Tech

Best toys 2018: smart toys for kids of all ages

Written by Noah Bethilda

 

Who doesn’t love toys? We could probably spend all day every day covering all the best, most serious tech out there, but that’s no fun, is it? This is the future we’re living in, right? So, why not have some fun with it? And that's where TechRadar's best toys 2018 list comes in – fantastic connected gadgets that have brought the kid out in us.

[UPDATE: The fantastic Sphero Mini, Merge Cube AR accessory and Mekamon AR fighting robot have entered out best toys list.] 

The world is absolutely packed with the best connected toys and gadgets that have ever existed, from RC drones that you can pit head to head against each other, robots that you can converse with, or even some awesome Star Wars drones that you can remotely control. In 2018, there’s never been a better time to let your inner child take control.

If you don’t know exactly where to start, or which toys to give a shot, don’t worry, because TechRadar has you covered. We’ve taken the time to put together this list of the best connected toys you can buy in 2018, each one tested and used extensively by us, in-house. So if you’re looking for a gift for those younger family members, or even if you want to treat yourself to something special – do yourself a favor and check out this list of the best connected toys.

Click the video below to watch our review of the Anki Overdrive: Fast & Furious Edition.

It’s not just drones and robots though, we’ve made sure to cover a large selection of all different kinds of the best connected toys. Some will be able to be played with right out of the box, while some will need to connect with your game console to be able to use. There are even some more unique devices on this list, like a modern take on the old Scalextric toy racing from the ‘80s, and even a wearable that you can program to do some awesome things.

We have played with every toy on this list, and we don’t put products on these lists lightly either. Every single device here has earned its place and you can shop confidently knowing that you’re going to get your money’s worth. So, without any further ado, get ready to feel young again with our list of the best connected toys that you can buy today.

One to watch

It might be small for a Stormtrooper but the upcoming toy from Ubtech Robotics is prime to be a must have. It's an app-enabled Star Wars First Order Stormtrooper Robot, which has AR features (through a companion app), voice command, facial recognition, and sentry patrolling. What this basically means is that the Stormtrooper will patrol around an assigned area and alert you if any intruders come close. 

You can speak to it, too, and it will also recognise your face. There might be a lot of Star Wars toys out there (see below) but this one may well be the most interactive yet. We can't wait to play with it.

The The Star Wars First Order Stormtrooper Robot by Ubtech is available for pre-order at starwars.ubtrobot.com.

The Merge Cube is the latest gadget from Merge, a company fully invested in VR and AR. It's a soft spongy cube that transforms into a fantastic AR accessory when you load up a compatible app and view the content through a smartphone or Merge VR headset. It's been out in the US for a while now and there’s a very good reason it’s been flying off the shelves in the US: it’s cheap and really does open up AR, making the experience malleable.

When Oculus brought its controllers to the Rift, it completely changed the way you interacted with VR. The Merge’s AR Cube does the same thing for AR –
it enhances the augmented reality experience, giving both adults and children alike to come back to AR time and time again. 

Here’s hoping that Merge’s app push will bring some fantastic new ways to use the Cube because, at the moment, as fun as it is there's not enough content. But at this price, we have little to complain about.

  •  This product is only available in the US and UK at the time of this writing. Australian readers: check out a fine alternative in the Sphero Mini 

The Sphero Mini seriously impressed us when we got it into the office to test. It may not be a known character as some of the other Sphero products, but it more than makes up for it in terms of how fun it is to play with. It’s easy to control, and moves at a satisfyingly fast speed.

The sheers scope of driving modes, games and educational elements make this a far more multi-faceted device than you’d assume it to be, and for the price, we highly recommend the Sphero Mini. 

Let's get straight to the point: Mekamon is one of the best robots we’ve ever played with. It's that good. The way it moves feels a little Metal Gear Solid, a little spider-like, and genuinely gives the impression that there is life in those robotic limbs. 

However, and this could be an issue for some, it’s sold as an AR robot, but the AR element doesn’t feel as developed as the robot itself, which means it’s at its best when fighting in a pair. And if you were to buy a pair then this could become a pricey present indeed. Brilliant, mind, but oh-so pricey.

  •  This product is only available in the US and UK at the time of this writing. Australian readers: check out a fine alternative in the Star Wars Droid Inventor Kit 

In the Star Wars universe it was always C-3P0 that was being dismantled and put back together again. Now it’s the turn of R2-D2, thanks to the incredible new connected toy from Little Bits. The Star Wars Droid Inventor Kit is a fantastic 3D jigsaw puzzle of a toy, that comes with its own moving parts. Comprising 23 Droid parts, 6 Bits (the connectors that make everything work) and a whole host of stickers, the idea is that you build your very own R2-D2 and then code it to do things, thanks to the accompanying app. 

