Software Development

Geek Gifts 2010: LEGO Mindstorms NXT 2.0

The LEGO Mindstorms NXT 2.0 kit comes with four models that you can build and program. See if Geekend contributor Wally Bahny thinks this expensive toy is worth the price.

LEGO toys were likely part of every geek's childhood, when we used use kid-power to make our LEGOs go. Now, with the LEGO Mindstorms NXT 2.0 set, if you use a little adult power to set up the logic and the model -- whether it's a vehicle, an animal, a machine, a humanoid a robot, or whatever your imagination can create -- it will do what you want.

The Mindstorms series is based around a programmable computer brick that can be connected to a computer via USB or Bluetooth (in more modern kits like the NXT 2.0) and customized to move and react to anything the included four sensors and three motors can handle. The sensors and motors tie in to the programmable brick via flat, phone-like cabling. Most pieces included are of the beam-based variety, which reminds me of other construction sets such as Erector sets.

The included software uses a block-based programming model that is powered by LabVIEW. There are blocks for: moving, sensing color, light, movement, and touch, emitting light and sound, and reading movement from the motors, as well as myriad control blocks such as If- and Loop-type controls. Blocks are connected together via the Sequence Beam, which looks like a LEGO beam block. The software allows you to have simultaneous programming paths, so you can have the programmable brick power more than one independent model (as long as they don't move away from each other).

Specifications and features

  • Programmable brick: 32-bit microprocessor with four inputs and three output ports
  • Connector: USB 2.0 or Bluetooth
  • Display: Black and white matrix display
  • Sensors: Two Touch sensors, one Color/Light sensor, one Ultrasonic sensor
  • Motors: Three interactive servo motors with a built-in rotation sensor that can measure in one degree increments.
  • Software: Advanced graphical programming language powered by LabVIEW from National Instruments. (The software is compatible on PC and Mac.)
  • Pieces: 619
  • Ages: 10 and up
  • Models: Four designs included in software plus 10 to download. Many more designs available at Mindstorms.com.
  • Price: $279.99
  • TechRepublic photo gallery of the LEGO Mindstorms NXT 2.0 models.
  • Videos of four of the robot models I created: Color Sorter, Alpha Rex, Robogator, and Shooterbot.

What I like

  • It's LEGO: I've loved LEGO since I was a kid.
  • Easy to program: The drag-and-drop nature of the software makes programming sequences easy to create.
  • Various models: The software comes with instructions for four complete models as well as the option to download 10 more. Mindstorms.com contains thousands of models created by fellow Mindstorms users.
  • Bluetooth: The programmable brick has Bluetooth connectivity, which makes programming the device easier than the USB option.

What I don't like

  • Electronic build instructions: The fact that the build instructions are electronic is not a big deal since the programming must be done on the computer, but it is somewhat inconvenient to follow instructions in the NXT application to build the included models (with the exception of the vehicle base quick-start model).
  • Limited kit: The Mindstorms NXT 2.0 kit comes with enough pieces to make any of the four models, but only one at a time. Also, the included models' programmable brick and the sensors are usually deeply embedded in the models, so buying extra pieces (or using pieces from other sets) would not improve that shortcoming.
  • Short battery life: The NXT programmable brick requires six AA batteries. I only ran each model long enough to test each stage in the programming and already used about 25% of the life.
  • Price: Nearly $300 is very expensive for any toy, even given the nature of what it is able to do. If it sold for $200, this would be a much more attractive gift item.

Geek bottom line

Any geek, especially those with kids who are into LEGO, will enjoy building the included models, exploring the models on the Mindstorms community website, and even creating their own models. While traditional brick LEGOs may not be very compatible with the Mindstorms pieces, the more modern beam-based LEGO pieces will mix in well with the kit, which allows you to create various automated vehicles, animals, machines, and even humanoid robots. The included software has more than enough functionality to make the four sensors and three motors do anything you want them to do.

Overall, the four included models were fun to create and, while they took as much as six or eight hours (for Alpha Rex) to fully build and program, I had fun spending my time on these projects.

Geek gift score (out of 5)

  • Fun factor: *****
  • Geek factor: *****
  • Value: ***
  • Overall: ****

Want more reviews of tech gadgets and gizmos? Download the PDF of TechRepublic's Geek Gift Guide 2010.

1 comments
codepoke
codepoke

The Lego building portion of the robot was a burden to me. I enjoyed the system once I had the physical 'bot built, but the bots required hundreds of parts to do anything at all. The programming was really quite interesting. The idea of a bot being truly autonomous is excellent. And you used to be able to download c-like compilers and program the bot with more powerful language constructs. That was a big improvement over the rather limited block programming paradigm. In the end, the bang for the buck is pretty low, though. Unless you've got a group of kids who are all trying to optimize solutions to the same problem, you end up doing tens of hours of work to see the bot solve a trivial 30-second problem. You think, "Wow I could make it do [insert trivial thing that may be within its range of abilities]!" Then are struck with the reality you don't really care about doing X, and it'll be a month before you can even try. There has to be some driving force, so I recommend only buying if you've got a group of parents all buying and someone who'll dream up interesting challenges.

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