How to Choose a Robot Vacuum
The top performers in our review are the Neato Botvac Connected, the Gold Award winner; the iRobot Roomba 980, the Silver Award winner; and Samsung POWERbot, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a robot vacuum to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of these 10 products.
There’s no way around it: You have to do housework. Aside from the regular dishes, laundry and straightening you do, your house needs deeper cleaning, like vacuuming, sweeping and mopping. By the end of the day, there’s little time left to do the things you want to do. You can take back some of your free time by investing in a robot vacuum. These little housecleaning helpers won’t replace your upright vacuum cleaner or mop, but they can help you maintain a cleaner home so you don’t have to do those deep cleans quite so often.
Robot vacuums have been on the market for almost two decades – in the late '90s, Electrolux debuted its first model, the Trilobite. Early in the millennium, the robovac became more accessible when iRobot launched the Roomba. These small disc-shaped automated vacuum cleaners use a variety of sensors to track dirt, pet hair and other debris on carpeted floors and hard surfaces. They employ different rotating brushes that help pick up bits and pieces along edges of baseboards and rugs. The best robot vacuums use HEPA media filters that can trap allergens, such as pet dander, pollen and dust mites, and mitigate allergies.
A robot vacuum may be sophisticated enough to pick up dirt and debris from your floors and then steer itself back to its charging station, but there are a few things it needs your help with. For example, if you don’t want it going into a certain room, you need to either close the door or use a virtual wall, magnetic boundary or a virtual lighthouse that come with some models. You also need to empty its dustbin and clean its filter regularly or it won’t have room to store all of that dust and hair, and its performance will suffer. Though robot vacuums can sense obstacles to avoid, they may inadvertently snack on thin cables hanging out on the floor or get tangled up in bigger cords.
Although robotic vacuums have proven to be effective in cleaning floors, you may still need to vacuum, sweep or mop to get the especially grimy stuff. In which case, you are going to need an upright vacuum cleaner or a canister vacuum. If you’re looking for an even deeper clean, there are carpet cleaners you can invest in.
When you’re ready to start checking off the most important features and options for you in a robot vacuum, you want to be sure it can live up to your expectations. If you have mostly hard floors in your home with area rugs, you want to check the climbing height of a robot vacuum cleaner. Most of the robot cleaners can't handle thick carpeting, like shag. And some of the robot vacuums on our list are hybrids, so you can set it up to vacuum all of your floors one day, and then mop the next. You can learn more about these modern marvels, including the upcoming release of the Dyson 360 Eye, by reading our articles on robot vacuums.
Robot Vacuums: What We Tested, What We Discovered
Potential robot vacuum owners need to understand that these little helpers are daily housecleaning supplements. They are meant to pick up dust, hair, fur and crumbs to maintain cleaner floors. You can’t expect it to perform miracles. All of the robot vacuums in our lineup attempt to climb over thresholds, but each one handles higher climbs a little differently. There are certain features you can find that each robotic vacuum in our lineup has, such as ledge sensors and a spot-cleaning option. A ledge sensor protects the vacuum by sensing drop-offs and preventing these robots from tumbling over a set of stairs. Each of these top robots offers a spot-cleaning solution that allows you to instruct the robot to perform a quick pickup of one space.
As for the other features the robots offer, we test-drove each one of them. We put each robot vacuum on our list through real-world tests – and pushed them a little further to see if they’re capable beyond the claimed abilities.
The single most important function of a vacuum cleaner is how well it cleans your floors, so we tested the robotic vacuums on medium-pile carpet, hard surfaces, rugs and bath mats. We tasked the miniature vacuum cleaners with picking up flour, pet fur, human hair, toast crumbs and thin garlic skins.
Each one was able to pick up at least some of the hair, but some of them without dirt sensors would pass over an area without picking up the majority of the debris. We also scored the robots on how well they managed obstacles, such as fringe on rugs, power cords and furniture. You can expect your robot vacuum to gently bump into a few pieces of furniture or run into walls on occasion, but we found some of them were less gentle when they ran into obstacles.
The best robot vacuum cleaners run for about two hours on a single charge, but all of the robot vacuums on our lineup run for at least one hour, depending on the task. Those that require a shorter charge time – 120 to 150 minutes – were given a higher rating because your house can get clean sooner.
Most of the robotic vacuums we tested were able to navigate door thresholds with little to no difficulty, so you can sit back and not worry about directing your robot vacuum to clean specific areas. Additionally, you can schedule cleaning times for your bot, which translates to even less work on your end.
