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iRobot Roomba 980 review:

You'll pay a premium for this smart but unexceptional vacuum bot

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The Good iRobot gives its $900 Roomba 980 a brain power boost with a lithium ion battery, additional sensors, a camera, and Wi-Fi and app connectivity on Android and iOS devices.

The Bad It didn't perform as well as the $700 Roomba 880 we reviewed in 2013. We also want to see features like a remaining battery life readout, push alerts and third-party integrations added to the iRobot Home app.

The Bottom Line iRobot's Wi-Fi-enabled Roomba 980 is an exciting hunk of next-gen vacuum tech, but it didn't wow us during testing. I'd hold off on this pricey automated floor cleaner until we review Neato's Botvac Connected and Dyson's 360 Eye.

CNET Editors' Rating

7.2 Overall
  • Performance 6.0
  • Features 7.0
  • Design 8.0
  • Usability 9.0

iRobot sells everything from gutter- and pool-cleaning gadgets to commercial-grade military, security and HazMat robots -- a recent FCC waiver even suggests automated lawnmowers are in the works -- but the brand is best known for its fleet of Roomba robot vacuum cleaners.

We reviewed the $700 Roomba 880 back in 2013 and it was the most impressive automated floor cleaner we'd ever seen, but the robot vacuum industry is growing fast and competing models are putting Roomba's dominant position in question.

New app-enabled models are also appearing on the robot vacuum landscape and iRobot's latest bot, the $900 Wi-Fi-enabled Roomba 980, available in the US starting September 17 and in Europe and Japan by the end of the year, is a part of that trend. (International pricing is not yet available, but that converts to about £580 or AU$1,250.)

But, even though the 980 boasts an array of smart features, it didn't perform as well as the older Roomba 880 and it costs $200 more. I'd steer clear of the pricey Roomba 980 until we can compare it directly with Dyson's 360 Eye and Neato's Botvac Connected , two other smart robot vacuum models that should hit US retail soon.

A fresh take on an old favorite

The 980 has the same basic design as its Roomba predecessors. It's round, with two main rotating brushes and one spinning side brush, as well as a removable dust bin and a large Clean button in the center for starting and stopping cycles with ease. Look closer, though, and you'll start to notice some differences.

iRobot swapped out the 880's glossy black and silver finish for something that sits at the intersection of black and brown (and maybe a little gray, too). It looks nice, but I'm not sure I prefer it. The brand also uncluttered its display by reducing the 980's interface to just three buttons -- Clean, Home and Spot Mode.

The Roomba 980 (left) and 880 side by side. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Press Clean once to wake up your Roomba and again to initiate a cleaning cycle. You can also press Clean while it's running to pause your bot; hold the button down to end a cycle.

The Home button returns the Roomba to its docking station and the Spot Mode button vacuums in a concentrated space (a roughly 3-foot circle) for those times when you want to target a particularly dirty area instead of the entire floor.

Some features that were controlled by buttons on the body of the bot on the previous model are controlled on the Roomba 980 via the new iRobot Home app for Android and iOS, including scheduling a recurring cleaning cycle and other settings such as Carpet Boost (this feature automatically cleans harder when it detects a rug or carpet), Two Cleaning Passes (the default is one, although it will still use its debris detector as needed) and Edge Clean (this cleans around the perimeter of a room to make sure stubborn debris doesn't cling to corners). I do prefer the 980's minimal display, but this will make it tougher for family members without smartphones to access advanced controls.

iRobot also ditched the nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery it used to power past models in favor of a new lithium ion battery, designed to last longer during cleaning sessions and longer overall before needing to be replaced. It added new sensors and a low-res camera, too, to give the 980 a better idea of where it's been and where it still needs to clean.

A long-exposure shot of the Roomba 980 in action shows its new grid-style navigation, as well as its ability to focus on spots that need more attention. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

These updates will permit the 980 to use grid-based movement mapping of a type that's new for Roomba, but which we've already seen on all of the Neato-brand robot vacuums we've reviewed, so it's interesting that iRobot decided to go this route now. Previous Roomba vacuums had a random cleaning style, their seemingly patternless movements covering certain sports multiple times, while leaving other areas totally untouched (part of this was due to its debris-detecting feature, though, which targets "heavily soiled" areas). While models like the Roomba 880 still performed incredibly well, we really preferred Neato's more systematic approach.

With these new mapping features and a longer-lasting lithium ion battery, the Roomba 980 is now supposed to clean continuously for as long as 2 hours and cover multiple rooms in a single cycle, but features like Carpet Boost that make the motor work harder will seriously impact battery life. So, depending on what sort of flooring surface you're cleaning, it may not improve things much. iRobot's official Roomba 980 release stipulates that the 2-hour continuous cleaning statistic was "Tested in iRobot's Home Test Lab on hard floors" and that "Run times may vary."

Roomba has also revamped its Virtual Walls/Halos, making them smaller and compatible with AA batteries and able to either block off an open doorway or protect a certain area, like your pet's food and water bowls, from being Roomba-ed.

The iRobot Home app

iRobot's Home app, available for Android and iOS, was simple to set up. Download the app and make sure that your charging station is plugged in and that your Roomba is docked. Follow the instructions outlined in the app to connect your 980 to your local Wi-Fi network. It should take about 5 minutes.

Specifically, make sure that your phone is connected to your local Wi-Fi, enter in the network name and password, hold down the Home and Spot Mode buttons at the same to "activate" the Roomba (you'll hear a chime), select the Roomba Wi-Fi network in your settings and wait for it to connect.

The Roomba will give you audio cues along to way to let you know that it's working. From there, you're ready to use your Roomba. Here's a quick peek inside the app:

Inside the iRobot Home iOS app. Screenshots by CNET

The app is easy to navigate and it has a nice assortment of options, from setting schedules to opting in to features like Two Cleaning Passes, and it works whether you're on a Wi-Fi or cellular network. Still, I'd like to see a battery indicator that clearly displays how much juice is left before the bot needs to dock, as well as optional alerts when cycles end or when any potential errors take place.

And, now that the 980 is a connected device, we'd like to see integrations that link this smart Roomba with third-party devices. It would be neat to see iRobot become a Works with Nest partner, an initiative that connects Nest products with other smart home gadgets. That way, when the Nest Learning Thermostat is manually set to Away Mode or switches to auto-Away Mode, the Roomba 980 could complete a cleaning cycle. Or, if the Nest is set to Home Mode during a regularly scheduled cleaning cycle, it could override the Roomba and pause the cycle until you leave. (The 980 isn't exactly loud, but it would be tough to watch TV or have a conversation while it's cleaning.)

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