Hands-on test: Wilson X Connected Basketball
Can a smart ball really help improve your shooting accuracy?
This basketball contains a sensor to track your shots: how many hoops and how many misses. It connects to a smartphone app via Bluetooth to save your stats and also for some fun training drills and games. And it never needs charging – the built-in battery lasts more than 100,000 shots. It’s available in both Official (29.5in) and Intermediate (28.9in) sizes.
It's a shooter’s ball. So it doesn’t attempt to track dribbles and passes. In fact, it won’t even track lay ups, dunks or short shots (and if you don’t know what these are, you probably don’t want a £160 basketball…). It only tracks shots taken from at least 7ft from the hoop.
No additional technology is required: it works with a regulation 10ft hoop. So that could be on a court or on your back wall at home, just as long as the height is right.
With an activity tracker like a Fitbit, you can go for a run and leave your smartphone at home. Not with the Wilson X Connected Basketball. It can’t save your data for later. You need your phone right there, with the app on, to track your shots.
We downloaded the Wilson X Connected Basketball app on our HTC 10 Android smartphone (iOS version also available). The download and setup were straightforward but bizarrely you need to pair with the ball first, then set up a free Wilson account (username, password and a few bits of personal info required) second.
Pairing requires you to throw the ball at least 10ft up in the air, with plenty of spin. Not an option indoors. So we were left in the funny position of having to go to the park, pair the ball with the app, and then squint at the phone screen to set up an account. It would have been nice to have the option of account setup indoors first, pairing outdoors second. The app makes a reassuring noise when you pair the ball.
It took several attempts to master the required height and spin. But once we got the knack it was easy to repeat. Which is good because you need to pair it again before every drill or game. Presumably the ball switches off in between times to conserve battery life.
The app is quite loud and you need to hear the sounds to interact with it, so we found it pretty much essential to pocket the phone and use headphones.
The app features four modes. All four modes save your stats and you can share them on social media, go on Wilson’s own leaderboards and unlock badges. The first and simplest is a training drill called Free Range. You simply shoot from anywhere and the app tracks your hits and misses, with sound effects and commentary to egg you on.
The ball itself is excellent. Good quality, well made, handles brilliantly. It’s a pleasure to shoot with. Next was the app. We plugged in headphones so we could hear the commentary and then began to shoot, keeping track of them as we went.
Each time you shoot, the app registers it and makes a sound effect a couple of seconds after: a wibbly noise if you miss and a kerching if you score. The time delay is a little bit annoying but it at least comes before your next shot. And it’s reassuring to know that your shot has been registered.
But sometimes it doesn’t register. We fired off a dozen shots (hitting seven, if you must know) and then the commentator told us we’d shot ten. This was frustrating and fast became the Wilson’s weak point.
The Fitbit effect
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If you score a hoop and the Wilson has its eye off the ball, does it count? We call this the Fitbit effect. Once you own an activity tracker or start using an app like Runkeeper to log your training, you start to equate tracker and activity. Leave your Fitbit on the bedside table and there’s just no point going for a run because it doesn’t count.
It’s demotivating to use a training tool like the Wilson X Connected Basketball only to have it not notice your epic three-pointer. (Strangely, we didn’t mind it missing our misses quite as much.) Shoot, score, listen out for the kerching and your heart sinks if the app is silent.
That said, shooting with the Wilson was hugely motivating. Solo shooting practice can feel like throwing rocks at a wall and this ball means that (almost) every hoop counts.
The second Free Throw mode is a training drill similar to Free Range, but from the free throw line. Our free throw percentages aren’t great but the app focused our attention and we honestly did shoot better as a result. Two out of twelve. It registered one of them; the other it put down as a miss. Sad face. But still, two shots in the net and another nine hit the hoop. The other was respectable enough to hit the backboard. No air balls.
We honestly were shooting better thanks to the tech. Need motivation? There’s an app for that.
The other two modes are games: Buzzer Beater and Game Time. In Buzzer Beater you have a shot clock running down and you need to buy as much time as you can. Each basket bags you a few extra seconds. In theory you can buy more and more time and keep going for ages.
In practice this is hard solo as you have to fetch the ball before shooting again. (Note that with the Wilson you mustn’t catch a rebound – it only registers a shot if the ball hits the floor afterwards.) But Buzzer Beater is fun and gets you working up a sweat because you’re under time pressure.
Game Time puts you in a fictional basketball game, complete with crowds and commentary. The commentary is by the by, you just keep shooting. But it’s fun to hear the crowds cheer when you make a shot. Essentially all four modes are very similar: measuring your stats as you take medium- and long-range shots. They just lend different pressures and different types of fun. If you’re slow and steady, you’ll enjoy the drills. If you’d like to test your ability to perform under pressure you’ll prefer the games.
Is it worth it?
The makers proudly declare that the sensor in the Wilson X Connected Basketball tracks more than 100,000 shots; the equivalent of roughly 300 shots per day, every day for a year. The question is: is that enough? A really keen baller might honestly take hundreds of shots a day. That’s how you get good, after all. So it could potentially run out of battery life. At which point it goes from being a smart basketball to a dumb one. But it’s still a good ball and if you love basketball enough to take 100,000+ shots we think you’ll have had your money’s worth.
We were hugely frustrated that the Wilson failed to track every shot. There were never any false positives, but there were some false negatives. It’s like having a basketball coach who sometimes takes their eye off the ball.
But if you do want to track – and motivate – your shooting practice we’d still recommend the Wilson. There is nothing else quite like it and, crucially, it raised our game.
94Fifty Smart Sensor Basketball
No longer available new, but sometimes to be found on eBay, this Bluetooth b-ball is the Wilson’s only forerunner. It tracks even more stats but needs charging after just eight hours’ play. Price varies.
DribbleUp Smart Training Basketball
Where the Wilson tracks shots, this tracks dribbles and gives you training drills. It does this visually, using your smartphone camera to watch the ball’s movements via its optical marker. $79.99 + shipping. dribbleup.com
Wilson X Connected Football
By football, they mean American Football not soccer. This offers similar in-ball sensing to track your spin rate, velocity, and more. £150. wilson.com