Can a Robotic Vacuum Replace Your Upright?

    Well, no, but there's a lot more to the story of hands-free cleaning

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    robotic vac Brian Finke

    Imagine relaxing with a cup of coffee on a Saturday morning as your vacuum runs itself underneath the sofa and media console, gobbling up dust bunnies and furballs before moving on to the kitchen, where it nabs crumbs from last night’s dinner.

    An hour later, it beeps to let you know it has completed its rounds. You triumphantly check off one chore from your to-do list, without having broken a sweat.

    More on Vacuums

    Robotic vacuums make that fantasy a reality. But they’re far from perfect; just ask the CR staffer whose robotic vacuum smeared a fallen bagel topped with cream cheese and grape jelly into the carpeting throughout her house.

    But they perform well enough to be in the fastest-growing floor-care category. Annual sales are forecast to rise from $1.5 billion in 2016 to $2.5 billion by the end of 2021, according to Future Market Insights.

    Robotic vacuums are also popular with Consumer Reports members: In our most recent survey, 16 percent of the vacuums purchased in 2019 and the first quarter of 2020 are robotics, compared with just 1 percent of the models bought in 2010.

    Below, we detail how robotic vacuums work and what kind of cleaning they're capable of, as well as what you need to know about privacy concerns. We also highlight four models that perform well in our tests.

    What Robotic Vacuums Do Best

    Robotic vacuums have a small motor that propels them around on wheels, turning brushes or rollers that kick up debris as suction pulls it into an internal dustbin no bigger than a quart of milk. Some have added features, such as WiFi connectivity, to allow you to operate them remotely.

    Newer robotic vacuums can map rooms by themselves and will send that information to the manufacturer's servers as well as an app on your smartphone. You can then decide which mapped rooms the robovac should clean and when. Some will even allow you to have it clean only a section of a room.

    Robotic vacuums leave from and return to a docking station that doubles as a battery charger. In our tests, which we conduct in an area of more than 600 square feet with walls and furniture arranged in a typical layout, some vacuums stop cleaning at 40 minutes and others might run for 2 hours.

    “Robotics are best for uncluttered rooms with bare floors or low-pile rugs,” says Susan Booth, CR’s lead vacuum test engineer. They generally use more power to navigate over thick carpet, Booth explains, which can drain the battery faster. “The thicker the pile, the more difficulty the robot has and the more battery power it uses, which means it may dock before it has cleaned the entire space.” Some models are smart enough to return to where they stopped and finish the job, but none are yet able to “see” whether they have missed a spot or, not surprisingly, climb stairs.

    Cleaning Competition: Upright vs. Robovac

    In our labs, we ran the top-rated Miele Dynamic U1 Cat & Dog upright, $550, and the Samsung Powerbot SR20H9051 Series robotic vacuum, $1,000 (both shown below) over separate squares of medium-pile carpet, each embedded with 100 grams of talc and sand. (Note: The Powerbot SR20H9051 has been discontinued.)

    The Miele upright picked up more than half of the debris; the Samsung robovac picked up less than 20 percent, proving that for deep cleaning, a bot is no match for a traditional vacuum.

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    Great for Touch-Ups

    Although our tests show that robovacs can’t match the power of—or clean as thoroughly as—a good old-fashioned upright or canister vacuum, they perform well enough to earn their place in a home.

    “Robotic vacuums can be a hassle-free way to maintain your floors daily, removing surface debris between the times you use a full-sized vac for deeper cleaning,” Booth explains. “They could also potentially lessen the amount of time you have to spend running your full-sized vac.” (iRobot, which makes the top-selling Roomba brand, claims that its robotic vacuums can save owners as much as 110 hours of cleaning a year, or about 2 hours each week.)

    Uprights, which are powered by a cord or a sizable battery, aren’t always easy to maneuver around a dining table or underneath a bed, giving robots an advantage. The robotic vacuums in our ratings are about a foot in diameter and 2.875 to 4.75 inches tall, allowing them to scoot farther under furniture and reach spots that bulkier uprights can’t.

