Robot vacuum pioneer iRobot has big plans in the works. From new Roombas that clean themselves to, and even , iRobot has been busy.
But while these sophisticated home care systems sound impressive, even useful, they suffer from one glaring downside. They are all staggeringly expensive. This move by iRobot is no accident. While it may seem reckless, it's a reaction to the realities of today's robot vacuum market.
For its high-end plan to succeed, iRobot really needs to deliver on the bold promises of its new vacuum technology. Here's an overview of what iRobot offers over its competition, and what it means for you.
Home robots have gone mainstream
Like TV sets in their early days, robot vacuum cleaners were once aspirational, luxury appliances. Today that's changed. Prices for entry-level cleaning bots have hit all-time lows, and continue to drop. You can now scoop up an entry-level robot vacuum for as little as $224. As with TVs, the idea of a single- or multi-robot home doesn't sound outrageous.
The cause of this shift is certainly increased competition. These days iRobot faces a host of challengers. The list includes rivals such as Ecovacs, . Even the crowdsourced corner of the hardware market is getting in on it, thanks to Narwhal and its promised self-cleaning vacuum-mop combo., , , and lesser-known companies like , ,
More automation means less work
Beating back competitors in a race to the bottom is a losing proposition for any trade. And battling over price alone is surely no way to innovate. I think it makes more sense to dream up brand-new products, ones that do things no robot cleaner has done before or yet as well. That appears to be what iRobot envisions with its current premium lineup. Both the $1,099and $1,299 are built to work with the CleanBase doc. It both charges and empties out their dustbins, so there's less mess to deal with.
At the moment, these are the only robot vacuums available in the US that can pull off this trick. They weren't the first to attempt this. Samsung Navibot S that promised an "auto dust emptying" feature. Neither robot made it to the US market.offered similar functions in the past. The same is true for the
And since manual cleaning is one of the biggest headaches associated with these machines, the feature could be worth paying extra for. That said, execution is critical to success. These new pricey Roombas must perform as advertised, otherwise their future looks shaky.
Another unique selling point iRobot makes for its expensive new products is their intelligent, collaborative operation. The Roomba S9+ will coordinate its cleaning activity with the company's Braava Jet m6 robot mop. Both are linked to the iRobot mobile app. With one finger tap, the Roomba vacuums then tags the Braava to start mopping when its done. Again the goal is more automation, and less work for you.
iRobot also has plans outside of floor care. Thewill land in Germany first in the third quarter of 2019. It's then slated for US shores (and yards) by 2020. The Terra won't come cheap either, with iRobot expecting it to cost about the same as other robotic grass-trimming solutions ($900 to $10,000).
The Honda Miio are similar systems you can purchase today. Unlike those products, the Terra will use wireless communication and software to navigate. In fact, it'll be the first robot lawn mower to do so. The big upside here, and what sets the Terra apart, is you won't need to deploy tedious guide wires along the ground. It's a physical hassle that comes with current automatic mowers.and
Evolve, improve or die
As the first commercially successful robot vacuum brand, Roomba products enjoy commanding market share. Naturally all the other makers of domestic bots want a piece of the action. Arguably the biggest threat to Roomba comes from a legion of budget models. And even though they can cost as little as $200 to $300, many are quite advanced.
For example, $299 Eufy Robovac 30C and $179 Ecovacs N79 both link to mobile apps for command and control. Some create digital maps of your floors as they clean them. I especially like Ecovac's app that displays the robot's position in real time as it's cleaning. These Neato and Ecovacs models are compatible with Alexa and Google Assistant, too.
Competition isn't only coming from entry-level vacuums either. Neato's flagship model, the $829 Botvac D7 Connected, costs less than the Roomba s9+ ($1,299 with CleanBase, $999 without). Even so, it supports multiple room cleaning, and lets you drop virtual barriers into your floor plans. That way you can cordon off areas where your robot shouldn't venture.
Select Roombas just began storing maps last year. And they all still lack an official virtual barrier function, relying instead on less convenient physical barriers. That said, the new app-connected Roombas will accept voice commands to start and stop cleaning with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, but that's more keeping up with the rest of the market than an advanced feature.
A steep price for convenience
You can't deny that iRobot is charging a huge premium for its suite of floor cleaning products. Outfitting your home with them is an outrageously expensive proposition. You have to shell out for a $1,299 Roomba s9+ that empties its dustbin on its own. Next, you pair it with a new $499 Braava Jet m6 robot mop. That comes to an eye-popping $1,798.
Based on what I've seen testing robot vacuums over the years across all price points, iRobot has a tall order to fill in terms of delivering enough value to justify such a high price tag. Most robot vacuums, Roombas included, don't even reliably return to base without a hitch, let alone operate for months without human intervention. When you add to the mix a separate intelligent mopping machine running in tandem, the variables for unforeseen problems will no doubt increase.
I'll put iRobot's new cleaners through our testing lab as soon as I can. I'd love to be surprised, but iRobot is going to have to demonstrate a remarkable leap forward in robot floor cleaning technology to justify the high cost of even the vacuum itself, let along the vacuum-mop combination.