Best new robot vacuum

Does your normal vacuum cleaner need a helping hand? You can't go wrong with the Roomba 650


Alexander George
November 25, 2012 9:59PM (UTC)
This article originally appeared on The Wirecutter.

The Wirecutter iRobot has updated their line of Roombas. The 500 line I originally recommended has been discontinued, replaced by the 600 line. If I were buying a robot vacuum, I’d buy the Roomba 650. It has scheduling, new tech that doesn’t require emptying the dust bin after every run, and the iAdapt software has been improved.

First thing's first: A robot vacuum cleaner is not a replacement for a traditional vacuum. These bots are designed to supplement, not replace, manual cleaning. As I found when I compared several models for Wired, a robot will rid you of ignorable, but irritating, dirt and dust that gathers on your floors, extending the time between major household cleanings. Eventually, though, you’ll still need to vacuum by hand to pick up the grime that the robot couldn't wrestle free. What the robot gives you is more time between major cleanings; you can go a month or two between manual cleanings rather than sweeping or scrubbing once every two weeks. Or, if you're concerned about allergens, every day. For anyone who has pets that shed, or allergies to dust or pollen, the little bit of cleaning a robot vacuum can do on a daily basis goes a long way.

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When you're shopping for a robot vacuum, there are a few things to consider. First, think about the size and layout of your home. A typical sub-$500 bot will clean roughly 1,200 square feet — somewhere between two and four average-sized rooms — during its cleaning cycle as limited by batteries or its bin. You'll also want to think about whether the space you want to keep clean is robot vacuum-friendly. Just like most regular vacuums, a robo vac won't be able to handle a floor covering any heavier than a medium pile carpet.  If you still have shag, no bot will work.

A common complaint of bots is that a loose cord or rug tassel will jam the brushes and the motor, stopping the robot like a caltrop. They don't like stairs, either. It's also worth mentioning that while they operate autonomously, robot vacuums need a little more attention between cleaning cycles than you'd normally pay to an old-school vacuum cleaner. At first, you'll need to empty your debris bin after every cycle, but once the space gets cleaner, it'll require emptying once every two or three cycles.  The robot's air filters will require a rinsing at about the same frequency. If you're cool with all of these points, then you'll be cool with owning a robot vacuum.

The iRobot Roomba 650 deals with most of these issues as well or better than more expensive models. It offers a large number of features such as scheduling, working on hard floors and carpet, iRobot's (improved) iAdapt multiple-pass route mapping, sonic dirt detection, and a side brush that gets the corners that are typically only found in more expensive machines. If you go for a pricier model, you're buying into additional features that most people probably don't need.

To make sure your floor is as clean as possible, the 650’s mapping software plans for multiple passes over the same areas. The first sweep will get the top layer of crud, then the second sweep will pick up anything dislodged from the first pass. If there's anything left over, the Roomba 650’s dirt sensor seeks it out. iRobot's proprietary coverage algorithms, brush layout and torque sensors allow the 650 to clean its coverage area thoroughly without getting stuck on power cords and other stray objects. If the undercarriage brushes are exerting excessive power and straining to rotate, the 650 will reverse the brushes' direction of rotation to free the tangle, then move forward slightly before starting up again. The 650 can clear almost any interior door threshold. It can move from hardwood to carpet and change its brush speed accordingly.

It's safe to use around stairs, too. While cleaning a space at the top of a flight of stairs or by the ledge of a landing, the Roomba 650’s sensors will relay that the floor has stopped, store the location of the drop, and reverse backwards to avoid falling. Perhaps best of all, the Roomba 650 can be scheduled to clean while you’re away, and it can run up to seven days a week.

Geek.com explains why this is vital: "Scheduling is super easy … Don’t fool yourself — scheduling is a critical feature, so don’t get a Roomba (or competing product) without it." You can also set it up to run as-needed with the buttons on the top of the 650’s chassis. In either case, the time per cleaning cycle depends on how much floorspace you need covered, but a cleaning usually won't run more than a couple of hours.

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At the end of its cleaning cycle, the Roomba will navigate back to its docking station automatically, then charge back up for the next round. The new 650 has a re-designed dust bin that doesn’t need to be emptied after every run.PC Mag says, “The new Roombas use a patented three-stage cleaning system to vacuum carpets, tile, laminate, and hardwood floors. iRobot's AeroVac Technology optimizes airflow so the bin fills evenly and needs to be emptied less often.” When you have to clean it, the 650’s bin is easily pulled out from the side of the device and it's air filter can be cleaned in a dishwasher. You won't even get your hands dirty.

The Roomba comes with a one-year warranty that covers manufacturer's defects, plus a six-month warranty on the battery.

Reviews of the new 650 are sparse, but they are unanimously positive. Wired said of the 650, “If you just let the thing go, it will eventually get to many of your nooks and crannies. It managed to clean around my audio/video rack and the fireplace with its teeny brush scraping out those hard-to-reach areas. It’s a job that usually requires taking apart my Dyson and using several attachments.” PC Mag also explains why the 650 is just as good as the much more expensive 700-series: “We recently reviewed iRobot's top-of-the-line Roomba 790, and while it's the best vacuum bot out there, it's also super expensive, at $699.99. The 600 series maintains many the same features, at a much more palatable price.”

The 650 packs everything that makes for an efficient cleaning robot into a price point at which you can, as Ron Popeil said, set it and forget it.

