Sci-Tech

My life with Scooba

CNET News.com reporter Michael Kanellos lets the floor-scrubbing robot loose in his house--and gets clean linoleum and lots of laughs. Photos: At home with Scooba

Scooba, the floor-scrubbing robot from iRobot, can free you up from the drudgery of mopping. But who knew it's one of the best entertainment gadgets around?

A few days ago, I sat transfixed as a demo unit given to me by iRobot navigated the kitchen and breakfast room in our house. It hugged the contours of the north and west walls. When it came to the heating vent on the north wall, the robot performed two 90-degree turns to angle around the heating vent, continued along the front of the vent, and then returned to hugging the wall.

Scooba

When it came to the next corner, I assumed it would turn 90 degrees and suck up the small pile of Trader Joe's low-fat strawberry muesli lying nearby. But it turned 45 degrees instead, leaving the area under the table entirely, and headed for the already-cleaned area by the stove.

"No, no, no!" I pleaded, my fingers stretched out as if I was trying to stop the cat from chewing plastic shopping bags.

Ultimately, the robot, which runs from about $150 to $350, made four trips in and around the table. It sucked up most of the crumbs there, but missed a triangle-shaped patch underneath. Oddly, it missed the same patch on other days.

"Maybe something spooked it there, like horses that won't go near certain fences," my wife said.

A day later, I watched it valiantly wrestle with my wife's dresser. The robot scooted underneath the furniture, then kept bumping into the legs and the wall once there. Waddling furiously, the Scooba finally pointed itself onto a clear path out. But after it had escaped halfway, it inexplicably turned 180 degrees and went straight back in.

It was like a fight scene in "Popeye," where arms and legs flair about into a cloud of dust and stars. Five minutes later, it finally left the dresser for good. My 5-year-old daughter and I cheered and involuntarily did the sort of fist pump one might see at a Bon Jovi concert. A few moments later, the Scooba emitted a cheery nine-note song and shut down.

The Scooba, and its older carpet-cleaning relative the Roomba, represent some of the first examples of a predicted wave of extroverted computers. Now, humans go to computers, ask them questions and get data. In the future, we will be zapped for time, so machines will have to gather data or accomplish tasks on our behalf, anticipating what we might need. Robots, sensors, cameras and software filters that intelligently plan our lives will be everywhere.

To some, this vision of the future conjures up ominous visions of the movie "Minority Report." The Scooba, though, is clearly more in the comic vein of a Jetsons robot. It seems more tenacious than intelligent, and it's incredibly upbeat. It starts each cleaning job with a four-note trill, then swirls out in an expanding circle. If it hits your foot, or an old copy of Martha Stewart Living, it quickly spins away.

Bumping and grinding
The Scooba doesn't have a GPS system. Instead, it maps a room by feel, following walls or bouncing off of them; the robot's Aware software tracks all the movements and tries to figure out when a cleaning job is done.

A big part of the entertainment is to try to figure out what pattern the device is following. The more you watch, the more you get a sense of the logic behind its movements, but it's still somewhat mysterious. It alternates between spirals and linear motion. (iRobot and competitor Evolution Robotics are expected to improve navigation technology on household robots.)

Left to its own devices, the robot does fairly well covering a floor. In our house, we have one small hallway with six doors and a total of 16 corners (when all the door frames and heating vents are counted). The Scooba cleaned the entire surface area, which made for a good half hour of viewing. If it accidentally veers over the top of the staircase, sensors get the robot to retreat--that's good for another five minutes of viewing.

The robot also successfully navigated and cleaned the floor in an L-shaped laundry room. The only spot it consistently missed in six different rooms was the triangle under the breakfast room table.

To be honest, my daughter and I found the waste products quite compelling. We're not alone.

The machine also gets the floors quite clean. A mop gets continually dunked in a bucket of increasingly dirty water. With Scooba, jets spray a mixture of water and cleaning fluid (or water and white vinegar) on the floor that then gets sucked up by a squeegee blade and vacuumed into a water tank. Dirty water, thus, is not recycled. The floors, whether wood or tile, glow.

The water that comes out of the dirty-water tank is generally brownish-white or gray and more foul than you might expect. The filter, at least in our case, also contained more cat food, crumbs and hair than most people even know is on their floors. I had no idea we lived like savages. To be honest, my daughter and I found the waste products quite compelling. We're not alone.

"I agree, pouring the filthy solution out is the best part," Helen Greiner, iRobot chair and co-founder, wrote in an e-mail.

Scooba brings on the noise
The Scooba isn't perfect. Charging the battery is difficult for starters--the first charge takes 16 hours, but it takes far less time later. Give it 45 minutes of juice, and you're good to go.

The first big problem is the film of liquid it leaves on the floor. Most of the fluid gets sucked up into the machine by the vacuum and the squeegee blade, but a visible, relatively continuous film remains. With tile or linoleum floors, that's not really a problem. But with wood floors, which can be damaged by fluids, you feel compelled to wipe up with dish towels. On a warm day, the fluid dries fairly quickly, but on colder days, wet spots can still be there 20 minutes later.

Personally, I can live with this. My wife, however, would probably rather have her teeth removed with rusty pliers than harm the floor. The wet spots, in her view, need to be wiped up.

Which leads to the second problem: the noise. The Scooba can be as loud as 80 decibels, which, according to Reader's Digest, is about as loud as city traffic noise. When cleaning the bathroom, you can shut the door on it and cancel out most of the noise. But in an open room like the kitchen, the noise carries into other rooms and can be a bit annoying. You can't operate it if someone is resting in bed.

After baking cookies for Halloween, we tried absentee cleaning, letting it run 45 minutes alone while we were out of the house. It got the vast majority of sprinkles and a smear of stepped-on frosting. The floors were dry when we came back.

Finally, removing and inserting the fluid tank from the unit can cause some anxiety. You push the handle to remove the tank, but it looks like you should pull it, like a door handle. I thought I broke it a couple of times.

Overall, on a scale of 100 (with 100 being an unequivocal thumbs up), I'd give it an 85. And I think we'll miss it.