Lauren Goode

New Roomba Is Fully Loaded, But It Won’t Do All Your Dirty Work

When I told people that I’ve been testing the newest Roomba vacuum this week, I got a variety of reactions.

“A robotic vacuum is like an electric shaver,” one friend said. “It does a good job but it doesn’t get super close.”

“Never trust a man who thinks using a Roomba is cleaning,” an editor warned.

“Seven hundred dollars?” another person said. “Will it make its way to the fridge and get me a beer, too?”

The Roomba, for those not familiar with the product, is a disc-shaped, robotic vacuum cleaner that zips around your home and sucks up the dirt and dust in its path. The newest model includes some features — a slightly updated design, a remote control, extra replacement brushes, and three cone-like towers that set boundaries for the ’bot — that had to be purchased separately with some earlier models.

But, to my friend’s point, the Roomba is pricey — at $700, it’s a hundred dollars more than the Roomba 780, and $270 more than the Roomba 564. By comparison, Neato Robotics’s newest robotic vacuum, aimed at pet owners, costs $429; while Evolution Robotics makes a floor-sweeper called the Mint Plus that retails for just $299.

It’s fitting that iRobot, the Bedford, Mass.-based robotics company that makes commercial and military robots, is touting a “wireless command center” with this latest Roomba — a really fancy way to describe a remote control.

The Roomba 790 had almost free rein of my apartment’s floors this week while the place was being painted. While it did a decent job of vacuuming my place, I found there were few features that justified such a high price point.

IRobot suggests initially charging the Roomba overnight, but after two and a half hours on the charging dock, my Roomba 790 was good to go. The vacuum uses built-in nickel metal hydride batteries, which can be replaced if they weaken over time, but, for the most part, the consumer doesn’t have to deal with batteries.

The Roomba 790 can run for one hour to three hours before needing another charge. In my experience, it never sputtered and died during a cleaning cycle, since the Roomba smartly docks itself on a charger in between cycles.

Each cleaning cycle varies, depending on what kind of floor you’re running the Roomba on and how dirty the space is. For example, the Roomba’s first session in my two-bedroom apartment lasted about 50 minutes, while subsequent cycles were much shorter.

My Roomba had a mind of its own. It bounced off walls, barrelled its way into different bedrooms, plowed through piles of shoes, wasn’t afraid to look under the bed, and eventually found its way out from under a chair. Sometimes, when I pressed “Dock” on the remote to return the Roomba to its resting place, it took about five minutes to finish cleaning and get back to home base. At other times, it would return to the dock in about a minute.

My apartment is so small that I didn’t really have to use all three towers to create boundaries. I did, however, place a couple near the two bedroom doorways, thus successfully preventing the Roomba from going into those rooms (and making a bigger dent in my messy shoe pile).

When the Roomba finished a cycle, it made a triumphant little noise, as if to say, “Look, Ma — no hands!”

While the Roomba 790’s path to cleanliness at times seemed random, iRobot says the Roomba is designed to cover the same areas over and over again, with the belief that cleaning multiple times is key to getting a cleaner floor. And to that point, iRobot says, it more realistically mimics human behavior, as we often vacuum over the same area twice.

The Roomba uses a combination of software and optical sensors on the robot to read the area in front of it, and then chooses from more than a dozen programmed behaviors to decide how it’s going to tackle that floor.

Also, like earlier models, this Roomba has a tiny brush that sweeps from side to side as it is sliding around — like the tail of a horseshoe crab.

But the 790 definitely didn’t pick up everything on the hardwood floor. It left behind or entirely ignored coins, pieces of Styrofoam, and some dust tufts in hard-to-reach corners.

That’s where the remote control came in handy. Using that, I could easily direct the Roomba to pick up items it had missed; I could press “Spot” to instruct the Roomba to focus on a specific area. However, guiding and following the Roomba with a remote led me to believe I could do a better job myself if I just had a regular old vacuum in front of me. And it kind of defeats the whole idea of a robot vacuuming the house while you’re gone.

I could also schedule the Roomba for a cleaning. In my test, it started when it was supposed to, and returned itself to the dock when it was done.

I then placed the vacuum on a carpeted area. The Roomba is supposed to automatically adjust by lifting itself a little higher when it transitions from a flat surface to plush carpeting. The Roomba did a pretty good job of picking up obvious particles on the carpet.

After a few good runs, the Roomba was ready to be emptied. I simply turned it over, squeezed the plastic section where the dirt and dust had accumulated, removed it and emptied it into the trash.

In my case, there was such a lopsided ratio of hardwood-to-carpet that I wondered if a floor cleaner geared toward hardwood and tile floors might be a better ’bot for me. IRobot makes such a product: the Scooba, which, at the high end, currently retails for $500. Evolution Robotics makes a competing cleaner, the Mint Plus, which both sweeps and cleans.

I ran the Mint Plus after the Roomba was done vacuuming, just to see how it works. The Mint is square-shaped and much quieter than the Roomba. When the Roomba was running, I couldn’t make a phone call without explaining I was testing a robot. When the Mint was careening around in the kitchen, it sounded like a light-footed, curious cat.

But the Mint, which took a more methodical approach to cleaning, was also a little bit lethargic. Each of its sessions lasted about 10 minutes — making it more efficient, but not necessarily more effective.

For a whopping $700, I was hoping that the Roomba 790 would clean up every dust bunny, every last strand of hair, and in a super-intelligent way. So, while the robots may someday take over the world — and robotic cleaning certainly has its hassle-free benefits — this one’s not taking over all of your domestic duties just yet.

If you’re sold on what the Roomba can do, and like the idea of putting a robot vacuum on a schedule, a cheaper model without all the accessories might do the trick.

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