iRobot Roomba 980 review: You'll pay a premium for this smart but unexceptional vacuum bot
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.
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.
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:
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.)
Testing the Roomba 980
Given that iRobot and Neat0 robot vacuums have performed the best in our tests historically, this performance comparison focuses on various models we've tested from these two brands, as well as one Samsung bot, the Powerbot VR9000. We have also reviewed the LG Hom-Bot Square , the Infinuvo CleanMate QQ5 and the Infinuvo Hovo 510 , but they didn't make the cut.
The Roomba 980 finished in fourth place on the rice test, picking up 2.42 ounces of rice (out of a total of 2.50 ounces) on midpile carpet, 2.29 ounces on the thinner low-pile carpet and just 2.13 ounces on hardwood.
The Neato Botvac 85 dominated on this test, collecting 2.45 ounces on midpile carpet, 2.38 ounces on low-pile carpet and 2.45 ounces on hardwood. iRobot's own 880 finished in second place, with 2.38 ounces on midpile, 2.43 ounces on low-pile and 2.33 ounces on hardwood, and the Neato Botvac D85 came in third place with 2.44 ounces on midpile, 2.22 ounces on low-pile and 2.38 ounces on hardwood.
Given that these are all top-performing bots, the 980 didn't fail outright, but it still didn't do as well as the $700 Rooba 880 and that was a big disappointment given all of the features that were added to the 980.
We also tested how well the 980 would pick up 0.2 ounces of assorted pet hair on all three flooring surfaces. It did a little better here, placing in third overall. This is the only test where it outperformed the 880.
Neato's Botvac D85 earned a near-perfect score with 0.19 ounces of pet hair on midpile carpet, 0.2 ounces on low-pile carpet and 0.2 ounces on hardwood. The Neato Botvac 85 followed close behind with 0.17 ounces on midpile and low-pile carpet and 0.2 ounces on hardwood.
The Roomba 980, in turn, collected 0.18 ounces on midpile, 0.19 ounces on low-pile and 0.16 ounces on hardwood. This time, the Roomba 880 finished in last (after the Neato XV Signature Pro and the Samsung Powerbot VR9000) with 0.12 ounces on midpile, 0.10 ounces on low-pile and 0.17 ounces on hardwood.
For the final test, we scattered 1.25 ounces of sand on the floors. Sand is notoriously stubborn and none of the vacuums we've tested have returned truly impressive results, but the iRobot Roomba 880 did the best overall. It picked up 0.35 ounces of sand from the midpile carpet, 0.58 ounces from the low-pile carpet and all of the sand from the hardwood floor.
In contrast, the Roomba 980 finished in fourth place with 0.28 ounces on midpile, 0.37 ounces on low-pile and 1.16 ounces on hardwood.
How much are Wi-Fi smarts worth?
It's true, iRobot's $900 Roomba 980 didn't bomb in any performance categories. It actually did pretty well, given that it was compared against the best of the best (that we've reviewed so far, at least). The problem is that iRobot added a ton of tech to this bot -- it improved the battery, it added new sensors and a camera for advanced mapping, it added an app so you can start and stop cleaning cycles anywhere you have Wi-Fi or cellular access -- but none of translated to better performance, and that's what we expect from a $900 robot vacuum cleaner, especially when you can get a non-smart Roomba for $700 that performs a bit better overall.