Having a robotic vacuum cleaner buzzing around while you get on with something else feels a lot like living in the future. Of all the technology we have – smartphones, tablets, Wi-Fi, electric cars – a cleaning robot is the one which will make you think reality has caught up with science fiction.
This is how we feel having introduced an iRobot Roomba 980 to our home. The circular robot can be summoned from its charging station via a smartphone app, then gets to work sucking up dust and dirt from all types of flooring.
The Roomba 980 is the flagship of the range, boasting the longest battery life (up to two hours), the ability to recharge itself then resume if cleaning wasn't completed, and a smartphone app, which no other Roomba gets and can be used to control the 980 when you're away from home.
It is also the most expensive Roomba, costing a substantial £800, £500 more than the cheapest of the five-model range. But for that you really do get the complete package; having used the 980 for a few weeks, there isn't much we would want to add.
Setting up the Roomba via the app is easy, and you can even give it a name. Charging the robot is done by sitting it on its dock, which is compact and can be placed against a wall, then cleaning is a case of pressing the big 'Clean' button in the app or on the Roomba itself. Through the app, it can be programmed to clean at a specific time every day of the week.
The Roomba 980's cleaning performance is good and about on par with our traditional upright vacuum cleaner. The robot's route around the house appears random at first, but using a range of cameras and sensors it knows where it has already been and can be set to go over each room twice if needs be. Suction power automatically adjusts depending on the type of floor being cleaned.
As well as two rollers and the main suction system under the robot, there is a spinning brush which the Roomba runs along the edges of every wall and large object it encounters. This is a neat system, but sometimes flicks dirt across the room rather than into the Roomba's path.
Speaking of which, the dust bin gets full quickly; we found it always needed emptying before the battery ran out. The Roomba can be pre-programmed to stop and return to its charger when full, or to continue and cram as much dirt in there as possible. The latter means emptying it can be messy, but also that the whole room (or even floor) can be cleaned in one session.
We found the Roomba surprisingly good at navigating around a small flat full of furniture without any major problems. It occasionally got stuck under a sofa, or caught up among chair legs, but mostly it could be left unattended to work away until the job is done; it then returns to its charging station and plays a short victory tune. Yes, really.
Mind the step
Having bravely tested the Roomba's step avoidance technology, we can safely say it works. The robot charges towards drops, yet always stops at the very last moment (front end overhanging like a scene from The Italian Job), before backing up slightly and vacuuming neatly along the step edge.
If you want to restrict the Roomba 980 from certain areas (it might not be welcome by the dog basket, for example), there are two included infrared light boxes which can be positioned to act as virtual walls. Here, as with most other circumstances, the Roomba 980 understands what to do. As well as navigating neatly, it uses optical and acoustic sensors to detect where your floors are dirtiest, then turns up the power over these sections.
Using the Roomba 980 (and any robot vacuum cleaner) requires you to have a tidy home. Where you might push phone chargers and other objects around while you clean with a regular vacuum, the robot can't be trusted not to suck cables up. A quick tidy up and you're good to go.
We also found the Roomba encourages you to tidy and clean more often, as vacuuming an average size room weekly will see the dust bin overflowing every time. There are two simple rules here: Keep your floors clear of anything the Roomba might eat, and set it to clean at least twice a week. That way, vacuuming the entire floor of our house became a simple matter of emptying the Roomba's easy-access bin.
Negatives? The Roomba can't vacuum your skirting boards (or anything that isn't the floor, obviously), causing us to miss the hose attachment on a regular vacuum. It is also not perfect at cleaning right into the corners and has a habit of flicking dirt across the kitchen floor instead of sucking it up. And of course there is that massive price. It costs several times more than what most people will ever spend on a regular vacuum cleaner, putting it into a category of products which, while cool, are pure luxuries.
We love using the Roomba and feel it has genuinely helped us keep our house cleaner and tidier. It is the very essence of what a gadget should be, in that it is cool, smart, desirable and works well.
But it is also incredibly expensive and isn't always up to the job of replacing a traditional vacuum cleaner entirely. The Roomba 980 is the ultimate gadget for keeping your house clean, but one all but the wealthy can probably live without.
- Compact size
- Very simple to use
- Long battery life
- Strong suction
- Needs emptying often
- Can struggle in tight corners