Xiaomi Mi Robot Builder Review: 978 blocks of pure fun
The Xiaomi Mi Robot Builder doesn't only teach you how to program, you even assemble it yourself. Pure creativity, from assembly to coding – will the manufacturer keep their promise?
After the disappointment that was the GJS GEIO Gaming Robot, I'm looking for a new to challenge me. I stumbled across the Xiaomi Mi Robot Builder, which, according to the manufacturer, isn't only programmable but also self-assembled. A mix of Lego and programming? Sounds like an extremely enjoyable experience. It's a no-brainer: my next project will be the Mi Robot Builder. I wonder if it'll meet my expectations.
Unboxing: eight plastic bags full of small parts
The light blue packaging is divided into two levels: on top there's the control unit, which also contains the battery, and the two motors. The lower unit contains the instruction manual, the building instructions, a charging cable and eight small transparent bags filled with 978 parts that look pretty similar to Lego. Apart from the printed Lego logo, the parts feel identical – they even smell like Lego. They look pretty high-quality, even the motors and the battery or command centre look like they could withstand a lot. Since the robot has to be fully charged before launch according to the instructions, I connect the battery with the cable while I take care of the assembly.
According to the instructions, I'm building a robot that can stand upright as well as on two wheels. A T-Rex version would also be possible – but for that I'd have to download an additional manual with the app. I chose this robot as I was curious if and how it would keep its balance. By the way, the thing has a 108 MHz 32-bit ARM Cortex Mx processor, 32 MB of internal flash memory, Bluetooth, 2.4 Ghz WiFi support and four USB-C ports. Two of them are on the engines, the other two are customisable. The battery has a capacity of 1650 mAh and must operate two servo motors. You can control the robot with both an Android and an iOS device. I'll be using an iPhone for my attempt.
Assembly: almost as optimised as Lego
But first, I'll have to assemble the robot. When opening the instructions, I immediately notice: the parts aren't the only aspect copied from Lego, even the step-by-step instructions emulate the Danes. And Xiaomi does this well. The individual steps are described in detail, the size of the parts to be used is precisely indicated and the colours are clearly distinguishable. My only criticism: the eight plastic bags are neither numbered nor labelled in any other way. The instructions also don't state which bag I need for which step. That'll take you a while to find out. Time that I, as a Lego fan, still enjoy.
I'm having déjà-vu: I'm surrounded by countless small parts, an open instruction manual. The tips of my fingers hurt after only a few pages. This is how I spent half of my childhood: knee-deep in Lego. Every time a new set came out, I had to have it – and assemble it right away. With the Xiaomi Mi Robot Builder, the difference doesn't lie in the fact that I've grown older, but that all the fun isn't immediately over after assembly. On the contrary: due to its programming option, that's when the fun really begins. This gives me additional motivation to continue. I have to be careful not to make any mistakes – I don't want the robot to break apart on its maiden voyage.
There are a total of seven steps that I have to master – five larger and two smaller ones. The first two take me 50 and 40 minutes respectively, a total of one and a half hours. Step C is a short matter of five minutes. This is followed by steps D, E and F, three large chunks that take 90, 30 and 80 minutes – a total of almost three and a half hours. The final step G is quickly completed in five minutes. It's fun from the start, even if the final steps are more enticing: on the one hand, the model slowly takes shape, on the other hand I slowly realise that I'll soon be playing with it. After almost exactly six hours, I have the finished robot in front of me, waiting to be brought to life.
The controls: simple, logical and precise
The battery is charged, the robot is upright – thanks to a stand that I have to push between its legs. I can't wait to hit the start button. I then notice that that button is currently under a layer of assembled parts. I have to lift up the cockpit cover to get to the button. The instructions state that the robot will balance itself at the start and move away from the stand. In disbelief, I press the start button. I hear a beep, the robot moves forward a few centimetres and balances on its two wheels, rocking back and forth slightly – as if it were the easiest thing in the world.
