Tidying Up the New Roomba

The redesigned robotic vacuum has swept away most of its predecessors' kinks, but it's still not quite a clean slate

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Latest version can clean a series of rooms nearly unsupervised

The Bad: Automatic docking and battery-recharging didn't work as advertised

The Bottom Line: This Roomba doesn't need lots of prep work, but you still can't "set it and forget it"

It's been four years since iRobot (IRBT) introduced the Roomba, and 2 million vacuums later, the novelty of a whirring, robotic discus has been wearing thin in the face of some nagging flaws. It's not that Roomba hasn't been a hit. Some owners even look on these little dynamos as pets. Unfortunately, many have had to learn that man's best vacuuming friend couldn't cope with the rigors of daily cleaning.

But on Aug. 22, iRobot will start selling a new generation of Roombas designed to withstand heavier use, free themselves from obstacles more easily, and reduce the prep work needed to use them. To an extent, the company has succeeded: The new Roomba works much more smoothly than past models, but it still gets stuck here and there, so you can't just switch it on and leave the house.

Rugged Roomba

Until now, it seems that iRobot was guilty of underestimating the appeal of a robotic vacuum. Previous Roomba models were designed with what iRobot deemed normal vacuuming habits: about an hour of cleaning per week. But given the allure of a mechanical servant, users didn't just take Roomba out for a Saturday spin like a regular vacuum—they used it for housekeeping throughout the week. That meant Roomba needed to stand up to five or six times its intended use.

To put iRobot's redesign to the test, I tried out the Roomba 560, which at $350 is the most expensive of the new line. I'd previously tested two other iRobot products with mixed success: the shop-floor-strength Dirt Dog Roomba, and a floor-mopping Scooba (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/2/07, "iRobot's Unhousebroken Dirt Dog" and 6/22/07, "iRobot's Scooba Dives Into Your Floors")

Where the Dirt Dog and Scooba got stuck so often that it seemed it might be easier to just do the job myself, this new Roomba got stuck just twice in two hours of testing—a big plus for a product that's supposed to save you time and energy. But on the downside, the new Roomba didn't automatically return to its home base to recharge like it's supposed to, even after repeated tries.

More Durable and Efficient

For durability, iRobot has reinforced Roomba's body and made the battery and other inner workings less exposed from underneath. Most of the parts, including the wheels, can be replaced. The company says it's doubled the cleaning capability by adding vacuum power and better brushes. And for those who care about their vacuum's looks, users can now cover the black-and-gray disk with colored faceplates. To enhance navigation, the new Roomba features higher suspension, sensors to detect obstacles, and more intelligent programming to free itself from cords and other binds. There are also new accessories called "lighthouses" to station at doorways, where they direct the sweeper from one room to the next.

The Roomba 560 comes with two lighthouses and a recharging dock. A $300 version, the 530, doesn't include the lighthouses. In September, iRobot plans to ship a $200 model that also lacks the dock.

Great Navigation

The new Roomba was a breeze to get started. One tap of the "clean" button sent it on its way. It nearly always dodged obstacles, cleaning between a chair's legs, scooting behind a bicycle tire, and rolling over rugs on tile floors as if they weren't there.

Its ability to avoid tangles was impressive. Roomba cleaned under the bed, an area my upright Hoover could never reach, and deftly scooted past the hanging edges of a quilt. In the living room, it swept right over a thin phone cord that often gets tangled in my Hoover's brushes. The 560 became trapped just twice, once between a rocking chair and a table leg, and then on a tangle of electric cords. Not bad.

The lighthouses replace the "virtual wall" accessories that prior models use to prevent them from leaving a room. The lighthouses, using wireless signals rather than light, do this, too. But they also wave the Roomba through to the next room when the first room is done. I set up two at the door frames that border my living room. Sure enough, as if there were solid barriers, Roomba halted at the invisible lines and turned on a dime. But when the 560 was done with my living room, the lighthouse let the Roomba make a beeline for my bedroom's far wall.

Roomba Won't Go Home

The biggest problem I experienced with the new Roomba was its inability to find its way back to its recharging dock (iRobot says the 500 series can clean three rooms for 45 minutes each on a single charge). Try as I might, I couldn't make Roomba find the base, which emits an infrared signal that's supposed to summon the robot when the battery runs low, a cleaning cycle ends, or you hit the "dock" button.

When the battery ran out the first time, Roomba didn't return home. Three times I placed the robot near its base and pressed "dock" without success. On the third try I moved the dock to a more open area of the room, as iRobot suggests. But the 560 drove every way but home. Later, with the battery full again (it took two hours to charge), I placed Roomba just two feet from the base. It steered forward, bounced off the dock, then veered away to a far corner. Informed of my troubles, iRobot said my unit was probably defective and would have been replaced had I been a customer.

If not for that kink, the new Roomba would be a champ. The company stresses the vacuum's ability to escape tight spots, meaning less time Roomba-proofing a room by tucking away cords and folding under tassels. But for a product that's supposed to augur a future of time-saving household robots, the ability to work without oversight is key. At one point in my test, I put on some Mozart and opened a book as Roomba made its rounds. In the quest to make life's chores a little bit easier, this was at least a partial victory.