Before smartphones, before the cloud, before the Internet of Things was a thing, there was the robot vacuum. It's a smart-home product that predates the app-centric Gordian Knot of platforms and standards that is the modern connected home. A robot vacuum's definition of "smart" is simply to clean the cat hair off of your rugs without tumbling down the stairs in the process.
At least, it was. Now, a new crop of app-enabled "smart" robot vacuums is navigating into the picture, including the Wi-Fi-equipped Neato Botvac Connected. Pair it with its app on your Android or iOS device, and you'll be able to start, schedule, and even steer it right from your phone -- a welcome addition for a brand that, across all of its models to date, has yet to offer a remote control with any of its cleaners.
At $700 (or £549 in the UK), the Botvac Connected is Neato's most expensive robot vacuum yet, costing $200 more than its unconnected predecessors in the Botvac D Series. However, it's also $200 less than the connected version of iRobot's Roomba -- and it beat that Roomba in every test we ran. The same can be said for the app-enabled Dyson 360 Eye, which costs $1,000, but never bested Neato. In fact, in the majority of our tests, the Neato Botvac Connected beat out the entire field of robot vacs. It also features a new and improved lithium ion battery, a legitimate step up from the nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries of before.
Robot vacuums were brainy to begin with, and I wouldn't blame you for scoffing at the addition of app controls (or the price increase). But make no mistake: this is the best robot vacuum Neato has ever made, and the best robot vacuum money can currently buy.
The Botvac Connected sticks with the design of the existing line of Botvac models, with only minor tweaks to the color scheme. It's the same, D-shaped cleaner with the same brushrolls, the same accessories, and the same general approach to covering your floors.
That approach sends the Botvac out around the perimeter of the room, where it'll feel its way along the walls with a side-sweeping brush to tidy up the edges. From there, it'll use its laser-assisted navigation capabilities to sweep back and forth across the center of the room, nimbly dodging your furniture as it goes. When it's finished, it'll automatically return to its docking station for a recharge.
Those navigation capabilities seem to be somewhat refined in the connected model. Older Neatos were too efficient for their own good, sweeping along the walls and then covering the center of each room in a single back-and-forth pass. In smaller rooms and spaces, the Botvac Connected is more thorough: it sweeps the center of the room in both rows and columns, and edges along the walls multiple times, too.
That gives the Neato ample opportunity to pick up any debris it might miss on a single pass, though cleaning runs take a little longer as a result. I'm fine with that trade-off -- if the Neato is doing its thing while I'm away at work, I want it to take all of the time it needs.
Here's a time-lapse of that pet hair test. Most cleaners have a pretty easy time with it on hardwood floors. pic.twitter.com/pRPr5tFwkh— Ry Crist (@rycrist) October 26, 2015
Also new with the connected Neato: cleaning modes. In addition to the default, full-powered "Turbo" mode, you can now flip over into a power-saving "Eco" mode, too. You'll lose a little bit of suction power, but cleaning runs won't drain the battery as quickly, and the Neato will run a little quieter, too.
You can switch between modes or set up scheduled cleaning runs by tapping through the settings on Neato's color LCD screen, but if you'd rather not hunch over, you can also just pull up the Neato app on your Android or iOS device.
The Neato app is the shiny new addition to the Botvac experience, and a big part of why this vacuum costs $200 more than the previous generation. Thankfully, the app is pretty terrific. It's clean-looking, it's easy-to-use and it works like a charm.
You'll start by activating the Wi-Fi radio on the vacuum itself. It'll broadcast a signal that your smart phone can join up with -- from there, you'll jump back into the app, reselect your home Wi-Fi network, and watch as everything finishes pairing up. I got an error message during this last part on my first attempt, but as soon as I started the process again, things instantly synced right up. A tiny hiccup at best.
With the vacuum cleaner tethered to your home's Wi-Fi network, Neato will ask you to give it a name. I went with "Roger," then told Roger to start a cleaning run. Roger got to work without delay, and when he returned to the charging station, he sent me a push notification letting me know he was finished.
You can also log on to Neato's website if you want to do more than just give your robot vacuum a name. You can register its serial number, for instance, or save a photo of your proof of purchase. That's a handy way to be prepared in case you ever need to take Neato up on the one-year warranty.
Another feature in the app is a manual cleaning mode that'll let you steer the Neato around like a toy car. The controls work well enough, and they might be a lot of fun if you can get your cat to climb aboard. Still, the feature isn't terribly useful for much more than steering the Neato over to a messy spot, then switching it over to the automated spot-cleaning mode.
Despite the clean, easy-to-use interface, the simplicity of the app leaves room for improvement. For instance, you won't find usage statistics that track how long each cleaning run takes (or how much of the battery each one uses). You also won't see the specifics when things go wrong. If the brush is jammed or the robot gets caught on a piece of furniture, the app won't let you know -- at best, you'll see the vacuum's status listed as "error" if something is preventing you from starting a cleaning run remotely. In most cases, you'll still need to hunch over and look at the vacuum's LCD screen to see what that specific error is.
