Essentially, the RoboReel is a $279 retractable extension cord, but it's a very cool $279 retractable extension cord. Allow me to explain.
Physically, Great Stuff's spherical RoboReel is about the size of a basketball, its bright safety-orange color completing the illusion. The plastic main unit is held in place by a metal frame, also orange, with a black nonslip coating applied where it will come into contact with the floor.
The main sphere can tilt up and down by a considerable amount -- about 180 degrees of freedom if you've got the clearance. The sphere is split into two hemispheres, a bottom half that is fixed and a top half that can swivel freely through 360 degrees of rotation.
Hanging out of a small opening in the top hemisphere is the 12-gauge power cable, which can be pulled and freely extended to its maximum reach of 50 feet. At the business end of the cable is what I'm calling a "terminal head" that features three standard power outlets and a central power button.
The RoboReel sphere itself has a power button top-center of its free-spinning hemisphere. The bottom hemisphere features another power cable that terminates in a male 120-volt U.S.-standard power connection and is where the RoboReel connects to a powered outlet.
What does it do?
Rather than use a spring retraction mechanism to return the cable to the spherical unit, the RoboReel makes use of a 180-volt electric motor. This, combined with some rudimentary intelligence provided by its electronics, gives the RoboReel a few advantages over loose cabling or conventional crank- or spring-retracted cable-coiling systems.
For starters, the RoboReel doesn't retract until you want it to. At a touch of either the button on the terminal head or the one on the coiling sphere itself, the RoboReel will begin to gather the cable. It doesn't seem to be able to do this while you have a tool connected to one of its terminals or while that tool is drawing power. So presumably you won't have to worry about it trying to yank a spinning circular saw out of your hand.
With everything unplugged from the business end, the RoboReel quickly and smoothly gathers the cord, slowing as it nears the end to prevent whipping the tip around and damaging nearby walls or ankles. (The terminal head weighs a few ounces and is pretty heavy, so this feature is a good addition.)
Other built-in safety features include built-in surge and thermal protection and an emergency shut-off that instantly stops power if the cord is severed.
Is it any good?
The RoboReel worked exactly as advertised during my testing (although I didn't test the cable-severing emergency shutoff). I liked not having to worry about tipping the unit over as I dragged cable around, thanks to the free-spinning design and low-to-the-ground stance. I also liked being able to just tap a button to have the 'Reel handle cable retraction while I could focus on other things. Call me lazy, but I love the idea of not having to manually coil 50 feet of heavy-gauge cable after I just finished working on something.
Additionally, the RoboReel unit is fairly lightweight and easy to carry around by its metal frame, and small enough to not take up a lot of space in a crowded garage. Those who want to free up floor space can opt for an optional wall-mount kit that elevates the RoboReel. Once it's wall-mounted, you can set a custom cable-retraction slowdown point based on your chosen mounting height to prevent the weighted terminal head from bashing into the wall when called home by the motorized reel.
What are the drawbacks?
If I've got one complaint about the RoboReel, it's that it costs a pricey $279 for this portable version.
Everyone in the CNET office that I demonstrated the RoboReel's features for guessed a $50 price point would be appropriate -- which I think is way too low for this product. On the other hand, charging close to $300 for an extension cord is asking a lot, even with the intelligence built into this one. I'm thinking the best price would be a happy medium somewhere between those extremes.
That said, the RoboReel is one of the most advanced extension cords that I've ever used and makes a pretty valiant effort at justifying its price. I grew up learning that good tools are sometimes expensive, and the RoboReel is a good tool. Professionals used to paying more for better products may not even blink at this price.
In addition to the RoboReel Portable Power Cord System that I've tested, a ceiling-mounted version is also available for those who prefer a more permanent power point. There are also versions of the RoboReel for managing water and compressed-air hoses.