The app is kept minimalistic. I immediately notice and am delighted that the German language version has been almost completely translated – apart from the coding blocks, I only see German words. Even Dji can't compete with it in this aspect (article in German). After switching on the robot, I have to connect it to the smartphone via Bluetooth - a tablet would also work. Easy as pie. The Xiaomi Mi Robot Builder offers three functional modes and a digital version of the assembly manual. I could download further instructions such as the T-Rex or airplane versions and rebuild the entire thing. The three modes are called «Path Mode», «Controller Mode» and «Programming Mode». In «Path Mode», you draw a path on a virtual map that the Xiaomi Mi Robot Builder follows. The roads and paths are only for decoration. This is a nice little touch. I don't have to draw the path on a boring black surface. By the way: the robot follows the correct path an estimated 80 per cent of the time – not a bad value in my eyes.
In «Controller Mode», you control the robot yourself with your mobile phone or tablet. The cockpit shows you the engine speed (in revolutions per minute) and the speed (in ten centimetres per minute). There's also a joystick for driving forwards and backwards and another one to steer left and right. With the fire button, the robot imitates a gunshot. In addition, the gyroscope button offers the possibility to control the Mi Robot Builder by tilting the mobile phone as well. In contrast to «Path Mode», driving with the controller is much more precise. It feels like the robot follows me like a well-trained puppy. It goes along with even the slightest movement. The only thing that needs getting used to is controlling via two joysticks, as my gaming reflexes are telling me differently. Either way, I really enjoy commanding the upright Xiaomi Mi Robot Builder through my living room. If I accidentally ram into a piece of furniture, the robot's motors briefly let out a howl, but it doesn't fall over. Cool – however Xiaomi does it.
Coding: programming made fun
Your third option is «Programming Mode». The Xiaomi Mi Robot Builder isn't like the Sphero Bolt or the Ozobot Evo for example, robots that primarily want to teach you programming. This is only one of its many functions. I am therefore inspecting how expansive the whole option is. In the main menu of this mode, I can choose whether I want to write my own program from scratch or follow the step by step instructions that explain the basics. Like many other robots, Xiaomi works with Scratch coding blocks. Since the robot doesn't have many functions apart from its balancing and driving skills, the programming possibilities are also limited. But everything I need is here. In addition to the usual movement commands, the Xiaomi Mi Robot Builder offers code blocks that use its noise, gyro and speed sensors. Then there are the usual mathematical variable, loop and if-this-then-that commands.
In order to get used to the way the app works, I follow some steps from the manual. I'm given one task after another, slowly becoming more and more challenging. In the first step, I have to teach the robot to walk, in the second step it wants to learn to dance. The whole thing works well without big animations and fancy knick-knacks, which I like. The blocks are large enough to be moved back and forth with a finger, the font is displayed legibly and the app runs smoothly. It's fun to be introduced to the world of programming and at the same time watch the robot execute these commands. This is exactly how a manufacturer should teach users basic coding. I store my projects in the app's archive – both those I create according to instructions and those I develop myself. So I can continue working on them at a later date.
Verdict: a must-have for any robotics fan
The Xiaomi Mi Robot Builder has convinced me. It's fun from the get-go: the two-layer packaging makes me curious. The assembly process is inspiring and – except for the missing numbering on the plastic bags – comparable to Lego. The finished robot is quite impressive. I love the quiet noise and the soft rocking that the white-orange plastic giant makes to keep its balance. There's something soothing about all of it. The app is well thought out, logically structured and kept clean. The modes are fun and run without errors. Programming is limited to the few possibilities of the robot, but that doesn't detract from the pleasure, as you can customise absolutely everything.
For just under 100 francs, I wholeheartedly recommend the Xiaomi Mi Robot Builder. Whether you're a passionate handyman, an avid robotics freak or an aspiring programmer – Xiaomi's do-it-yourself robot keeps all its promises. From assembly through the first steps to programming your own commands, the Mi Robot Builder won't let you go that quickly. On the contrary: once you've acquired a taste for it, you won't want to put it down.
After the GJS-GEIO debacle, the Xiaomi Mi Robot Builder has saved the honour of Chinese robot manufacturers. Next time, I'll probably look at Tinkerbots or the Clementoni Robomaker – stay tuned! If you want to be up-to-date and never miss any robotics or gadget highlights, click on the «Follow» button next to my author profile.
When I'm not stuffing my face with sweets, you'll catch me running around in the gym hall. I’m a passionate floorball player and coach. On rainy days, I tinker with my homebuilt PCs, robots or other gadgets. Music is always my trusted companion. I also enjoy tackling hilly terrain on my road bike and criss-crossing the country on my cross-country skis.
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