Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

High Technology, Enthroned

The bathroom has been one of the few places people frequent where digital technology hasn’t taken over. Most people use toilets more often than iPods, yet the humble American commode has remained as low tech as things get — essentially a combination of pipes, levers and flaps.

But computers are now invading the bathroom. For several years, manufacturers have been quietly pushing toilets and toilet seats costing $1,000 or more that use small, built-in computers and remote controls to add new features that warm, wash and dry you. As bathrooms become more upscale and luxurious, a digital toilet fits right in.

The wireless remote control for Brondell's $800 high-tech digital toilet seat.

The wireless remote control for Brondell’s $800 high-tech digital toilet seat.

This sort of high-tech toilet has long been common in Japan, where hygiene is something of a cultural obsession, and complex gadgets are popular. In fact, the company leading the charge for high-tech toilets in the U.S. has been Toto Ltd., the giant plumbing-fixtures maker from Japan.

Silicon Valley has been one of the places where these toilets have begun to catch on, and now, a small company near there, in San Francisco, has brought out a new high-tech toilet seat with a street price well under $1,000. The company, Brondell Inc., is led by engineers from Sony, AOL and elsewhere, and is named after an early toilet inventor.

Brondell claims its latest digital toilet seat, the $800 Swash 800, provides “a cleaner, more hygienic bathroom experience” than what Americans are used to.

The Swash 800 doesn’t have every bell and whistle of the top-of-the-line Toto models. For instance, it doesn’t automatically raise and lower the toilet seat. But, like its rivals, it has three main features. The first are retractable, automated wands that spray water to cleanse the relevant body areas. The second is a warm air blower that dries those same spots. The third is a heated seat.

You don’t have to buy a whole new toilet to use the Swash 800. It installs in place of your current toilet seat and hooks up to the existing plumbing valve that’s behind your toilet.

But can Americans be convinced to spend that much money on a toilet seat? Do we need another electronic gadget, especially in the bathroom? To find out, we had the new Swash 800 in our homes for the past few weeks for a trial period.

Our verdict? While some features of the Swash 800 made our sit-down experience more of a luxury, we were unconvinced by its bidet-like cleaning and drying process. In particular, the air dryer was ineffective, just like those annoying air dryers for hands in public bathrooms. That meant you either had to remain seated a long time or resort to toilet paper, the low-tech commodity the Swash is supposed to surpass.

Also, the Swash 800 must plug into an electrical outlet, something most bathrooms don’t have behind the toilet. So, you have to hire an electrician to install one, or use a long, ugly extension cord to plug the Swash into an outlet near the sink or vanity.

This particular seat has a $1,080 list price, but the company estimates that it will retail for closer to $799, which, for a top-of-the-line techie toilet seat, is considered to be a lower-end price. Similar products from Kohler Co. and Toto USA cost between $1,200 and $1,500. The Swash 800 is the third Swash to be released from Brondell; the more basic 400 and 600 models came before it and are still available for $429 and $549, respectively.

The Swash 800 consists of an attachable seat that hooked right onto each of our existing toilets. You can install this seat yourself or take advantage of Brondell’s relationship with Handyman Connection — a national handyman company. The company charges $60 to $90 for installation of the Swash itself, and you get $50 off the installation of an electrical outlet, for which costs vary.

We opted for the latter, and had a handyman from Handyman Connection install a Swash on one toilet in each of our homes after removing our existing toilet seats and lids. Each installation took about 45 minutes and required long, unsightly extension cords to reach from our toilets to the electrical outlets. The Swash 800 comes in elongated and round shapes, so we chose accordingly for our toilets. Brondell says it will fit on 98% of toilets.

The Swash 800 is made of plastic and comes in a white or “biscuit” color. Its electrical guts are housed in a bulging horizontal module that runs the width of the toilet seat and rests at the back end of the seat (behind you if you’re seated). Four lights on the right of this panel indicate Power, Power Save, Seat Heat and Seat Sensor. Both the lid of the Swash and the seat itself use gentle closing mechanisms, so neither will bang shut.

A wireless remote control panel that runs on two AAA batteries controls the Swash’s actions, and this remote can be mounted on a wall if you choose. Ten buttons and a display cover the front of this remote. The two wands are controlled by buttons on the remote grouped according to the gender of the user. There’s a single “For Him” button that says “Back” and two “For Her” buttons labeled “Back” and “Front.” These buttons are accompanied by icons showing anatomically vague stick figures.

For example, push the “For Her” front button and a pink wand releases a gentle spray. Each wand is rinsed before you use it, and after you arise from the seat, whether or not you used it.

Swash 800

Using the remote, you can adjust the force and temperature of the water, and the temperature of the heated seat. You must manually decide when to stop the water or air.

We found that the heated seat, which can be set to automatically turn off or on at certain times of the day, was a great feature. And the warm water — once we got the temperature right — was also a luxurious twist on the normal bathroom experience.

But, while the water was nice, the dryer was awful. It works only at one temperature and speed, and it didn’t do the trick for us.

The company’s online testimonials (at feature people decrying paper and extolling water, as a cleansing method. But, because of the ineffective drying method, many users of the Swash and similar products are likely to wind up using both. In fact, the company claims only that the Swash reduces paper use “significantly.”

If you’re worried about curious kids creating a homemade fountain out of your Swash, you shouldn’t be; a special 30-pound sensor ensures that the seat’s features won’t work without at least that much weight on it.

For certain people, including those who have medical problems, the Swash 800 might be a viable option. But, sometimes, the old ways are just fine.

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