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Neato XV-21 review: This neat little cleaner goes for the high score

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It's no secret that we're big fans of what Neato Robotics is doing in the world of vacuums. Last year, the XV Signature Pro was one of the big standouts among all the appliances that we tested, offering Roomba-level cleaning power at a fraction of the cost. Last month, we took a look at the XV Essential , which offers a similar level of performance at an even lower price point.

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7.7

Neato XV-21

Pricing Not Available

The Good

With its specialty brushroll, the <b>Neato XV-21</b> picks up pet hair better than any other robot vacuum we've tested.

The Bad

Like all Neatos, the XV-21 isn't as feature rich as the average robot vacuum, lacking a remote control and customizable cleaning modes. It also isn't quite as smart a navigator as its newer siblings, the XV Signature Pro and the XV Essential.

The Bottom Line

The XV-21 is a great all-around robot vacuum and a viable Roomba alternative, but among Neatos, we'll stick with the brainier, similarly priced XV Signature Pro.

Now, we're taking a look back at the XV-21, a Neato robot vacuum released in 2012 which promises to do a superior job at picking up pet hair thanks to its specially-designed brushroll and filter. At a price of $429.99, it isn't a cheap device, but it's certainly more affordable than the iRobot Roomba 880 or the LG Hom-Bot Square , which retail for $699.99 and $799.99, respectively.

Is that a Super Nintendo cleaning my floors? (pictures)

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The XV Signature Pro -- which features that same specialty brushroll and pleated filter -- set the bar pretty high in our pet hair tests last year, but the XV-21 was still able to surpass it, proving to be just as powerful with pet hair as Neato claims. Still, the difference was fairly small, and not nearly as noticeable as the difference we saw between the two in terms of brain power. The XV Signature Pro clearly seems to be the more intelligent machine and the better navigator, which to me are both far more significant than a minor upgrade in pet hair performance. Since the XV Signature Pro only costs $20 more than the XV-21, I think it's the more well-rounded of the two, and the better buy overall.

That being said, the XV-21 is an undeniably solid robot vacuum. Like its siblings in the Neato family, it sits right in the sweet spot between you-get-what-you-pay-for budget models and pricier vacuums that promise to clean out your bank account just as well as they clean up your floors. It isn't the specific Neato that I'd choose, but then again, I don't have long-haired animals shedding all over my apartment. If I did, I don't think I'd hesitate to buy this robot vacuum and set it to work.

Sure, the XV-21 looks like a Super Nintendo, but don't expect a remote. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Design and features
Let's get one thing out of the way: the XV-21 looks an awful lot like a Super Nintendo. If, like me, you happen to geek out over classic 16-bit gaming, then you'll probably get a kick out of the design. Nintendo nostalgia aside, I think the touch of color makes for a more playful-looking robot vacuum than the stark white, Stormtrooper-esque XV Essential or the black-and-gray, Darth Vader-ish XV Signature Pro (fine, I'm a "Star Wars" geek, too).

Like the other Neatos, the XV-21 is a rather noisy little machine, so you'll definitely want to try and use it while you're out of the house. Also like the other Neatos, it features a design that's flat in the front and rounded in the back. This is supposed to help it clean alongside walls and head straight into corners, and in our tests, it hugged the baseboards as promised, just as the other models did when we tested them.

It also uses the same laser-guided navigation system to detect walls and obstacles before it weaves back and forth across the room in neat, orderly little rows. This is a dramatic difference between Neato and other robot vacuums -- most notably Roombas -- which bounce and swirl around the room in seemingly chaotic fashion.

One approach isn't inherently better than the other. Throughout our testing, I've been impressed with the effectiveness of both navigational styles, although perhaps not more so than the first time I watched the XV Signature Pro gradually map out a crowded living room, then zoom back and forth across it while nimbly dodging all of the furniture legs and cabinetry in its path. I'm not convinced that the XV-21 would be quite so adept at finding its way around that same room -- but more on that in just a bit.

Aside from that specialty brushroll and the pleated filter, this robot vacuum is a little light on features. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Laser-guided navigation system aside, features aren't Neato's strong suit. You won't find remote controls with any of their robot vacuums, nor will you find advanced, customizable cleaning modes. Neatos don't use side-spinning brushes to help clean along baseboards, and they don't come with fancy, programmable invisible walls.

The XV-21 is no exception to any of this. Aside from its normal cleaning mode, the XV-21 offers only a basic spot cleaning mode. There's no remote, so you won't be able to steer it around the room, either. If you want to move the XV-21 somewhere specific, you'll need to pick it up and carry it there.

