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Lifewire / Andrew Hayward
Straightforward, simple build
Great entry-level coding lessons
Fun to control and cruise around
Well-priced for a DIY robot kit
Screws kept loosening
No batteries included
A couple of construction niggles aside, the Makeblock mBot Robot Kit is an entertaining and enlightening DIY construction kit for kids with solid educational value at an affordable price.
While there’s certainly joy in a child ripping open a box and immediately playing with whatever treasured toy is within, there’s also a pleasure in building something amazing from pieces. With the Makeblock mBot, what your child builds can come to life as a pretty awesome little machine. The mBot isn’t the only DIY, coding-centric robot kit on the market designed for young minds and STEM-focused parents, but the relative ease of build and use—not to mention the reasonable price point—make it a compelling option.
The cute, smiling-faced roving robot seen on the front of the box isn’t the one you’ll find sitting ready in the box. Instead, you’ll see a bevy of parts that must be intricately assembled to bring the finished product to life. More on the assembly in the next section.
The hacked-together aesthetic is charming, giving off the sense that this robot was home-built rather than factory-assembled, and creating some curiosity around it as a result.
Once fully built, the Makeblock mBot proudly wears its DIY style on its sleeves, with exposed sensors and wires along with minimal protective housing. It’s all built around a hearty two millimeter-thick aluminum chassis, so you needn’t fear that the slightest bump or drop will lead to catastrophe. Still, you probably shouldn’t go nuts with extreme stunts while driving around. Ultimately, the hacked-together aesthetic is charming, giving off the sense that this robot was home-built rather than factory-assembled, and creating some curiosity around it as a result.
There’s quite a bit in the box. The chassis is the largest piece in the bunch, and it’s joined by other pieces such as the mCore Arduino microcontroller, a pair of wheels and tires, a battery holder, two small motors, numerous screws, sensors, and more. Luckily, it also comes with a screwdriver, so you don’t need to provide tools—and there’s no soldering or other heavy-duty work needed here. Follow the steps using the screwdriver and you’ll be fine.
That said, the eight-years-old and up, age target seems spot on. We built the mBot with a tech-savvy six-year-old, but he wasn’t comfortable doing most of the assembly work. Once built, he was able to control it just fine, but adults should be ready to assist with initial setup for young kids who don’t already have experience assembling similar types of robotics kits. All told, it took us about 30 minutes to get mBot up and running.
Note that you’ll need to provide four AA batteries for the mBot if you’re using the included battery holder. Makeblock also sells an optional rechargeable battery separately, if you prefer to go that route instead.
The Makeblock mobile app for iOS and Android is essentially the play app for the mBot. It gives you a touchscreen controller, the ability to draw a path for mBot to mimic, and a musical keyboard that makes mBot exude little chiptune-like sound effects. You can also use voice commands to control your robot from the app, although they’re very basic; only “dance” is particularly worthwhile, sending your mBot spinning with joy.
Looking to code? If so, download the mBlock Blockly app, which features an array of coding lessons to tackle on your smartphone or tablet. The drag-and-drop approach of the Scratch programming language is easy to understand, and the lessons really ease kids into the kinds of code needed to make a robot execute various tasks. More advanced users can then explore Arduino C programming if they please.
Makeblock’s mBot comes with a tiny remote control, although you’ll need to provide your own CR2025 battery to use it. The remote allows for simple movement of the mBot in all four cardinal directions, as well as the ability to play sound effects using the number keys. However, the remote must typically be pointed at the robot for it to register your inputs; obstructed button presses typically aren’t acknowledged.
The Makeblock mBot proudly wears its DIY style on its sleeves, with exposed sensors and wires along with minimal protective housing.
The control pad on the Makeblock mobile app provides a much smoother driving experience, with a digital-analog stick that allows for granular speed control and the ability to drive at angles. And since it’s a Bluetooth connection, you don’t have to worry about pointing your smartphone at the mBot; it’ll get the message so long as you’re reasonably nearby.
While the DIY aesthetic is pleasing, the actual DIY nature of the construction means that the end result may not be as refined as a factory-made toy. Unfortunately, our completed robot drove slightly off-kilter with a slight angle to the left. More crucially, the tiny screws connecting the motors to the chassis repeatedly came loose during our testing, and it’s a difficult fix to secure them once the mBot is fully built. It became frustrating after a couple of times coming loose.
There’s strong educational value on both the physical and digital ends of the mBot experience. First off, there’s something to gain from the process of properly building the robot, aligning its sensors and plugging in the wires as you gain an understanding for technological components. The various add-on kits (continue reading) also help builders understand how different configurations and additional parts can change the whole look and feel of the robot.
The open-ended, DIY design makes the mBot ideal for expansion, and Makeblock has a handful of add-on packs available for purchase.
More importantly, the ability to quickly get the hang of coding via the drag-and-drop Scratch interface is an excellent learning benefit. The app teaches fundamentals in an experiential way, imbuing lessons that can transfer over to other coding languages and smart toys down the line. Simply getting an understanding of some of the logic behind programming can be incredibly useful for other types of problem-solving, not to mention more advanced coding.
The open-ended, DIY design makes the mBot ideal for expansion, and Makeblock has a handful of add-on packs available for purchase. One, the Six-Legged Robot Pack, augments the wheels of your mBot with insect-like appendages. Another, the Talkative Pet Pack, lets you add a speaker and other parts to your mBot to turn it into a barking puppy, for example. These packs are typically found for about $18-25, offering seemingly modest enhancement for a likewise modest price.
Considering the extent of the coding options and the ability to augment the design with add-on packs or your own little hacks, the learning potential here is huge.
Although listed at a price of $99.99 (MSRP), we have routinely seen the Makeblock mBot at a price of $60-$70 at the time of this writing. That’s a very good price for a DIY kit that lets you turn a box of parts into a properly controllable and code-ready robot without much hassle. Considering the extent of the coding options and the ability to augment the design with add-on packs or your own little hacks, the learning potential here is huge.
Wonder Workshop’s Dash is a more premium product that is ready to use right out of the box, complete with durable casing and a wider array of movements and sounds. It also has a more robust coding experience with an appealing quest-like approach. Not being able to build your own bot can be either a positive or negative with the Dash depending on what you’re looking for, although the $149 price point shows that it’s in a different kind of ballpark than the much cheaper mBot.
There’s a lot of fun in here.
Our build didn’t come out perfectly, but even so, we were largely pleased with the performance of Makeblock’s mBot. It’s fun to build a functioning, controllable robot in about half an hour and then drive it around the house. The extensive coding lessons and capabilities open up this DIY device to longer-term learning and entertainment.
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