Neato XV-21 review: This neat little cleaner goes for the high score

As you can see, the Neato XV-21 reigned supreme in our pet hair test, picking up more of the stuff than any other robot vacuum that we've tested. As a matter of fact, Neato's currently sweeping the podium, with the silver and bronze going to the XV Signature Pro and the XV Essential, respectively. Given that the XV Essential is the only one of the three not to feature the specialized pet hair brushroll, this ordering makes sense, and reinforces Neato's claim that the brushroll brings better performance.

Another saving grace of the brushroll is that it does a good job of moving hair into the bin without letting too much of it get tangled up along the way. Those weigh-in results don't include hair that we have to pick out of the brushroll (which is one of the big reasons the XV Essential scored a little lower than its brethren). It was certainly a stark difference from what I saw with the Infinuvo Hovo 510 -- that robot vacuum's brushroll couldn't handle pet hair at all.

The Neato XV-21 does a good job of passing hair through the brushroll and into the bin with minimal tangles.
The Infinuvo Hovo 510? Not so much. Ry Crist/CNET

The XV-21's strong pet hair results across all three flooring surfaces will likely make it an understandably tempting choice for pet owners, but what about the rest of us? It was time to test debris of a more universal size and shape: uncooked black rice, our analog for the types of small, crumb-like particulates that you'll find on just about any floor that hasn't been swept or vacuumed in a while.

Rice (out of 2.5 oz)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Medium-pile carpet
Short-pile carpet
Hardwood floor
Infinuvo Hovo 510
2.33
2.45
2.48
iRobot Roomba 880
2.38
2.43
2.33
Neato XV-21
2.37
2.32
2.20
Neato XV Essential
2.22
2.28
2.28
iRobot Roomba 790
2
2.32
2.25
Neato XV Signature Pro
2.05
2.33
2.13
LG Hom-Bot Square
1.85
1.87
2.13

You'll see that again, the XV-21 does a nice job, finishing towards the top of the pack. It isn't quite as impressive (or, to be frank, surprising) a result as the one we saw from the Hovo 510 the other week, but it still delivers well-rounded performance.

A few caveats, though. First, while the floors came out of each test run looking quite good, given that they'd just been coated with debris a few minutes before, a small amount of the rice didn't actually make it into the XV-21's bin. Instead, it collected on top of the brushroll, just beneath the bin's entrance, likely due to the fact that the Neato's design sends debris straight up into the bin, where particles that are more dense can sometimes bounce off of the roof and straight back down.

Some of the rice had a hard time making it into the bin. Ry Crist/CNET

Second, I couldn't help but notice that the XV-21 just didn't seem quite as confident or efficient about navigating as I had seen with the XV Signature Pro. It seemed to take longer to map out the perimeter of the testing area, sometimes doubling back unexpectedly, or suddenly swerving as if to avoid a phantom obstacle.

In one instance, we had a small glitch with one of our test setups that we realized was throwing the XV-21's navigation off. Essentially, the wooden planks that make up the "walls" of our testing pens were a bit too short in one particular spot, and that, coupled with the fact that there was about 80 feet of empty floor space beyond the plank meant that the Neatos depth perception was getting thrown off.

Before correcting the problem and restarting the test, I checked to see if the glitch affected the XV Signature Pro, too. It did, and we noticed something interesting -- unlike the XV-21, the XV Signature Pro had no problem recovering after hitting the problem spot. It stopped, realized something wasn't computing right, figured out the problem, then continued on the correct path, finishing its run as if nothing had happened.

In the XV-21's case, the glitch sent it into a bit of a panic, causing it to circle left and right aimlessly, then wander around the test area in wide curves that seemed decidedly out of character, as if it were in search of something familiar. Ultimately, it would find its way back into a rhythm, sometimes finishing the run with complete coverage, other times missing large spots altogether. We saw a similar sense of distress with more minor hiccups in the XV-21's navigation -- in the end, it would find its way back into a more orderly approach to finish the run, but it always took some extra searching before it seemed ready to do so. The same was true when I tested our sand and sawdust mixture -- the XV-21 took a little longer and navigated a little less efficiently.