You'll start the XV-21 by tapping a button on the cleaner itself, or by scheduling it to start automatically at a specific time. That's certainly more basic than much of the competition, but there's one nice scheduling feature here: you can set the XV-21 to run at different times on different days. Many robot vacuums will only let you pick a single time for the cleaner to run at across all days.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

To control where the XV-21 goes (or to be more specific, where it does not go) you'll use magnetic boundary markers that unroll onto the ground. The XV-21 won't pass over them, making it easy to block off a doorway or a particular corner of the room. Some users will no doubt appreciate the simplicity of the boundary markers, as well as the fact that they won't need to worry about batteries running down, the way they will with the invisible wall generators we've seen from other competitors, such as the "Lighthouses" the Roomba uses. Still, those Lighthouses are smart enough to turn off and allow the Roomba to pass into a second area after it finishes cleaning the first one, a level of functionality you won't get with Neato. At any rate, the XV-21 comes with a 6-foot strip of boundary markers which you can cut into multiple pieces as needed. An additional 13-foot roll will cost you $29.99.

In the end, the features that set the XV-21 apart are the specialty brushroll and the pleated filter, neither of which come with the previous generation Neatos, the XV-11 and XV-12. It's worth noting, however, that Neato sells a "Pet and Allergy Upgrade Kit" for $59.99 that includes the XV-21's brushroll and filter. If you already own one of these older Neatos and you're looking for stronger performance, the kit might be worth it -- but if you're planning on buying an older Neato at retail price, then tacking on the kit, don't bother. At a total price of $449.99, you'd be better off spending the same amount buying a new XV Signature Pro, which, like the XV-21, already comes packaged with the improved brushroll and filter.

The XV-21 sucks up pet hair better than any other robot vacuum we've tested. Colin West McDonald/CNET

Performance and usability
A good robot vacuum should be able to perform well on multiple types of floor surfaces and pick up a variety of debris types with a minimal amount of intervention from the user. I decided to start with the XV-21's calling card: pet hair. Like every robot vacuum that we've tested before it, I ran the tests on low-pile carpet, a plushier mid-pile carpet, and on hardwood floors.

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

Neato XV-21
0.18
0.18
0.19

Neato XV Signature Pro
0.15
0.15
0.18

Neato XV Essential
0.13
0.15
0.15

iRobot Roomba 880
0.12
0.10
0.17

iRobot Roomba 790
0.047
0.05
0.17

LG Hom-Bot Square
0.083
0.02
0.08

Infinuvo Hovo 510
N/A
N/A
N/A

As you can see, the Neato XV-21 reigned supreme in our pet hair test, picking up more of the stuff than any other robot vacuum that we've tested. As a matter of fact, Neato's currently sweeping the podium, with the silver and bronze going to the XV Signature Pro and the XV Essential, respectively. Given that the XV Essential is the only one of the three not to feature the specialized pet hair brushroll, this ordering makes sense, and reinforces Neato's claim that the brushroll brings better performance.

Another saving grace of the brushroll is that it does a good job of moving hair into the bin without letting too much of it get tangled up along the way. Those weigh-in results don't include hair that we have to pick out of the brushroll (which is one of the big reasons the XV Essential scored a little lower than its brethren). It was certainly a stark difference from what I saw with the Infinuvo Hovo 510 -- that robot vacuum's brushroll couldn't handle pet hair at all.

The Neato XV-21 does a good job of passing hair through the brushroll and into the bin with minimal tangles.
The Infinuvo Hovo 510? Not so much. Ry Crist/CNET

The XV-21's strong pet hair results across all three flooring surfaces will likely make it an understandably tempting choice for pet owners, but what about the rest of us? It was time to test debris of a more universal size and shape: uncooked black rice, our analog for the types of small, crumb-like particulates that you'll find on just about any floor that hasn't been swept or vacuumed in a while.

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

Infinuvo Hovo 510
2.33
2.45
2.48

iRobot Roomba 880
2.38
2.43
2.33

Neato XV-21
2.37
2.32
2.20

Neato XV Essential
2.22
2.28
2.28

iRobot Roomba 790
2
2.32
2.25

Neato XV Signature Pro
2.05
2.33
2.13

LG Hom-Bot Square
1.85
1.87
2.13

You'll see that again, the XV-21 does a nice job, finishing towards the top of the pack. It isn't quite as impressive (or, to be frank, surprising) a result as the one we saw from the Hovo 510 the other week, but it still delivers well-rounded performance.

A few caveats, though. First, while the floors came out of each test run looking quite good, given that they'd just been coated with debris a few minutes before, a small amount of the rice didn't actually make it into the XV-21's bin. Instead, it collected on top of the brushroll, just beneath the bin's entrance, likely due to the fact that the Neato's design sends debris straight up into the bin, where particles that are more dense can sometimes bounce off of the roof and straight back down.

Some of the rice had a hard time making it into the bin. Ry Crist/CNET

Second, I couldn't help but notice that the XV-21 just didn't seem quite as confident or efficient about navigating as I had seen with the XV Signature Pro. It seemed to take longer to map out the perimeter of the testing area, sometimes doubling back unexpectedly, or suddenly swerving as if to avoid a phantom obstacle.