We run lots and lots and lots of cleaning tests when we evaluate robot vacuums. There are different types of floors to test on, different types of debris to test with, and different cleaning modes to test out. All in all, I sullied and cleaned over 30 floors with the Neato Botvac Connected, carefully weighing the results of each run. And I've come away convinced that it's the best performer we've ever seen.
Let's start with rice -- a good analog for the typical crumbs and clutter that you'll find on a floor in need of a good cleaning. We sprinkle 2.5 ounces of it onto each flooring surface we want to test, then let the robo vac do its thing. When it's done, we weigh what it picked up, then clean out the bin, give the floor a thorough cleaning, and run the test again. After three runs, we take the average, then move onto the next flooring surface.
Neato cleaned up in more ways than one. On all three surfaces we test -- plushy midpile carpet, berber-style low-pile carpet, and hardwood -- the Neato Botvac Connected posted a higher average than any other robot vacuum we've ever tested. That includes our first ever perfect score on hardwood (and our first perfect rice score on any surface).
I also ran the tests with the Neato switched over into Eco mode. It did seem to run a bit quieter, though only slightly, but it still performed well, managing another perfect score on hardwood and a slight downtick to 2.35 ounces on low-pile carpet. And midpile carpet? In Eco mode, the Neato actually exceeded the Turbo average of 2.48, instead scoring a perfect 2.50.
Next up: pet hair. A local groomer kindly donated a trash bag full of the stuff (shampooed before trimming, thankfully). For our purposes, we spread a fifth of an ounce of it across each of our test floors, then see how much each robot vacuum can sweep up.
Again, the Botvac Connected performed admirably, essentially finishing in a dead heat at the top of the leaderboard with Neato's previous generation cleaner, the Botvac D85. Its perfect score on midpile carpet was another first among the cleaners we've tested.
Those scores ticked down a bit in Eco mode, though. The Neato still managed a perfect score on hardwood, but could only get about three fourths of the fluff into the bin on both carpets. However, the floors all still looked clean to the naked eye, which raises a question. Where did that other 0.05 ounce of hair go?
The answer, as you might suspect, is that it didn't make it past the brushroll. With the motor running slower than before, the Neato didn't have quite enough suction power to keep the hair from clinging to those brushroll fibers, and created a bit of a tangled mess. It wasn't too terrible to yank the stuff out, and in fairness, the Neato comes with a handy multitool to help with this exact chore. Still, it was annoying enough that I'd steer clear of Eco mode if I had pets to clean up after.
Our final test is to see how well each vacuum can sweep up 1.25 ounces of sand. This is our most challenging test -- particularly on the carpets, where no cleaner to date has yet managed to pick up even half of what we throw down.
The Neato Botvac Connected struggled similarly, finishing more or less in a tie for third with the XV Signature Pro, a Neato cleaner that we first tested back in 2013. The strongest performer here is still the iRobot Roomba 880, which costs about the same as the Botvac Connected.
On the other hand, the app-enabled Roomba 980 -- the Botvac Connected's closest competitor -- finished towards the back of the pack. Despite selling for $200 more than the Botvac Connected, the Roomba 980 ended the day getting outperformed by Neato at every turn.
Robot vacuums aren't perfect cleaners, and the Neato is no different. It wasn't able to handle a particularly shaggy, inch-thick living room rug in the CNET Smart Home, for instance. And, though I was impressed with how intelligently and consistently it navigated around our test floors, it occasionally finished a run earlier than expected, or needed me to come and pick a wad of pet hair out of its brushroll.
We also ran into trouble with the Neato Botvac Connected's floor sensor. Pick the thing up, and you'll see a polite little message on the screen asking you to put it back down on the floor -- same as all Neatos that came before it.
About halfway through our tests though, that sensor seemed to get stuck. After picking the Neato up and putting it back on the ground, the message refused to go away. I tapped the "okay" button about a hundred times, and tried everything from jimmying the wheels to rebooting the system. Nothing worked, and I was forced to continue my testing with a second unit (I named this one "Roger Two.")
Neato tells me that Roger One was an early production unit, and was likely affected by a design flaw with the vacuum chassis that they claim has since been fixed. I wasn't able to replicate the problem with Roger Two, which is a good sign, and the one-year warranty offers a good deal of reassurance. Still, if you wanted to wait to hear some of the early customer feedback before making a purchase, I wouldn't blame you.
For $700, the Neato Botvac Connected offers unrivaled cleaning performance and the long overdue addition of remote controls via a well-designed app. It isn't just the best Neato yet -- it's the best robot vacuum to date, and the one I would buy if I were buying one today.
If you're willing to live without remote controls, you can save some money by going with a $500 cleaner from the last generation of Neato Botvacs. It also might make sense to wait and see if any of the emerging crop of connected robot vacuums ends up integrating in some useful way with an existing smart-home platform like Amazon Alexa or Apple HomeKit. But for now, the Neato Botvac Connected is the best buy of the bunch, and a deserving winner of our Editors' Choice Award distinction.