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iRobot Roomba 560 vs. 3 Kids, 2 working parents, 1 cat, lots of mess.

By Andrew Pollack on 10/22/2007 at 08:58 AM EDT
The short verdict - its a keeper. For a nice change, the product actually does pretty much what it says it does. It isn't perfect, but the carpets and floors are cleaner with it than without it. It isn't entirely effortless, but the combination of cool factor and function do result in the job getting done better and more often than before.

I've been very skeptical of these things. They're small - more akin to a little rechargeable dust buster than a full sized vacuum. They're self-roaming -- I had little confidence that anything like this would navigate well around the small toys, shoes, chairs, throw rugs, stairways, and cat. Barb decided to get me one for my birthday however. It may seem an odd choice to you, but imagine trying to get me something electronic. It wouldn't be easy. I said I'd give it a try and decide.

How does it work? The unit sits on its little charging base most of the time. Unfortunately, that has to be fairly openly exposed -- ideally along a wall that has bare space around it. Not everyone will want it to be so visible. Either on schedule, or by pressing the big button on top, it starts up with a little beeping tune and cleans. There are several built in patterns within the unit, and all get used in a kind of rotation. It starts with the edges of a room and seems to map out the space fairly well. It has a forward bumper sensor as well has sensors to detect stairs and some other things. It can rotate in place to change direction, and doing so it will follow a curved edge, work its way around and between chairs and table legs then switch patterns to a room crossing one, a zig-zag one, and others. When its done, it finds its dock and parks to recharge -- to a nice beeping tune. If you need to dock it, you can set it on its dock or just place it near the dock and press "dock". If you need to move it, you can press the big button for it to stop first, then again when you put it down. If it can't find its way home, or it encounters a problem, it stops. You press the big button and it will tell you what it needs in a recorded human voice. The only one I've heard so far, is "Please clean Roomba's brushes" -- which happens if a small cord, necklace, scarf, or so on is wound up in them.

How well does it clean? To my surprise, it actually works very well. Although the motor is small -- and indeed sounds like a little dust buster -- it moves slowly and focuses the power on a small area for a longer time. When it detects that its getting a lot of dust or sand, it will light a little blue LED and move in a circle in that spot until I decides that the spot is clean. Its brushes are also very effective at getting dust, lint, and hair up out of the nap of a carpet. The floor is cleaner, and the carpet will probably last longer. It is visibly better looking -- particularly in the traffic areas. The brushes seem to bring the nap of the carpet back quite well.

Does it get everywhere? It does takes a long time to wander around a room. It can take as much as forty five minutes for a good sized living room - but it seems to find its way into every nook and corner large enough for it. The result is that it goes under every chair, bed, and low shelf much more effectively than a regular vacuum. At first, this leads to some....issues... in the kids rooms. The unit came with two little cup sized "lighthouses" that you place in doorways. These can operate in two modes. Used as a marker to indicate the exit of a room, it keeps the Roomba in the room until it has finished before going on to the next room. Used as a "virtual wall" they cordon off an area that you don't want the Roomba to attack. This is helpful if your kids play with Lego's, by the way. More of these can be ordered. These work really well most of the time, though if you have more than one route through the house it may lead to the Roomba not finding its way back to its charger when done.

Does it get stuck or fall down stairs? Yes and no. It doesn't get trapped by chairs or blind corners, and it never ever falls down the stairs. It does get hung up on small power cords like those which come off block adapters, hair ribbons, and other small thin, stringy things -- though the fringe on a fake oriental rug didn't give it any trouble at all. The first few times you use it, you figure out what kinds of stuff you can leave on the floor and what you can't. Shoes, most laundry, shin guards, soccer balls, lunch boxes, and jackets don't bother it. If they're light enough, it pushes them out of the way, if not it goes around them. It can get stuck by a door. In our downstairs bathroom, its direction of rotation tends to push the door closed on itself. It also has a way of getting over the threshold into a sort of indoor sun room we have, but it can't climb back out. Those doors need to be closed when I run the unit.

How much maintenance is required? More than I'd like, but not much. Ideally, this thing would be fully automatic. It does dock itself and recharge as needed, and it can start and run on a schedule if you set it to. I don't do that because the chaos level here is too high. The bin is easy to empty and really fills up fast at first. The first time you run it especially it can be stunning how much yuck ends up in there. The filter is not a HEPA quality one. This thing is more focused on lint, sand, and dirt than tiny bits of dust. Emptying the bin and clearing the filter is the work of a second or two. The brushes, however, should also be cleaned of the hair and bits of string that tend to wind up in them. That takes a little more effort. They're very easy to remove and put back, but cleaning the wound up hair can be tedious for a few minutes. That could be more of an issue for me, since I have a wife and three girls all with long hair. Once its been run a few times, its less of an issue as well because there isn't a backlog of stuff to clean up. The thing gets into places you just don't with the vacuum as often so there is lots of stuff to clean up.

If I had time to do the job myself every day, I wouldn't need this thing and it would be a waste. It is kind of a silly appliance. On the other hand, I can't argue with the fact that things look better and are cleaner with this thing than without it.

P.S. The cat does not like the Roomba. The first day, there was much hissing and scampering. Having proven itself to be a coward and unwilling to engage in a fight, the Roomba is now being subjected to feline "aggressive apathy" and indifference much the way I am.


There are  - loading -  comments....

re: iRobot Roomba 560 vs. 3 Kids, 2 working parents, 1 cat, lots of mess.By Craig Wiseman on 10/22/2007 at 01:41 PM EDT
Thanks for taking the time to post. I'be been looking at one of these, and your
thoughts & experience help!

cpw...
re: iRobot Roomba 560 vs. 3 Kids, 2 working parents, 1 cat, lots of mess.By John Vaughan on 11/13/2007 at 01:16 PM EST
i bought a roomba this past weekend. it's freaking awesome. thanks for the
review, this post pushed me, finally, over the edge. i'm not going back. ;-)


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