Vortex Kid’s First Robot review

Host robot wars in your living room with Vortex’s crazy, programmable bots

Vortex Kid’s First Robot

“Vortex’s robots play soccer and sumo wrestle like pros, all while teaching your kids how to code.”
  • Cute and customizable
  • Genuinely educational
  • Engaging games
  • Group fun
  • Battery life
  • Mind-numbing music
  • Technical hitches
MSRP $99.00

If you’ve ever dreamed of robot wars in your living room, you’ll love these Vortex robots.

Billed as your Kids’ first robot, Vortex is cute, customizable, and fully programmable. This is a creative toy with real STEM (Science, Technology, Math & Engineering) potential that could inspire your kids to learn how to design, code, and invent. It plugs into the burgeoning maker movement and boasts all the right open-source credentials. But it’s also an opportunity for lots of anarchic fun.

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It’s simple to set up, and comes with a few engaging games out of the box. You can buy a single Vortex bot for $100, but there’s a lot more fun to be had if you snag a duo for $180. We tested out the two-pack with a robot-crazy, six-year-old boy.

Cute robots with lots of smarts

The Vortex bots are like large rounded pucks finished in futuristic shiny white plastic. They have a surprisingly expressive set of eyes; you can actually choose 32 different expressions. Inside, there are 12 different color LEDs, and a speaker. They also have two proximity sensors, speed controls, and the ability to follow lines or read markings on the ground.

To get started, you pop the magnetic cover off the top and slide the compartment open to insert four AA batteries. You’re definitely going to want to invest in the rechargeable kind if you want to get decent mileage here, because you’re looking at a maximum of 90 minutes playtime before you’ll need to put a fresh set in.

You use your Android smartphone or tablet (Android 4.3 and up), or your iPhone or iPad (iPhone 4S and up) to control the Vortex bot. Install the free app, open it up, and you’ll find it automatically pairs with the nearest robot via Bluetooth 4.0. The basic app includes a personalization screen where you can change the colors, tweak the sounds and music, change the eyes, and generally imbue your Vortex bot with the personality you want. There’s also a sheet of stickers in the box for each bot.

Play soccer, sumo, and more with the bots

Driving is like a basic remote control option where you can tilt your phone or tablet forward to go, back to reverse, and to either side to turn. It takes some practice to master, but it does allow you to set up your own courses and race each other around the room. You can also tap four faces to prompt your Vortex to emit a manic laugh, shout “yes,” give an angry scream, or emit a sob of despair.

If you’ve ever dreamed of robot wars in your living room, you’ll love these Vortex robots.

Bumping, which should surely have been called Sumo, is where we had the most fun. You get a jigsaw game board in the box and one side has a ring on it. The object is to push your opponent out of the ring to score. Tap the play button, and the Vortex bots start spinning wildly in a circle and playing battle music. You have to tap the forward control for a well-timed spurt to collide with your opponent. Vortex bots can read the checkered line that forms the border, so they know when they’ve been pushed over. The scoring didn’t always work properly, and occasionally we had to rescue a Vortex bot stuck on the edge of the game board, but there was lots of laughing. This competitive game works equally well with some friends and a few beers as it does with the kids.

Shaking just works as a trigger for your Vortex bot’s bizarre song and dance routines. Shake your phone and the bot will turn in circles and zoom around while playing music. There are four different routines to choose from, and none of the music would be out of place at an old amusement arcade. There also doesn’t seem to be any volume control option, so it gets old pretty quickly.

Flip the game board over, and you’ll reveal a soccer pitch, though you’ll have to provide your own ball. The controls in soccer are actually the easiest to master, because you get a classic two-stick interface with forward-back and left-right, joined by a shoot button, which propels your wee bot forward to take a shot at the goal. It’s quite fun, but you really need to build makeshift walls for the pitch and little nets, if you don’t want to spend all your time as a ball boy.

The final option is golf. It’s similar to the bumping game, in that your Vortex bot spins, but, instead of tapping, you have to wave your phone to fire it off in the right direction. You get a couple of checkered spots to put down on the floor as holes to aim for and it counts your strokes. It’s mildly fun, but the compulsory wacky music spoils the mood a bit.

The games are a great introduction to what Vortex can do, and they provide a lot of fun straight out of the box, but there’s more to this little robot.

Introduce kinds to programming in a fun way

Vortex was successfully funded on Kickstarter, and it’s based on Arduino open-source hardware. If you’ve not come across it before, Arduino is a very popular open-source hardware and software company with a helpful and inventive community. You can program your Vortex bots using Arduino IDE, but you’ll probably want to use something with an easy drag-and-drop block interface, especially for younger kids. Luckily, Vortex also supports Scratch, which works in the browser on your computer, and DFRobot developed its own iOS app called WhenDo.

There’s a booklet in the box that will help you get started with some simple tasks to create your own programs. You’ll need to upload them to your Vortex, which is a lot less fiddly if you use DFRobot’s WhenDo app, but you’ll really want an iPad in order to work with it. Unfortunately, uploading your own programs bumps the pre-loaded games off, and you have to factory reset to get them back.

The drag-and-drop interface is easy to use, but kids are going to need a lot of help to create programs and understand the different terms. You should think of this as a collaborative activity. They’re not realistically going to be creating their own programs until they’re a good bit older than the suggested starting age of six. It’s a good way to introduce the basic concepts of programming. Some kids will be inspired and get a kick out of bringing their ideas to life, others might find it dull and frustrating.

It’s a good way to introduce the basic concepts of programming.

Chinese robotics firm DFRobot is deeply involved in DIY electronics. Apparently the Vortex bot is expandable via the 12C socket, so it could accommodate temperature, sound, touch, and other sensors in the future. This is a real plus point for its longevity.

Vortex is a well-made device that seems pretty durable. Our raucous battles soon drew the attentions of my three-year-old daughter and she’s a demolitions expert. The hapless robots stood up to her curiosity quite well, though she did manage to break one of the wheels eventually. The tire was snagging on the inside, but thankfully it was pretty easy to fix. Best to stick with the age six and up guidelines.

It’s also worth noting that Vortex requires a flat surface for optimal performance. A thick pile carpet is going to cause issues, and even minor bumps and obstacles can bring the fun to a halt with an insistent beep.

Warranty information

There’s a standard one-year warranty with Vortex that covers any defects in the hardware. You can expect a repair or replacement if there’s an obvious fault out of the box, but you might have to tinker yourself if there’s accidental damage.


They’re not perfect. We’re horrified at how many AA batteries you could potentially go through, so you’ll need to seriously consider investing in a rechargeable set. We also ran into the odd technical hitch. Sometimes it would take a couple of attempts to pair, the Vortex bot would get stuck, or it would fail to respond to a command or interaction properly. But, after a week with the Vortex bots we’re mostly impressed.

They’re very cute and thoughtfully designed. We love the fact that you can get a pair of Vortex bots and play competitive games out of the box (a single bot would much less fun). We’re also impressed by the balance and the potential for growth. The design, controls, and games are polished enough to be accessible for a six-year-old, but there’s room for them to grow with Vortex and get more and more into programming down the line. There’s also a good sense of community around the bots. The Kickstarter campaign influenced the direction DFRobot took, and the tie-in with Arduino really expands the potential in terms of help with projects, future expansion, and what your kids might do later with their newfound skills.

Give them a chance and we think the Vortex bots will suck you and your kids in.

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