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.
My robo-vac family album
My experience after using these robots for about seven years has left me with plenty of opinions and tips to share. I ordered my first robo-vac, a Roomba 560, from HSN.com in 2009 (don’t judge, it was a great deal). Then I went slightly crazy and ordered a Scooba 380 mopping robot the very next day. I was so pleased with how well the Roomba worked on the main floor that I picked up a Dirt Dog for the basement shortly after. Those three robots kept my floors tidy for over three years until I bought my first Neato.
In August 2012, my Neato XV-21 arrived and took over cleaning duty for the main floor of the house. I then moved my Roomba 560 upstairs. Just like that, I had robots roaming every floor of my house—at least, if you count my aquarium-filled basement lair as a floor. Sadly, not long after that milestone my faithful Dirt Dog went mad and I had to put him down (poor Yeller). Of course, once you’ve had robots cleaning your entire house, you can’t go back to the vacuuming Dark Ages, so I got a second XV-21 for the top floor and moved the Roomba to the basement.
I should do this guy a favor and box him like Old Yeller. I just can’t do it though, he’s just too useful of a feller.
We moved a little over a year ago and that change required robot redeployment. Our new house has just two levels, so we relegated the Roomba to cleaning up spilled cat litter in the basement. The Neato twins were scheduled to work separate day and night shifts to cover the whole upstairs. That status quo ended a couple months ago when I decided that the extra attention and maintenance my Neatos needed after their own three-and-a-half years of service just wasn’t worth the effort anymore. I couldn’t bear to toss them, so I packed them up and shipped them off to a good home where I knew they would be properly repaired or at least used for parts. That meant it was time to pick out a new one.
The Neato BotVac D80
My new Neato BotVac D80 may have crossed paths with my old Neatos on their way to greener carpets. Even though my original Roomba outlasted my first Neatos, I chose another Neato for a few reasons. Cost kept me from even considering the Roomba 980. At $900 it’s fully double the price of the Botvac D80, and its feature list just doesn’t justify the difference (think AMD vs. Intel circa 2004). iRobot doesn’t make another Roomba that can navigate a whole house without the use of its Lighthouses, and I didn’t want to mess with those again (or have my dogs eat any more of them). I took a serious look at Samsung’s Powerbots, too, but murmurs of spotty navigation and the lack of a side-brush steered me away.
It was an easy pick to choose the BotVac D80 over the other Neato models. The D75 doesn’t come with a bristle brush for pet hair, and it ships with standard low-surface-area filters. It’s compatible with a better brush and filters if I wanted to buy them separately, but that approach doesn’t save any money. With the D75 out of the running, Neato only had one other option worth considering.
The high-end BotVac Connected’s claim to fame is its onboard Wi-Fi transceiver. That radio lets owners control the Connected using a smartphone app. Since I’d never want my robotic vacuum to run off its schedule, that feature didn’t appeal to me. The BotVac Connected can switch between an Eco mode that conserves battery life and Turbo mode that increases suction power. The Connected can’t change between these modes intelligently like the Roomba 980 can, so it’s not an earth-shaking feature unless one’s home is too big to clean on one charge without the Eco-mode boost.
I am a little jealous of the Li-ion battery that the Connected comes with, though, especially because I can’t replace my D80’s NiMH battery with one later. My D80 can run for over an hour without needing to recharge, though. That’s good enough to clean my home’s entire floor, so I’m not losing sleep over it. The Connected does come with an “Ultra-Peformance” filter instead of a “High-Performance” one, but I can switch those filters out myself if I want. The bottom line is that the $250 price difference between the Connected and the D80 would be better spent on a PC upgrade of some kind.
You’ve gotta be the smartest vacuum I’ve ever seen. Using LIDAR to see where to clean.
This isn’t a review, but I do have a few thoughts to share about the first month of living with the latest addition to our household. He’s been doing a fine job. The D80’s larger dust bin is great. The smaller bin of the XV-21s filled up too quickly with all the pets in our house, even though both vacuums ran daily. I think the one on the D80 allows the vacuum inside to work more effectively since it doesn’t get packed as densely with debris during a cleaning run. I’m sure the greater surface area of the D80’s newer filters help in that regard, too. The other observation worth mentioning is that the D80 gets stuck in things like chair legs much less frequently than I was used to with the XV-21. In fact, after a couple initial adjustments, it hasn’t gotten stuck a single time except for the occasional tangle with a misplaced sock.
Repairing, modding, and hacking
With any new robo-vac comes new things to learn about it. For those with an enthusiast mindset, the immediate urge is figuring out how to make the vacuum better and how to fix it after your tweaking attempts fail. For questions or advice, there’s no better resource than the Robot Reviews forums. That community has created countless threads with tons of detail, and it’s made up of helpful people that are just as tuned into the world of floor-cleaning robots as our forums are to PC hardware. I couldn’t even begin to cover all the cool mods people come up with, or the breadth of repairs that are possible, so I’ll just share my personal tweaking and tuning efforts over the years.
Like the countless status apps out there for PCs, NeatoControl lets Neato owners get a full overview of what’s going on with their robots. It allows control over many of the Neato’s functions, and it can read the vacuum’s sensor data, too. I should have made time to check it out, but I was too busy making animated GIFs of blinking RGB arrows and taking pictures of my phone taped to my vacuum. Hmm, does that count as a mod?
Your living space is a disaster. So overclock your robot to make it clean faster.
