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Robotic vacuums: a PC enthusiast's primer

It's not about the Pentiums, baby

Owning a robot vacuum can be its own hobby in a number of ways. If you think that notion's a little far-fetched, remember that the site you're reading right now is dedicated to what many people consider to be just computers. A similar community has coalesced around the idea that Roombas, Neatos, and their ilk are more than just vacuums.

I don't intend to dwell on the community that fills YouTube with videos of cats riding Roombas or that makes costumes for their robots, but I do think there is a connection and probably some overlap between fans of DJ Roomba and users inclined to do what it takes to keep their robots happy.

Operating a robot vacuum as a hobbyist is a bit like running an overclocked CPU. I'm not talking about the bang-for-your-buck side of overclocking, though. It's more along the lines of the finicky but rewarding side of the endeavor. The world of robot vacuums does have its own value and performance winners, to be sure, but even the very best choices have their limits. Let's explore some of those limitations and appreciate how engaging these seemingly mundane devices can be.

Got a spinning combo-brush, 13" wide. I believe that yours stores attachments on the side.

They are real vacuums
The first generation or two of Roombas from the early 2000s weren't much more than robotic sweepers. The distinction: vacuums produce, well, vacuum, while sweepers rely on a spinning brush to push debris into a receptacle of some kind. Some of those old-school designs (or worse) are still sold by various companies today, but don't let those impostors fool you: there are plenty of robots on the market today with proper vacuums inside.

iRobot gave the 500-series Roombas a huge upgrade when it released the AeroVac dust bin in 2009. Neato arrived on the scene in 2010 sporting a much larger vacuum motor than any other product before it. The Samsung Powerbot line from last year goes so far as to show off its vacuum assembly right on the top of the robot. The Dyson 360 Eye, which is still only available in Japan, has a beefy 100,000-RPM motor that's probably a big factor in its limited 20- to 30-minute run time. Reviewers say it really sucks when it's running, though.

As with PC components, reviewers often employ various benchmarks when reviewing robot vacuums. Every review will mention some kind of performance metric and the more in-depth ones will put the robots through repeatable tests. The classic test is with Cheerios, but some reviewers go to extremes. I'm not a fan of the torture-test style of robo-vac benchmarking, though, as it's just not the job these machines were designed to perform. Nobody buys a Core m3 ultraportable and expects it to be the best PC for everything. Generally speaking, though, those machines are plenty good enough for most day-to-day needs. The same goes for robot vacuums.

It probably goes without saying that a dramatic leap in technology will be required to completely eliminate manual vacuuming of stairs and furniture. You could get away with just a handheld model for those things, though as long as you think about floor vacuuming as preventative maintenance instead of an infrequent cleanliness-repair job.

You think your trendy Dyson Big Ball competes with Neato? My BotVac D80 just ate your Dorito.

My Neato cleans every morning and consistently fills its bin. It's pretty easy to tell that's mostly pet hair—four dogs and four cats will do that—but there's a lot of dirt mixed in there too. I notice a huge reduction in overall dust levels in the house just by keeping the floor clean. Like a garbage collection algorithm on an SSD, running on a regular schedule is really what allows battery-powered robo-vacs to compete with beefier corded models in overall performance. All that mess goes in the trash every morning instead of after the weekly or monthly mechanical shag defrag you'd be doing yourself. Yes, I just went there.

They are real robots
As the vacuums inside these robots has improved over time, so has the sophistication of the robots themselves. What started as a couple bumper switches for navigation, basic sensors to avoid falling down stairs, and crude movement logic is now a topic beyond the scope of this piece. I'll try to cover the basics, though.

My living room carpet is bot-perfected. Every fiber inspected, no foreign contaminants detected.

Two critical features of any self-respecting robo-vac are the ability to clean on a schedule, and the ability to automatically dock at a home base to recharge afterward. Scheduling is the easy part. Figuring out how to return to base requires a lot more information-gathering. That information is obtained by a combination of sensors that is increasingly the special sauce that sets a given bot apart from the pack.

Neato set the standard for navigation in 2010 when it rolled out its LIDAR-equipped bot to take on Roomba's algorithmically-derived cleaning pattern. All Neato models use LIDAR to map out their surroundings while they move, which allows them to clean in straight lines on an open floor (much like mowing a lawn). The most recent offering from iRobot, the Roomba 980, adds a camera for navigation. Both the Dyson 360 Eye and Samsung Powerbot employ camera-based vision systems, as well.

You're usin' an Electrolux? Don't make me laugh. You bust that thing out what, every week and a half?

Successfully navigating a home isn't just about seeing things, though. It isn't the only task on a bot's situational-awareness agenda, either. Robo-vacs also need to deal with objects in their environment that their sensors can't see. Every robo-vac still relies heavily on simple bumper switches to let them know when they're up close and personal with an obstacle. It's pretty common for robo-vacs to include a set of infrared sensors that can detect an object and slow the machine down before they bump into anything. Other IR sensors allow robots to hug walls closely without touching them to ask "are you still there?" like some other robots do.

While your Hoover's nappin', Roomba's multiaskin'. He puts in more effort without me even askin'

Robo-vacs also need to know when they're stuck. For example, Roombas use their half-black, half-white front swivel caster and a photo eye to determine whether they're gliding along the floor or if they've gotten hung up on a squeaker toy. Roombas also have a sound-based dirt detector right next to their brushes that lets them know when they are cleaning a particularly large mess. When this sensor is triggered, the bot knows to slow down and clean that area more thoroughly. The Roomba 980 can also detect if it is on hard floors or carpet. In turn, it can adjust suction power to increase performance or conserve battery life, a lot like dynamic voltage and frequency scaling on a CPU.