Much like the Sphero R2-D2, this is very much official Star Wars merchandise, so the droid – once you put the thing together – has more than 20 Artoo sounds and will roam around your house self navigating itself. You can also control it to do a number of missions and activities. And while it plays like a toy, there’s a decent amount of education hidden within the fun. This is a full-on masterclass in teaching electronics without feeling like you are at school. In our tests, it was fun not fiddly to put together, thanks to the little magnets that mean the blocks snap together effortlessly, and the little Star Wars flourishes are a joy. 

DropMix is one of the most original games to grace this Best Toys list. It’s made by Harmonix, the folks behind Rock Band, and is a card game of sorts where you can make music with your friends. The DropMix Bluetooth-equipped board consists of five color-coded spaces (similar to the fret on a Rock Band guitar) and the idea is that you ‘drop’ NFC-enabled cards onto the relevant slot to make sweet music. The only thing you need to do this is your phone and the accompanying app. 

DropMix comes equipped with 60 cards and depending on how you put the cards down, you can mashup myriad songs or remix hits. It’s good, addictive fun and the best thing about it is that it’s been designed so you can’t really make a bum note, regardless of how tone deaf you actually are. There’s three modes on offer. There is a freestyle section of the game where you can play on your own but it’s much better with two playing, where the game turns into a competitive musical version of snap. If you do grow bored of the mix of cards – to be honest, we haven't yet – more packs are on offer but if you go down that road, you may end up paying princely sum for the game. 

  • This product is only available in the US and UK at the time of this writing. Australian readers: check out a fine alternative in the Sphero Mini 

Nintendo’s inevitable reaction to the astronomical triumph of Activision’s Skylanders franchise and the now defunct Disney Infinity franchise, Amiibo have become some of the most popular NFC toys on the market. Often launched to support major titles (such as Super Mario Odyssey or Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle), these small toys work with built-in NFC readers in the Nintendo Switch, Wii U and later editions of the 3DS/2DS and can be used and reused daily to add more content to certain games. And while they’re usually not as expensive as Skylander toys, collecting the entire set can be a headache as Nintendo notably failed to make enough units for prior releases. 

Beginning in 2015 when the series returned to cinemas, a plethora of Star Wars drones have launched, but it’s the line from Propel that’s reliably been one of the best. From the extraordinary packaging (where a model of the vehicle itself as used as clasp to seal it tight), to the phenomenal attention to detail, these toys are great for collectors and hopeful star pilots. The series includes a 74-Z Speeder Bike, a Star Wars T-65 X-Wing – which we reviewed for this very list –and the TIE Advanced X1. Each comes with a user friendly controller, one button 360-degree tricks and a selection of three speeds.  

  • This product is only available in the US and UK at the time of this writing. Australian readers: check out a fine alternative in the Star Wars Droid Inventor Kit 

The sixth and most recent version of the influential ‘Toys to Life’ series, Skylanders Imaginators is all about allowing its young players the tools to build their very own swashbuckling hero via an remarkably deep customization feature. These heroes can then be stored in NFC-compatible ‘crystals’ and transferred into the series’ Portal Of Power peripheral (which reads the models or crystals placed on it and generates them on-screen.) While it may not be the most innovative idea of the series (2013’s Swap Force still has that claim), Imaginators still offers a level of creativity that’s unheard of in the genre.  

With the newest version of Anki’s smart toy racing concept, Anki Overdrive, they boast one of the most original connected toy experiences on the market. The idea is super simple – build a physical track (full of sharp turns, elevations and quick straights), place your connected Anki cars on the track and let the Anki Overdrive app do the rest for you. With nine AI personalities that change with how you play, it’s just like a racing video game you can customize, Scalextric style in your living room. Thanks to a regular flow of updates, the game is now better than ever with the need the scan the track before every race now eliminated if you’ve made no changes to it since the last race.

We're going to get the Fast & Furious edition of Overdrive reviewed soon, too. Once we do, we'll update this list with our thoughts.

Well, this is a lot of fun. Even if you're not a fan of the Fast & Furious franchise, there is a lot to like about Anki's latest release. The cars are fantastic, the effects and track are superb and there is a real 'game' feeling to the whole thing. Be warned, though: it's a little fiddly to setup. 

There were three tech journalists scratching their heads at some points of the setup but this was mainly due to connecting up the cars with the accompanying app. It eventually worked but we did have to follow the 'reset' instructions to get the cars moving. Once done, though, it's an exhilarating ride, one you can have on your own (competing against and AI driver) or with friends.

The pack comes with two cars, Dom’s Ice Charger and Hobbs’ MXT3 but you do get the choice of upgrades, as well as weaponry that will put even the hardiest driver into a spin. In fact, it's when the virtual weapons come in that you can have a lot of fun – it really adds to the drive and takes away the 'car that's on the inside will always win' problem that you sometimes get with racers.

As for track, there are eight to choose from out of the box (all easy to set up, with magnets clicking everything into place) and there is the option to shift things up a gear and expand the track and cars – but this will cost you extra. As movie tie-ins go, though, this is an absolute blast.

