Lego Mindstorms Buying Guide

Lego Mindstorms robotics kits combine accessibility, flexibility and state-of-the-art technology in one slick package. Clearly designed for aspirant programmers of all ages, they’re not only a lot of fun to use but also make excellent educational toys. The current NXT kits have come a long way since they debuted in 1998, and while third-party code still tends to be more efficient than its built-in NXT-G code, it’s easily the first construction toy of the 21st century to contend with the legendary Erector sets that dominated the 20th century.

WHERE TO START

If you’re not sure how much you’ll get out of Lego Mindstorms and don’t want to spend about $250 retail on a new kit, a good idea might be to check out eBay or Amazon for the Robotics Discovery Set (Item #9735). Averaging about $60-$100 used, the new NXT kits are backwards-compatible with this older kit, centered around the more primitive Scout brick. You might also want the Star Wars Droid Developer Kit (#9748) or Star Wars Dark Side Developer Kit (#9754), which average between $40-$90. If you find that you want more, the parts can be salvaged for use in the more advanced Mindstorms NXT kit (#8527).

PROGRAMMING

If you’ve got the NXT kit, the guide and built-in software are incredibly easy to use, and when fully updated are fairly compact. If you’re looking for something other than the dataflow programming language NXT-G, Not eXactly C uses a C-like language to program the NXT Brick. And if the four robots offered don’t interest you, Lego’s own NXTLOG offers plenty of other projects, or you can choose from various other sites such as NXT Programs or NXTCentral. Owners of older RCX kits have it a little tougher programming with the more cumbersome built-in RCXCode, but RoboteQ and NQC are excellent third-party alternatives.

EXPANDING

Lego is designed for expanding as long as you’ve got Lego parts, and of course, any Legos will work with Mindstorms kits. In particular, parts from the Bionicle and Technic series work great with Mindstorms (and are included with the NXT kits). But if you’ve got a bag of Lego bricks somewhere in the closet waiting to be used, take them out and see what you can do with them! As for products directly compatible with Mindstorms, companies like HiTechnic and Mindsensors provide excellent Mindstorms-compatible parts.

A NXT 2.0 kit is slated to be released some time in 2009, which hopefully will improve on the already outstanding NXT kit. But even the older RCX kits will offer plenty to virtually anyone interested in robotics.