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Expert Advice for Picking a Robot Vacuum

By David Wise ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Tuesday October 25, 2016

How do you select which robot vacuum will be the most beneficial to your home? We put 11 of the highest ranked robotic vacuum cleaners to the test to determine which really is the best robot vacuum in our detailed review. Keep reading to find out why you should even vacuum in the first place, whether you can just toss your manual vacuum, and what robotic companion will be the perfect fit for you and your home.

Why Vacuum?

Why vacuum in the first place? Why have a robotic one?

The first, and most obvious, reason to vacuum is aesthetics. Regular vacuuming of any type of floor will improve the appearance of your floors, picking up stray dirt and dust. According to Home Floor Experts, regular vacuuming can dramatically increase the air quality of your home, and have many, positive health benefits. Vacuuming can also increase the life of your carpet, freeing trapped particles that would otherwise be ground deep into the carpet, abrading the fibers over time and damaging the floor. The next thing you may be wondering is: How often do I need to vacuum?

A traditional  upright vacuum made short work of dense flour on carpet.
A traditional, upright vacuum made short work of dense flour on carpet.

The answer may be a disheartening one: most likely more than you currently do. Home experts recommend that you vacuum at the bare minimum of once a week, potentially two to three times a week if you have a home with high traffic, pets, or one that gets lot of dirt and grime tracked in. For some people, this might come as a shock, and for others, might be no surprise at all. This fact is why a robot vacuum cleaner even exists at all, and will be the main determining factor for deciding the following important question.

Do You Need a Robot Vacuum Cleaner?

The Botvac Connected moving on to the next room after finishing cleaning the first. The Connected makes a map as it cleans  allowing it to clean multiple rooms and resume cleaning where it left off it the battery dies.
The Botvac Connected moving on to the next room after finishing cleaning the first. The Connected makes a map as it cleans, allowing it to clean multiple rooms and resume cleaning where it left off it the battery dies.
The main feature that makes a robot vacuum so desirable is the simple fact that you can run it every day, with minimal effort. For most of us, we will warrant a guess that this is more frequently than you currently vacuum. We will also hazard a guess that most people reading this do not enjoy vacuuming, in fact, we were hard pressed to think of anyone that does.

This product family is reserved for those of us (ourselves included!) that put off vacuuming as much as possible, and would be much happier delegating this tedious task to a new robotic friend.

Can it Replace an Upright?

Unfortunately, there is one key thing to remember: None of these are a perfect replacement for an upright vacuum. Period. If you are expecting to buy one of these and throw your manual one away, I am truly sorry to disappoint. If you are the type of person that needs really immaculate floors — you currently vacuum at least once or twice a week — then a robot vacuum is probably not a purchase you should make. That money would probably be better spent on a higher-end, upright vacuum. However, a robot vacuum can be an extremely helpful addition to your home, and most likely will make it cleaner overall. Robot vacuums are intended to do a frequent cleaning job, substantially prolonging the time between required deep cleans with a manual system. This is the crux of the argument for why you should buy a robot vacuum: Having your floors cleaned acceptably well, but on a daily basis will probably yield a higher overall level of cleanliness, than an excellent clean happening intermittently.

The 980 after one pass at our flour line test.
The 980 after one pass at our flour line test.

If after reading this, you feel that a robotic vacuum is a good fit for you, then it's now time to determine which type of automated assistant will be the perfect fit for you, your home, and your budget.

Types of Robot Vacuums

The first robot vacuum, the Trilobite, appeared on the market in 1996. Since discontinued, this was followed by the iRobot Roomba in 2002, causing an explosion of popularity for automated cleaners. Doing a quick search for these will reveal an enormous price range, from $20 to $1000. The least expensive models, usually retailing for less than a $100, are marketed at robotic dusters, robotic floor cleaners, or sweepers.The most expensive models have sophisticated navigation systems, mapping the room as it cleans, having multiple stage cleaning systems, and automatically docking, charging and resuming progress when necessary. After all of our testing and research, we have split these products into 3 categories.

