The Gadgets Page

January 16, 2004

Review: Roomba robotic vacuum

Filed under: Misc. Gadgets,Reviews,Robots — Matthew Strebe @ 1:55 pm

iRobot Roomba Intelligent Floorvac Robotic Vacuum

The Roomba, by iRobot, is a self-propelled and self guided light vacuum/floor sweeper. It’s the first robotic device for home use that is actually useful, and it’s so useful that it will actually make a positive permanent change in your life by eliminating a daily chore.

After three months of testing in a home with two toddlers and an inordinate amount of spilled crackers, dropped gummy snacks, and directly imported dirt from the yard, we highly recommend this device. We use ours two or three times a day.


The Roomba is surprisingly durable. We’ve been using ours daily for three months and haven’t had a single problem to report. It has survived minor drops, toddlers standing on it, and innumerable bumps into walls admirably.

The device is made of the same sort of plastic that most modern vacuums are made of, and judging by its construction, I’d expect it to last about three years. At nearly $200, it’s two to three times as expensive as a cheap vacuum, about the same price as a moderate vacuum, and far less than a professional grade vacuum.

The vacuum itself is a diminutive 4″ tall by 18″ diameter disc shaped device, making it considerably smaller than most vacuums. It lacks a bag or significant filtering mechanism and operates more like a manual floor sweeping device, with a removable dustbin that you empty after every use.

There are components that seem flimsy, such as a rubber brush that spins in one corner, but we still haven’t had any problems with it. It comes with a replacement rubber spinning brush, so we expect the part to fail eventually.


Using a Roomba couldn’t be easier. You charge the device, turn it on, and press either the Small, Medium, or Large buttons to indicate your room size, and leave. Small corresponds to a bedroom, Medium would be a typical living room, and large would be a spacious living room. The buttons merely indicate how long the Roomba will run before it decides that it must have covered the entire space.

The ability to leave the device in operation by itself is the major reason to buy one of these things: it takes a chore off the list of things you need to do permanently. If you’ve got hard flooring and a Roomba, you’ll never have to vacuum again.
Actually, it’s a slightly more difficult than that. You do have to prep the room by clearing large clutter, shutting doors, and blocking off the room by shutting doors, placing chairs in open doorways, or setting up the infrared “virtual wall” to divide large open areas or shut out problem spots.

Anything area that isn’t vaguely room shaped (square or L shaped), such as two connected rooms, seems to confuse the device completely. It likes four walls and open middle spaces. Despite this limitation, it has no problem with those nooks between couches in the corner or under desks were a small area is bounded only by small opening. It doesn’t get trapped in small areas either: anywhere it can get into, it can find its way out of.

The Roomba glides seamlessly underneath furniture, which is a huge advantage over a traditional vacuum. Beds, desks, tables, chairs, and couches with 4″ of clearance or more are invisible to this device: it crawls right under them and keeps them clear of dust bunnies.

Watching the device operate is both fascinating and frustrating. It bumps around the room literally at random, mostly determining where walls are. It sometimes (and apparently at random) will abruptly change direction and head out across the room. Sometimes, when it apparently thinks it’s near the middle of a room, it will start an ever widening spiral to clean a large area completely, but then abandons the spiral scan and heads off again.
Despite the herky-jerky random walk around the room, the device does seem to actually vacuum the entire floor surface. In our initial tests, we poured a few cups of corn flakes on a hardwood floor at random, and it actually got them all. Trying to figure out exactly what it might be thinking is an exercise in frustration.

You do need to watch the Roomba for the first time in each room to make sure that it doesn’t get stuck anywhere. There is one case where the Roomba can get stuck: If you’ve got a piece of furniture that is exactly 4″ high, the bumper on the front of the device may not cause the device to turn around, and the device might get wedged underneath it and stuck. After a few seconds of trying, the device will stop and emit and R2D2 like error beep code, and you’ll have to remove it and replace it. In my house, there’s one spot that occasionally causes this problem. We use the included infrared beam device to force the Roomba to avoid it.

We tested the device primarily on hard flooring, for which it is perfect, and low pile carpet, for which it is adequate. It won’t do a passable job on medium or long pile carpet. If you have hardwood floors, a daily sweep by Roomba is all you need besides a monthly visit with a mop. You’ll still want to vacuum your carpets with a traditional vacuum once a week in addition to using a Roomba daily because it only sweeps up surface dirt.

Roomba gives specific instructions not to try to vacuum rugs with tassels, so we specifically ran the device over a rug with tassles to see what would happen. The vacuum not only wrapped the tassels up in it’s beater bar, but also twisted the spinning brush around them so as to braid them. It took about five minutes to extricate the Roomba, but neither the vaccum nor the rug were worse for the wear. The vacuum did give up and shut off by itself once it determined that it would not be getting free on its own.

The Roomba will vacuum about two large rooms on a single charge before you’ll need to recharge it. You’ll want to empty the dustbin after each room as it is small and won’t handle more than about two cups of cereal.

Small children and pets are a problem for a Roomba only if they interrupt its operation by running around and letting it bump into them. Moving objects in a room will confuse the Roomba’s algorithm, causing incomplete vacuuming.

Similar Models

The original Roomba has three modes: Small, medium, and large. The just-released Roomba Elite adds an extra large room option that essentially runs the vacuum until it runs out of power, and a spot mode that executes just a spiral pattern centered where you place it.


The Roomba is an amazing device to watch, and arguably the first robotic device for home use that is actually useful. For hard flooring, it’s the only sweeping device you need. For carpets, reviews are mixed: we don’t recommend it unless you’ve got low pile carpets and mixed hard flooring. For carpet only environments, a traditional vacuum is still necessary.

If you have mostly hard flooring, go out and buy one of these devices now. It will make a positive and permanent change to your lifestyle and isn’t just going to sit around unused by your Slate Tablet PC and your console DVD burner.

Because they’re so handy, we expect to see these devices everywhere in just a few years, and traditional vacuum manufacturers coming out with robotic vacuums of their own. Features we’d like to see are robots that can automatically return to a charge base automatically and automatically empty their dustbin into a larger container, operate based on an internal timer to vacuum automatically at night or when nobody is home, cover an entire house without getting confused or requiring rooms to be blocked off, and perform deeper cleaning of medium and long pile carpets. Finally, a mode where the device will simply follow my four year old around and vacuum behind him whenever he’s in the house would be extremely useful.

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