Monday, 29 April 2013

littleBits Review

We've been having fun with our littleBits set. It's a range of modular electronics components that kids and designers can use to build fun projects with lights, motors, sounds and other fun effects. We like it very much, but it's important to understand what it is and isn't before deciding whether to buy a set.

There are a few different sets you can buy and you can buy components individually if you have a particular project in mind or want to add to a set.

We have a small set and we've been using it to automate projects for the kids. My kids are under the recommended age range of 8+ so we've been working together with close supervision. (The sets contain small strong magnets which can be very dangerous if swallowed.)

So, we love the idea completely. Small components that are very easy to understand and are intended for making stuff rather that just learning about concepts. My 6 year old quickly understood the color coding - each category of component has a different color - power, output, input (control) and wire.

Magnets stop you connecting the bits the wrong way around and make the pieces snap together in a satisfying way. There's no wondering if you've got it right.

There are some nice touches like an included small screwdriver for adjusting the amounts of red, green and blue in the RGB LED, and a switch to change the direction of the motor.

littleBits are brilliant for adding an extra dimension to junk models and LEGO® creations. And if you've got a 3D printer or a laser cutter you can design some very cool projects. The whole thing worked really well and we have been able to build some fun projects (which I'll be writing about.)

From an educational perspective, littleBits is a good first step to understanding electronics, kids can learn about motors and switches and even how to control RGB leds to mix colors. Though I realized when we were playing with another kit that it gave my son the idea that electricity would just work if you connect things in a straight line from a power supply - littleBits makes the circuit automatically so you don't need to worry about that.

Underside of the motor bit
You can see individual componentry on the undersides of the bits which gives kids a hint of what is going on inside. And the circuit diagrams are available on line as open source if you really want to find out what's going on. But you would probably move to a kit that aims to teach more about electronics first.

For me the key point about littleBits is that kids can control electronics and make it do what you want and use it in projects of your own design. It demystifies how it all works and opens up the box just a little bit. You won't get all the details, but you'll get enough of a taster to know if you want to find out more. And you'll be able to make cool stuff happen without knowing any more.

I think the days of stringing together a few cardboard tubes and calling it a snake are gone. Now they'll want its eyes to light up and its tail to wiggle. 

 Don't buy littleBits expecting a traditional kids course in electronics. Buy it because you want your kids to be able to make amazing things. It's certainly done that for my kids. They are full of ideas of what they would like to make next.

The whole idea is so good that I feel a bit petty pointing out issues, but there were some things that weren't perfect.

One of our bits arrived with a plastic foot loose. We can easily fix this next time we have a packet of Sugru open but still, I do hope the bits are durable.

It's very expensive. If you want to start making more complex circuits you'll be spending a lot of money. If littleBits really inspires your kids then this could well be worth it, but it will be out of the reach of many families and schools. But, I expect this price will come down over time.

The name is driving us crazy. "Little bits" is a phrase that gets used a lot in our house to refer to LEGO, Playmobil, puzzle pieces and all the other, well, little bits, that kids leave around the house. This has caused much confusion when trying to refer to littleBits. We've had to talk about the electronics bits instead.

Another minor point is that the motor just has a bare metal shaft, it doesn't come with any kind of fixings or suggestions. I did track down a useful tips and trick about attaching to the littleBits motor.

We would have preferred AA batteries to the 9V battery, though you would need some kids of enclosure which would add more cost. We have loads of gadgets that take AA batteries and always have rechargeable ones ready to go. But we don't use 9V batteries for anything else. We have a power supply we can use, but it's nice to have a wireless solution that will run for a while.

But on the whole, I can see we're going to be using littleBits a lot. You can use the same components over and over for lots of different projects. We're being careful not to fix anything permanently and make sure we can pop the bits in and out of projects. 

I can definitely see them being used in the same way as LEGO to make, adapt and remake things.

If you decide to buy littleBits look for the updated version 0.3 sets, the design has changed a bit though they are compatible with the 0.2 sets with a free adapter.

You can see the full range of littleBits on their website:

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