    Making Your Robovac Feel at Home

    A robotic vacuum will dutifully clean floors without any assistance from you, but some prep is still required. Before yours begins its work, you’ll need to secure any loose cords and pick up socks, PB&J sandwiches, or anything else that might get caught in the brush or roller. If you’d like the vacuum to skip an area of your home, such as a playroom, close the door to create a physical barrier or rope it off virtually with magnetic boundary strips provided by certain manufacturers.

    You should also identify areas that the robot won’t be able to pass through. The devices’ exteriors have a front bumper, so they're unlikely to damage furniture, but be mindful of any tippy décor. If the vac gently bumps against a table or shelf, will any lamps, vases, or stacks of magazines fall?

    Though earlier versions of robotic vacuums used to take an occasional tumble down the stairs, most of today’s models come equipped with a so-called cliff sensor so that you can run them on upper floors without worrying about them tumbling to their demise.

    Robotic vacuums use various navigation methods. Depending on the manufacturer and model, the bots may move in what looks like a random fashion or in patterns—usually gridlike—that kick in according to certain variables. “Our tests have shown that the various approaches to navigation can be equally effective in terms of cleaning,” Booth says.

    One thing to keep in mind: Robotic vacuums use a method such as a low-frequency radio signal or an infrared beam to find the docking station. If a vacuum loses contact with the dock by, say, moving through multiple rooms in a ranch home, it might go AWOL and end up in an open closet or stuck under a bed. Though our tests didn’t reveal too many errors, our engineers did come to work one day to find a model missing. A search party later discovered that the vac had made its way into a lab down the hall.

    @consumerreports We use obstacles like cords and carpet fringe to test how well robotic vacs navigate rooms. They lose points when they get stuck. #robovac #robot #testing #cleantok ♬ original sound - Consumer Reports

    Can a Robovac Spy on You?

    Several robotic vacuums come with smartphone apps. These apps aren't necessary to operate the vacs, but they’re useful for scheduling or remotely starting and stopping cleanings, checking a robot’s progress, or viewing maps of the vacuum’s path around your home to see whether it has missed any spots.

    In July 2017, privacy advocates took notice when Reuters reported that iRobot CEO Colin Angle said that the mapping information its Roomba robotic vacuums collect might one day be sold to tech companies. Reuters subsequently corrected the article, saying iRobot might share the data free of charge, not sell it.

    James Baussmann, the company’s public relations manager for North America, told CR that iRobot won’t be sending its data to third parties, at least for now. “iRobot believes that in the future, this information could provide even more value for our customers by enabling the smart home and the devices within it to work better, but always with their explicit consent,” he said.

    iRobot is not alone. Many robotic-vacuum manufacturers are now recording the paths of their appliances and uploading them to a server. You can then view that data via the company’s app on your smartphone.

    “Vacuum data isn’t the most sensitive in the world,” says Justin Brookman, CR’s director of consumer privacy and technology policy. “These maps may be rudimentary now, but it seems likely that they’ll continue to improve over time in order to more efficiently clean your home. It would be nice if these companies made affirmative promises not to sell your information.”

    If you’re worried about the privacy of your data, don’t use the app when you set up your device. Or if you’re already using a robovac, you can turn off its WiFi. The trade-off? You’ll no longer receive cleaning data, such as maps of the vacuum’s path, or be able to control the vac from your phone.

    Best Robotic Vacuums From CR's Tests

    If you’re thinking of purchasing one of these little machines, consider your flooring (some are better on carpet, others on bare floors), the layout of your home, and the type of debris that's typically in your home (pet hair, food crumbs, etc.). Below, listed in alphabetical order—not by rank—are four standouts from CR’s robotic vacuum ratings.

    How CR Tests Robovacs

    Robovacs have become a popular choice for helping to keep a house clean, but how well do they perform? On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports experts explain to host Jack Rico how CR tests these handy vacs to find out which one is right for you.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the January 2018 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    It was updated on Dec. 1, 2017, to clarify that Reuters corrected, rather than updated, its July 2017 article to reflect that iRobot might "share maps for free with customer consent" instead of "sell maps."