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Robot vacuum cleaners

Everyone hates vacuum cleaning, so a robot that does it for you must be a good thing, right? We tested some to see if the future is now.

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Vacuum cleaners are one of our most popular tests. We might simply be a house-proud nation, or it could be more to do with us searching for a product that minimises the pain of cleaning. A robot vacuum cleaner promises to be the ultimate painkiller. Who wouldn’t want their home automatically cleaned?

September 2017 update: We carried out a test of robot vacuums back in 2015 and since then some of the models we looked at have disappeared from shelves and not been replaced.

How they work

Robot vacuums run autonomously, following random or semi-random paths in a room, guided by on-board dirt, bump and stair sensors. In our test, all models came with “virtual walls”, infrared emitters or magnetic strips that create a barrier to limit where the robot cleans. All automatically return to their charge dock when the battery runs low and all run for at least an hour between charges.

To get the most from a robot vacuum, our vacuuming habits need an update. Where we might manually clean a room thoroughly once a week, a robot will clean a little each day over a week to get the job done. With the scheduling function, it can do its work while you are out. The result? You never need to vacuum again … in theory.

Our test

The robot vacuums navigated around the lab – on hard floors and carpet, up and down rugs (with and without tassels), under furniture and around obstacles. We measured dirt and pet hair pickup from carpet, hard floor, corners and edges – just as we do for other vacuum cleaners. When calculating the overall score, we placed more focus on cleaning hard floors than carpet to reflect the intended use of these robot vacuums.

What we found

Robot vacuum cleaners suck!

Many of these robot vacuums surprised us with just how little dirt they picked up. Only the iRobot Roomba 630 and Miele Scout RX1 (no longer available) were good at cleaning hard floors. The iRobot was also OK at picking up pet hair. But all other scores for cleaning carpet, pet hair or corners and edges were poor or extremely poor.

All robots in our test come with a remote control (except the iRobot Roomba 630). But using a stick or handheld vacuum is more convenient than using a remote control to guide a robot, and more effective at cleaning up localised dirt.

We think you’ll still need to use a conventional vacuum to clean up the dirt these robots leave behind. But if you have to do that, then the robot becomes pointless, offering just a superficial clean and saving no manual effort.

We love the idea of a robot doing the vacuuming, but we don’t think the products are there yet. The poor performance of the Miele in particular, usually a top-performing vacuum cleaner brand, highlights this technology still has some way to go.

Life with a robot

We’ve had an iRobot Roomba 780 scooting around our office for the past few weeks.

This is one of the more expensive iRobot models at $1248, but comes with a day and time scheduler, two virtual walls, a remote control, and a full array of navigation and control sensors. We trialled it over two weeks in a room about five metres square with a short-pile carpet and a few obstacles such as a table and stacked boxes.

Here’s how it performed.

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