Kano Pixel Kit review: This DIY lightboard is a friendly and fun intro to coding

If the Raspberry Pi is too daunting for your aspiring coder, this package might appeal more.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director
Image: Steve Ranger/ZDNet

The Kano Pixel Kit is a fun build-it-yourself, programme-it-yourself digital display, aimed at youngsters who are just getting interested in coding and playing with technology.

The inspiration for the company apparently came from the six-year-old cousin of one of the founders who wanted to build his own computer -- and for it to be as simple and fun as Lego. In December 2013, Kano launched a Kickstarter campaign aiming to raise $100,000 and ended up raising $1.5m; the company has now raised $15m in series A funding.

Kano already sells kits to build computers and HD screens, and the Pixel Kit is part of a new set of products that's also due to include DIY digital camera and speaker kits.

The Pixel Kit was first promoted on Kickstarter with a $99 price tag with delivery expected in December last year, although a fire at the factory plus some issues with the wi-fi antenna meant that availability was pushed back until July this year. In the UK it will retail at £74.99.

Design is clearly a high priority for the Kano team: the kit arrives looking like a high-tech bento box, but the aim is clearly to be hip and welcoming rather than off-puttingly chic. In this, it succeeds.

According to Kano, the Pixel Kit is aimed at anyone with an interest in coding, although the inclusion of three sets of stickers and the general look-and-feel suggest a relatively young target audience. The core demographic is kids around seven or eight with a taste for building and problem solving. It's reassuringly straightforward for any parents who are roped in to assist.

The booklet that comes with the pack is friendly and keeps everything simple for an audience that may never have considered, until now, what's inside their gadgets or how they work.

Building the lightboard itself is really a case of attaching buttons to the board, popping in the battery and snapping the case shut, all of which takes just a couple of minutes. There's no need for a soldering iron or specialist skills here.

The display is the main point of the Pixel Kit: 128 LEDs in a 16-by-8 grid can be programmed to display 16 million colours and told to flash, flicker, or glow in pretty much any way in order to visualise data, make animations, play games, or display text.

Integrated with the display is the board which powers it, comprising a quad-core 1.5GHz CPU, 1GB of DDR3 RAM, and a Mali-400 MP2 GPU with Open GL ES 2.0/1.1.

The USB-connected tilt sensor is an additional element that comes with the Pixel Kit. This includes an accelerometer and gyroscope, but what I found particularly charming was the additional attention to its design: at the top of the sensor is a ball-bearing on a circular track that's a neat physical representation that makes it immediately easy to understand what the components inside it are doing. The sensors designed for other Kano products, like the forthcoming Camera Kit, are similarly appealing.

When it's built, the Pixel Kit is sturdy little package (wise considering the target audience) with a slightly retro feel, which may also endear it to older users. In its transparent case it looks like a cross between an old transistor radio and a compact camera while the tilt sensor looks a bit like an old-school flash unit.

Once it's switched on (there's a slight delay before it boots) you can play with some of the Pixel Kit's fun, if basic, apps that come ready loaded to illustrate its potential.

Three of these are lightshows: one uses the Pixel Kit's microphone to turn sounds into lights, and another uses the tilt sensor to move lights about on-screen.

There are also some mildly amusing games, including Super Snake, Rainbow Runner (a sort of scrolling space game) and Breakout. But it's not really a device for playing games on, especially with such a tiny four-way 'joystick' which is in reality just a button slightly larger than the other two.

Kano Pixel Kit: Hands on with the lightboard that teaches you to code

Coding is the key

What really makes the lightboard is the coding app that it's paired with.

The Kano app uses a drag-and-drop style of coding to teach users how to control the board, walking them step-by-step through how to make the lights flash in response to sound, or how to create animations. There are over 30 coding projects to work through in all, which either train you how to use it or encourage you to build your own apps to run on it.

The app uses event-based coding, which means that apps are build by plugging together different chunks of code like a jigsaw. There's also the option to look at the Javascript for more advanced users, all of which turns this device from a novelty into a gateway for would-be coders.

In the spirit of exhaustive research, I asked a pair of top tech reviewers -- aged six and eight -- to try out the Pixel Kit. The six-year-old enjoyed the ability to light up the screen by shouting, but didn't seem very interested in the coding element. The eight-year old, however, was keen to learn how to make the screen work, and has been progressing through the tutorials ever since, and thinking up extravagant ideas for games to create as he goes.

Most of these ideas are far too elaborate to ever work on the Pixel Kit's limited 16-by-8-pixel screen, but the point of a device like this is to open the eyes of wannabe coders to a world of opportunity. This it has certainly done: the Pixel Kit is one of the most friendly and least intimidating pieces of technology I've encountered.

It fills a handy gap: while the Raspberry Pi has been the runaway success, it was originally aimed at a sophisticated audience -- students considering applying for computer science at Cambridge. At £74.99, the Pixel Kit might be more expensive than buying, say, a $35 Raspberry Pi 3, but this is a very different experience. To the absolute beginner, even something like the Pi can be somewhat daunting, especially if you start with the bare board.

And while there are boards aimed at younger and less skilled audiences like the BBC Micro Bit, they are not quite as much fun straight out of the box as this.

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