Sphero brought the ultra cute BB-8 to life back in 2015, but back then we had to use our smartphones or tablets to control the little droid dude. Thankfully, you can now buy a special wristband that uses hand gestures to send him rolling around your home, and it’s proved to be one of the best and most responsive control designs we’ve ever used. Throwing your hand forwards like a real-life Force Push will send BB rolling forwards, while moving it side to will change direction, and up and down for speed. It takes around an hour to set up, which is annoying at best, but thankfully you only have to endure it once.

Recently, an alternative to Sphero BB-8 was released – the Sphero BB-9E, a bad droid that's set to make its debut in The Last Jedi. It's equally a lot of fun to use!

  •  This product is only available in the US and UK at the time of this writing. Australian readers: check out a fine alternative in the Star Wars Droid Inventor Kit 

It might be a little disappointing that the Nomad ND1 doesn’t actually contain a copy of Mass Effect: Andromeda – even if it was marketed as a collector’s edition of that game – however, that shouldn’t distract you from how great this RC car is even on its own. With a special six-wheel drive, the Nomad ND1 offers extremely fine control, thanks to a flexible pair of front and rear axles, a robust suspension that allows it to hit small jumps and built-in LEDs so you don’t lose it in the dark. It also comes with its own in-built camera, which you can use while controlling it from your phone/tablet. Even if you’re not a fan of the game, this RC car is one of the best licensed products that we have seen in a long time. 

  •  This product is only available in the US and UK at the time of this writing. Australian readers: check out a fine alternative in the Anki Overdrive 

The Sphero R2-D2 is an impressive, most impressive, connected toy. It is a superb replica of the best-loved Star Wars droid and one that comes to life with the more droids you have. 

Whether you are controlling it through its easy to use app, watching Star Wars with it (you can watch all the prequels, Rogue One and A New Hope and it will interact) or admiring it on your shelf, you'll enjoy the company of Sphero's latest droid.  While we would like to have seen a bit more interactivity when we weren't actually using the droid, it's the smartest Star Wars toy we've ever played with.

  •  This Product is only available in the US and UK at the time of this writing. Australian readers: check out a fine alternative in the Star Wars Droid Inventor Kit 

You will laugh, smile and fist-bump along to Anki Cozmo and the 'bot will follow you every step of the way. Cozmo is an intelligent, fun toy – one you can program and play with – that may look simple but its cute exterior hides a complex AI brain that you tap into thanks to the updated and easy to use app. 

All of this fun does come at a price, though. But this is one toy that's only going to get better with age – and if the latest app update is anything to go by, Anki will be making significant upgrades as and when it can. 

Although the box says from 8 years and up, Cozmo had this 30-something smiling time and time again – it's a connected toy that truly connects.

The Jimu Robot TankBot Kit is part toy, part coding king. It comes in the box ready to assemble and while this will take some time, it's worth the wait. Yes, the instructions seem a bit daunting at first – it's more like a CAD file than a LEGO set – but once you get the hang of clicking all the 190 bits into place, the installation process of Jimu Robot TankBot is a lot of fun. While you are creating your TankBot, an accompanying app shows your progress through a 3D model of the thing you are creating. We recommend you using the app on a tablet rather than a phone, though, as the bigger screen lets you more easily see and manipulate the interactive instructions. 

Once construction is completed, there's an array of pre-programs you can use to control Jimu, ranging from making it lift things to it following a set path. It's also endlessly programmable, too, which means you'll have a lot of fun with what is essentially an educational tool.

Taking advantage of another Disney license, Sphero's Ultimate Lightning McQueen toy, based on the star of Pixar’s Cars franchise, is a fantastic connected toy and one of the techiest we've seen. Designed by a team of 40 people (with help from key Pixar staff), it’s a perfect recreation of the character. McQueen isn’t just a remote controlled car (though he’s a very good one at that), but an animated, speaking, expressive one as well. 

Squeezing a respectable 40 minutes of play time out of a two hour charge, he’s got a 30 meter range and a top speed of 6Mph. Controls take the form of a digital thumbstick through your phone or tablet’s touchscreen, meaning he’ll be easy to steer for anyone that’s picked up a console game pad before. Yes it's pricey, but you can see where every penny goes. 

  •  This product is only available in the US and UK at the time of this writing. Australian readers: check out a fine alternative in the Anki Overdrive 

Part wearable, part coding platform, Mover Kit is a fun device from the folks that helped designed the BBC micro:bit. Mover Kit comes in parts and takes around 15 minutes to assemble, then the real fun starts. The idea is that you can program the wearable to do a number of things – with the hope that it will get kids up and active. On board are LED lights, an accelerometer and a compass – and the ability to program these features any which way you want. All you have to do is plug Mover Kit into a computer, install Bolt, and start the achingly simple process of coding.  

It would be good if there was Wi-Fi/Bluetooth on board, so you don't have to use a computer but an app for a smartphone or tablet instead, but this niggle aside (and we know that would ramp up the costs) it's a fun and inventive device that makes it cool to code. It's all a little DIY but don't let this put you off – it all adds to the entertainment.