September 25, 2009

iRobot Roomba Pet Series - Review

irobot.jpg VS.Grover.jpg


If you read this site with any regularity, you might be familiar with our feline co-pilot, Marlowe. But what you probably didn't know is that there is another cat living at Tool Snob HQ named Grover. If they were humans in college, Marlowe would be the guy with the Jimmy Buffet tickets and Grover would be the kid who spends all of his time in his dorm room doing weird oil paintings and listening to The Cure. He's an odd little duck. But personalities aside, Grover also has the amazing ability to shed his gray and white fur at will. And it's apparently something he wills quite a bit. We bought one of those Furminator brushes and even after weekly sessions, each one harvesting enough hair to make a third cat, we still have problems with pieces of Grover all over the house.

It is with all this in mind that we were overjoyed when iRobot agreed to let us test out one of their pet series vacuums for a couple weeks. Could the spooky little frisbee have enough stamina to keep up with Grover?

irobot_docked.jpgThe general overview of the iRobot is that it's an automated vacuum that wanders around an area cleaning as it goes. It moves in a seemingly random pattern and it easily travels over thresholds (and knows not to go down the stairs) so in order to get the most efficient cleaning, it's best to contain it to a single room at a time. This is done with these little things called lighthouses. What you do is set them up at the doorway and they create a virtual wall that the iRobot will not cross, thus keeping the little automaton in a single area. What's cool though is that the lighthouses have a second function that causes the iRobot to fully clean one room and then, when it's done, to move on to an adjoining room in order to clean that and then on to another room. If, at any point, the iRobot gets low on batteries, it heads back to its docking station to charge up. There is also a scheduling feature which allows you to schedule a cleaning once per day, up to seven days a week.

irobot_lighthouse.jpgirobot_filled.jpg
We set it up in the living room (Grover Ground Zero), with the two lighthouses keeping it contained to the space, and turned it on then left to go have a few cold beers on the porch. It was already the best vacuuming experience we'd ever had. When we came back inside 30 minutes later, the iRobot was busy recharging and the floor was freaking spotless. Hardly a hair anywhere. We were expecting 'sorta clean' but what we got instead was 'military clean.' The iRobot was far superior to our standard old vacuum.

We then took the iRobot on sort of a Tool Snob world tour. We arrived at Mom and Dad Tool Snob's house with the little guy under the arm and set it loose. This house contains a massive, Newfoundland dog that makes Grover's shedding look like amateur hour. Again, we set up the iRobot (or Marvin as we had started calling it), and off it went. 30 minutes later, another spotless room conquered by the strange little vacuum.


irobot_grover.jpg irobot_under.jpg

Since then, we've vacuumed just about every room in the house at least once, most of them twice, and as far as the living room goes, three times. The Roomba is great, especially for us. With the 8-month-old crawling around, there's not a whole lot of time to allot to house cleaning. Just think about it: you've got your house on a rotation. Monday morning, set the Roomba up in the living room. Tuesday, it's the Dining room and the kitchen. and Wednesday and Thursday, you're vacuuming the upstairs. All with a combined total of 15 minutes of effort. Then at the end of the week, take another 15 minutes and clean out the brushes as recommended. There you go: clean house.

irobot_mlowe2.jpgBut, before we get too hopped up, we have to say that the iRobot can't do everything. Our vacuuming habits do include the top of baseboards, the stairs, and up on the wood stove hearth, all places that the iRobot can't get to. So you will need some sort of supplemental vacuum, and for this, you could probably get away with a really good hand held. Before testing, we figured that another weak spot for the Roomba would be any a situation where you've spilled something and need a concentrated clean in a single area, but iRobot is way ahead of us on this one. The vacuum comes with a spot cleaning mode which keeps it operating in one three foot square. Also, when it's going about its regular clean, if it finds a particularly dirty spot, it'll concentrate it's movements for a few moments in order to give that area an extra clean. Spooky.

Which leads us to another point worth mentioning, it is sort of spooky, or as Mrs. Tool Snob put it, "it's cute....and strange."

irobot_mlowe3.jpgWe have also observed the iRobot with a number of different people and nine out of ten of them will happily stand there and spend 20 minutes attempting to figure out the little robot's movement pattern (an exercise, we've since deemed impossible). It's like some odd parlor game. Who needs twister when you've can just turn on your vacuum. And regarding the movement pattern, it really does hit every possibly spot in the room multiple times.

Another thing worth noting is that the Pet series is the fifth generation of iRobot vacuums so they've had plenty of time to work out all the kinks. The introduction in the manual states that they made changes to the technology based on feedback from iRobot owners. Knowing this, it's not all that shocking that the iRobot completely blew away our expectations.

So what does all of this luxury cost? Well, the unit we tested out (the 562) runs just over $350, but there are other models as inexpensive as $250 or ones that get up in the $500-$600 range. As far as quality vacuums go, it's a standard price range. And while there's no question that the iRobot saves a lot of time, you first have to hold your nose and leap into the deep end of the "new technology" pool. We did and, man o man, were we impressed.

Roomba 560 at iRobot
Other iRobot vacuums at iRobot and Amazon.com

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Posted by Doug Mahoney at September 25, 2009 5:40 AM

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