Choosing a Robotic Vacuum Cleaner
A robotic vacuum won't replace a canister or upright vacuum for serious cleaning — even the best robot vacuum can't clean stairs, furniture, or long-pile carpeting — but it can keep the daily dirt and dust at bay. Robotic vacuums are convenient for people who don't like to vacuum that often and great for cleaning beneath furniture where traditional vacuums can't reach. Some highly rated robot vacuum cleaners carry price tags of more than $600, but we found several models that perform nearly as well for less than half the price.
Pricey vs. Cheap Robot VacuumsAt minimum, a cheap robotic vacuum should have multiple cleaning modes for cleaning different size rooms or kinds of flooring. It should be able to handle the transition between carpet and hard floors, something not all robot vacuums do well. It should also be able to effectively avoid obstacles without getting stuck (at least for the most part). A sensor that helps the vacuum avoid falling down stairs is generally standard. Some models can seemingly think for themselves and even have the ability to return to their home bases to charge themselves when their batteries run low. More expensive models come with stronger motors for more cleaning power, remote and even app-based control, and programmable cleaning modes. Some models have on-board cameras and sensors to map the floor as it's cleaned and ensure the entire area is vacuumed, but these models tend to cost at least twice as much as our picks.
Robot Vacuum BrandsWhen it comes to robotic vacuums, iRobot's Roomba sets the bar. The company wasn't the first to market a robot vacuum — that honor goes to the Electrolux Trilobite — but the original Roomba was a hit with consumers from the moment it was released in stores in 2002. Today, iRobot has to compete with a vast crop of robotic vacuums from brands like Neato, Eufy, Ecovacs, Shark, Bobsweep, and iLife, as well as entries from big-name electronics manufacturers like Samsung and LG, as well as lesser-known labels. Traditional vacuum cleaner makers like Bissel have also gotten in on the craze (although that brand's SmartClean model has thus far missed the mark in terms of consumer popularity). Still, iRobot's Roombas continue to earn solid reviews from professional testers and consumers alike. The latest top-of-the line models beat out even pricier Dyson robot vacuums among experts.
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Robotic Vacuum Reviews: What We Considered
To help determine our picks, we read robot vacuum reviews from a number of sources, including Wirecutter, CNET, Engadget, PCMag, and TopTenReviews, all of which put dozens of robovacs through rigorous testing. We also consulted consumer reviews on leading retail sites like Amazon, Walmart, Home Depot, and Lowe's to get a sense of how these vacuums perform over the long haul. Reviewers expect a robot vac to navigate its way around the house without getting lost or hung up. They also expect it to be relatively quiet (although just how noisy is too noisy is a subjective matter). Highly rated vacuums have dirt trays that hold enough debris and are simple to empty, and batteries that won't conk out before the job is done.
Cleaning AbilityThe best robotic vacuums have the ability to differentiate between floor types: carpet, hardwood, tile, linoleum, etc. Cheap robotic vacuums tend to work fine on low carpet but better on tile or hardwood floors. Some also have a tough time transitioning from smooth surfaces to carpet and often get stuck in the process. We chose models that earn praise from users for their ability to clean all types of surfaces equally well.
Likewise important is a vacuum's ability to navigate a room and avoid hazards like stairs. Wall-following technology allows a robotic vacuum to hug the perimeter of a room and clean against the walls or other edges. A ledge-detection sensor prevents the vacuum from falling down stairs, while bumper technology keeps it from getting hung up on obstacles or soft barriers, such as curtains, and vacuum under or around them instead. Most models travel in one direction until they bump into something, then switch direction to maneuver around it. This keeps the robot vacuum moving and cleaning, but it's not especially efficient, because the vacuum may repeatedly travel over the same section of floor and ignore other areas. Darker-colored rugs, walls, or furniture may also present problems, as infrared sensors often have difficulty "seeing" them.
Battery LifeBattery life dictates how many rooms (or, more likely, how big a room) a robotic vacuum can clean before it has to be recharged. All the vacuums we recommend can run for at least 60 minutes on a full charge, while the models with the best battery life can run for as long as two hours.
Another consideration is how long it will take a vacuum to fully charge, something not all manufacturers clearly disclose. Obviously, long recharge times can prove inconvenient, especially if the vacuum is intended to be put to daily use. One feature that some models have is the ability to find their home base when the battery is low in order to charge themselves, which significantly cuts down on the hassle factor. Reviews warn, however, that some of these vacuums have a difficult time finding their charging docks, particularly if they're not nearby or directly in the line of sight.
HeightThe nice thing about robotic vacuums is that they can navigate beneath sofas, side tables, and other furniture where a traditional vacuum may not reach. All the models we recommend are less than 4 inches tall, low enough to slip under most furnishings. But there's nearly an inch of height difference between the tallest and shortest models, and we read a number of complaints about robotic vacuums that couldn't quite fit in some tight spaces. Aside from the obvious drawback that a stuck vacuum won't finish the job — and searching for a vacuum that has run out of juice while caught under a couch lip can be a real chore — there's the potential that a robot vacuum that's trapped and endlessly spinning on the same section of rug or flooring will do serious damage.
Special FeaturesThe priciest robotic vacuums can be controlled with an app on a phone or tablet and are Wi-Fi enabled so they can also talk to digital home assistants like Amazon's Alexa and Google Home. These "smart" vacuums give real-time cleaning updates, alert users when they've finished a job or need emptying, and can be programmed with custom cleaning schedules. Less expensive models may not be quite so plugged in, but the best feature some nice-to-have extras.
A spot-clean mode allows a vacuum to quickly clean concentrated dirt spots, and edge-cleaning modes help side sweeper brushes get into hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. Max power or turbo modes provide that extra boost of suction sometimes needed to clear areas that are thick with pet hair or other debris. Other models, particularly those marketed to pet owners, often feature advanced HEPA filters to better trap allergens, dander, and other irritants, while some even have an ultraviolet light to deodorize and kill bacteria.