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.
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.
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.
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 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.
- Everything you need to know about Force Friday II deals
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 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 as well, 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.
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.
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.
There is one app to rule them all. So if you have BB-8 already, its battle-worn iteration, and are thinking about buying the newly announced Sphero R2-D2, then you can control them all from one app. There is some (albeit limited) interaction between the droids as well which will only improve.
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.
Those who have enjoyed watching The Force Awakens and Rogue One with their droids 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 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 will be unlocked on Force Friday II.
The BB-9E also comes with 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 VR/AR section in the app that allows you to virtually explore a space base with your droid through the app. 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.
From our short time with the droid, 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, 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 – it’s available from Force Friday II, 1 September – but we’re sure once The Last Jedi is released this will be a must-have Christmas toy.
BB-9E will retail at launch for: $TBA/£149.99/AU$TBC