Cleaning Robot Buyer's Guide

So you’re finally going to take the plunge and buy a household cleaning robot? Great! You are one step closer to living in the future and freeing yourself up to do something more fun than sweeping floors.

Hang on, though, because buying a robot vacuum isn’t the one-horse race it used to be. Sure, iRobot pioneered the market with its Roomba robots back in 2002, but now there are more cleaning bots scuttling around than you can shake a remote at.

That leaves us in a bit of a pickle, since few people have any real experience buying a robot cleaner. It’s a new thing, so it’s pretty easy to focus on the wrong aspects of these products.

I’ve taken the liberty to actually review some of the most popular options so maybe check out those reviews first to see if there are any that take your fancy. If not, then this guide will help you find the droids you’re looking for. I’m sorry, I’m contractually obligated to put one Star Wars reference on every website.

Managing Expectations

bissell-smartclean-3fshBefore we even look at any of the buying tips, the first thing you should know is that robotic vacuums are not super-capable autonomous devices yet. Yes, more than a decade of development and technological progress have made them much more advanced, but if you are expecting something that will do ALL your cleaning for you then you are getting ready for a serious disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, these are awesome little devices that can really relieve the burden of daily household maintenance, but there is still plenty for you to do. For the most part you will have to do occasional thorough cleanings, since most of these robots do not have very powerful suction power. As the technology improves they will likely do more and more, but as it stands they are still quite limited devices.

Price

The asking price of robot vacuums and mops can vary wildly – from less than $200 to over $1000 and everything in between. Be careful of deals that seems too cheap, there are a lot of opportunistic off-brand products out there that are dirt cheap, but will end up in the bin. You see, the actual part you need to build this kind of robot are not all that expensive anymore, so you can build a functional Roomba clone for very little. What differentiates a good robot vacuum from a bad one is the intelligence of its programming, and that’s something another company can’t so easily replicate. A cheap robot may therefore not be built at a much lower quality than an expensive brand name one, but it may be a lot dumber, which means it may not do its job properly or reliably. It may need you to keep an eye on it the whole time or it may even end up doing something that can cause damage, like knocking stuff over.

There is nothing wrong with getting a good deal, but do your homework or find a video of that robot in action before you find out it has a busted motivator. Boom, second Star Wars reference. I’m not even trying anymore.

Room Size and Number

This may seem obvious, but there is a limit to how much a robot can clean before it needs to recharge or to have its dirt bags emptied. You can’t buy a robot designed to clean one room in a small apartment and then expect it to clean the first floor of your mansion. Also, you have a mansion – spend some more money on your robot. Jeez.

Also, most robots can clean one room, but need to be manually moved to another room in order to clean it. Pay attention to how many rooms it can learn, whether it can traverse between them without help and if it needs extra hardware such as radio beacons to navigate.

Most robots can return to their charging docks with no help from you, but not all of them will go back to work from there themselves. If you have a workload that is going to take more than one charge and you don’t want to babysit the robot, be sure to get one with a recharge and resume function.

Floor Types

irobot-roomba-2fshCarpets, especially thick ones, are the enemy of robot vacuums, as they tend to work better on hard floors or thin carpets. Make sure that the manufacturer specifically specifies that the vacuum you are looking to get will work on the floor types you plan for it. There is no use in buying an expensive automated vacuum that can’t get up onto your shag carpet.

Smarter than the Average Bear

Once you have ensured that the robot will do the very basics, you need to evaluate the “smart” features of the robot. This includes a couple of things.

For one, you want a robot that you can program with a schedule. Most people want it to come out and clean in the night when everyone is asleep, which, incidentally, also implies that you want one that is pretty quiet. This can be a problem because the noise level is rarely stated on these things, so you’d best read some impressions or watch a few YouTube videos to get an idea of how noisy your particular choice will be.

You also want one that can find its way around your home without bumping into things, knocking over Ming vases, and generally being a nuisance. Almost all modern robot vacuums can tell if there is drop, such as at the top of the stairs, and many come with beacons or other devices that tell them not to go through certain doors or areas. If you need these features make sure that they are actually there before putting down your money.

We Have Taken Over Control of Your Set

Surprisingly, few robot vacuums have integrated themselves with existing home automation ecosystems like Amazon Alexa or Apple HomeKit. I have only seen WiFi connectivity on the most expensive models. It is a little weird and out of touch, but that’s the way it is at the moment. I expect that to change very soon, but for now you are most likely required to control and program your robot using an included remote. Do keep an eye out for app-controlled WiFi-enabled robots. They are becoming more commonplace and are more versatile and convenient, if a bit more expensive.

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

One day we’ll look back at these primitive little scuttlers and wish fondly for the days before the robot uprising. So choose your new robot friend carefully and, for Pete’s sake, be nice to the little guy. You never know when being mean to a robot can come back and bite you in the future. Think of it as robot karma.