Before smartphones, before the cloud, before the Internet of Things was a thing, there was the robot vacuum. It's a smart-home product that predates the app-centric Gordian Knot of platforms and standards that is the modern connected home. A robot vacuum's definition of "smart" is simply to clean the cat hair off of your rugs without tumbling down the stairs in the process.
At least, it was. Now, a new crop of app-enabled "smart" robot vacuums is navigating into the picture, including the Wi-Fi-equipped Neato Botvac Connected. Pair it with its app on your Android or iOS device, and you'll be able to start, schedule, and even steer it right from your phone -- a welcome addition for a brand that, across all of its models to date, has yet to offer a remote control with any of its cleaners.
At $700 (or £549 in the UK), the Botvac Connected is Neato's most expensive robot vacuum yet, costing $200 more than its unconnected predecessors in the Botvac D Series. However, it's also $200 less than the connected version of iRobot's Roomba, and it beat that Roomba in every test we ran (and, in the majority of our tests, beat the entire field of robot vacs). It also features a new and improved lithium ion battery, a legitimate step up from the nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries of before. Robot vacuums were brainy to begin with, and I wouldn't blame you for scoffing at the addition of app controls (or the price increase). But make no mistake: this is the best robot vacuum Neato has ever made, and the best robot vacuum money can currently buy.
Design and features
The Botvac Connected sticks with the design of the existing line of Botvac models, with only minor tweaks to the color scheme. It's the same, D-shaped cleaner with the same brushrolls, the same accessories, and the same general approach to covering your floors.
That approach sends the Botvac out around the perimeter of the room, where it'll feel its way along the walls with a side-sweeping brush to tidy up the edges. From there, it'll use its laser-assisted navigation capabilities to sweep back and forth across the center of the room, nimbly dodging your furniture as it goes. When it's finished, it'll automatically return to its docking station for a recharge.
Those navigation capabilities seem to be somewhat refined in the connected model. Older Neatos were too efficient for their own good, sweeping along the walls and then covering the center of each room in a single back-and-forth pass. In smaller rooms and spaces, the Botvac Connected is more thorough: it sweeps the center of the room in both rows and columns, and edges along the walls multiple times, too.
That gives the Neato ample opportunity to pick up any debris it might miss on a single pass, though cleaning runs take a little longer as a result. I'm fine with that trade-off -- if the Neato is doing its thing while I'm away at work, I want it to take all of the time it needs.
Here's a time-lapse of that pet hair test. Most cleaners have a pretty easy time with it on hardwood floors. pic.twitter.com/pRPr5tFwkh— Ry Crist (@rycrist) October 26, 2015
Also new with the connected Neato: cleaning modes. In addition to the default, full-powered "Turbo" mode, you can now flip over into a power-saving "Eco" mode, too. You'll lose a little bit of suction power, but cleaning runs won't drain the battery as quickly, and the Neato will run a little quieter, too.
You can switch between modes or set up scheduled cleaning runs by tapping through the settings on Neato's color LCD screen, but if you'd rather not hunch over, you can also just pull up the Neato app on your Android or iOS device.
How about that app?
The Neato app is the shiny new addition to the Botvac experience, and a big part of why this vacuum costs $200 more than the previous generation. Thankfully, the app is pretty terrific. It's clean-looking, it's easy-to-use and it works like a charm.
You'll start by activating the Wi-Fi radio on the vacuum itself. It'll broadcast a signal that your smart phone can join up with -- from there, you'll jump back into the app, reselect your home Wi-Fi network, and watch as everything finishes pairing up. I got an error message during this last part on my first attempt, but as soon as I started the process again, things instantly synced right up. A tiny hiccup at best.
With the vacuum cleaner tethered to your home's Wi-Fi network, Neato will ask you to give it a name. I went with "Roger," then told Roger to start a cleaning run. Roger got to work without delay, and when he returned to the charging station, he sent me a push notification letting me know he was finished.
You can also log on to Neato's website if you want to do more than just give your robot vacuum a name. You can register its serial number, for instance, or save a photo of your proof of purchase. That's a handy way to be prepared in case you ever need to take Neato up on the one-year warranty.
Another feature in the app is a manual cleaning mode that'll let you steer the Neato around like a toy car. The controls work well enough, and they might be a lot of fun if you can get your cat to climb aboard. Still, the feature isn't terribly useful for much more than steering the Neato over to a messy spot, then switching it over to the automated spot-cleaning mode.
Despite the clean, easy-to-use interface, the simplicity of the app leaves room for improvement. For instance, you won't find usage statistics that track how long each cleaning run takes (or how much of the battery each one uses). You also won't see the specifics when things go wrong. If the brush is jammed or the robot gets caught on a piece of furniture, the app won't let you know -- at best, you'll see the vacuum's status listed as "error" if something is preventing you from starting a cleaning run remotely. In most cases, you'll still need to hunch over and look at the vacuum's LCD screen to see what that specific error is.
We run lots and lots and lots of cleaning tests when we evaluate robot vacuums. There are different types of floors to test on, different types of debris to test with, and different cleaning modes to test out. All in all, I sullied and cleaned over 30 floors with the Neato Botvac Connected, carefully weighing the results of each run. And I've come away convinced that it's the best performer we've ever seen.