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Of the last generation iRobot cleaning algorithm, PC Magazine said in a review of the premium 770, "Perhaps the most obvious change in the Roomba is that, on occasion, it now vacuums just like you do. When the Roomba detects a particularly grimy spot on your hard floor or carpet, it begins an aggressive back and forth vacuuming motion." The Roomba 650 runs on an upgraded version of the same software as the 770, so you get that benefit in a cheaper model.

If you want a better understanding of the robot vs. vacuum argument, Make Use Of says, "Even though my experience with the Roomba hasn’t been completely pleasant, I have to be honest here — I would rather have it than to live without it. It’s not just the convenience of an automatic robot cleaner doing the work for me, its multiple brush design actually cleans more thoroughly than my handheld vacuum cleaner." With the 650, and the more expensive iRobot models, expect  thorough cleaning. The 650 can't match a determined homeowner with a Dyson, but with its side-brush and software that makes it pass over the same spaces multiple times, it'll satisfy fastidious residents.

Even though it'll help keep your floors and hands clean, the Roomba 650 isn't perfect. For starters, it's noisy, but what vacuum cleaner isn't? TrustedReviews.com also noted that there’s no indicator to tell you when the bin is full. Additionally, Roombas on the whole are reputed to have mediocre reliability, so expect to replace parts out-of-pocket at some point after the warranty expires. Some Amazon reviewers complain that the side brushes are especially prone to breaking. Unfortunately, nearly all robot vacuums are warranted only through the first year. Understand that these are generally industry-wide issues; cleaning bots are complex contraptions and haven't hit the stride of Toyota reliability. But of the options available on the market, the 650 gives the best balance of a gentle price and functionality. Since you can expect the same problems in more expensive models, I'll save cash and get the 650.

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For those of you with the previous generation 500-series Roomba, here are some quick points on what’s been upgraded:
1) 630 and 650 now ave AeroVac Technology to filter out allergens and keep dust in the bin.
2) Better made brushes that, according to Chip Chick, elimanate the need to replace them frequently.
3) A colored ring on the top.
4) Updated iAdapt firmware

Don’t sweat it if you got a 500-series recently. Geek.com explains, “even if you did go through the trouble of updating your 560 it would still fall short of the 600 or 700 line” though, “in aggregate they probably won’t make a huge difference to the cleaning experience. “

What else is out there? The $800 LG HOM-BOT has a bit more control. It can be linked to your home WiFi network and turned on of remotely using a smartphone app.  If you, like I do, have an irregular work schedule and never know when you’ll be away from home for a few hours, that kind of functionality could come in handy — but at $400 more than the Roomba 650? I don't need to control when my floors get cleaned that badly. The Roomba 650, unlike fancier touch-screen models, can be set to run a cleaning cycle with two-button presses. Even if you're rushing out the door, it's easy to get the 650 running and cleaning.

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No Carpets?

The Mint Hard Floor Cleaner's a good alternative to the Roomba 560 for anyone that doesn't have a carpet to their name.

Maybe you don't have any carpets in your house. In that case, iRobot also makes the Scooba 390 and 230, robots specifically designed to clean hardwood and tile floors. If you live without rugs or carpet, these might be a better alternative because they work similar to a mop. Both models lay down a film of water and soap, then suck it back up, debris and all. The major competitor for this line is the Mint, which, rather than liquid, pushes a machine-washable cloth across the floor. Between the two, I'd go for the Mint. The Scooba (the 230 in particular) has a very short battery life and requires that you empty the gray, dirt-filled fluid after every cycle. The Mint requires a navigation tower, but that's a minor inconvenience in exchange for dealing with a cloth over dirty liquid. If you only have $200 to spend on a robot cleaner and need to clean mostly hard surfaces, the Mint is a solid choice, but the Roomba 560 will handle the same task more or less, plus carpeting and rugs. I'd choose the Roomba 560 if I can only buy one because the Mint and the Scooba series are really mean to clean up dust and not much more. The 650 will handle crumbs and dirt, along with carpets and rugs, for $150 more than the Mint or Scooba. The added functionality is worth the price.

The Roomba's other major competitor is Neato's XV series. They're powerful, loud, but don't have the features to clean with the precision of the 650. It's D-shape would seem to make it more effective at cleaning corners and walls than the round Roomba, but the brushes in the undercarriage don't extend to the walls of the unit like the spinning brushes of the Roomba. This means that corners and walls get left uncleaned. In a pinch, if you must run it while at home, the noise will drive you nuts, more so than even an standup vacuum. It even misses sections of the floor and will gash walls. I'd pass and save money with the Roomba 560.

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For pet owners or anyone suffering from allergies, iRobot's 760 series is a good option if you want to spend a bit extra. It runs $449, and has a larger bin than the 650, and comes equipped with a HEPA filter to help manage the allergens in your home. I would consider the 760 as an alternative to the 650 if I had pets or sensitivity to allergies, doesn't seem worth the extra cash. To consider the 7-series, you begin at $450, which is a huge step up in price for a robot that is the same size as the 650. I don't think HEPA filtering makes it worth the price over the 650.

(Between the Scooba and the anti-allergy models, those cover the major models in Roomba's line, and for the reasons above we still prefer the 650 over both higher- and lower-end models, like the schedule-less 630.)

In the end, let us consider the economics of a bot vs. hiring domestic labor. I currently have a cleaner come once every two weeks at $100 per visit. In just over six weeks, I reach the price of a Roomba. With a robot instead of hired help, the grime and dust on the floor will disappear, and rather than spend $2,600 a year, I'll have spent $350 for, hopefully, multiple years, albeit without the scrubbed bathtub and washed dishes.
That's why the Roomba 650 is what I'd get.

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Alexander George

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