Robot vacuum cleaners

Robot vacuum cleaner in hallway

Convenience, but at what cost?

A robotic helper taking care of your vacuuming sounds like bliss. Has this dream finally become a reality? We've tested a range of models to see how well they clean hard floors and carpet, and remove pet hair.

From our test

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What is a robot vacuum cleaner?

Typically circular and about the size of a large pizza, robot vacuums clean by suctioning up dirt, like a normal vacuum cleaner.

Some also use brushes or rollers to sweep dirt towards the cleaning head. They run on wheels, allowing them to turn corners tightly and climb on to rugs. They roam in semi-random patterns, and have sensors for detecting and avoiding objects. Due to their size, their collection bins tend to be small, (about half a litre), like stick vacs.

Prices range from $225 to $2000 – but be careful of the model you buy, performance doesn’t always match price.

Pros
  • Small and easy to store.
  • Convenient to use.
  • Clean hard floors well.
  • Programmable to run at a certain time.
  • Some automatically dock and recharge when required.
Cons
  • Don't clean carpets as well as a regular vacuum.
  • Some models have trouble moving between hard floors and rugs.
  • Small dust collection bin.

What we found

While robot vacs performed well in our hard floors test, carpets are still a bit beyond their ability. They just don’t have the suction power to rival canister, upright or stick vacuums.

Our recommended models have a place as a supplement to your normal vacuuming. While you’ll still need to pull out the standard vac for a thorough clean, regularly unleashing your robot vacuum will help keep light dirt and debris under control.

Unfortunately, where most robot vacuums sucked was cleaning carpets. If your home has carpets or rugs, especially thick pile, you’ll still need to use a conventional vacuum to clean up the dirt these vacuums miss. If you’re keen on a robot vac to clean up after your moulting moggie, make sure to check our pet-hair removal scores. Our tests found models ranged from extremely poor to good at picking up fur.

Features to look for

Here's what to consider when choosing a robot vacuum cleaner:

  • Stair detection: common on most models, this feature lets the robot sense when it’s approaching stairs and change direction.
  • Virtual wall: uses an external unit (typically the size of a mobile phone) to create an invisible barrier.
  • Programmable times: allow you to set the robot to run at specific days and times. Not all models have this feature.
  • Return-to-base charging: it seems a no-brainer, but not all robot vacs do this (two tested models require you to find and place them on the charger when they run out of juice).
  • Noise: while robot vacs aren’t silent, they are noticeably quieter than normal vacuums (10dBA quieter on average). They do beep and whistle though, which could become annoying.
  • Remote control: while the robot will autonomously navigate, a remote control is handy. They typically let you change the settings, such as programmable time, or direct it to a particularly dirty patch of floor.
  • WiFi connectivity: gives you remote control ability from an app on your smartphone, and also lets you control the robot while you’re out of the house.

About our test

Robot vacuums should be able to clean any type of flooring. We test them on hard and soft flooring and around obstacles (chairs and a bench), so that the setup is similar to a home.

  • Hard floors: We scatter a measured amount of sand evenly over a vinyl floor and let the robot loose for 25 minutes, or until the end of its cleaning cycle. We periodically measure the dirt collected and the score is based on the total amount picked up.
  • Carpet cleaning: Similar to the hard floor test, we sprinkle sand evenly onto a section of carpet and leave the robot to clean. The sand collected is weighed and recorded, and then a score is given.
  • Corners and edges cleaning: Sand is spread into a corner, and the robot vacuum is instructed to clean this area. A visual assessment of remaining sand checks how close to the corner it got.
  • Pet-hair removal: We embed cat hair into carpet and set the vacuum to run for six minutes. The score is based on a visual assessment of how much cat hair is left after the test.
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