Lego Mindstorms NXT Impressions

Although I received my Lego Mindstorms NXT kit in the mail early last week, it wasn't until yesterday that I really had a chance to dig in, spending a whole day working through the included instructions. It's difficult to completely review NXT in the entirety of its potential as it's the first set of new platform—more instructions and kits should be coming down the line soon enough.

Still, my initial impression is good. The included software—which was such a turd in the original Mindstorms that some builders rolled their own versions—is approachable and capable. It ran a bit doggishly on my Macbook Pro, especially when plinking together GUI bits of programming logic, but I rarely felt lost or overwhelmed.

Each step of the software leads you to the next: first a build phase, with zoomable instructions; Then, a programming phase; Finally, testing. The first model even has a separate box with its pieces, saving you the trouble of searching through the set when you're eager to dig right in.

After the jump: Where Lego went wrong.

The NXT brick, which acts as both the brains and (usually) the body of your models, has both USB and Bluetooth built-in. For whatever reason, I couldn't make my laptop talk to the brick over Bluetooth. They'd pair just fine, but the NXT software did not recognize it.

Instead I used the USB connection to load my programs, sounds, and images—the brick both makes noise and displays things like beating hearts on its LCD display—into the NXT's brain. A bit of a hassle, but livable—more livable than the tiny amount of built-in flash memory storage.

With the low price of flash storage these days, I have to question Lego's decision to limit the amount of memory to 256KB of user storage. There was not even enough space to story the four initial programs and their accompanying sound and image files. And we're talking 4-5k sounds here—not multi-megabyte MP3s. Plus there's no expansion slots for later upgrades. It seems that most Lego builders will be running out of space for their own programs soon after they begin to write their own. It's almost a dealbreaker.

The build quality is typically high, although one of the elements was bent when I received it. I was just barely able to pry it back into shape without breaking the plastic, but if I couldn't, I would not have been able to build at least one of the four main models.

I also felt a little bit abandoned after building the final project, a humanoid robot named 'Alpha Rex.' Sure, the starter instructions are more about teaching you the basics of building and programming, but it still would have been nice to have been left with a big finale for the impressive robot, like using its distance sensor to keep itself from falling off a table. Instead, the lessons end abruptly with no suggestion of where next to go. Sure, that's sort of what Lego is about—making your own fun—but some challenges or ideas would have been nice.

In all, I'm pleased with the NXT platform, but for its price—$250—I'd expect a bit more. Especially more memory, considering that this is supposed to be the first in a series of Mindstorms products over the next few years.

For dedicated Mindstormers already sold on Lego, the NXT system's pleasant and capable software package is almost worth the price of entry by itself.