Robotic Dusters

The O-Duster  a robotic floor cleaner  by O-Cedar. This is a popular purchase that usually retails under $30.
These models dominate the lower end of the market — retailing for less than $100 — lacking many features of the nicer models, and, as expected, lagging in performance. Lacking an actual vacuum motor to provide suction, these have either an electrostatic dusting pad or a rotating bristle brush, marketed to clean hard surfaces or firm carpet only. These tend to not have any sort of mapping or navigation capabilities, only a rudimentary obstacle avoidance sensor and need to be manually plugged in to charge, rather than automatically docking. We didn't test these in our review, choosing to focus on higher end ones that would effectively clean an entire home.

We think of these as more of a novelty item, something that will do a random wipe or sweep of a floor, rather than a reliable clean. These might have some merit for the buyer on an extreme budget, or someone living in a small studio with hard flooring only. While we don't recommend them, products that we consider to be merely Robot Dusters include:

Robot Mops

The iRobot Braava 380t floor mopping robot.
This class of cleaners will work exclusively on hard floors — think tile, linoleum, hardwood. These differ from the aforementioned sweepers by using a cleaning solution to scrub or mop the floor, and actually doing a wet clean of the floor. This section of the market currently seems to be dominated by the iRobot Braava or Scooba line of products. These will do a systematic dust and mop or scrub. If you can usually get away with just mopping your hardwood floors, without the need for a thorough vacuum before hand, then these might be the best bet to keep your floors clean. These models usually cost between $250 and $600. Robot mops may be a viable option if your home is entirely hard surfaces, and doesn't have any major mess generators (pets, kids, etc). However, we don't really feel comfortable recommending them as we have not tested them yet, and until we do, we can only base our opinion on the generally lackluster user reviews present on major retailing sites. We feel Robotic Mops are just not quite ready for prime time, and are inappropriate if your home has any carpeting, as the majority of them do. Products in this class include:

Some of the vacuums  ready to test!
Some of the vacuums, ready to test!

Robot Vacuums

The next group of automatic cleaners are the robotic vacuums. The defining feature of these is they have both a floor cleaner brush, with bristles or plastic blades, and provide suction to actually vacuum your floors. These work on all types of floors, and collect the dirt and debris they pick up in a collection bin. There is a wide range of capabilities and features, and a massive price spread, from $200 to $1500. This class of products is the most versatile, with different makes and models all have a unique blend of cleaning tools, sensors and navigation software, each leading to better performance in certain situations. We reviewed the top Robot Vacuums, which we consider to be the most pragmatic category.

The next step in picking which model to buy is taking a detailed look at your home, specifically what areas you expect to clean and the type of floors in those areas.

How to Pick the Right One?

Now that you have decided that you need a robotic home assistant, and you know the different types available, you are ready to determine which model to buy. We have set up a simple, step by step process to help you find your perfect match.

Step 1: What are You Standing On?

The first thing to do is literally to look down, at least if you are standing or sitting in the place that you are planning to clean with your new robotic helper. The goal of this is to pick which of the three types is the best fit for you. If you plan on cleaning any carpeted floors, then a robot vacuum is the only acceptable path forward. If you have fluffy, medium pile carpet, then you should consider the highest powered suction model that you can afford, while most models can cope with low-pile carpet. Suction will usually be measured in Watts, and will be in the ballpark of 15-30. Take a look at our Specs. Section of the main review for detail on the suction power of each model we looked at. If you glance down, and are planning on cleaning some high-pile, shag carpet, then you may be out of luck. While we won't make a comment on the style choice and aesthetic of shag carpet, beloved icon of the 70's, we can say that robot vacuums struggle with carpet that fluffy, and won't really be worth the investment. You should consider a much heavier duty manual vacuum.

The carpet during the flour cleaning test before the Samsung made a cleaning pass.
The POWERbot VR9000 after completing our flour cleaning test on low pile carpet.

We honestly would recommend the robot vacuum class of products for almost every application, except the aforementioned shag carpet, since they can handle most floor types, as well as cope with concentrated areas of mess better than the other types.

Only if your house consists of exclusively hard flooring types should the robot mops be considered. If you are looking to clean a uniform hard floor, such as hardwood or linoleum, then a mopping model that uses cleaning wipe should be sufficient. It the surface is more varied — think a tile floor with grout lines — then looking at a robot mop that also features a rotating brush head would be more beneficial. As we said before, we don't really feel comfortable recommending these, until we have tested them ourselves or the reviews on retailing sites improve.

