The 17101 BOOST Creative Toolbox represents the latest initiative from LEGO to introduce children to the worlds of engineering, robotics, and computer programming. LEGO recently expanded their range of supported devices, so we’re finally able to bring you a review without purchasing a brand new iPad. LEGO has targeted the 7- to 12-year-old age range for the BOOST product, one of the youngest demographics for a LEGO robotics kit. Unlike the MINDSTORMS series of products that features Technic, BOOST liberally incorporates LEGO SYSTEM brick (in addition to Technic) as the mechanical parts of the robots.
For this review, I engaged the services of an appropriate expert: my 6-year-old daughter, Artemis. Overall, she had few difficulties building the Vernie model, although she occasionally lacked the hand strength to push the Technic pins in holes (particularly when seating multiple pins at once).
The box and instructions
The box art certainly seems child friendly, featuring bright colors, cartoon / artistic renditions of the BOOST models, and Vernie, the anthropomorphic robot.
The reverse side displays some of the alternative models for this kit, including Guitar 4000, M.T.R. 4, Auto Builder, and Frankie the Cat.
The box contains 11 numbered polybags, one sealed bag, one box containing the BOOST LPF2 Hub Motor (more on that later), a poster, and a card stock “playmat.” No stickers included in this kit; all graphic parts are printed.
The playmat reminds me strongly of the card stock “terrain map” included with the MINDSTORMS EV3 kit in concept. It provides a stable, solid, card-stock terrain for the robots to roll around on, including points of interest for the color sensor to pick up.
The BOOST box does not include instructions for building a model. Instead, PDF instructions are available for download from LEGO’s Customer Service site. As an alternative, we used the BOOST App to build Vernie, as it includes complete instructions presented in a step-by-step format.
This, of course, raises an obvious question: what are the device requirements for BOOST? The BOOST launch initially suffered due to a relatively small number of supported devices. Since its launch, however, LEGO has expanded the list of compatible devices. For this review, we used an iPad Air 2 tablet running iOS 11.2.1. We also tried to run the BOOST app on an old iPad 2 that we have kicking around; the device simply didn’t meet the minimum operating system requirements.
Of course, the first components to assemble in this kit are two, cute, simple, brick-built mini-robots. Hey, what is Vernie going to do if he doesn’t have his backup dancers?
Before building the Vernie model, the instructions guide you through a simple creation combining the LPF2 Hub Motor brick, BOOST Color and Distance Sensor, and BOOST Interactive Motor. We couldn’t find a name for the little robot, so we just named her “scout bot.”
I really appreciated that the instructions for Vernie include a quick mini-build so that we could connect to the LPF2 Hub Motor brick and test the BOOST App. Of course, this being the first time we connected to the brick, we needed to download firmware for it. A couple minutes later, we began coding (more on that later).
After disassembling the initial “scout” bot, we got down to the business of building the actual Vernie model. The Vernie model includes a nice mix of Technic and SYSTEM parts, blending building techniques from both.
The first part of the instructions had us building the shoulders and collar bone, which house the BOOST Interactive Motor. The BOOST interactive motor attaches to Vernie’s neck joint to the rest of the body. The neck itself exposes a cool turntable small top gear, serving a design rather than a functional role for the robot.
The LPF2 Hub Motor connects to the torso of Vernie, forming the lower thorax and base. Note that the BOOST Color and Distance Sensor plugs into the “C” port on the LPF2 Hub Motor, while the BOOST Interactive Motor plugs into the “D” port. (On the “scout” model, the motor plugs into the “C” port and the sensor into the “D” port; it’s good to know that the ports can connect to either motor or sensor.)
The BOOST Interactive Motor connects Vernie’s head to the body, stabilized by a Technic link arm. The link arm permits the head a decent range of motion, allowing Vernie to turn his head just a little shy of 60° to the right or left. This means, of course, that the head and eyebrows are the main interactive component for Vernie’s upper body, rather than an arm or something else. It also means that as Vernie turns to his right, his eyebrows look more angry and sinister; movement to the left makes his eyebrows look more sad and sympathetic. (Funny, given the etymology of the word “sinister”.)
