Deal alert: Cozmo is currently available from Amazon at a knocked-down price of £158. The high-end model sells for £229, but the first-generation version typically retails for £199, representing a £40 saving.
Original review continues below
Anki is best known for its high-tech Scalextric rival, Overdrive; a game that races real model cars on physical tracks, all controlled by a phone. The San Francisco firm’s follow-up, Cozmo, went on sale in the US last year and it is finally on sale in the UK.
The £200 “emotional” robot plays games, recognises faces of people and pets, and teaches children (and adults) the basics of coding. Designed and developed by a team of AI experts alongside character experts from Pixar, Cozmo is brimming with personality; so much so, Anki refers to the little tyke as “he”. Cozmo also becomes smarter and more responsive as he learns new skills, but with a hefty price tag, is it worth splashing out?
Cozmo review: Design
If you didn’t know the palm-sized Cozmo was designed by ex-Pixar staffers, you would as soon as you got it out of the box. This is Wall-E crossed with Short Circuit, and the result is as appealing as you’d expect.
Its “face” is a small LED screen that lights up when Cozmo is awake and shows two blocks of blue light that act as the robot’s “eyes”. Its expressions – from joy and sadness through anger – are all effortlessly portrayed by these eyes, and the sounds Cozmo makes adds to its appeal. A small sensor at the bottom of this screen looks like an open mouth, Cozmo’s “arms” resemble a forklift and are used to act out frustrations or joy, and the robot runs on two black rubber treads that can be swapped out for different colours including red, blue and yellow. Cozmo itself is white with red and gold trims.
Sensors surrounding the 128 x 64 screen, including a 30 fps VGA camera powered by the app’s software, recognise faces and Cozmo will greet someone it has seen before with their name and an excited giggle. This even works with animals, which is a fascinating and lovely touch. Using the app, you can program a series of faces for Cozmo to recognise.
All of these seemingly insignificant features combine to create a charming, friendly robot; one that really does appear to have a personality. The tone of its regular bleeps, bloops and squeals could be annoying but they’re soft enough to be endearing (plus you can adjust the volume), even when Cozmo is sulking or being grumpy. Being able to hold Cozmo in the palm of your hand adds to the charm and makes it possible for children to handle it with ease. I’d like to see more customisation options, especially of its body and cubes, but the overall design has been well thought out and adds to a genuine sense of attachment and friendliness.
Speaking of Cozmo’s cubes, each Cozmo is sold with three cubes with small rubber corners and emblazoned with geometric shapes. One cube is small enough to fit in your hand, but carrying more than one can be tricky, and they light up depending on the activity. The cubes act as play pieces when Cozmo challenges you to games. They’re also used to “feed” the robot and Cozmo will interact with them when in Freeplay mode, making Cozmo fun to watch as well as play with.
Anki assures parents Cozmo has been thoroughly stress-tested, although his plastic feel, thin arms and small parts didn’t fill me with confidence.
Cozmo review: Gameplay
The main appeal of Cozmo is its games. Using the Cozmo app, you can choose to play one of three main games, or Cozmo will challenge you to these activities while he’s exploring in Freeplay mode. These include Memory Match, Quick Tap and Keepaway. Memory Match reminded us of the 1980s toy Simon. Quick Tap is like Snap and Keepaway is Slaps, but with a robot and cubes.
The more you play with Cozmo, the better it gets at these games and the harder it is to beat it. To a cynical 33-year-old journalist, these games have limited appeal and seem incredibly simple, but the toy isn’t aimed at adults; it’s aimed at children aged eight and over who will likely enjoy playing these games for longer. That said, I gave Cozmo to a seven-year-old and he soon got bored of the games and wanted to explore what else the robot could do.
Thankfully, there are a number of things to keep a child occupied. Alongside the games, Cozmo can perform tricks, such as fist bumps, stacking cubes and playing peek-a-boo. He also needs entertaining, feeding and tuning up regularly, all things that give the toy a purpose, slotting it into a Tamagotchi-style role. These tricks cost “sparks” which Cozmo earns the more he is played with.
