It’s time for another Review here at The Lego Car Blog. However we’re not reviewing an official LEGO set, or even an official LEGO product. After several days of
fun… er, we mean ‘arduous testing’, we can bring you a full review of one the most important products to enter the Lego Community in years. This is TLCB’s in-depth review of the SBrick bluetooth control.
Regular readers of this website will know that remote control vehicles appear here frequently. This is thanks to LEGO’s excellent Power Functions system, which upon its release in 2008 allowed builders to easily motorise and remotely control their creations via infrared receivers. It was an instant success, and – judging by the amount of Power Functions equipped vehicles that still appear on these pages – it’s a product that shows no signs of waning.
There is a weak(ish) link with the Power Functions system though, as those infrared receivers struggle in direct sunlight, have a limited range, and they also restrict power to the two outputs they can handle simultaneously. But technology has moved on a lot in a decade, and it was only a matter of time before someone attempted to address these issues. And add in a whole lot more besides…
Launched a few years ago the SBrick by Vengit removed the need for infrared control by bringing bluetooth to LEGO’s Power Functions system. This means that models can work in bright sunlight, there’s a huge 50m range, and – of course – that Lego creations can be controlled via any bluetooth enabled device, including your phone, tablet or gamepad control.
The SBrick itself is a wonderfully neat bit of design. Measuring sixteen studs square it’s no bigger than LEGO’s own infrared receiver, however with no, er… infrared receiver to worry about, it can fit twice the number of outputs – effectively doubling what your model can do. Plus as bluetooth uses UHF radio waves the SBrick can be completely hidden from view deep within a model – unlike LEGO’s infrared receiver which must have a line-of-sight to its controller in order to collect the signal.
Our SBricks arrived in grey, being a good colour match to LEGO’s usual Technic hue, and both looking and feeling high quality. In fact the only way the SBrick differs visually from an official LEGO piece is with square studs instead of round. The SBrick can connect to LEGO pieces in the same way that the official infrared receiver does, via studs on top, tubes on the bottom, or via Technic pins/axles on the sides. The SBrick must be connected to a power supply – in our case LEGO’s own Power Functions Battery Box – via a LEGO extension wire, at which point a green light appears to tell you power is being received.
You are then able to connect your motors, lights or sensors up to the SBrick’s four different outputs in exactly the same way as you would with LEGO’s own infrared receiver and your model is now ready to be controlled via bluetooth! Well, almost…
Of course to control an SBrick-equppied creation you will need a bluetooth device. There’s no need for LEGO’s infrared controller, which can be replaced with any number of bluetooth enabled products. We selected an iPhone, downloaded the SBrick app, and got to work!
The app is a quick and easy download and install, and allows you to log in as a guest, or to set up your own SBrick account where you can create and save your own model profiles. We created a model profile for our previously reviewed LEGO 42030 Volvo 350F set and started looking through the various pre-programmed templates. The ‘Joysticks and Sliders’ seemed like a good fit and within minutes we had successfully set our Volvo up to drive, steer, raise, lower and tip its bucket all via a mobile phone! There’s a direction reverser should forwards turn out to be backwards and an ingenious ‘test’ button which gives the motor selected one second of power so that you know which one you’re setting up.
Even at this basic level the SBrick is light-years ahead of the Power Functions control, and it can do a lot more besides. Next we downloaded SBrick’s pre-programmed 42030 controller, which is one of several available for various LEGO sets (e.g. 42009 is shown in the image above). This effectively did the same as the profile that we created using the ‘Joysticks and Sliders’ template as a base, but it added graduated control (so not just ‘on’ or ‘off’) and it labelled all the controls too, creating a very pro-looking control screen. But what if you want to create your own bespoke profile for your own bespoke creation? Well it can do that too…
The SBrick Designer website allows you to create your own customised profiles, within which you can drag and drop joysticks, sliders and buttons onto a blank control screen. This allows you not only to set up how your model will function, but also what the controller will look like too. Speed, maximum rotations, steering axles etc can all be easily programmed into the profile – it’s like LEGO Mindstorms you can control on your phone. Only it’s even easier to set up. You can keep these profiles private if you wish, share them on the SBrick’s publicly available listing (as Mahjqa has done – whose forklift is pictured above), or share them with other users specifically. You can set up multiple profiles per model too, allowing you to work on one programme whilst still using another.
The SBrick profile designer is a superb coding interface and it’s this function which can make the SBrick itself such a powerful tool. If you want to simply control an official LEGO set or your own creation with more power and more precision – buy an SBrick and enjoy the app – even if you do no coding yourself there is still so much to fun to be had simply from the controller on your phone!
However if you’d like to try to programme your own creations, or if you want to teach programming to your children, with instantaneous visual progress – buy an SBrick, set up an account, and start creating. We think it’s as much fun as the building of a creation itself.
Either way, the SBrick takes Power Functions to an entirely new plain. Your models will look better, do more and go further. The SBrick is brilliant.