We already know that iRobot makes a mean robot vacuum, but the $300 (£260) Braava 380t is something totally different. There's no suction on this little bot, no brushroll, no bin. iRobot calls it a floor-mopping robot, and it'll do the job with reusable or disposable cloths, wet or dry.
The Braava is the product of iRobot's $74 million dollar acquisition of Evolution Robotics, makers of the Mint robotic floor mop. Rebranded and rereleased as the Braava, the "whisper-quiet" floor cleaner will mop dust, dirt, hair, and grime off of any hard surface, according to iRobot. While I can vouch for the whisper-quiet part, I can't say that I'm totally sold on the cleaning power, and while using it, I found myself missing key features from the Roomba, like autorecharging and scheduled cleanings. For basic cleaning, this bot might make sense, but temper your expectations if you're hoping for heavy-duty mopping power.
In terms of design, I give the Braava fairly solid marks. It's a good-looking, unobtrusive cleaner -- all the more so because of how quiet is, by far the quietest of any robot floor cleaner we've ever tested. If you set it to clean the kitchen while watching TV in the next room, you won't need to turn the volume up.
Compared with bigger, heavier bots like the Roomba 880 and the Neato BotVac 85 , the Braava is small-fry, weighing just 4 lbs (1.8kg). You won't have any problem picking the thing up -- which you'll need to do often, since it can't start a cleaning run or return to its charging base without your help.
For convenience, the Braava has a handle built into its rear edge, making it especially easy to carry. My only complaint is that the handle is located on the same side as the charging nodes, which you'll lower down onto the vertical charging dock. Because of this, you can't use the handle whenever you're picking the thing up out of the dock. It's a pretty minor quibble given how light the Braava is, but still, a top-mounted handle might have been a better choice.
Speaking of the charging dock, its vertical alignment is a departure from what we've seen from the Roombas we've tested out, which all align horizontally while charging. This means that the Braava takes up a lot less floor space in its resting position, making it easy to hide the charging robot behind a couch.
The downside to this is that the Braava can't possibly return to its charging position automatically, like other cleaners can. When it's finished cleaning, you'll have to step in and return it to its dock, which diminishes some of the appeal of getting a robot to clean your house for you.
I was also a bit disappointed that the dock doesn't double as a navigation aid for the Braava. To help the Braava find its way around, you'll place an accessory called a NorthStar Navigation Cube somewhere in the room you want it to clean. The cube will sync up with the Braava wirelessly, giving it a navigational reference point. To clean more than one room, you'll need more than one NorthStar, and extras are sold separately.
The Braava has just three buttons: one for dry mopping, one for wet mopping, and one to turn the thing on and off. Wet- and dry-mopping modes each have their own distinct cleaning head. The dry cleaning head is designed to work with disposable Swiffer-style cloths (as well as the included dry microfiber cloth), while the wet cleaning head has a reservoir that you'll need to keep filled with water.
Swapping the heads in and out is a cinch, as is changing the cloths. The wet cleaning head uses fine, Velcro-like pads to hold the cloth in place, while the dry cleaning head has grooves for you to tuck the cloths into.
Once you've got the cleaning head set, you'll carry the Braava to wherever you want it to start cleaning, set it down, and press the button for the desired cleaning mode. After a few cheerful beeps, it'll get to work, cleaning in straight, neat rows in dry mode, or sashaying arcs in wet mode. Once it's determined that it's finished, it'll return to the approximate place it started, beep out an "I'm finished" song, then patiently wait for you to come and carry it back to its dock.
Compared with most of the other robotic floor cleaners that we've tested, the Braava clearly requires a bit more hands-on interaction, and certainly more than I'd like from an automated cleaner. With the Roomba, I can leave for work in the morning with crumbs on my carpet and come home to clean floors without ever having thought twice. I can't say that about the Braava.
Granted, this model of the Braava costs less than the higher-end Roomba we tested (the newest model of which costs more than twice of what you'll spend for the 380t). Still, given that it bears the iRobot name, the Braava just wasn't nearly as smart or feature-rich as I've come to expect.
