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Sucking it up with the new Roomba

New robotic vacuums come out this week, and we test one.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read

It swallowed a pit from a plum.

And over the course of three test drives through our house, the Roomba 560, the new top-of-the-line Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner cleaner from Burlington, Mass.-based iRobot, also gobbled up three rubber bands, two stray edamame, seven coins, a couple of beads and a grapefruit-size wad of pet hair.

Photos: iRobot's new 'robust' Roomba

And that was just what I found in the dust bin. An additional chamber that captures fine particles and sits next to the air filter captured a disc of dust that would cover a butter dish. The house was dirtied on purpose for this article, but, to be honest, a lot of this stuff wasn't planned.

"It picks up more dirt than previous models and the dust bin is 20 percent larger," said Nancy Dussault, director of marketing communications at iRobot. "We've changed everything."

The Roomba 560--one of a series of models making their debut this week--isn't perfect. It's noisy when cleaning hard floors, takes far longer to clean floors than a regular vacuum, and often likes to wrestle with backpacks and area rugs. You might come home and wonder who put the plastic footstool in the middle of the kitchen.

But here's the much larger upside for the $250 to $400 devices: I didn't have to vacuum. The machine did it. Also, it can be programmed fairly easily to run when you aren't at home so the noise won't bug you.

But the most tremendous thing is that it picks up more of the macro bits--loose change, small rocks, etc.--than standard upright vacuums. The coins and the plum pit would have been regurgitated by my Hoover.

These large solids also go down without a lot of fuss. The motor speeds up a bit and then there's a muffled clunk. You don't get that "ack-ack-ack" sound of mechanical gnashing when a regular vacuum tries to take on change.

Revamping the Roomba comes at a crucial time for the company. It has sold more than 2 million Roombas, but increasingly faces competition from companies like Samsung and LG, which have come out with their own robotic vacuums.

iRobot's revenues have been increasing rapidly. The company reported $86.5 million in revenue for the first half of this year, a 19 percent hike from the $72.8 million in sales for the first half of 2006. During that same time, however, iRobot also saw net losses increase to $10.3 million, up from $4.7 million in the first half of 2006. Besides selling consumer robots, the company works with Taser and different branches of the military to create robots for security.

Traction: iRobot has improved the suspension system so that it can traverse from hardwood and tile to different types of carpets much easier than older models. "We can clean pile, medium pile, shag," said Dussault. Better traction also improves battery life because the robot can surmount obstacles quicker.

I can't disagree there. It switches from carpet to hard floors fairly easily. Sometimes, if it can't get onto the carpet, it will back up and try to climb onto it by approaching at an angle, which almost always works.

Sometimes, the traction is a bit too good. I've found it wedged under the lip of a cabinet, on top of a weight bar and grounded on a small stack of Martha Stewart Living magazines, among other places. But it did manage to get around most obstacles, which is a big benefit. You don't have to pick all the stuff off your floor to clean first.

Suction: A lot of the design ideas and technology from the Dirt Dog, a robotic industrial vacuum released last year by iRobot, were incorporated into the 500 series. Wimpy, inadequate suction was one of the primary complaints about the first version. "It will pick up bolts, nuts, screws," said Dussault. It lives up to billing here.

Durability: A Roomba 500 series vac will last more than 1,500 hours, or about five years, according to the company. The previous versions would often stop working well after one or two years, Dussault admitted.

Anti-wall-bashing technology: Front-mounted sensors detect walls and cabinets and slow the vacuum down as it approaches. The machine then lightly rebounds off the wall. The old versions hit walls at their regular speed.

This also comes in handy with feet. It just sort of taps off your leg, like a cat. We used it while cooking in the kitchen. The vacuum bumped into a lot of people but didn't really become annoying. My wife, who is very protective of the walls, found this to be one of the best features.

Tassel savers: When it detects tassels or loose wires in the brushes, it reverses and takes another approach. At one point, it bobbled the cord of a floor lamp, but backed away.

Navigation: The Roomba is supposed to be able to wander from its home base and, by following the beacons from two "lighthouses," clean two other rooms. In our tests, it never made it back to home base. Most of the time it got stuck on something or simply never returned. It went into rooms guided by the lighthouses, but also other rooms.