Any discussion about robo-vac repair and maintenance should start with a word about the costs involved. Robo-vacs will need more time and money to keep running than a normal vacuum. The time it takes to keep them in working order is more than offset by the time they save you from vacuuming manually, though. That said, the total cost of ownershiph is a bit high compared to a regular vacuum. I estimate that if I took all the money I’ve spent in seven years of using robotic vacuums and divided it out, my fleet has cost me somewhere around $25 per month. Expensive for a vacuum, but not bad for a hobby, right?
Your battery’s two years old? Well that’s great. Cause now you’ve got a nice heavy paperweight.
That money has gone toward a variety of items. Some was for replacing standard consumables like lifeless batteries, worn-out filters, and beat-up side brushes. Depending on the frequency of the robot’s cleaning schedule and their chemistry, batteries will probably last about a year before their runtime is significantly diminished. Filters require maintenance and replacement, too. I toss mine in the dishwasher every couple weeks to keep them in top form, and I always have a hot-swap spare ready to go for when the other one is drying out. That treatment won’t work for all filters, though. I’m already noticing that the D80’s wider filter is losing some of its form, something that never happened with the XV-21’s filter. I’ll likely have to find a third-party one that holds up better. Side brushes can last years, or they can lose an arm in one night if they have an unlucky run-in with a furnace vent or a shoelace.
You haven’t cleaned your filter in over a week? Give that thing a scrub, man it’s startin’ to reek.
Thankfully, all modern robo-vacs are highly modular and fairly simple to repair. The non-standard repairs you have to perform and pay for do add up over time, though. I’ve probably replaced the Cleaning Head Module on my Roomba four times, not to mention the dozen times I’ve disassembled them to clean out the gears and extend their life. The CHM that I have now is an upgraded version that’s designed to prevent gunk from getting into the gears in the first place. Before that, I used a modded version with sealed bearings. That module lasted much longer than the originals, but it wasn’t cheap. I’ve also replaced wheels, motors, and bearings. The good news is that as robo-vacs improve, I’d expect the total cost of ownership to go down. Owners of older vacuums can benefit from what I’ve learned to save some money, though.
What to expect when you’re expecting a robot
If you decide to give a robo-vac a try, there are a few simple steps to take that can allow the bot to work better and to ensure it does what you want. My first piece of advice may seem counterintuitive, but you should give your house a thorough vacuuming before you unleash your robot on it. Robo-vacs aren’t meant to clean up weeks or months of accumulated filth in a single go. Rather, they’re built to help keep a clean house clean over time. Since we know that some TR readers have cleanliness issues with their PCs, I don’t feel bad suggesting that the same problem might extend to their homes. Don’t make your robot suffer—do it a solid and clean up first.
Part of that clean-up should also include consideration of the clutter that may be on your floor. If you schedule cleanings, you’ll soon get used to spot-checking your floor for socks or cat toys before your robot does its thing. The same pre-planning should extend to furniture and fixtures, as well. Your robot will quickly show you the areas it can get stuck the first time it runs, but if you think about challenging terrain in advance and rearrange your home accordingly, you’ll get better performance out of your bot to start with. Think of it as that PC cable-rerouting project you’ve been putting off.
Of course you can use your robot’s Virtual Wall or boundary marker to cordon off problem areas. Since my dogs ate all my Virtual Walls years ago and those magnetic strips are hard to hide, I generally attack the problem at the source or go with a lower-tech solution like the bumper shown below.
Yeah, rackin’ up bills with my mad vacuuming skills. Upgrading my robot for thrills.
I think the best way to determine the schedule for running your robot is to go by the contents of the dust bin after a cleaning. Don’t make this judgment call right away. Let your robot clean every day for the first couple weeks. Depending on how full the bin gets, decide whether you need to keep running it daily or if you can reduce the frequency of cleanings. Just be sure to empty the bin and at least check the brush after each run.
When you do set your bot’s cleaning schedule, you’ll want to think about what will be happening in your house at the time. Just like you wouldn’t schedule a backup or AV scan in the middle of your regular gaming night, you don’t want your robot to vacuum during times of peak household activity. That isn’t to say that it’s always the right call to let your robot vacuum unsupervised though. Even if you’ve prepared well and are confident it won’t get stuck, there could be at least one more important variable at play.
A word about pets
Robot vacuums and pets are at once the best and worst combination. Pet hair is the single biggest reason I need a robot to vacuum my entire house daily. Without my Neato doing its job, pet-hair-tumbleweeds take over my floor in less than a week. Conversely, pet, uh, mess, is the cause of my worst robo-vac disasters.
All of my robots have had run-ins with pet mess. I’ve had robots spread mess on the carpet, fill with mess until they stop running, and, in an unfortunate incident involving knit-booties, actually mop the floor with mess. It’s not pretty, people. I’d rather remove malware from a relative’s PC than extract pet mess from the I/O ports of a robo-vac, but you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do. Eventually I got smart and adjusted my bots’ schedules so that I was always awake to check for mess first, but let this be a word of warning to you.
Wanna roll wit my crew, hah? Hunt dust bunnies and bore felines like I do?
It takes a certain level of fondness to willingly clean pet mess out of a robot. It’s human nature to personify inanimate objects, and that seems to be especially true of robots, even robot vacuums. I appreciate the work my robots do, and I can’t help but feel pity for them when something bad happens to them or they break down. That dynamic makes me inclined to take good care of them, which ends up being an interesting and educational enough activity for me to consider my bots a hobby.
If you’re on the fence about trying a robo-vac out for yourself, a good option to consider is a refurbished Neato XV-21. These bots are easy to find for about $200, and should work well while providing a good platform to learn something new. Heck, with memory and SSDs so cheap, stagnating CPU performance, and a pending GPU die shrink, what else are you going to spend your computing budget on?