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

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MSRP: $429.99

The Good With its specialty brushroll, the Neato XV-21 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.

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7.7 Overall
  • Performance 8
  • Usability 7
  • Design 8
  • Features 7

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.

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.

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
Neato XV Signature Pro
Neato XV Essential
iRobot Roomba 880
iRobot Roomba 790
LG Hom-Bot Square
Infinuvo CleanMate QQ5
Infinuvo Hovo 510

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.