Robot vacuums have been promising to do our dirty work for more than two decades now, but rather than provide the hassle-free cleaning help of our dreams, some just suck – and not in a good way. Sure, early models devoured surface detritus, but often left a trail of half-eaten dirt-crumbs and dust-bunny bits while they crashed into walls and furniture legs with about as much grace – and overall success – as a drunk person wearing a blindfold.
But sweeping changes are underfoot in the robot vacuum world, with a few of the latest models inching closer to a kind of Rosey from "The Jetsons" reality than ever before.
For instance, most robot vacuums come equipped with Wi-Fi now, so that you can schedule and control them from an app on your smartphone. Many also sport some kind of on-board camera that helps them navigate from room to room without getting tripped up between a hardwood floor and area rug. A few of the newest models are also voice-enabled, so you can say, “Alexa, have Roomba vacuum the kitchen,” and it does – with more speed and less sass than, say, the average teenager. And with the latest addition vacuum that can empty its own dustbin, at least one model can go months before needing a human touch at all.
In other words, robot vacuums are on a roll.
Which robot vacuum is the right one for you comes down to price (there’s a huge range from $200-$1,000), need (a daily once-over, pet hair, pollen?), and just exactly how much you want it to do on its own. Here are a few of the best robot vacuums on the market today.
iRobot Roomba i7: For Daily Cleaning
For the past 10 weeks, I’ve put the new iRobot Roomba i7 with Clean Base Automatic Dirt Disposal through the real-life obstacle course that is my own well-lived-in home. And by “lived-in,” I mean “cluttered,” a word that used to be synonymous with kryptonite for most robot vacuums – but that’s not the case anymore.
The i7+ robot learns, maps and adapts to your home using onboard “eyes” – a mix of multiple sensors, updated software, and a top-mounted camera. The newest tech helps the bot pick out landmarks in each room, then learn how to best work around them, even if they change from day-to-day. The “Dirt Detect” technology also knows which areas of the floor or carpet see the most traffic, and tells the robot to spend extra time on those areas, such as near the front door and under the dinner table.
You can see all of this information in the iRobot app on your smartphone, in a section called Smart Maps. After the robot learns your rooms, you can name them, and use the tailored maps to clean specific rooms. You can also connect the i7+ with Alexa or Google Assistant, and use your voice to tell it to clean an entire floor, or just a specific room right away.
My favorite feature, though, is the self-cleaning dustbin that empties into a bag in the robot’s base station. I don’t have to empty the robot and can wait for up to 30 cleanings before ditching the base station bag. It’s a totally hands-off affair, and I’m in love.
All this awesome comes at a price.
What I’m not in love with is the price tag. At $950, that’s a big chunk of change to
part with, even when it means coming home to a vacuumed house every day. You
can buy just the robot vacuum with a “regular” (non-suctioning) charging base
for $700, but the self-cleaning dustbin is one of the biggest ah-ha moments in
this technology for me.
Neato Botvac D7 Connected: For All the Angles
Another top robot vacuum, the Neato Botvac D7 Connected ($800), has a bunch of fancy new tricks, too.
The biggest difference you’ll notice out of the box with the D7 is the shape. It has a square-shaped front end, with a rounded back end, making the whole robot look like a letter “D.” This particular shape helps the robot push its way into corners and hug walls.
The D7 navigates rooms with Neato’s patented LaserSmart technology, mapping your home’s floor plan and then coming up with the most efficient pattern to tackle the floor. I love that it goes back and forth in a straight line, versus turning a bunch of random circles like a cat chasing its tail – but is that the better way to clean a room? I’m
not sure. The end results from a once-over from this vacuum compared to the Roomba i7 were pretty much the same in my house.
The D7 Connected has multiple cleaning modes that you can set in the app, depending on how dirty the floor is. When I noticed it wasn’t picking up every single crumb and speck on my hardwood kitchen floor, for instance, I cranked it up to Turbo mode to get
faster brush speed and max-out the suction power. The one set-back, though, is that it also cranks up the noise level. My daughter was trying to talk to me while it was running in the kitchen, and I couldn’t hear a word she said. I prefer the noise level of “Eco” mode, which sets the speed and suction to medium and keeps the bot nice and quiet. Still, even on Eco mode, it’s louder than the Roomba i7.
The last Neato I owned, about two years ago, didn’t ever work well. The lasers stopped working within two months, it died away from the charger nearly every time I used it, and the app was a bit of a mess. That’s all completely changed in all the best ways.
The app now has the exact features I’m missing from the Roomba i7+. You can operate it manually, and drive it around a specific area with the app, like a remote-controlled pet robot. This is not only fun because – robots! – but it’s great for cleaning up that dried
mud your kids just tracked in or the coffee grounds you just spilled in the kitchen. It also does spot cleaning. And once it learns your home’s floor plan, you can use Alexa or Google voice to tell it to clean a specific room, too. You can also set “No Go” lines, to keep it away from stairs or a sleeping baby’s room – simply and easily from the app.
Like the Roomba, the Botvac D7 stores your home’s floor plan, making it easy to direct it to specific rooms via the Botvac app or with voice prompts through Amazon Echo or Google Home. You can also operate it from your Apple watch or Google Wear OS which is a handy trick, especially on the go.
But Will They Go The Distance?
Since robot vacuums are still new-ish technology, no one is quite sure how long they should last. Some of the earlier models I reviewed lasted just a few months before they took a suicide-dive down the tiny stairs from my kitchen to the basement or
just stopped working for no apparent reason.
According to Consumer Reports, most high-end vacuums last around eight years, and robot vacs have a life-span of around five years. That’s still nothing compared to sturdy canister vac my family used when I was growing up. It put up with two active kids and two active pets for a good 20 years before my parents finally retired it. Even today, the $600 Miele canister vacuum is expected to last around two decades.
For all robot vacuums that run on rechargeable lithium batteries, there’s a good chance you’ll want to get a new battery for it every two to three years to keep it going strong – just like what’s recommended with smartphones and laptops. Other than that, regular maintenance and occasional trouble-shooting with the company’s help line will, hopefully, keep it healthy the next even more useful robot gets invented.
While these two are the newest, and obviously the top of the line, springing for a robot vacuum doesn’t have to break your bank account. Neato and Roomba have models in the $300 range, and they are hardly the only games in town when it comes to automated cleaning. My top pick for budget bots includes the $230 Eufy RoboVac 11s. It’s a quiet alternative to more spendy robot vacuums, rarely making enough noise to interrupt a conversation. And it picks up as much dirt per run as the pricier iRobot models – but with a lot fewer bells and whistles overall.
Other lower-priced favorites also include the $380 Neato Botvac D3 Connected and the $350 Ecovacs Deebot 601. The Neato is especially great with pet hair pick-up, while the Evovacs model is a combination robot vacuum and mop that does a decent job keeping your floors spick-and-span. No matter which one you choose, you'll still need your old handy-vac for stairs, super tight spaces, and for that speedy spot clean that you're right there to tackle versus waiting for a robot to get to it. For most other circumstances, these newest robot vacuums truly are smart little suckers – in all the best ways.