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iRobot Roomba 790 review: A charming, low-maintenance little cleaning luxury

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Introduction
If you're going to let a semi-autonomous machine clean your floors, you'll want to enjoy living with it. With a retail price of $699, the iRobot Roomba 790 is the second most expensive of the robot vacuum cleaners we've reviewed so far. but this friendly workhorse whirs about with more charm and personality than any of the other robot vacuums in this test group. If you plan to use your robot vacuum on hardwood or another hard floor surface, the Roomba 790 is an excellent choice, as it outperformed the other robots we tested on this floor type. If you have mostly carpeted areas to clean or want a more budget-friendly model, the $449 Neato XV Signature Pro is more affordable, and it outperformed the Roomba in our carpet tests.

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8.1

iRobot Roomba 790

The Good

The charming Roomba 790 cleans your home reasonably well, requiring little human intervention past programming and dustbin emptying.

The Bad

Its navigational decision making sometimes results in longer cleaning cycles than you might want, and at $699 the Roomba 790 much more than some alternatives.

The Bottom Line

If price-point isn’t a factor and you’re looking for a robot vacuum to help you maintain multiple flooring types in your home, the Roomba 790 is an effective, low-maintenance purchase.

Build/construction
Like the Infinuvo CleanMate QQ5 Plus, the iRobot Roomba 790 is disc-shaped, though it's a bit heftier. The Roomba 790 measures 13.9 inches in diameter and 3.6 inches in height, just over half an inch wider and half an inch taller than the CleanMate. At 8.4 lbs, the Roomba 790 is also the second heaviest vacuum we tested. This weight inspires a lot of confidence in the Roomba's design. I also appreciated the soft bumper on the front of the machine, which prevents the vacuum from scratching walls and furniture.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

The Roomba features a touch screen on its top side that allows you to control and program the vacuum, or you can use the touch screen on the remote, which has identical functions. The remote control is easy to use but is enormous compared with the remote that comes with the $799 LG Hom Bot Square. The Hom Bot's remote rests nicely in the docking station whereas the Roomba's remote has no proper home. I liked the interface on the Roomba remote, but I wish that it nested somewhere and took up less space.

When you flip the Roomba over to examine its underside, you'll find the side brush, which sweeps debris back toward the suction mechanism and roller brushes. You will also find a well that holds a bristle brush and a beater brush. The bristle brush is similar in design to the roller brushes on the other vacuums, but the beater brush is made of silicone paddles, which scrape stubborn debris and pet hair. These brushes work in tandem to agitate particles out of the carpet and into the vacuum. The Roomba also has two sturdy, rubberized wheels, which it uses to navigate among different types of surfaces and over low obstacles. The dustbin is generously sized and easy to empty. The bin includes two replaceable air filters and a hinged door, which keeps debris inside the bin until you're ready to empty it.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Besides the vacuum unit itself, the Roomba 790 package includes a docking station and charging cord, the remote control, and a battery-powered virtual wall/lighthouse accessory you can use to block off access to an area or extend the Roomba's navigational range from its charging base. The Roomba also comes with a briefcase that includes two additional virtual wall/lighthouses (more on these later), six extra HEPA filters, two extra side brushes, two extra beater brushes, two extra bristle brushes, two brush-cleaning tools, and a screwdriver. This is, by far, the most complete set of accessories included with any of the vacuums we tested. The plastic accessory carrying case, also unique to Roomba, is especially welcome, since it spares you from having to organize all the extra parts.

Usability
As with all of the robot vacuums we tested, you will need to charge the Roomba first. You can use the dock/charging stations, but you can also plug the power cord directly into the Roomba itself. A full charge takes approximately three hours. You will also need to install two C batteries (not included) into each of the virtual wall/lighthouses if you intend to use them.

Before you start the Roomba, you should set up the virtual walls to confine the robot to a room or section of your house. You can create a physical barrier for the Roomba as well, but the virtual walls are simple and effective. In one of our tests, I allowed the Roomba to go from a living room into a hallway. I found it was inconsistent going from room to room and took longer than I expected due to its seemingly arbitrary decision making. You don't need to use the virtual walls to use the Roomba, but they do help the robot to find its way back to the docking station. While the virtual walls also help limit its meandering, if you want the Roomba to clean a large area in a tight scheduling window, you may be frustrated.

iRobot Roomba 790 (pictures)

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I'll describe programming the Roomba to run on a schedule, but to run it manually, you can turn it on by either pressing the "clean" button on the unit itself or the remote. Pressing it once turns the Roomba on; pressing it twice begins the cycle. The Roomba will leave its docking station, clean the room, and return to charge when it is finished. A red LED indicator will tell you when the dustbin needs to be emptied.

For its programmability, you can use the remote or the onboard controls to set a cleaning schedule. The Roomba will leave its dock at the appointed times (you can set different times on different days), clean, and return when its finished, assuming it doesn't become stuck somewhere, a relative rarity. In general, I found that the Roomba 790's interface one of the easiest vacuums to program.

If you have pets, or if your machine picks up a lot of hair, expect to clean the Roomba's brushes often. Thankfully, iRobot makes this easy. The rotating brushes sit inside a plastic cage you remove by pressing two buttons. The brushes come out of the cage without trouble, and you can use the included brush scraper and other tools to clean off any hair or debris before reinstalling them. In short, maintenance is a breeze.

