Sunday, March 2, 2008

Review of The Unofficial Lego Mindstorms NXT Inventor's Guide

I love the Lego Mindstorm kits, and I've always enjoyed No Starch Press's books. So I was excited to hear about their Unofficial Lego Mindstorms NXT Inventor's Guide (ULMNIG). These are two great tastes that taste great together.

Unfortunately, I was led a bit astray by the title. "Inventor's Guide", to me, summons mental images of crazy legos hacks, but that's not the goal of this book.

In the introduction, the ULMNIG describes its true intentions--taking you beyond the user guide and instructions that came with the Mindstorm kit. It does not assume any previous experience with Lego or Mindstorms, but helps you explore a broader range or projects and possibilities.

As an entry level book, I think the ULMNIG overwhelmingly succeeds.
The book starts with a description of the lego pieces, then provides basic guidelines for building sturdy structures and functional gear trains. For me, this was the weakest part of the book. Don't get me wrong. It has solid information, and should be useful for beginning builders. But it felt too short and too superficial for my tastes.

The ULMNIG then spends two chapters exploring the NXT-G programming language in detail. If you are going to use NXT-G, then you need to read these chapters. They provide a lot of information that will help you get the most out of your Mindstorm brick. They are also much clearer and more informative than the user manual. Reading these chapters will save you from hours of frustrating trial and error.

Finally the last half of the book covers six new robot designs. Four of these designs are radically different from each other. One is a differential drive with a ball castor. One is a four-wheeled steering vehicle. One is a six-legged walking motion sensor, and one is a stationary bot. There are also two variations on the differential-drive bot.

This gives you a nice combination of projects. The designs increase in complexity, allowing you to improve your skills as you progress through them. Building them will teach you a wide range of design techniques, while the variations show you how you can modify existing designs for other purposes.

The projects are definitely the highlight of the book. Working through the projects will teach you more about building robots than the rest of the book combined. And, once your finished, you should be ready to jump into your own projects.

Unfortunately, advanced builders/programmers might find themselves somewhat disappointed with this book. The ULMNIG hints at several advanced topics: building dynamic structures and third party programming languages. Unfortunately, these only get the briefest introduction. A few paragraphs each, tops. And the ULMNIG doesn't even mention other advanced topics, like third-party sensors and hardware, or attaching your own circuits to the NXT brick.

So, I would not recommend this book for everyone. But, if you've finished all the projects in the Mindstorm Users Guide, but your still struggling to build your own robots, then this is definitely the book for you.


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