By the time we finished with bag 7, Vernie sported some wheels, treads to cover the wheels, not-quite-finished arms, and a rear stabilizer bar. I noted the little orange plugs that we popped into the treads, as they should give Vernie a bit more traction on carpeted floors.
After working our way through bag 8, we completed the model, leaving bags 9, 10, and 11 unopened. As of writing this review focused on the main model, I can only assume that we might use the additional bags for the other BOOST models.
The finished model
Completed, the Vernie model stands roughly 11 inches tall and weighs somewhere on the order of 5 lbs. The model feels more sturdy than I had imagined it would.
Although I’m sad that the hands aren’t motorized, their design does provide them with some strength. Rubber bands provide tension on the thumb, allowing the hands to grip other bricks.
Overall, the head remains my favorite part of this model. The design emphasizes a clean, expressive look with few visible studs.
This model contains three all-new functional parts: the LPF2 Hub Motor, the BOOST Interactive motor, and the BOOST Color and Distance Sensor.
The LPF2 Hub Motor (called the “Move Hub” on LEGO.com) contains the batteries, a motor with two outputs, a Bluetooth receiver, two input/output ports (labeled “C” and “D”), and the “brains” of the robot. It requires 6 AAA batteries for power (not included with the kit, naturally). The Hub Motor brick exposes both SYSTEM studs and Technic pin holes for attaching external parts.
The BOOST Interactive Motor behaves similarly to other LEGO motors, reminding me of the Power Functions M-Motor. Besides mounting it into Vernie’s chest, we didn’t get a chance to play much with the BOOST Color and Distance Sensor. I certainly hope that other activities and models allow us to use it more meaningfully. It’s worth noting that the cords for these BOOST components do not detach from their respective parts.
I like the bright color palette for this robot. The kit contains a healthy dose of azure, offset with a complementary shade of orange. In addition to the tracks on Vernie, the kit also includes two sets of wheels.
I have one gripe; well, maybe a concern: the cords used for this robot kit are incompatible with the cords used for MINDSTORMS or those used with Power Functions. In the image below, the plug on the left is the cord attached to the BOOST Interactive Motor; the cord in the center comes from the EV3 Mindstorms kit; the cord on the right comes from the Power Functions. I would love to connect my MINDSTORMS sensors or motors to the BOOST LPF2 Hub Motor unit, but that’s just not going to happen.
(Granted, I don’t claim any great understanding of electrical engineering, so I can’t determine whether there are solid technical reasons for using different cords and ports.)
As I mentioned earlier, the time required to begin interacting with a robot (of sorts) was fantastically short. From unboxing the kit to writing our first program, we spent roughly 10 minutes, including the time to download the firmware. The initial program takes less than a minute to complete. As parents of 7-year-old children can attest, keeping this time short is crucial for the young and easily distracted.
The BOOST App provides a really simple, drag-and-drop interface for creating a program along with a step-by-step tutorial. My daughter had little trouble putting together a simple computer program for the robot to follow. For the scout bot, the BOOST App has three easy programming tutorials. The first tutorial teaches you how to command the robot to move, the second demonstrates how to interact with sensors and events, and the third shows how to execute multiple actions at once (for example, moving and spinning the propeller at the same time). The terrain map comes in really handy for these steps, providing a flat surface for the robot to move along.
When running the program, the BOOST App plays sounds clips of the robot (I guess?) whooping and vocalizing. I thought it was a bit over the top, but my daughter enjoyed it. Also, when moving, the robot has an automatic easing feature whereby each distinct movement block in the program includes an acceleration, movement, and a gradual deceleration. This makes contiguous blocks of movement seem jerky, as each movement block comes to a complete stop before the robot executes the next movement block.
Another note: the LPF2 Hub Motor brick doesn’t seem to turn off when you hit the power button. We had to wait for its automatic shut-off timer for the brick to turn off. That doesn’t bode well for battery life…
Although very pretty, the BOOST App itself does not provide meaningful help or tips about the programming blocks. For example, after assembling Vernie’s head to the torso, the IDE (Integrated Development Environment) led us through one of several wordless tutorials. The tutorial had us place into the program a purple block with an icon shaped like a hand. I have no idea what it does, except that Vernie shakes his head a little bit when executing the block.
