Adults morph into little children at the sight of almost any kind of robot they encounter, most especially those that pop up in the home. But, to me, home robots in their current state -- at least the vacuuming variety -- are sort of like the story of the dancing dog: you're more amazed by the fact that the dog dances at all than in noticing that it does so badly
That continues to be the case with the latest iterations of "automatic" or robot vacuums, as evidenced by testing done by my vacuuming associate Ed and me during the past two weeks.
Sales of robot vacs in the U.S. took off with the introduction of the snazzy-looking Roomba from iRobot, a pioneering artificial-intelligence company, which claims to have sold 500,000 since their introduction. Since then, three major competitors have introduced their own models, ranging in price from $90 to $1,800. The new versions supposedly have ironed out kinks, such as dodgy navigation, of the earlier generation. But we were still hardly blown away.
To conduct the fairest test, we tried out only the most popular robot vacs from major manufacturers and with similar features -- iRobot's Roomba, Karcher's RoboCleaner and Electrolux's Trilobite -- and put them through their paces on both hardwood and stone floors and low-pile rugs. As instructed, we cleared away such items as toys, shoes and power cords -- basically anything that might get caught up in a regular vacuum. (We didn't include a much cheaper one, the $90 Zoombot from Applica, because it arrived too late for proper testing and didn't have the kinds of features the others had.)
Although some models operated better than others, our tests on three popular ones found major disappointments with all of them with regards to doing a decent job of cleaning, which should be the only true criterion of having your vacuuming automated. And while each of the vacuums was fun to play with for a while and had some cool features (such as having the units return to their "home base" to recharge automatically), I can't recommend that you waste your money on any of them unless your super-geek id forces you to do so. The robotic vacuums performed no better and often worse than a cheap handheld vacuum that you can buy for less than $20.
Though Roomba may have received plenty of publicity, we were underwhelmed by its latest model, called the Discovery, which was launched last week at a price of $249. The seven-pound Roomba did only a middling job of picking up a range of stuff we scattered on the floor for it to scoop up -- including cornflakes, sugar, dirt and piles of dog hair. Worse still, it often pushed the detritus around in circles as it cleaned, no thanks to a tiny edge-cleaning side brush that is meant to help it pick things up. While a new feature called dirt detect, which is supposed to tackle a lot of debris by going over a spot a lot, did work several times, it failed to do so as it crossed over a pile of crushed cornflakes three times (which, by the way, my dog found and gobbled up without a problem as soon as I let her in the room).
Ed and I were surprised and then frustrated by how klutzy the Discovery moved about the room, and how noisily: the machine may have produced the proverbial giant sucking sound, but it didn't perform that way. Compared to the Trilobite and the RoboCleaner, it was like a drunk driving a bumper car, banging into my furniture and spinning about aggressively without any real plan in mind. It was sort of like seeing a very lazy maid in action.
Still, on a purely operational basis, the Roomba is well made, with big and easy-to-use buttons that even a child could operate. It also has a handy remote and sensors that prevent the robot from falling off stairs.
For all the Roomba's problems, the RoboCleaner by Karcher was even worse when it came to cleaning. Indeed, the RoboCleaner, which costs $1,495, pretty much ignored most of the mess on my rugs and floors. It missed a pile of sugar entirely, even though it went over it several times; it couldn't pick up a crushed cornflake to save its life; it managed to get some, but not much, dog hair; and its encounter with actual dirt itself was a disaster -- dragging it from its spot on the hardwood floor to the edge of the carpet, where it ground it in.
The problem seems to be a small four-inch opening for suction and a tiny brush, compared to seven inches for the Roomba and 10 inches for the Electrolux.
The buttons on the home base, which runs the show, were nearly incomprehensible given the odd icons used. It took us a while to figure out that a weird-looking arrow shape meant "parking the robot;" lightning shooting out of a curve with a slash through it meant quiet mode; and a strange series of dots meant the filter was full.
In the interests of international harmony, here's what we liked about the RoboCleaner: a nice handle to carry around that giant base station; a cool futuristic design; that quiet mode; it doesn't fall off stairs; and it can be put on a continual cleaning schedule, rather than just one lasting a number of hours.
It was a relief then to work with Sweden's Electrolux Trilobite, which was introduced into this country last month, after selling in Europe for many years. It's price: $1,800. Named after a prehistoric sea creature that used to clean the ocean floor, this 11-pound robot vacuum is solid and substantial, with a handsome deep-red shell that moved noiselessly and deliberately around the room. First going around the room's edges to case the joint, the vacuum then waltzed across the room in what seemed like a sensible crisscrossed pattern. Happily, it also was able with its infrared technology to not bang into anything it encountered.
The Trilobite avoids stairs and edges and returns to its simple home-base plate easily, although it occasionally stopped dead in the middle of the floor. Its beep sounds like R2-D2, though it operates more like the smooth and silent mode of Darth Vader. And its dustbin was the best designed with a magnetic top that avoided spills when removing it.
Still, Trilobite's cleaning ability -- though the best -- was only OK, picking up most of the mess but not all of it. I suppose if you let it loose for a while, it eventually would grab it all, but it seems as if one might expect more from this pricey unit. In addition, there is no remote, which would be useful. And the magnetic strips it provides to keep the unit in a room seem chintzy in comparison to the Roomba's little units. Most vexing was the small LCD screen, which was impossible to read unless you got down on the floor with it, and difficult to manipulate to the proper program.
In fact, vexed was the operative word for both Ed and me after spending some time in the future -- which now was a vision of cornflake-strewn floors that would never get clean. Unless, of course, as we did, someone pulls out the real vacuum and gets to work.