We were quite taken with the $449
Unfortunately, I can't recommend it. While it performed well, the standard filter it comes with is very flimsy. That makes it nearly impossible to empty the dust bin without spilling gross stuff all over yourself. Why would you ever bother with that when you can get the $399 Neato XV Signature that comes with one (considerably more substantial) pet and allergy filter and the same, sturdy blade brush as the Essential (all for just $20 more)?
And if you deal with pesky pet hair on a regular basis, you might as well spend the extra $70 to get the $449 Signature Pro. It comes with two pet and allergy filters, a blade brush and a combo brush designed specifically to combat pet hair. You do have the option to purchase various brush and filter upgrades for the Essential (that would make it identical to the Signature or the Signature Pro in every way except color), but that will end up costing you more in the end. And that's the most interesting takeaway from this review: Neato models are virtually indistinguishable. It's the seemingly minor accessories that set each Neato apart.
Design and features
Like every other Neato vacuum, the XV Essential clocks in at 8.6 pounds and measures 12.5 inches by 13 inches by 4 inches. It also has that classic Neato shape: It's rounded in the back and squared off in the front. But you can distinguish among models by color -- the Essential has a grayish-white finish. It also has a small display screen and a start button surrounded by LEDs.
The display screen includes a menu button where you can select among spot clean, schedule, set clock, language, and support. The LED lights around the start button change color depending on the status of the charge, which is handy. Press start once, and your Neato will power on. Press it twice and it starts to clean.
The XV Essential also has sensors on the top that map out the room to determine the most efficient route. The dust bin is located in the center of the vacuum right in front of the sensors. Just pull up on the handle to remove the bin and empty its contents. This model comes with two basic filters and one blade brush. That makes the XV Essential a stripped-down version of the $449 Signature Pro. They are identical machines outfitted with different filters and brushes. And the fact that you can swap out basic accessories for upgraded ones makes Neato vacuums very versatile but also a little too similar. Where's the unique tech among models, Neato?
The XV Essential also comes with a matching charging dock, where the Neato will return after completing a cleaning cycle to hang out and charge. A 6-foot boundary marker is also included in the box. This is my favorite Neato accessory. Where Roomba complicates this feature with Virtual Wall barriers you need to restrict your Roomba to a specified area, Neato simplifies things. Just lay the boundary marker flat on your floor and your Neato won't travel across it.
The Neato XV Essential is a relatively easy machine to use. Plug in the dock, let your Neato fully charge, and press start (twice if it was powered down). It will immediately leave the dock and begin to scan the room. When it scans it sort of "looks" left and right to determine what route to follow. As far as initiating a cycle, it couldn't be easier.
Then, it starts to clean and the first thing I noticed is that it's incredibly loud, particularly on hardwood. The blade brush has rubbery silicone "bristles" and the sound is pretty distracting. (Ry Crist reviewed the Signature Pro using the combo brush and said that it was also loud.) If you plan to be in the same room as your Neato while it cleans, this could get annoying. I also found the brush very difficult to get back in place. One side of the brush fits inside a belt, and it can be a chore to get it situated correctly.
One thing going for the XV Essential is that it's very responsive. I lifted it to carry it closer to the garbage can and the screen said, "Please put me down on the floor." When the battery was low, the screen read, "My battery is low, please charge me." It thanks you for emptying its dust bin and reminds you to put it back. And when it's done with a cycle, it will even say that it's finished on the screen. If there's something obstructing the view of the sensors on the top or if it gets tangled on something, it will let you know that, too. It borders on being a nag, but the reminders are still helpful.
My biggest complaint with the Essential relates to usability, and it's ultimately the reason I can't recommend this machine over the $399 Signature or the $449 Signature Pro. The Essential is supposed to be entry-level for Neato; it's replacing the XV-12 and it comes with basic accessories. That's fair, but the filter is terrible. It feels extremely cheap, and you have to remove it every single time you dump the contents of your dust bin.
It has a tab you're supposed to pull on to remove the filter, but it felt like it would break whenever I tried. Also, it takes more effort than it should to remove and that force caused debris to scatter everywhere half of the time. Very messy and it kind of defeats the purpose of vacuuming in the first place. For just $20 more, you can get the XV Signature -- it's the exact same machine but with an upgraded filter that says it can "remove particles from the air stream down to 3 microns in size, including mold, spores, cat and dog dander, dust mites, pollen, textile and carpet fibers." Sounds much better to me, and if you're already considering spending $379, $399 isn't that much more.