Elsewhere – and our seven-year-old’s favourite feature – is Explorer mode. This turns Cozmo into a remote-controlled camera that can be driven around the house via the touchscreen on your smartphone. Dials on the screen are used to make it go forward, reverse, tilt its head and move its arm. There’s even a night vision mode for scurrying around in the dark. As it drives around, it will scan for faces and its blocks. If it finds something it recognises, it will place a square around it with a label. In the Discover tab, you can also control what Cozmo says (and for the record, it refuses to swear…).
All of this is underpinned by a secure network. When you connect Cozmo to a phone or tablet, it creates a local device-to-device connection so no data about you or your child is stored in the cloud or easily accessible.
Cozmo review: Code Lab
As part of the recent app update, Cozmo added Code Lab, a built-in coding course. Children can make Cozmo do and say anything through a series of actions, movements and animations which are built into projects.
Blocks are dragged and dropped into the project and click together like jigsaw pieces. You can make Cozmo drive forward, backwards, left and right for a set number of seconds. You can move his arms, make him act like a dog (which involves barking), get him to “look bored” or spin, among many more.
Each action or series of actions can be repeated and changes can be made simply by adding more blocks or removing them from the project. In our tests, we got Cozmo to perform a dance routine with his cubes, which took around ten minutes to perfect. This came even easier to our seven-year-old, proving how intuitive the display is..
Cozmo review: Ease of use
Cozmo is almost ready to go, straight out of the box. He needs to be placed on his charger for around 90 seconds before being used for the first time and the app guides you through the Wi-Fi setup process.
After initial setup, connecting Cozmo is a little tedious. You can’t connect from the app; each time you go to use Cozmo you must place him on a plugged-in charger, lift him up to activate him, go to the app, click connect and then connect to the Wi-Fi network again. This may not seem like much, but anyone who has a child will know that they lose interest quickly or may not proficiently be able to switch between apps and the Settings screen, so adult supervision is needed, at least in the first instance.
Cozmo can be incredibly temperamental, too, just like a real child. He can’t always find or recognise his blocks and if he is moved while trying to set up a game, or similar, the app goes back to the homescreen and the whole process needs to start again. One of his blocks stopped working while I was using it, despite the app saying it was active, leaving me at a loss at what to do beyond turning it off.
Cozmo also comes with a tidy carry case, but having to take a charger, three blocks and Cozmo with us each time we left the house was a little cumbersome. Additionally, the charger is a cable only; it doesn’t come with a plug so you’ll have to add that to the mix as well – hardly the ideal travel companion.
Cozmo review: Verdict
We’ve been fortunate to play with a number of robotic toys over the years and Cozmo is by and far the best we’ve seen. In some respects, particularly games, it’s somewhat limited, but with Code Lab and Explorer mode, the possibilities are endless. Anki’s Mark Palatucci told Alphr that a lot of work went into Cozmo’s personality and this effort really paid off. Cozmo is a joy, for both adults and children, and although the novelty does wear off, it doesn’t wear off as fast as you might think nor does it wear off for long.
Our main sticking point is the price. With fully-fledged games consoles not costing a huge amount more (or in the case of the SNES Classic Mini, far less), Cozmo seems like an expensive gimmick if your child isn’t interested in Code Lab or gets bored easily. Anki explains that there is a lot of sophisticated tech inside Cozmo and its app, but a child won’t really appreciate that, and it’s unlikely a parent will appreciate the price. I’d happily pay in the region of £80 for it, so to be charged more than double is a little galling.
That said, despite a few hiccups, both physically and figuratively speaking (Cozmo got hiccups after feeding and needed to be placed on his head to cure him), this is a fantastic product and one that has plenty of potential. Plus, if anything, Cozmo is cleaner and cheaper than a pet so we’d recommend buying this for a birthday or Christmas, but maybe not as a smaller treat.