Step 2: What is in the Room that you Want to Clean? How Many Rooms?

The next step to consider is what domain your little robotic friend will soon roam. Is it a single room studio? A multiple room house? Office floor with cubicles? One large room divided with a sofa?

The navigation and sensor package determines how efficiently the robot will be able to maneuver and clean around your home.Some models are marketed as multi-room capable, while some are restricted to a single room only.

If you are looking at just cleaning a simple, small room, or you feel fine manually moving the robot and docking station between rooms, then one of the mid-range models that use semi-random navigation would be more than adequate. By simple, we mean the room is essentially a square or rectangle. Having a single room divided by a large piece of furniture can make it very difficult for single room robots to find their base and charge, requiring constant rescue missions from you.

If you are looking at cleaning an extremely large room, or multiple rooms, then consider a robot that will systematically map the room, something present on most higher end models. These will usually begin by doing a 360 degree scan of the room, then navigating along the perimeter, finally completing the bulk of the room with a back and forth lawnmower pattern. They will keep track of areas cleaned, recharge as needed and resume cleaning where they left off. Hopefully at this point, you have narrowed down your search to a few top contenders, and are looking at the additional features to separate them. The Neato Botvac Connected and the iRobot Roomba 980 are all good candidates for this scenario.

Step 3: Features of Fluff?

Robot vacuum technology has come an incredibly long way in the past two decades, and there is a plethora of features available on all models currently on the market. Some of these proved extremely useful… while some seemed much more like fluff. After you have settled on one or two contenders, the final thing to look at is what additional features each of those models have to make your final selection.

First, there is a pair of features that we would recommend be on any model that you select. The first is the ability to automatically locate and recharge itself, and then resume cleaning if necessary. The entire point of getting one of these products is to minimize the amount of effort that it takes to clean your home, and the best of these products will instill a sense of confidence in you that they are dutifully cleaning while you are away. The second is the ability to set a schedule. These two features, coupled with some careful setup of your home and the removal of obstacles, will allow you to get the most out of your robotic companion.

Setting the schedule for the robot on the Neato app.
Setting the schedule on the 980 is easy through the companion app.

Another particular feature that we found extremely useful was the ability to cordon off "Do Not Enter" areas, to keep the vacuum from entering those areas. Some models will offer a physical barrier strip, while some make an invisible barrier to signal the machine to turn around. This is a critical function to ensure the autonomy of your new automated cleaner. Most of us will have some areas of the home that will continually trip up any robot vacuum, for example a charging cord, or an area where shoes are kept. Having the ability to block off areas will keep your robot out of problematic areas and prevent you from having to rescue it frequently. All models made by Neato and iRobot that we reviewed had this feature.

Magnetic boundary tape establishes "Do Not Enter" areas for Neato Robotic Vacuums.
Roomba robotic vacuums utilize a virtual wall to establish areas that should not be cleaned.

Have a pet? Choosing a product that allows you to define do not enter barriers are a must to block off pet food and water bowls, as these would get pushed around, spilled, or knocked over when the robot tried to clean around them.

The commonality of all these features is that they aid the robot in being able to clean more effectively and automatically. We would caution against spending more for other features and solely focusing on the above features, and any additional features, that will improve the ability of the robot to navigate.

What is the Ideal Robot Vacuum?

We found that our evaluation essentially was distilled down to a single phrase: How confident are we that these will clean the floors, avoid getting trapped or damaging anything, and make their way back to the docking base to recharge? We place the most significance on the ability of the robot to be self-reliant, to excel at navigating rooms and around furniture. Our ideal robot vacuum would be one that we could essentially ignore for the majority of the time, merely stopping daily to empty the collection bin and weekly to clean off the filters. The worst case scenario would be having to rescue the robot on a daily basis, eventually ending with enough frustration to just quit using the thing.

Our full review compares the top rated of these products and we found there are only a handful of features that really matter when selecting a robotic vacuum. See our detailed Robot Vacuum Review to find which model is best for you.

Hopefully this buying advice guide, in combination with our main review comparing the top products side-by-side, will help you navigate and successfully find the correct robotic friend for your home. Every home and budget is different, but you are now armed with the information to make the right choice for your home, and with proper maintenance and care, your robot vacuum should keep your home nice and clean for the foreseeable future.

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