All of these features contributed to the final score of each robot vacuum on our list, plus a few others, such as whether the vacuums also mop, whether they offer a spot-cleaning option and whether they make multiple passes over floors they’ve already cleaned.
All of these robot vacuums require regular cleanings themselves. You may need to empty the dustbin and tap out the filter daily depending on how much it sucks up. You also have to clear tangled hair around the brushes, which we found necessary specifically on the Miele Scout. Hair that got wrapped around the flexible brushes of the iRobot Roomba 980 got pushed to the ends of the brush, which was extremely easy to pull off. We tested how long it took us to clean each robot vacuum and how easy it was to perform the necessary maintenance. Other considerations in our tests were assembly, setting up boundaries and setting schedules.
Although tiny robot vacuums are considerably quieter than their bigger, more powerful vacuum cousins, some of they can be fairly noisy, measuring as high as 78 decibels, the equivalent of a regular vacuum cleaner or conversations in a restaurant.
Not all robot vacuums have charging stations, so a light to indicate that the battery is low is important so you can recharge it when necessary. We also looked at the type of brushes these vacuums use, such as side spinning brushes, which can help enormously in pushing debris toward the underbelly of the robot and then into its bin.
What Else Is Important in Choosing a Robot Vacuum?
Some robot vacuum manufacturers include fringe benefits to make their appliances even more appealing, but they aren’t completely necessary. Having a solid warranty, however, is vital in case anything goes wrong. Although most robot vacuums are easy to use straight out of the box, instructional videos and a user manual can be helpful.
There are only two robot vacuums in our lineup that include a smartphone or tablet app, which allows your robot to connect to your home Wi-Fi. You can then set up schedules and control your robot from your phone or tablet (iOS and Android) – even when you’re not home. This communication can be particularly helpful if, for example, you’re at work and find out you’re going to have some unexpected company that evening. You can "talk" to your little machine and have it perform another pass around your house before you get home.
Several robot vacuums on our list include a remote control, which means not having to chase down your pet vacuum during one of its cleanings if you want to change its schedule or being able to manually control your bot.
Some robot cleaners have magnetic strips that you can place at doorways or areas that you’d rather not have your robot vacuum venture into. Others employ more technology and include virtual walls that you can set up to prevent your robot from traveling to. Virtual lighthouses can force your robot vacuum to finish vacuuming one room before moving on to another.
Warranty & Support
If anything goes wrong with your robotic vacuum, you’re going to be glad that you have a warranty that covers defective parts. All of the robot vacuums on our list include at least a one-year guarantee for the robot itself and a six-month warranty for the battery, while some of the better ones offer two and even five years of protection. An online user manual is helpful if your unit doesn’t come with a physical one, which was the case for a couple of the robot vacuums we reviewed. When you have questions that don’t seem to be covered by the manual, having access to a customer support team by phone, email or live chat can be essential.
We found online tutorials helpful when we wanted to schedule the robot vacuums to deploy at the same time every day.
Robot Vacuums: Our Verdict and Recommendations
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained the units in our comparison on loan from some manufacturers and purchased other units. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to manufacturers in advance of publication.
Overall, the Neato Botvac Connected was most impressive with its smart navigation of each room and its easy-to-use smartphone and tablet app. It rarely bumped into obstacles, but it managed to roll right up to walls and other edges to clean better than any other robot vacuum. In its Turbo mode, it sucked up more debris than most of the robots on our lineup, but it was as loud as a regular vacuum cleaner.
The latest model from iRobot, the Roomba 980, delivered an excellent performance also. The app lets you schedule cleanings and check for details on where your robot has been cleaning and for how long. If you want to locate your Roomba while it's cleaning, you can play a game of Marco Polo with it through your app.
Samsung’s latest addition to the word of robotic vacuums – the POWERbot – gave a good run, too. Its cleaning performance beat out most of the competition and maintenance for it was faster than any other bot on our lineup.
Very few of the robot vacuums cleaned under our test couch that had a fabric flap that hung down. The couch had a 4-inch gap between it and the floor, so it was able to fit every robovac, but only iRobot’s units, including the Roomba 650, and the Infinuvo Cleanmate QQ-2 Basic ventured underneath.
Although the Miele Scout didn’t stack up as well as the highest-rated units, it performed well in our tests, picking up fine dust and almost every speck of debris we challenged it to. However, it gave us several errors in our testing, including when it ate the fringe of a rug. It refused to clean under certain pieces of furniture, and it doesn’t include a carrying handle.
These machines cannot replace the deep clean that you can get from an upright or canister vacuum cleaner, but they definitely kept our floors cleaner than they would have been otherwise.