Review: Lego Mindstorms EV3

The ultimate Lego Terminator is back. And it’s packing some serious fun power.

Lego Mindstorms EV3



Amazingly fun to build and program. Sensors and motors worked well. Plenty of extra apps for iOS and Android. Tons of variety in what you can build and do.


No copy and paste in the programing app. There’s room to allow more experienced hackers — er, programmers to go beyond the basics.

How We Rate

  • 1/10A complete failure in every way
  • 2/10Barely functional; don’t buy it
  • 3/10Serious flaws; proceed with caution
  • 4/10Downsides outweigh upsides
  • 5/10Recommended with reservations
  • 6/10A solid product with some issues
  • 7/10Very good, but not quite great
  • 8/10Excellent, with room to kvetch
  • 9/10Nearly flawless, buy it now
  • 10/10Metaphysical product perfection

Standing as tall as 16 inches, this third-gen automaton has a full range of sensors and motors. Your android won’t be making soufflé in the kitchen or taking the dog for a walk anytime soon, but the EV3 does recognize color levels, shoots red balls into the air, and can follow complex programming commands. At heart, the EV3 is a toy meant for imaginative play. In practice, it’s a $350 robot programming proving ground. And it’s worth every penny.

Even the unboxing is a thrill. You’ll find discrete packages of components — the motors, sensors, literature, and exactly 594 Lego bricks. The main brain brick runs on an ARM9 300Mhz processor with 64MB of RAM and 16MB of flash storage. There’s a USB port for connecting the brick to your computer, Bluetooth for controlling the bot with your phone or tablet, Wi-Fi for sending programs and sounds, and an SD slot for holding more files.

There are five main bots in the EV3 series, including the R3PTAR (a sneaky cobra), the tank-like TRACK3R, and the six-legged scorpionesque SPIK3R. Each bot has a unique feature, like a claw grip or a ball shooter. There are two larger motors, one smaller motor, a touch sensor, an IR (infrared) sensor, and a color sensor. There is also a remote control for moving a finished robot around the room.

You can program the brick without ever building one of the five starter bots. In fact, it’s a good idea to try experimenting with the motors and sensors to see how they work — sans the Lego bricks. The brain unit looks similar to the previous NXT models. (The original NXT was released in 2006 and cost $250; the NXT 2.0 came out in 2009 and cost $280.) However, the new brain provides more flexibility in programming, a cool tool for budding engineers.

In a major improvement over the first two kits, there are now iOS and Android apps that help you put together each bot.

In a major improvement over the first two kits, there are now iOS and Android apps that help you put together each bot. The apps provide a 3D, interactive view of each step in the build process. You can zoom in, rotate the pieces, and watch animations that help you fit the pieces together. It’s incredibly helpful, especially if you do not have laser vision or good lighting for the printed docs.

Because the Mindstorms EV3 is primarily designed for kids, I enlisted the help of two young friends, a 12-year-old boy and 16-year-old girl. They worked together to build most of EV3RSTORM, the bot shown on the packaging, including the main torso and legs, which took about 90 minutes. I took over to finish it up, which required another 90 minutes — for a total of three hours. To make sure my mind is as still as sharp as it was in my teens, I built the TRAK3R robot as well, which comes with crystal-clear instructions.

As with any typical Lego project, the pieces are small but color-coordinated. There were a few times when we felt a bit frustrated searching for, say, one tiny yellow brick. When assembling the arms, we made one minor miscalculation and had to start over on that appendage. No matter — it was still fun.

Programming the robot was incredibly easy. The software, available for both Windows and Mac, works like a visual diagramming tool (think Microsoft Visio or Google SketchUp). You drag and drop instruction modules onto a blank canvas and hit a play icon. Lego says the process takes about 20 minutes, but my group had a working program in ten minutes where the bot could walk straight for a bit, stop, turn, and start walking again.

We also built a program where the bot used the IR sensor. It would walk for a while, but if you flipped your hand in front of its “eyes,” it would stop and say something. You can use one of 127 prerecorded sample clips, like a low alien blurp, or record your own.

The teenagers who helped me build the main bot worked in intense collaboration for an hour and a half straight — a long stretch of focus and concentration that seems rare in kids today.

Then we asked a programmer friend to build a much more complex program sense color differences like red or blue. (The EV3 could recognize bold colors like red but had trouble with greens and browns, however.)

The programming software is a bit limited, however. There is no copy and paste, and the mouse cursor tended to lag at times after building a complex program. There should be a way to switch quickly between the mouse pointer and the hand icon.

After finishing up with the programing, we also tried an app called Robot Commander, available for iOS and Android. You can control the bot over Bluetooth, issuing commands like “move forward” and “skate,” which causes the bot to shuffle like it’s on ice skating. The bot also uses Wi-Fi for sending programs to the brick. With the app, you can press a microphone button and speak one of the move commands like “forward” or “turn left.” Alas, you can’t tell it to dance a jig or do the Running Man — only the commands shown onscreen.

It’s worth noting that there is an incredibly active Mindstorms community. One new trick is that you can snap a photo of the EV3 with the Commander app and upload it to

There’s something incredibly rewarding about both the previous NXT bots and the new EV3 kit. Once you master the basic routines (go forward, bark a command, turn around), you can envision going a few steps farther — perhaps even building your own enclosure. In many ways, Lego is a thought leader in robotics because they make building them so enjoyable and easy.

The teenagers who helped me build the main bot worked in intense collaboration for an hour and a half straight — a long stretch of focus and concentration that seems rare in kids today.

It “took a village” to master the EV3, though. As a team, we sorted the bricks to find the right ones, built programs, and laughed at bot’s antics.

No gadget in recent memory has been quite this captivating. Other than the few minor issues with programing, like the lack of copy and paste, it’s a brilliant toy. For aspiring engineers, the EV3 is a major step up in quality and fun factor.

All photos by Josh Valcarcel/WIRED