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iRobot Roomba 770 Robotic Vacuum Cleaner - is it Any Good?

23rd Jun 2012, 10:06:32

By James Stocks

Yes, I think it is.

Most people vacuum the house about once a week. It's a job that's easy to ignore when you're busy: once a week becomes every other week, then becomes once a month. In our house, it had become a herculean task that was done once in a blue moon. So I thought, I have an automatic dishwasher to clean my dishes, an automatic washing machine to clean my clothes, why not a robotic vacuum cleaner for my carpets?

There are several robotic vacuum cleaners available from the likes of LG, Electrolux and iRobot. I opted for the iRobot Roomba because it is the most reasonably priced and is widely available. There are nine models available, ranging from £279.00 - £799. I bought a Roomba 770 because at £300 it was the cheapest available with scheduling, HEPA filters, the more powerful vacuum system, dirt detection, a remote control and a 'full bin' indicator.

The Roomba 770 duly arrived by courier. Almost everything required was supplied in the box, including some tools for cleaning the brushes and a spare set of HEPA filters. A minor disappointment was a lack of supplied AA batteries for the remote control or C batteries for the 'virtual wall' unit, however neither of these are required in order to use the Roomba normally. After peeling off a few bits of packing tape, I set the Roomba down on its charging dock. 4-5 Hours later, it was fully charged and ready to go.

It's definitely a good idea to do some roomba-proofing before you let the robot loose on your house. It will eat things like cables, clothes left on the floor, shoelaces and so on. I forgot about a laptop charger I'd left lying around, which the Roomba sucked up and got jammed on. Impressively, it detected this, reversed the brushes, spat the cable out and carried on cleaning without any intervention from me. I suspect it can't be too good for the mechanism to let it do this too often though.

I had already used our Dyson DC04 to vacuum the house in anticipation of receiving the new cleaner, but even so the Roomba's dust bin was pretty much full after its inaugural one-hour cleaning run. This, I think, is because at 9cm tall the cleaner is small enough to fit under our sofas and kitchen furniture, which is a difficult area to vacuum properly with the upright Dyson. This particular model has sensors designed to detect particularly dirty areas and this really works - the cleaner goes into a more intensive cleaning pattern going back and forth over the area until the dirt is gone. The cleaner has a 'crawling' and 'walking' speed, using its optical sensors to slow down when it thinks it's about to bump into something, so it just lightly touches things before turning away. It did knock over a vase because it was not heavy enough for the impact sensors to detect, but it didn't break. The edges of the cleaner are rubberised, so it doesn't dent or scratch our wooden furniture. For a vacuum cleaner, the Roomba 770 is surprisingly quiet. Before it begins cleaning, it plays a courtesy sound to warn you that the motor is about to start, so it doesn't startle me. The motor is loud enough to be annoying if I am trying to watch TV, but it's quiet enough to hold a normal conversation over.

The Roomba is a deliberately dumb robot; it doesn't learn anything or memorise the house layout in any way. This is a good thing because it allows me to move the cleaner to each floor of our three-storey house as I see fit. On the other hand, it can be annoyingly dumb - watching it get stuck under the kitchen table and chairs for 15 minutes is annoying. The main reason I set it to clean when I'm busy elsewhere is so that I don't know this is happening. The key seems to be to schedule the Roomba to run as often as possible, so after letting it do a few successful semi-supervised runs I programmed it to clean every day except sunday. This way, if the cleaner misses a little area today it will most likely get it tomorrow before I have noticed. If the Roomba starts cleaning and judges that the floor isn't dirty it returns to its dock after only ten minutes, so this doesn't result in much unnecessary cleaning. So far, after several weeks, and probably 50 cleaning runs, the Roomba has a 100% success rate in finding its dock before exhausting its battery. Impressive.

The robot is not entirely 'set and forget', requiring some maintenance. The lady of the house has waist-length hair, so every saturday morning I remove the Roomba's brushes and use the special brush cleaner to remove hair that's ravelled round it. This is very easy and quick to do, far easier than the Dyson. Whilst i'm there, I wipe off the stair sensors with a duster and empty the dust bin. This takes 10 minutes at most. If you don't have pets or hairy people in your house, I'm confident it could go much longer, since the dust bin is never even half full after a week.

You can just let the Roomba clean automatically and never interact with it, but the cleaner does have controls for you to use. The infrared remote has a directional control allowing you to 'drive' the robot yourself. This is fun for a bit, but it's a novelty really, I find it much easier to pick up the cleaner and move it myself, but I suppose it would be useful for people with restricted mobility. There is a button to start a cleaning cycle and a button to tell the cleaner to locate and return to its dock right away. Finally, you can ask the robot to do a 'spot' clean, where it will clean intensively within a one metre or so radius of its present location, useful for those small spills. These controls are replicated on the control panel located on the top surface of the robot, as well as a suite of status icons which give some information about what the Roomba is doing and any error conditions. Fatal errors are announced by means of a tone and a spoken description of the problem. Scheduling can only be accomplished using the Roomba's control panel, which is no more complicated to use than any other seven-day timer.

Overall, I'm very impressed with the device. It keeps the carpets spotless day-to-day and there is a noticeable reduction of the amount of dust on other surfaces in the house. All I have to do is nip round with the Dyson's crevice tool to do things like the tops of skirting boards, door jambs and of course the stairs. If I didn't already have the Dyson, I would purchase a cheap shop vac, or perhaps even a handheld cleaner to do these bits.

Update 24th March 2013: We've had the Roomba for nine months now...

Consuela continues to impress me. The Roomba dependably trundles round at 10:00 every day keeping the place tidy, consistently returning to its base to charge each time. I try to remember to empty and clean it weekly, but I don't always manage it. Nevertheless, even if it goes two or three weeks without maintenence, it just carries on.

The Roomba takes care of all the floors, but that does leave the stairs, spider webs, tops of the skirting boards and so on. We got fed up of hauling out the old upright Dyson, so that's been replaced with a Dyson digital slim. It only runs for nine minutes on full power, but that's more than enough now.

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