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At $399, the Lego Mindstorms EV3 is probably the cheapest and easiest customizable robot available

Lego is the ultimate tonic to an increasing digital world. It's a physical toy that makes you use your hands, which is a welcome break from the staring-at-screens we otherwise do all day. It's no wonder the sets are becoming more and more popular among adults.

On the other hand, there's Mindstorms, the Danish company's line of robot toys. Aimed at older children and adults as well, the robots use the same fundamental pieces as regular Lego toys, but they also add motors, sensors and a form of computer programming to the equation. The result are Lego sets you can build, remotely control and program to do whatever you can think up.

The new EV3 set, released this week, is the epitome of this duality. The toy scratches that physical, real-world toy itch, yet it also provides a gateway into that digital realm. How deep you want to dive in is up to you.

The EV3 instructions start simply: they guide you through the building of the first robot, the TRACK3R, a tank-like vehicle with a spinning claw. It takes about an hour and, once you're done, you can control it through its infrared sensor, much like a remote-control car. A small handheld remote lets you drive the two tank treads forward or in reverse.

From there, the downloadable 3D Builder app for iOS and Android provides animated instructions on how to build several other robots, including the snake-like R3PTAR and SPIK3R humanoid. The instructions, built with Autodesk software, are the stuff of Lego fans' dreams – you can pan around pieces, zoom in on them, watch the animations as they explain how to connect pieces, reverse them, skip ahead and so on. It's hard to make mistakes with such full, three-dimensional control. With luck, all Lego sets of the future will eventually come with similar apps.

A second app, Commander, lets you remotely control the robot from your smartphone, tablet or iPod via Bluetooth. You can get the SPIK3R, for example, to move forward, backwards, left and right, or you can have it "skate" – where it moves forward one foot at a time – or even attack with its spinning rotor blade. The robot even has a certain element of charm to it – it responds with an "okay" or an "okey dokey" whenever you tap a command.

So far, this is some pretty innovative stuff for Lego. The designers have found some nifty ways to modernize the whole experience while at the same time keeping it rooted in the toys' physical nature.

After that, however, things get more complicated. At the heart of the EV3 is the Intelligent Brick, a miniaturized computer that controls its two big motors, one small one, plus its IR, colour and touch sensors. The Brick has six buttons that allow for quick instructions for all those goodies to be put together on its monochrome screen, while more complex programs require connecting to a computer via USB.

The included software is daunting because of how fine-grained it allows you to be. The motors can be programmed to activate for a certain amount of time, speed or rotations, while the colour sensor, for example, can be set to respond only to certain hues. Instructions have to be uploaded and downloaded to and from the Intelligent Brick, and you have to make sure each of the sensors and motors are connected correctly through the wires that snake into the main brain unit.

The interface is Lego-ish, in that each servo and sensor is represented on screen as a sort of brick or puzzle piece, which you fit and chain together. But it's also fairly complicated, with various menus and ports to deal with. It's not immediately intuitive and takes a few hours to get the hang of. Once you're there, though, the sky is the limit. You can create any kind of robot you can imagine and share the design online – someone has already put one together that resembles R2D2 – with its programmed abilities limited only by its sensors and motors.

Even after you've mastered programming, there are still plenty more possibilities. The Intelligent Brick has a full-sized USB port, SD card slot and Bluetooth connectivity. With a USB dongle, it can also be connected to a Wi-Fi network or even other Intelligent Bricks. It's staggering to think of all the creations the growing Mindstorms community – which counts many Silicon Valley tech nerds amongst its numbers – will come up with given so many options.

At $399, the EV3 is probably the cheapest and easiest customizable robot available, but therein lies another irony: it's only as simple as you want it to be. Plenty of fun can be had in just building the various robots and then controlling them with your phone or tablet, but the real point of the toy is to master the on-screen programming.

Personally, I like my Lego toys simple and physical – they're what I go to when I want to get away from a computer screen. At the same time, even though those old physical toys can be reconfigured into many different shapes and permutations, they don't seem to hold nearly as many possibilities as a programmable robot.

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