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Roomba: a Robot Underfoot

Pop quiz: can you think of a round, computer-driven device that has four buttons, is not made by Apple, and ought to be in every household by the end of the decade? In case you don’t pay much attention to the domestic scene – and by domestic, I mean the low-down world of dust bunnies, dog hair, and cookie crumbs – the answer is Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner from iRobot.


Roomba is about the size of a medium pizza, and about as thick as a pizza box. Its four buttons – Power, Clean, Spot, and Max – make it possible for virtually anyone to vacuum a floor with minimal effort. Plus, that someone doesn’t have to be a geek. All he has to do is put Roomba on the floor, press Power, press Clean, and walk away. Sound too good to be true? It’s not.

The low-end Roomba model, the Roomba Red, costs about $150. At the high end, you can pay as much as $300 for the Discovery SE. The primary differences among the models, besides their colors, are which accessories they come with. (Roomba is readily available in the U.S.; the International page of the iRobot Web site – found via the About iRobot link – has Web URLs for European, Australian, Japanese, and a few other distributors.)


I received the Roomba Discovery, a mid-priced, second-generation model, for Christmas last year. I was initially concerned about all the batteries and running the remote, and if it would prove to be yet another gizmo that didn’t live up to its promise, but I’ve found that it not only does the job well, it also does the job with cheerful enthusiasm. Roomba is my first experience with owning a robot, and I appreciate that it saves me time instead of giving me more to do. And if you don’t believe me about its good cheer, listen to Roomba’s chirps and see it in action on the iRobot Web site.

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You don’t have to be the sort who can program a digital watch or run a VCR to run Roomba, though it wouldn’t hurt. Although I am the Roomba expert in our household, primarily because I figured out how to clean it and how to set up its floor-based docking station so that it returns to it automatically after vacuuming to re-charge, I have yet to investigate some aspects of its operation, including the point of the aforementioned Max button and the use of the remote control.

Preparing to Run Roomba — Before you let Roomba loose, you must pick up the usual clutter that infests everyone’s floors: magazines, rubber bands, drinking glasses, and so on. This step is far more important than when you’re using a regular vacuum, because you know enough to vacuum around clutter, if necessary. Roomba lacks common sense and will cheerfully attempt to vacuum anything in its reach, including shoelaces and electrical cables. In fact, running Roomba in my and Adam’s offices is challenging because we have so many cables and fragile electronic devices. In my office, I made a wall out of old computer books to protect the cables under my desk and positioned a recycling bin in front of the cable nest that connects my office and printer into the network. I also worry about Roomba bumping into my Mac, which sits on the floor, so I always block that off as well. I keep Roomba out of about a third of Adam’s office because he has far too many cables snaking around the base of his desk. With a normal vacuum I might spot-clean around the cables, but now I use a virtual wall to protect them from Roomba. The Roomba Discovery comes with two virtual walls, small plastic boxes that shoot an infrared beam up to 8 feet long. Roomba will not cross the beam, and it’s important to use them to keep Roomba away from trouble; a friend reported that her Roomba met a bad end when she accidentally let it get into her fireplace.

Running Roomba — Watching Roomba vacuum is like watching an engrossing screen saver. It usually starts moving around on the floor in a tight spiral, but then, for no particular reason, travels in a straight line until it hits a wall or other obstruction, such as a table leg. It then bounces off at a random angle and goes straight until it hits something else. If it encounters a particularly dirty spot, its Dirt Alert light goes on and it circles tightly on that spot for a few moments. It goes on like this, moving among the different rooms that it can reach, until it thinks it is done. My son, Tristan, who is 6 years old, loves to watch Roomba, especially if I let him run around positioning his feet so that it can go under his legs like a boat under a bridge. You can also let it bump into your feet (probably best if you’re wearing shoes); it’s a bit like having a small animal in the room with you. Roomba demos well, but I urge caution if a lot of children are around, since they will want to play with it. The directions for Roomba, alas, note that children should not ride it.

Our cat, who is easily scared, will leave the room if Roomba is running, but he otherwise ignores it. Some dogs, however, have a more dramatic reaction, as you can see in these videos:

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Different people report different satisfaction levels with the quality of the cleaning that Roomba does. Overall, I think it does as good a job as I would. Roomba occasionally misses an obvious piece of dirt that a person would always get with an extra pass from a normal vacuum, but it also has no problem with vacuuming under the couch, which, honestly, I’d do at most once per year.

Roomba has "cliff" sensors that help it avoid falling over the edge of a staircase. Our dining room is separated from the living room by two separate four-step staircases, and it has almost fallen down several times, probably because the steps are tile, with extremely rounded edges. It drives a little bit too far over the edge and then hangs over or topples down, half onto the first stair. At that point, it shuts down its wheels and vacuum and chirps for help. If I plan to be home when Roomba is working, I figure I’ll rescue it if it has trouble; if we’re out while it’s going to be working, I set up the virtual walls.

