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If you're going to let a semi-autonomous machine clean your floors, you'll want to enjoy living with it. With a retail price of $699, the iRobot Roomba 790 is the second most expensive of the robot vacuum cleaners we've reviewed so far. but this friendly workhorse whirs about with more charm and personality than any of the other robot vacuums in this test group. If you plan to use your robot vacuum on hardwood or another hard floor surface, the Roomba 790 is an excellent choice, as it outperformed the other robots we tested on this floor type. If you have mostly carpeted areas to clean or want a more budget-friendly model, the $449
The Roomba features a touch screen on its top side that allows you to control and program the vacuum, or you can use the touch screen on the remote, which has identical functions. The remote control is easy to use but is enormous compared with the remote that comes with the $799
When you flip the Roomba over to examine its underside, you'll find the side brush, which sweeps debris back toward the suction mechanism and roller brushes. You will also find a well that holds a bristle brush and a beater brush. The bristle brush is similar in design to the roller brushes on the other vacuums, but the beater brush is made of silicone paddles, which scrape stubborn debris and pet hair. These brushes work in tandem to agitate particles out of the carpet and into the vacuum. The Roomba also has two sturdy, rubberized wheels, which it uses to navigate among different types of surfaces and over low obstacles. The dustbin is generously sized and easy to empty. The bin includes two replaceable air filters and a hinged door, which keeps debris inside the bin until you're ready to empty it.
Besides the vacuum unit itself, the Roomba 790 package includes a docking station and charging cord, the remote control, and a battery-powered virtual wall/lighthouse accessory you can use to block off access to an area or extend the Roomba's navigational range from its charging base. The Roomba also comes with a briefcase that includes two additional virtual wall/lighthouses (more on these later), six extra HEPA filters, two extra side brushes, two extra beater brushes, two extra bristle brushes, two brush-cleaning tools, and a screwdriver. This is, by far, the most complete set of accessories included with any of the vacuums we tested. The plastic accessory carrying case, also unique to Roomba, is especially welcome, since it spares you from having to organize all the extra parts.
As with all of the robot vacuums we tested, you will need to charge the Roomba first. You can use the dock/charging stations, but you can also plug the power cord directly into the Roomba itself. A full charge takes approximately three hours. You will also need to install two C batteries (not included) into each of the virtual wall/lighthouses if you intend to use them.
Before you start the Roomba, you should set up the virtual walls to confine the robot to a room or section of your house. You can create a physical barrier for the Roomba as well, but the virtual walls are simple and effective. In one of our tests, I allowed the Roomba to go from a living room into a hallway. I found it was inconsistent going from room to room and took longer than I expected due to its seemingly arbitrary decision making. You don't need to use the virtual walls to use the Roomba, but they do help the robot to find its way back to the docking station. While the virtual walls also help limit its meandering, if you want the Roomba to clean a large area in a tight scheduling window, you may be frustrated.
I'll describe programming the Roomba to run on a schedule, but to run it manually, you can turn it on by either pressing the "clean" button on the unit itself or the remote. Pressing it once turns the Roomba on; pressing it twice begins the cycle. The Roomba will leave its docking station, clean the room, and return to charge when it is finished. A red LED indicator will tell you when the dustbin needs to be emptied.
For its programmability, you can use the remote or the onboard controls to set a cleaning schedule. The Roomba will leave its dock at the appointed times (you can set different times on different days), clean, and return when its finished, assuming it doesn't become stuck somewhere, a relative rarity. In general, I found that the Roomba 790's interface one of the easiest vacuums to program.
If you have pets, or if your machine picks up a lot of hair, expect to clean the Roomba's brushes often. Thankfully, iRobot makes this easy. The rotating brushes sit inside a plastic cage you remove by pressing two buttons. The brushes come out of the cage without trouble, and you can use the included brush scraper and other tools to clean off any hair or debris before reinstalling them. In short, maintenance is a breeze.