Features aside, the true test of this robot is whether or not it actually cleans, so we broke out three hard floor surfaces to try it out on: hardwood, vinyl, and a new ceramic tile test pen, carefully put together by our newest technical product testing analyst, Jared Hannah.
Along with more than a few heaping spoonfuls of our dust substitute, we wanted to see how well the Braava would clean up things like tracked mud, spaghetti sauce smears, and oil spatters.
We started with the dust though, using the Braava's dry mop head to clean up a half-ounce of stuff we had spread across each of our flooring surfaces. On each and every one, the Braava performed more like a plow truck than a floor mop, shoveling the dust substitute up against the walls and capturing relatively little of it on its microfiber cloth. The center of each floor was more or less clean, but if I were an allergy sufferer, I'd still be sneezing. Not a great result.
I will say that the Braava navigated well. It didn't miss any spots on any of the test surfaces. That cloth just wasn't that great at trapping our dust analog. With a different mix of dirt or pet hair, perhaps it would have performed better, but still, I was left unimpressed with the dry cleaning mode. I can't imagine it being terribly useful unless your floors were already more or less clean, and you just wanted to give them a quick buff.
I decided to switch over to the wet cleaning head to see if it would fare a little better with dust, and lo and behold, it fared a lot better. In the before and after picture above from our vinyl surface, you can see for yourself -- no white stuff left on the floor, and no white stuff crammed up against the walls, either.
Now that I had moved onto the wet-mopping portion of my tests, I decided to push things a little further, to see if the Braava could handle more complicated messes. First up was splattered cooking oil, which we dyed green for increased visibility.
The Braava did fairly well on vinyl, which overall seemed to be the easiest of the three floor types for it to handle. On hardwood, it smeared a good deal of the mess around, rather than picking it up, and I was forced to get down on my hands and knees and finish cleaning the mess with a soapy rag.
The result was even worse on the tile, where the Braava left long, oily streaks in its wake, and also left much of the white grout that Jared had worked so hard on stained green. This happened even in some spots where I hadn't sprayed oil -- the Braava was spreading the mess to areas that had been clean to start with.
Tile continued to be the trickiest of the three surfaces for the Braava as we tested out smears of mud, a common problem if you have dogs that spend a lot of time outdoors or guests who forget to wipe their shoes when they come in. Just look above at the before and after shots. Compared with vinyl, the ceramic tile looks like it was cleaned by a completely different machine.
Aside from the obvious problem with the grout, which the Braava just flat-out could not clean, the Braava also ended up shoveling the dried bits of dirt around, again, spreading the mess to parts of the floor that hadn't been dirty to start with. Remember, the Braava isn't a vacuum. It won't suck particles into a bin. Anything that the cloth can't absorb will simply get shoveled around.
Our spaghetti sauce tests gave us similar results to the mud tests. Again, the Braava did well on vinyl and not on ceramic tile, with hardwood falling somewhere in the middle. Again, I finished the tile tests with stained grout that needed to be scrubbed clean by hand.
All in all, I came away pleased with the Braava's ability to navigate our test floors -- including its ability to detect and avoid carpets, which was downright impressive. Still, the cleaning performance was a bit disappointing. There were simply too many smears left behind, too much stained grout, too many sticky spots. After too many runs, the Braava had us calling for an encore -- but only because the floors weren't clean yet.
The Braava has its charms, and for basic cleaning, it's a suitable little device. If you live in a home with lots of hard floors, running the thing nightly to keep tabs on dirt and dust would make a lot of sense. Unfortunately, you can't schedule the Braava to run nightly, the way you can with other robotic cleaners. For those kinds of regular, maintenance-type cleaning runs -- the kind of cleaning this robot is best suited for -- you'll need to manually start the Braava and manually return it to its dock afterward each and every time.
For me, that kind of micromanaging defeats the purpose of getting a robotic cleaner in the first place. It's not just about replacing the physical process of cleaning. It's about replacing the mental process, too. You want your floors to be clean without having to think about it, without having to remember to do something. That's the dream. Otherwise, you're just replacing one chore with another.