Roomba works well on our wood floors, wall-to-wall carpeting, and uneven tile floors. I’ve had poor luck with it on a new area rug: although it can usually negotiate the one-inch height difference between the tile and the rug, it often leaves crumbs and bits of new-carpet fluff on the tile next to the rug, necessitating a quick run with the traditional vacuum to finish the job. I have to roll up one other area rug, because it has fringes, which Roomba would undoubtedly eat. We’ll eventually replace it with one that Roomba can manage.

Roomba does a great job on the fur from our long-haired cat, and friends who have a dog that sheds constantly (plus three children) report running their Roomba every morning before leaving the house, just to keep the dog fur under control. They went through three units of a first-generation Roomba model, and the only thing they didn’t like about it was waiting to get it back after it broke under warranty. Roomba also picks up human hair, but my shoulder length hair tends to get wound up in Roomba’s rollers, and it’s best to clean Roomba right away after cleaning our bedroom or my office.

Besides the regular cleaning mode, Roomba also has a Spot mode, which you trigger by pressing the Spot button. Spot mode is for small messes that you want to vacuum quickly. Max mode (which I learned about by reading the 8-page manual) causes Roomba to run for longer than it would otherwise, presumably to clean up a truly bad mess.

Roomba is quieter than my relatively new Kenmore canister vacuum, and a lot quieter than my former Eureka upright. Still, it makes too much noise for most people to want to spend time in the same room with it for long, and if your home has an open floor plan, that may mean that you’d prefer to be elsewhere while it works. Although our house has four levels, three of them are basically "downstairs," and open to each other. The upstairs hallway is separated from downstairs by only a waist-high wall. I can ignore the noise level if I am upstairs in my office, with the door closed, while Roomba works downstairs, or if it’s upstairs vacuuming behind a closed door while I am downstairs.

Cleaning Roomba — Roomba stores vacuumed-up debris inside its case, and needs to be emptied much more often than you’d change a vacuum cleaner bag. I’ve found that it works best to empty it after each big vacuuming session. The debris bin pulls out like a drawer, so it’s easy to extract it, remove the filter, and dump the debris into the garbage. You’re supposed to change the filter every one or two months, and a three-pack of filters costs $15. You must also clean the two rollers and four sensors. Cleaning the sensors is quick, but the rollers take some effort. I often cut cat and human hair out of them.

The first time I cleaned Roomba, a little yellow cap fell off the end of one of the rollers. I discovered a wad of my hair in the hole where the cap connects to the roller, and it appeared that the hair had pushed the cap off kilter. I used a toothpick to remove the hair from the hole, but the cap wouldn’t fit back on quite properly after that. Roomba operated just fine, but the cap often fell into the garbage accidentally as I was cleaning. I finally called Roomba customer service to find out if the yellow cap was supposed to be loose. Emily, a friendly customer representative, verified that the cap should stay on properly and promised to send me a new roller. Assuming the roller arrives reasonably soon, the customer service was excellent.

I sense that Roomba’s main weakness lies in the sturdiness of its parts, and that was the consensus of advice that Adam received when he was researching the purchase, although the second generation Roomba models appear to be more solid than the initial generation. Based on this advice, Adam purchased my Roomba at Sears and spent $40 more to get an immediate replacement warranty that lasts for two years.

Wrap Up — Much of what prevents me from running Roomba routinely is that my house has too many levels and requires too much prep before it can run. If I lived in a single-level home, I’d probably position the docking station under the couch, learn how to use the remote, and turn it on every time we left the house.

When talking about Roomba, it’s easy to say, "You just press a button, walk away, and return to a clean home." In our house, with its four levels, child-related clutter, and throw rug, prep time can end up being longer than you might anticipate. Even so, setting Roomba loose is vastly easier than the noisy tedium of running a regular vacuum. The testimonials section on the iRobot Web site includes several notes that discuss how Roomba is especially helpful for the elderly or people with bad backs or more serious physical difficulties, since it takes most of the physical labor out of vacuuming.

iRobot continues to improve the Roomba line. In August 2005, iRobot plans to release a new model, the Roomba Scheduler, which will come with a remote control and virtual walls that you can use to schedule when it runs. The company will also release a new, $60 remote control and virtual wall set for several existing Roombas that will allow them to be scheduled. The scheduling feature isn’t all that exciting to me, because of the necessary preparation. I’m more excited about the soon-to-be-released Scooba, which will vacuum, wash, and dry the floor, all in one pass. Roomba has improved the cleanliness of our floors, but since most of the downstairs is tile, mopping is needed far more frequently than we get around to it.

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Although it would be enough if Roomba just cleaned the floor, what makes Roomba a great product is that it is pleasing to use. It doesn’t require anyone to install drivers or update an operating system, the interface is simple to understand, and it makes cute noises. In the end, it’s telling that we’ve anthropomorphized this little device so much; we always call it "Roomba" or "she" rather than "the Roomba," we reflexively say "Thank you!" when we return home to a clean floor, and we always rush to help it upon hearing a "Help me!" chirp. But the fact is, Roomba is the first new piece of technology we’ve found that, like the washing machine, dryer, and dishwasher, actually improves our domestic lives. As such, I can recommend Roomba highly to anyone who would like a hand with the chore of vacuuming.

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