2008 Top 10 Robot Christmas Gift Ideas

Posted 7 Dec 2008 at 19:12 UTC by steve Share This

It's time once again for our annual countdown of the top 10 Christmas gift ideas for robot geeks. With the growing popularity of robots, everyone knows at least one person who spends all their time building strange little machines. What do you get them for Christmas? Well, we're here to help. The founding editors, steve, Rog-a-Matic, and The Swirling Brain have made their lists and checked them twice. Then we took those three lists and, using a carefully measured and computed statistical comparison method that we call "close your eyes and poke things randomly with your finger", we determined what the top 10 gift ideas are. As usual, we've thrown in a few stocking stuffers and extras that we thought were cool even if they didn't make the list. Read on and have a Merry Robot Christmas!

10. Robotics Construction Kit ($156 - $400)


There are a surprising number of robot construction kits to choose from this year. Here are three of the more popular ones for your consideration. Most beginners will learn some useful skills from any of these and advanced builders will enjoy scavenging for parts. While we'd be happy to play with any of these, the growing number of kits makes them seem a bit more mundane than in previous years. But they're still enough fun to make the number ten spot on this year's list.

The VEX Autonomous Robot Starter Bundle ($399.99) is good choice. It offers a nice selection of drive train train and chassis components. You get a choice of several development environments but all of them are proprietary with the associated license restrictions and hardware limitations. The Swirling Brain notes that the slightly older VEX system, known Revell Vexplorer Robotics System ($156) is worth checking out, "This is a good Vex starter kit. Or if you just want to jump in go for the big kit!". The Revell version doesn't include a microcontroller but, with a little ingenuity, you could probably use an inexpensive Arduino (see gift idea #3) to do the job.

The Bioloid Beginner Kit ($339) is another good choice. It's a collection of modular, RC-servo type joints controlled by an Atmel AVR ATMega128 micro. Like the VEX kit, the included development software is proprietary but it can be tossed and you can use the same AVR tool chains that professional AVR developer use (AVR-GCC, WinAVR, OSX-AVR; all GPL'd free software).

The LEGO Mindstorms NXT ($224.99) is probably the most widely used robot kit and integrates with the LEGOs. Nearly everyone has some LEGOs lying around somewhere, making this kit that much more useful. Like the others, it comes with proprietary software but you can easily ditch it for any of several free software tools such as nxtOSEK (GPL), NXTAssembler (GPL), NXTMOTE TinyOS (BSD), even a complete gcc toolchain, NXTgcc (GPL).

VEX Autonomous Robot Starter Bundle
Product info
Buy it!

Revell Vexplorer Robotics System
Product info
Buy it!

Bioloid Beginner Kit
Product info
Buy it!

LEGO Mindstorms NXT
Product info
Buy it!

9. Robots of Westinghouse book ($29)

Discover an often overlooked corner of robotic history with this interesting book focused on the creations of Westinghouse from 1924 through the 50's. Rare photos and anecdotes from the original designers can be found inside along with details about the famous "Elektro" built for the New York World's Fair of 1939. - Rog-a-Matic

Every robot builder has seen photos of these mysterious mechanical men built by Westinghouse in the 1920s and 1930s. Older roboticists have even cited these primitive robots as inspirations that started them thinking about robots. Here at, we've covered the restoration of Elektro and the search for the missing robot dog, Sparko. Scott Schaut has finally written a definitive history of the Westinghouse robots in a book published by the Mansfield Memorial Museum, which houses the restored Elektro. - steve

Robots of Westinghouse: 1924 - Today
Product info
Buy it!

8. Subscription to a Robot magazine (under $40)

bot mags

It's inexpensive, useful, and easy. This was actually the number one choice on the 2007 list of robot gifts. The only thing that prevented it from placing higher this year is that most robot builders we know already have subscriptions to one or two of these. But that's okay, they need subscriptions to all of them! They're all a little different so this isn't a case of picking the best - they're all good. Servo is the longest running robot hobby magazine we're aware of and focuses mostly on homebrew robots. Robot magazine is oriented more towards consumer robots and robot kits, very much like traditional RC model magazines. MAKE magazine is full of all sorts of strange and interesting DIY projects, many of which are robots or at least robot-related. The last two magazines focus on electronics rather than specifically on robots but it's a focus that's common to homebrew robotics, so the robot builder in your life will likely enjoy these two just as much as the other three magazines. - steve

Servo Magazine
Subscribe to Servo

Robot Magazine
Subscribe to Robot

Make Magazine
Subscribe to Make

Circuit Cellar Magazine
Subscribe to Circuit Cellar

Nuts and Volts Magazine
Subscribe to Nuts and Volts

7. Tomy i-SOBOT Robot ($130)

It has lots of cool moves. What makes it cool is that it appears to be hackable! - The Swirling Brain

The Brain is right, this inexpensive little toy humanoid robot has caught the attention of robot hackers, who are attempting to reverse-engineer the servo protocols. Meanwhile, Mobisense is recommending their little MBS270-520 Linux SBC as the perfect controller for adding voice recognition, vision, and Linux support to your hacked i-Sobot.

