(Spoiler alert: Lego wins! Just kidding, this is not a contest. So everybody wins. Kind of like competitive sports in Kindergarten.)
For my first nanoblock haul, I chose two animal sets, a budgie and a llama, and one more set called Big Tree (although the Japanese caption says its a tropical tree, which explains the US flag of course, right?!). The larger sets are boxed, while the smaller sets are bagged. Raw bricks in single colors are also available, in jars. The two packs ran at ¥550 a piece, the larger set at ¥1250 (that's about $5.50 and $12.50).
The bags are tough, glossy, high quality affairs, and also re-sealable (for portability) thanks to a zip-lock top. I did not want to throw away the bag! Note the nice color picture, English name, and brick count.
Inside the bag, I found the pieces, nicely bagged by color (it is the best sorting method, after all!) including a baseplate, which was an unexpected bonus since its not shown on the packet. The instructions consist of a single glossy sheet and are printed in black and white.
Comparing nanoblocks to Lego blocks, some interesting differences emerge. There are no bricks and plates - its all just plates. Also, in this set at least, there is an exact 1:1 correspondence between type and color (all 2x2 browns, all 2x4 yellows, etc). Not sure if that is significant. The 1x1s come in both square and round varieties.
Size wise, a 2x4 nano plate is an exact size match for a 1x2 Lego plate. The studs are taller than with Lego or Modulex, and the underside lacks tubes - just a dividing flange.
Nanoblock instructions are a much simpler affair than Lego instructions. What would constitute a 12 page color booket in Lego is reduced down to a single B&W sheet. This certainly cuts down on cost, and bulk. But it makes construction more "interesting"! Colors are labelled, so you unless you can read Japanese, you want to hang into the packaging, to use as a color guide! (Full scan available here)
Because everything is plates, models are simply built up in successive layers. Each step combines several layers. Its designed so successive layers hold the prevoius layers together. But working with such tiny bricks, a hard flat surface is a must!
Amusingly, stuff carried over from one step is always shown white in the next step, which takes some getting used to. Also, the vertical guide lines (for getting the layers lined up correctly) are a bit tricky too.
I got a bit of neck and eye strain working through these instructions, but it only took about 10 minutes to complete the Budgerigar. The bricks actually stick together really well (not as snappy as Lego, but nowhere near as slack as MegaBloks). They are made from ABS, but are more softer/bendier than Lego. They don't 'snap' as much as Lego - they are more 'push on'. One plus is the lack of tubes means you can actually connect some pieces at arbitrary distances (and this is exploited in some sets).
And very adorable it is too. I like the way smaller bricks allow more detail to be packed into such a small space. My son said this looked like an exact scale model of a budgie! He decided to construct the llama set, refusing any assistance, and managed it without any trouble. So its not beyond kids ability.
Another nice surprise was the large quantity of spares you get in each set! In which case, I would liked to have seen instruction sheets for a couple of alternate models. However, there is a nanoblog that shows ideas for other models. (...or, God forbid, you could actually use your imagination!)
So there it is - my review of Nanoblocks. Obviously they're not going to surplant Lego or anything (so purists, you can put down your pitchforks now!). But the smallness, good color palette, and simple brick types, makes for a great little table-top diversion for any brick maniac or bored office worker!
To see the entire Nanoblock product line, visit the Nanoblock website.