In one instance, we had a small glitch with one of our test setups that we realized was throwing the XV-21's navigation off. Essentially, the wooden planks that make up the "walls" of our testing pens were a bit too short in one particular spot, and that, coupled with the fact that there was about 80 feet of empty floor space beyond the plank meant that the Neatos depth perception was getting thrown off.

Before correcting the problem and restarting the test, I checked to see if the glitch affected the XV Signature Pro, too. It did, and we noticed something interesting -- unlike the XV-21, the XV Signature Pro had no problem recovering after hitting the problem spot. It stopped, realized something wasn't computing right, figured out the problem, then continued on the correct path, finishing its run as if nothing had happened.

In the XV-21's case, the glitch sent it into a bit of a panic, causing it to circle left and right aimlessly, then wander around the test area in wide curves that seemed decidedly out of character, as if it were in search of something familiar. Ultimately, it would find its way back into a rhythm, sometimes finishing the run with complete coverage, other times missing large spots altogether. We saw a similar sense of distress with more minor hiccups in the XV-21's navigation -- in the end, it would find its way back into a more orderly approach to finish the run, but it always took some extra searching before it seemed ready to do so. The same was true when I tested our sand and sawdust mixture -- the XV-21 took a little longer and navigated a little less efficiently.

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

Neato XV-21
0.71
0.55
1.22

Neato XV Essential
0.50
0.32
1.03

iRobot Roomba 880
0.4
0.43
1.18

Neato XV Signature Pro
0.42
0.43
0.92

iRobot Roomba 790
0.3
0.23
1.12

Infinuvo Hovo 510
0.28
0.2
1.23

LG Hom-Bot Square
0.23
0.27
0.75

Infinuvo CleanMate QQ5
0.15
0.13
0.07

In practice, this slightly less intelligent design might have actually served to inflate the XV-21's numbers a bit, as the constant searching, swerving, and doubling back forced it to go over many areas twice or even three times. It was navigating less efficiently, but this was actually causing it to vacuum more. The XV Signature Pro, on the other hand, was much more efficient, rarely going over the same area more than once and typically finishing its runs in less time than the XV-21 -- and with slightly weaker performance, as a result.

Here in a small, controlled rectangle, the XV-21 saw longer runs and better numbers, but I wondered how it would fare in a more complicated setting. Would the pattern hold, with the XV-21 simply taking a bit longer to clean a large area and vacuuming more as a result? Or, would the navigational difficulties catch up with it in a larger setting, preventing it from performing as well as it should?

Ry Crist/CNET

I took the XV-21 home for a night, determined to find out. My apartment isn't terribly big, but it's far from the perfect rectangles of our test floor, and feature some unique obstacles, including a breakfast nook that divides the kitchen from the living room and a variety of furniture to navigate around. The XV-21 handled most of it fairly well, although it became trapped underneath my exercise bike during one run after it climbed over the leg and couldn't figure out how to get back. We saw a similar difficulty with the XV Signature Pro, when it spent a good 10 minutes trying to climb up the gradual slope of a recliner's leg, off-road style. Not a huge deal.

The problems came at the end of the run. I had scattered a few small crackers in various spots around the three rooms the XV-21 was cleaning. If it was able to cover the entire floorspace, then it shouldn't have left any of them behind -- but it did. On top of that, it wasn't able to return to its charging dock, despite the fact that it was only about 20 feet away from it. It looked around for a while, then gave up. We never had any trouble like that with the XV Signature Pro. Thinking back to last year's living room test run where Neato's navigation system first won me over, the navigational differences between the two Neatos were fairly obvious.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Conclusion
The Neato XV-21 is a very effective floor cleaner, earning impressive scores in all of our tests. I worry, however, that too much of that performance came from all of the extra time it spent finding its way back to the path whenever something would catch its navigation system off guard. This was a marked difference from what we saw with the Neato XV Signature Pro, which navigated, well, like a pro.

If anything, the fact that the XV-21 saw better results simply by vacuuming more might suggest that the XV Signature Pro would benefit from a little less hubris. Sure, it can cover a room quickly and efficiently without going over the same area twice, but if you're setting it to clean while you're away at work, do you really care how long it takes? Why not cover the same area twice, especially if it means noticeably better performance?

At any rate, the strong performance in our pet hair tests is probably enough for dog and cat owners to justify pushing the needle towards the XV-21, but for more general use, I think I'd stick with the more intelligent XV Signature Pro, especially since it only costs $20 more. For something a little more high-end and feature-rich, I'd recommend the iRobot Roomba 880, which leads the field when it comes to forward-thinking design.

On the other end of the scale, we have bargain cleaners like the Infinuvo Hovo 510, a "good enough" option for frugal consumers. For now, I think Neato has the upper hand, with robot vacuums that are worth the extra money. Moving forward though, it'll be interesting to see how they choose to innovate. I know that I'd like to see a Neato robot vacuum that offers new features and functionality -- something more than an incremental bump in performance and a fun paint job.

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7.7

Neato XV-21

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Performance 8Usability 7Design 8Features 7