatibility is coming but you won’t get it at launch. Sphero says that having from launch might be a bit too steep a learning curve for some, so they want you to get used to controlling the droid through the apps first.
Something else that has improved is controlling the drone through the app. Instead of a static virtual d-pad, Sphero noticed that it was sometimes a struggle to get your thumb onto the exact point and users were looking at their smartphone more than the droid when it came to controlling it.
To remedy this it has made the d-pad moveable - so no matter where your thumb lands on the screen, the d-pad will be below it. This really does make controlling BB-9E easier.
It makes a decent amount of difference. Playing and controlling BB-9E was a joy. It never tires zipping around a room, even if it does get a little irksome when you bash into things and have to go an plonk his head back on.
The BB-9E's mannerisms are slightly devilish which does mean it has a different personality to BB-8, but we're wondering if there is enough to differentiate them. It may well be that you will want to make a choice between the Light Side and the Dark Side.
What BB-9E does have the first iteration of BB-8 does not - new versions will come with it - is a great new accessory. Sphero admitted that with its previous releases, there was a lot of excess packaging so it has replaced this with an Holographic Simulation device or 'trainer'. This is essentially a treadmill for your droid and it’s brilliant.
You use it with a AR section in the app that allows you to virtually explore a space base with your droid through the app. We're not going to spoil the ship you explore here but you can find out for yourself if you want to.
Each direction you go in the BB-9E also goes in that direction, its base ball spinning, but stays put thanks to the treadmill. It’s a really nice addition to the package and is great for those who are limited for space but still want to have with their droid. The AR part of it is fun, too. It does get a little confusing directing your phone through the ship though. It will take a few goes to get the hang of.
Another new feature is the ability to draw a route for BB-9E - simply using your finger on the screen - and it will take that route around your room. It's simple to do and a lot of fun. It also makes the droid that little bit more autonomous, which is great to watch. We would have liked a bit more of this, the 'bot only really interacts with you when you control it with the app. It would be nice if it had a demo mode when not in use but still on.
Those who have enjoyed watching The Force Awakens and Rogue One with their BB-8 will be pleased to hear that the Watch With Me feature has improved so you can now watch these movies with all the droids at once - and they will react differently to different parts of the movie. Sphero is hoping this adds a Mystery Theater 3000 element to the movies.
Also, Sphero is hoping to have all of the Star Wars movies compatible with this feature before The Last Jedi is released. If you can’t wait that long, Star Wars IV: A New Hope is the latest movie you can watch with your (inevitably increasing) litter of droids.
It’s clear that the BB-9E is set to become another essential Star Wars toy from Sphero.
As it’s a brand-new droid, though, we’re not quite sure how big a part it will play in the overall Star Wars puzzle. This may put younglings off Forcing their parents to buy it straight away but we’re sure once The Last Jedi is released this will be a must-have Christmas toy.
Those with a BB-8 already might not find enough difference in BB-9E to buy this new droid - but if you do (and we're sure collectors are snapping it up right now) you'll have a lot of enjoyment playing with BB-8's more mischievous cousin.
BB-9E will retail at launch for: $149/£149.99/AU$249.99.