Performance

Rice (out of 2.5 oz.)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Medium-pile carpet
Short-pile carpet
Hardwood floor

Neato XV Signature Pro
2.05
2.33
2.13

iRobot Roomba 790
2
2.32
2.25

LG Hom Bot Square
1.85
1.87
2.13

Infinuvo CleanMate QQ5
1.55
1.8
0.8

Pet hair (out of 0.2 oz)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Medium-pile carpet
Short-pile carpet
Hardwood floor

Neato XV Signature Pro
0.15
0.15
0.18

LG Hom Bot Square
0.083
0.02
0.08

iRobot Roomba 790
0.047
0.05
0.17

Infinuvo CleanMate QQ5
N/A
0.02
N/A

Sawdust/sand mix (out of 1.25 oz)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Medium-pile carpet
Short-pile carpet
Hardwood floor

Neato XV Signature Pro
0.42
0.43
0.92

iRobot Roomba 790
0.3
0.23
1.12

LG Hom Bot Square
0.23
0.27
0.75

Infinuvo CleanMate QQ5
0.15
0.13
0.07

The iRobot Roomba 790 was the top performer on hardwood in all but one of our tests and a close second in most of the carpet tests, nipping at the heels of the Neato XV Signature Pro. While none of them took in every nut and washer I threw out, the Roomba led this testing category, although like the others, it balked at picking up more than a few of the larger hardware pieces. It picked up competitive amounts of the debris I put in its path and, while it took longer than the other vacuums, it performed consistently well in terms of particle collection. In our living room test, the Roomba transitioned from the hardwood floor onto an area rug and off again with no trouble whatsoever.

The Neato outperformed the Roomba in our small, penned-in test areas, with nearly all debris types. When I scattered rice around a full-size living room, however, the Roomba outperformed every other vacuum. This highlights an interesting difference between the Roomba and vacuums that move in a more linear pattern. Only the Neato moves in perfectly regimented lines, but none of the other robots spent much time going over places where they had already cleaned. The Roomba will. It might take much longer to get through a room, but it will be more thorough.

In my own home, I was also amazed at how the Roomba navigated under our couch and ottoman, both of which have skirts. The Roomba hesitated in front of the skirt and then slowly pushed its way under the couch. Be prepared to face some shame and disgust when the Roomba reveals just how dirty it can get in places you don't normally clean. The Roomba easily navigated between chair legs and under tight furniture, never needing help to find its way out into the open areas again. Some furniture may cause it problems. For example, in our living room set, the Roomba got stuck on the sloped legs of an armchair.

The Roomba 790 performed well on both of our cliff tests. I put it on a kitchen table and then at the top of a flight of stairs. It went over neither edge and the sensors accurately steered it away from dangerous drops.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

The Roomba 790 looks about the same as iRobot's other 700-series vacuums. It includes more replacement parts in its accessory case. iRobot also improved the remote, going from mechanical buttons on the 780 model's remote, to the touch-screen version here. No robot in the Roomba line has ever had a caddy for a remote control, which seems like a next step for design improvement.

Other than the inclusion of extra accessories and/or replacement parts, the differences in the 700 model Roombas (the 760, 770, 780, and 790) seem negligible in terms of cleaning technology. The 770, 780, and 790 all include iRobot's patented Dirt Detect 2 sensor system with Persistent Pass movement. As far as what is included in the box, the only differences between the 790 and its predecessor, the 780, come down to the 790's accessories, from the touch-screen remote, to the trio of virtual walls/lighthouses, to the carrying case full of replacement brushes. All those extras justify the $100 price difference between the 790 and the 780, but I expect any performance difference between the two will be negligible.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

I should also mention that one of our favorite things about the Roomba was its personality. Between its audio cues, its design, and its circuitous pathing, the Roomba somehow seems plucky, and excited to do its job. I found myself rooting for it, cheering when it picked up certain debris, feeling let down when it didn't. I didn't connect on that level with any other robot vacuum in this group. It's sweet and rather adorable, as robots go.

Service and support
The Roomba comes with a category-standard one-year limited warranty. iRobot provides an online owner's center, which includes tutorial videos, accessory and part replacements, and troubleshooting information. For technical support, iRobot's Web site has a chat option or you can call 1-800-727-9077. All of the robot vacuums in this group, except the Infinuvo CleanMate QQ5 Plus, included similar warranties and service options.

Conclusion
None of these robot vacuums can replace your traditional, upright vacuum cleaner. They all have limitations. That said, both the Roomba 790 and the Neato XV Signature Pro are great options if you are looking for something to help you with the day-to-day floor maintenance. The Roomba 790 excels on hard flooring surfaces, but performs well on carpet as well. If you do not shy away from the $699 price tag and are looking for a robot vacuum with personality, features, and a wealth of accessories and replacement parts, the Roomba 790 is a reasonable buy. It's hard to justify the purchase, however, when, at $200 less, the Neato XV Signature Pro outperformed the Roomba in most tests. It really comes down to personality: the Neato lacks it completely, whereas the Roomba has it in spades. If that's worth an extra $200 to you, the Roomba is a great choice.

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8.1

iRobot Roomba 790

Score Breakdown

Performance 8Usability 9Design 8Features 7