(Sadly, LEGO’s online documentation didn’t help much either.)
Once we had installed the rear stabilizer bar on Vernie (bag 7), we programmed him to maneuver through a small obstacle course on the playmat. The program runs smoothly, with the exception that Vernie ran off the left side of the playmat 75% of the time. We adjusted some of the settings in the program until we consistently hugged the left corner. The robot stayed very stable throughout multiple runs of the program; clearly the stabilizer bar does the trick.
After finishing the model, we then completed another coding tutorial, where we learned how to trigger an event in the program by shaking Vernie’s hand. We also learned the purpose of the mysterious purple block with hand icon: that block plays a pre-recorded audio clip of the robot, determined by the number specified by the programmer.
Although we didn’t get a chance to use these blocks in the coding tutorials that we worked on, the online documentation shows that the BOOST App does include blocks for more advanced programming concepts like flow of control and variables.
Conclusions & recommendation
As mentioned earlier, LEGO has indicated in their marketing materials and product packaging that they intend BOOST for a younger audience than their other robotics offering, the EV3 MINDSTORMS. Overall, I found the BOOST set and app to be very appropriate for a younger audience. My daughter enjoyed the coding tutorials, having no trouble with them at all. She built the Vernie model with little trouble, needing my help only a couple of times.
Even though designed for different age groups, the BOOST Creative Kit invites comparison with the EV3 Mindstorms kit. Of course, there are some surface differences. The EV3 MINDSTORMS kit came with a physical instructions set for the starter robot, TRACK3R; the BOOST Creative Toolbox doesn’t come with instructions. The MINDSTORMS EV3 kit has stickers; BOOST only has printed bricks. We had a functional robot within 10 minutes of opening the BOOST box; building and coding a functional robot takes much longer with MINDSTORMS EV3.
There are more differences between the two kits at a functional level. Of course, since MINDSTORMS EV3 targets an older age group, the LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 Home Edition software has more sophisticated features than the BOOST App, including more configuration options for individual command blocks. Unlike the LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 Home Edition, LEGO does not offer a desktop version of their BOOST App. You must use a relatively up-to-date mobile device to program BOOST. From our experience with BOOST, it’s not clear whether we can create our own model for which we then write our own code (unlike the MINDSTORMS EV3, which has an unlimited potential for both building and coding). The BOOST LPF2 Hub Motor provides easy locomotion and control for a model in one part, whereas the MINDSTORMS EV3 models typically use two bulky EV3 Large motors to get around in addition to the EV3 Complete Brick for the brains.
I believe that the incompatibility between the BOOST and EV3 MINDSTORMS motors and sensors is a major shortcoming for this set. I can foresee children learning how to code using BOOST and graduating up to MINDSTORMS EV3 (or future versions) as they got older and more experienced. Ideally, as children make that transition they could use their BOOST components with the MINDSTORMS EV3 Complete Brick. As the BOOST components stand now, though, that’s simply not likely.
All that aside, the BOOST Creative Toolbox offers an excellent opportunity to introduce children to engineering and computer programming. LEGO’s multiple distinct models for this kit provides many hours of learning and entertainment for children. (My daughter has made it clear that she wants to build Guitar 4000 next.)
Beyond that, I think that adults might enjoy BOOST as well. The Vernie model has several interesting building techniques, specifically with the head and torso. For adults curious about learning how to code, the BOOST App provides an engaging introduction to some of the core concepts of computer programming. As the BOOST kit reaches greater adoption, I imagine that more third-party libraries will become available for more hardcore developers to connect to the LPF2 Hub Motor.
17101 BOOST Creative Toolbox is available now from the LEGO Shop (US) and Amazon.com at $159.99, LEGO Shop (Canada) at $199.99, LEGO Shop (UK) at £149.99, and other prices elsewhere. The set is also available from the following additional sites at varying prices: BrickLink | eBay