Sawdust/sand mix (out of 1.25 oz)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Medium-pile carpet
Short-pile carpet
Hardwood floor
Neato XV-21
0.71
0.55
1.22
Neato XV Essential
0.50
0.32
1.03
iRobot Roomba 880
0.4
0.43
1.18
Neato XV Signature Pro
0.42
0.43
0.92
iRobot Roomba 790
0.3
0.23
1.12
Infinuvo Hovo 510
0.28
0.2
1.23
LG Hom-Bot Square
0.23
0.27
0.75
Infinuvo CleanMate QQ5
0.15
0.13
0.07

In practice, this slightly less intelligent design might have actually served to inflate the XV-21's numbers a bit, as the constant searching, swerving, and doubling back forced it to go over many areas twice or even three times. It was navigating less efficiently, but this was actually causing it to vacuum more. The XV Signature Pro, on the other hand, was much more efficient, rarely going over the same area more than once and typically finishing its runs in less time than the XV-21 -- and with slightly weaker performance, as a result.

Here in a small, controlled rectangle, the XV-21 saw longer runs and better numbers, but I wondered how it would fare in a more complicated setting. Would the pattern hold, with the XV-21 simply taking a bit longer to clean a large area and vacuuming more as a result? Or, would the navigational difficulties catch up with it in a larger setting, preventing it from performing as well as it should?

Ry Crist/CNET

I took the XV-21 home for a night, determined to find out. My apartment isn't terribly big, but it's far from the perfect rectangles of our test floor, and feature some unique obstacles, including a breakfast nook that divides the kitchen from the living room and a variety of furniture to navigate around. The XV-21 handled most of it fairly well, although it became trapped underneath my exercise bike during one run after it climbed over the leg and couldn't figure out how to get back. We saw a similar difficulty with the XV Signature Pro, when it spent a good 10 minutes trying to climb up the gradual slope of a recliner's leg, off-road style. Not a huge deal.

The problems came at the end of the run. I had scattered a few small crackers in various spots around the three rooms the XV-21 was cleaning. If it was able to cover the entire floorspace, then it shouldn't have left any of them behind -- but it did. On top of that, it wasn't able to return to its charging dock, despite the fact that it was only about 20 feet away from it. It looked around for a while, then gave up. We never had any trouble like that with the XV Signature Pro. Thinking back to last year's living room test run where Neato's navigation system first won me over, the navigational differences between the two Neatos were fairly obvious.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Conclusion
The Neato XV-21 is a very effective floor cleaner, earning impressive scores in all of our tests. I worry, however, that too much of that performance came from all of the extra time it spent finding its way back to the path whenever something would catch its navigation system off guard. This was a marked difference from what we saw with the Neato XV Signature Pro, which navigated, well, like a pro.

If anything, the fact that the XV-21 saw better results simply by vacuuming more might suggest that the XV Signature Pro would benefit from a little less hubris. Sure, it can cover a room quickly and efficiently without going over the same area twice, but if you're setting it to clean while you're away at work, do you really care how long it takes? Why not cover the same area twice, especially if it means noticeably better performance?

At any rate, the strong performance in our pet hair tests is probably enough for dog and cat owners to justify pushing the needle towards the XV-21, but for more general use, I think I'd stick with the more intelligent XV Signature Pro, especially since it only costs $20 more. For something a little more high-end and feature-rich, I'd recommend the iRobot Roomba 880, which leads the field when it comes to forward-thinking design.

On the other end of the scale, we have bargain cleaners like the Infinuvo Hovo 510, a "good enough" option for frugal consumers. For now, I think Neato has the upper hand, with robot vacuums that are worth the extra money. Moving forward though, it'll be interesting to see how they choose to innovate. I know that I'd like to see a Neato robot vacuum that offers new features and functionality -- something more than an incremental bump in performance and a fun paint job.

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