Tomy i-SOBOT Robot ($130)
Product info
Buy it!

6. iRobot Roomba ($300)

OK, I admit it, I have dirty floors and I'm too lazy to vacuum! I purchased an iRobot a while back and I feel it's one of the best purchases I've made. I haven't tried their latest model but I'm sure it's much better than the one I have and the one I have works like a dream! Some people complain that it doesn't clean well enough, but it made my wife happy and that's worth many man-points! Do yourself a favor! ;-) - The Swirling Brain

Another cool thing about the Roomba is if you don't want to use it as a vacuum, you can turn it into a base for your next robot project. It has everything you could want, a nice chassis, motors, sensors, rechargable batteries. Even better, check out the Create. It's a Roomba-style base with the vacuum cleaner components left out and replaced with a payload area. The Create also includes a well documented interface protocol, making your job as robot hacker easier. - steve

iRobot 560 Roomba Vacuuming Robot ($300)
Product info
Buy it!

iRobot Create Premium Development Package ($300)
Product info
Buy it!

(Note: Cat not included. User must provide own cat.)

5. Robot Fashion ($5 - $55)

robot cufflinks

The market's growing for robot-related flare, so we've combined a few interesting examples of this forward-looking art form including a wide array of robo-jewelery along with time-tested T-Shirts. - Rog-a-Matic

If building robots isn't enough, how about if we all start wearing robot fashions and accessories? - steve

Robot Evolution T-Shirt ($24)

Shana Logic Silver Robot Necklace ($48)

Robot Cufflinks with movable heads, arms, and legs ($55)

Bellamodaartist Little Robo Cufflinks made from recycled metal ($18)

Something Whimsical's BOB bot necklaces ($16)

kidpirate Waving Robot Ladies Tee ($16)

Coco + Milkweed's Japanese Robot Wallet ($8)

Jack and Jane's Mr.Roboto Snap Clips ($4.50)

Binary Winter Wise Robots T-Shirt (input no evil, process no evil, output no evil) ($24)

Rawkz Steampunk Robotics Panties ($20)

MT coffinz Underground Silver Gear Panties ($10)

Spaghetti Kiss ASTROBORG T-Shirt ($20)

Abe the punk's Robot print tank top ($18)

Want more? See more robot stuff on Etsy, Zazzle, or Cafepress

4. Kikkerland Le Pinch and friends, Wind-Up robots ($10-$35)

You've seen wind-up robots before, but nothing quite like Le Pinch. Bend it into the desired form, give it a wind, and watch its stainless steel body with rotating rubberized feet climb over those ordinary wind-ups. - Rog-a-Matic

When Rog-a-Matic first suggested Le Pinch wind-up robot toy, I thought he was crazy. Then I looked it and thought, that's really pretty cool. Then I noticed some of the other strange mechanical robots made by Chico Bicalho for Kikkerland Design such as Cranky and MXYKIKKER. These are really fascinating little machines.

What would be even more interesting is to see some robot builders making larger, autonomous version of these things. How about a 1 meter tall version of Cranky powered by an internal combustion engine. Get to work folks and send me the video when you're done! - steve

Le Pinch - Buy it!

Cranky - Buy it!

Critter - Buy it!

X Large Critter - Buy it!

MxyKikker - Buy it!

Katita - Buy it!

Pintacuda - Buy it!

Cosmojetz - Buy it!

Oahaca - Buy it!

Awika! - Buy it!

Spinney - Buy it!

Bonga - Buy it!

3. Arduino Microcontroller ($20 - $49)

Arduino Duemilanove

The incredibly popular Arduino open-source programmable controller annoys robot builders everywhere with its debatable pronunciation, yet wows them with its flexibility, power, and cost effectiveness. - Rog-a-Matic

It seems like everybody I know is playing with Arduinos lately. They're cheap, useful, and fun. You can program them using Free Software / Open Source tools on any OS including Linux, MacOS, and even Windows. The Arduino is also a Free Hardware / Open Source Hardware design, so you have a lot of options to choose from when you want to buy one. And, you can even design a new and improved version of the hardware if you feel the need. Here are a few versions of the board from a few different vendors:

Sparkfun Arduino Pro ($20)
Product info
Buy It!

Make Arduino Duemilanove ($35)
Product info
Buy it!

Liquidware Arduino Diecimila ($29)
Product info
Buy it!

Gravitech Arduino Nano ($49)
Product info
Buy it!

