LEGO is a product that transcends generations – I still have a few boxes in the loft. It is one of those few brands that has adapted well to the changing times – introducing themed sets and more recently expanding to create the LEGO Mindstorms line. Sitting on the premium end of their products, Mindstorms extends the LEGO Technics series with electronic circuits, motors, sensors and a visual programming tool. Today we’ll be reviewing LEGO Mindstorms NXT 2.0, the next generation, version 2.0 of the core Mindstorms product. And we’ll be giving this $280 set away to one lucky reader.
I admit – $280 for some LEGO sounds like an awful lot, but comparable Robot kits can go for as much as $1500. Although this is a premium LEGO item, it’s also quite an inexpensive introduction to the even more premium hobby of robotics. In addition to the superb LEGO components – which can of course be added to with other Technics kits – you’re also buying the programming software. Is it all worth it? Read on to find out.
Despite the nicely engineered outer box with flip up contents, the inside is a complete mess and there seems to be a lot of wasted space. Especially given how large the outer box is, I was expecting perhaps a cardboard or plastic tray that everything can slot into. If you’ve ever built LEGO, you’ll understand the frustration of having search around for pieces when they’re inside a bag, but spreading them out on a table makes them very easy to lose. Sigh, first world problems.
There’s nothing to help with organising all the bits. Instead, there’s a chaotic collection of non-reusable bags and a flimsy bit of card for actuators and sensors. Once this has been opened, storing anything in the box without losing small pieces is going to be impossible, so be sure to buy some separate storage boxes or trays.
There’s a lot in there, so I’m certainly not going to break down every component, but here goes:
- A set of tracks and wheels
- 2 touch sensors
- 3 motorised joints
- 1 ultrasound distance sensor (the eyes)
- 1 multifunction RGB light and colour sensor unit
- Various lengths of comms cabling (like telephone wire)
- Hundreds of plastic components (Technics, if you’re familiar)
- CPU / control box / battery unit (Batteries not included)
- Starter pack
- Test track (~A1 sized)
- Instruction manual
- Software CD
Helpfully, a complete getting started kit is provided in a separate bag, with all the bits you need to “build your first model in 30 minutes!”. I put this to the test.
Note: in the video, I ended up opening another bag because I couldn’t find a few pieces; I later found them hidden under something else.
The build was finished in 24.5 minutes, though I’d say I have some experience. I’m not including the time it took to install the software on my Mac (there is a version for Windows included too).
After the initial build instructions, the manual goes on to explain all about the various components, and then tells you the CPU brick needs batteries. Might have been nicer to explain that first! It gives a good introduction to the software and basic operation.
Helpfully, the software can also be downloaded from the web, so no worries if you lose your CD. It is however a 624 MB ISO file.
Though the box itself shows a variety of models, printed instructions are only included for the “Getting Started” robot. If you want to build the others, you need to download additional instructions from the online support site, or use the build instructions included with the LEGO Mindstorms software (more on that later). There are an additional 12 official models available online, but it would have been nice to include these on the CD for anyone without Internet access. There are also third party books sold with additional designs and ideas, like The Unofficial LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT 2.0 Inventor’s Guide by David J. Perdue and The LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT 2.0 Discovery Book: A Beginner’s Guide to Building and Programming Robots by Laurens ValkLego Digital Designer, which examines the model and dynamically generates build instructions for you. Clever.
In fairness, these additional models are so complex that you really shouldn’t expect them be provided in printed form; the Rubics Cube Solver (yes, I did just say that) alone weighs in at 104 pages. And I’m pleased to say I built that too, but unfortunately my cube was too new. If you want to try this, you’ll need to sand down and lubricate your cube so it doesn’t get stuck when turning.
Programming and the LEGO Mindstorms Software
Programming is performed using LabView technologies, a well-developed educational and engineering product that makes learning programming fun and easy with a visual designer. It’s a Java application, so compatible with either Mac or Windows – but this does mean the interface is a little quirky.
You can download a completed program to your NXT devices using either wireless Bluetooth or the supplied USB cable. Alternatively, you can run it immediately as long as a connection is maintained, so it’s very easy to test bits.
The visual designer allow you to drag and drop many different programming blocks:
- Threading and branching
- Movement and motor control
- Sound and display output (you can upload custom files)
- Waiting until conditions met
- Reading sensors
- Logging data
- Type conversions (numbers to text etc)
You can even save blocks of code for re-use later (aka functions). The software is admittedly rather daunting at first, even (or should I say especially?) for a seasoned programmer like myself. If you just try to jump straight in, you’re going to get frustrated easily and soon give up. Make sure you run through all the included models in the tutorial system, and you’ll end up with a solid grounding to start programming your own.
There are no official mobile apps, though LEGO have promised something for later this year with the launch of new NXT 2.0 kits.
As well as providing a programming environment, the LEGO Mindstorms software also has build and programming tutorials for additional models. I was quickly able to adapt the basic introductory model to the “bedroom defence” robot that seeks out intruders and shoots them.
There are four core robot shapes are included, the first of which has a few variations that increase in difficultly, culminating in that pictured above. The build instructions can be made full screen, and are just as clear as any printed manual, so you should have a good amount of fun with this before even needing to approach the user submitted designs.
I felt the programming aspect of the tutorials could do with some work; it basically consists of screenshots for you to follow and copy into the main window without really explaining what you’re doing – there is actually explanation text, but it’s small, and far too easy to ignore. What would have been nice is some more complex code to download, along with a step by step walkthrough showing what the code does at each stage and why it’s grouped as it is.
There is a built-in help system – I suggest you go through that after building and programming the first few demo projects. That said – the blocks of logic, control flow, actions and sensors you build from are relatively simple, so it certainly does teach the fundamentals of programming from simple steps. I think the visual designer would be great for children or early teens to pick up if they perhaps don’t have actual programming experience, but I don’t have children to test on. Personally, I found myself wanting to type in regular code with variables and function name – and as it turns out, there’s actually quite a few open source NXT programming projects, so you’re not limited to just the visual designer. When your daughter is bored of LabView, introduce her to C!
Should you buy the LEGO Minstorms NXT 2.0 kit?
At $280, LEGO Mindstorms NXT 2.0 is expensive, but like all LEGO products it’s a gift that will last for generations. I would say get this for your children, but I’m a 30ish year old guy and this has been so much fun. Perhaps you’re also harbouring dreams of competing on Robot Wars with your own Arduino-based fire breathing death machine named The Squigglator, but LEGO Mindstorms is a more realistic way to get started and you’ll be really surprised at what you can achieve in very short time. Building your own robot and programming it would be lasting, bonding experience with your son or daughter – whilst still satiating their generation’s desire for everything to be computer based. I guarantee you’ll have fun with this, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with.