2. BANDAI Mechagodzilla ($900-$1200+)

I love Godzilla stuff. My yougest daughter and I watch Godzilla movies all the time. One year she got a Mothra Larva robot I found on eBay and was so happy - The Swirling Brain

Yes, it's too expensive. Yes, it's virtually unobtainable in the US. Yes, it's impractical. And yes, though I don't know why, I still want one. Good luck to you if you're crazy enough to really try to purchase this one. We sighted one on eBay but even Amazon Japan is out of stock. We keep hearing rumours it will be readily available in the US for around $800 sometime this month but there's no sign of it yet. - steve

BANDAI Mechagodzilla ($900-$1200+)
Product Info
Bid on it at eBay
Try to buy it from Amazon Japan
Try to buy it from another Japanese retailer

1. Pololu 3pi Robot ($100)


In our number one spot this year, is the Pololu 3pi robot. Perhaps I'm biased because I've been playing with one the last several weeks but it seems to be one of the best beginner robots I've come across in several years. It's not perfect but it's very hard to beat for the price. The 3pi is a small, self-contained robot with dual motors, five reflectance sensors, an 8×2 character LCD, a buzzer, and three user pushbuttons. Controlling it all is an Atmel ATmega168. To make things even more interesting, the controller is compatible with the Adruino microcontroller, offering the potential for some interesting cross-pollination of software.

You can be up and running minutes after you take it out the box. Programming is done using the Free Software and Open Source GNU gcc tool chain. Advanced users can use the traditional command line version and there are various gcc-based GUI environments available for the beginner. Like the Arduino board, the 3pi seems to have a growing hoard of supporters in local robot groups. Everyone who sees one wants to buy one or two for themselves. The one downside is the lack of wheel encoders, which means the robot is best suited for tasks like line-following where there is an external navigational aide to keep the robot going in the right direction.

While you can use most any AVR ISP to program the 3pi's ATmega168, we highly recommend you buy one of Pololu's little Orangutan USB programmers to go with your 3pi. Trust us, it will make life easier!

Oh, and did I mention these are speedy little things? They'll give any line following robot a run for it's money. will be posting a detailed review of the Pololu 3pi robot in the near future, so stay tuned for more details.

Pololu 3pi Robot ($100)
Product info
Buy it!

Orangutan USB programmer ($28)
Product info
Buy it!

Stocking Stuffers

As always, we thought way more 10 ideas, so here are some stocking stuffers and other random things that didn't make this year's list. Some came close to making the list. Others were just personal favorites. And few made The Swirling Brain yawn.

Tincan Tools Hammer ARM/Linux Controller ($160) - The hammer CPU module by startup Tin Can Tools offers a 200Mhz ARM core, 32MB SDRAM and a host of standard I/O - all in an prototyper's 40-pin dream package and preloaded with Linux. Carrier boards, programmers and prototyping platforms are also offered. - Rog-a-Matic

tinyCylon ($10 - $15) - This a cool little kit (also available assembled) that blinks LEDs in the traditional, back-and-forth, Cylon manner. Now you can turn any robot into a Cylon. Or use it to make jewelery or just stare into it until you're hypnotized. Whatever, it's really cool - go buy a few. - steve

Tomy Wind-up Robot ($3) - These make great items to put on your desk to wind up when you get bored. - The Swirling Brain

Gakken Mechamo Centipede ($100) - I want one! - steve

Robot movies are always a good bet. How about Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Robby in Forbidden Planet, Huey, Duey, and Luey in Silent Running, the Terminator, or Transformers.

Disney Pixar's Wall-E Ultimate Control Wall-E Robot ($400) - This of course reminds me of the R2D2 robot a while back that had some personality and yet was controllable. It seems that wall-e might be hackable too. Cool! - The Swirling Brain

The Swirling Brain also notes, "My Robot Yawn list might be good for little tykes and some adults but they're not really for me:"

Pleo - ($280) - Pleo is cool because you can give it programs to make it dance and such. Other than that it's near boring yawn material for me. But that's just me.

Erector Sypkee ($233) - yawn

WowWee Tribot ($60) - yawn

WowWee Femisapien ($50) - yawn

WowWee Rovio ($240) - yawn

That's it for this year's list! We hope this list helps you find the right gift for the robot geek in your life. If you're curious, check out our previous Christmas top 10 lists as too: 2007 Top 10 Robot Christmas Gift Ideas, 2006 Top 10 Robot Christmas Gift Ideas, and 2005 Top 10 Robot Christmas Gift Ideas. Finally, props to greefus groinks for his CC-licensed robot photo that we adapted for this year's Christmas list banner.

Merry Christmas!, posted 8 Dec 2008 at 06:21 UTC by The Swirling Brain » (Master)

Wow, I want everything on the list! Great job guys! Very cool list!

See more of the latest robot news!

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