How We Tested
Hey, I’m Jon Chan, the Senior Lab Technician at Reviewed. If you clean with it—whether it’s laundry detergents or dishwashers—I oversee its testing. This expertise extends to vacuums: upright, canister, handheld, and robotic.
I’ve been testing robot vacuums for years and have seen them change a lot. Robot vacuums are designed to help maintain your floors in between manual cleanings. When it comes to pet hair, that’s a big deal because you need to let your machine run cleaning cycles every day to keep the loose fur at bay. I also think that virtual barriers are very important to help keep your robot away from areas that are sensitive for your pet, like their bed or food bowl.
Most of the tests involve our robot obstacle course. The area contains analogs for furniture legs, shelves, and thresholds. Each robot vacuum has three chances to prove itself. The first two runs, we placed cork pellets under the shelves and between the furniture legs. When we let the robot vacuum loose, we look for how long a cleaning cycle takes, what obstacles it was able to clean thoroughly, and overall debris pickup. For the final test run, we replaced the cork with pet hair.
We also spent time looking at how each robot vacuum could benefit a pet owner. For example, the LG Hom-Bot Turbo+ can be remote controlled from anywhere and has cameras that stream. When you combine these two features, you get a mobile pet cam.
What you need to know about robot vacuums
After testing dozens and dozens of robot vacuums, we think the name is a bit of a misnomer. A robot vacuum’s ability to pick up dirt pales in comparison to that of a full-sized vacuum and can only really compete over the course of a week. We found that consumers experience the most satisfaction with their robot vacuums when they view them as floor maintainers in between manual cleanings.
We should also point out that most robot vacuums are designed for bare floors and medium carpet. If you have throw rugs taller than a half-inch, your robot vacuum might not be able to climb atop it, or it may get stuck if it gets up there. This fact is vital for pet owners because it means pet beds are a point of contention.
Avoiding robot vacuum pet mishaps
Over the years, three technologies have developed to help keep robot vacuums from running amok: magnetic strips, virtual barriers, and app-based barriers. All three of these methods have their pros and cons.
Magnetic strips are the simplest. You lay them on the floor and they create a barrier that designated robot vacuums will not cross. While they don’t require batteries, magnetic strips are cumbersome. Most robot vacuums that included them only ship with one, so you have to cut them if you want to cover multiple entryways.
The next step up is virtual barriers. These battery-powered devices emit an infrared line that tells robot vacuums to turn back. Some specialized barriers, like iRobot’s lighthouse, can create a “halo” or a circle barrier to encompass a piece of furniture or a pet bowl.
The final method, aside from shutting doors, involves specialized apps. New mapping technologies allow robot vacuums to have a better understanding of their surroundings. They can then send that information to your phone. Companies like iRobot, Neato, and Ecovacs all produce robot vacuums were you can draw lines on virtual maps to denote where the robots can and cannot go.
Robot vs. vacuum
Whenever you have a device that’s battery-powered, you’re going to have to deal with a series of tradeoffs. With robot vacuums, it’s a balancing act between being a good robot and a good vacuum.
A good robot navigates well by not bumping into furniture and getting over thresholds. But a robot vacuum’s worst downfall is when it gets stuck and requires a helping hand, defeating the purpose of an automated floor cleaner. However, being a good robot means drawing power away from the brushes and to the wheels, sensors, and circuit board.
A robot vacuum that cleans well tends to ram itself into furniture. A robot vacuum can’t clean where its brushes haven’t been. They also tend to be noisier as more power is drawn to the suction motor.
The basic rule of thumb is that the more a robot vacuum costs, the better robot it is and the less dirt it will pick up. We’re talking about a 20 percent difference between the best navigators that never get close to a chair leg and a robot vacuum that scuffs everything in your house. The most exceptional robot vacuums do both and they tend to win our Editor’s Choice and Best of Year awards.
Different types of navigation
Robot vacuums tend to have two different types of navigation, infrared and optical, or a combination of both. Infrared sensors shoot out beams that give information about distance. Optical navigation involves cameras, usually mounted on the top of the unit. Typically, these cameras utilize contrast and landmarks to decipher where they are. Robot vacuums that rely on optical navigation cannot work in a pitch black room.
How long do robot vacuums last?
This is a very tricky question. However, we find that the battery is the shortest-lived part of a robot vacuum. Both nickel and lithium batteries have hard limits on the number of times they can recharge. Nickel batteries suffer from a limitation known as memory loss—basically, over time, they lose the ability to recharge fully. The cathodes of lithium batteries tend to wear after a few years. As a rule of thumb, you can expect to buy a new battery pack for your robot vacuum after two to four years of use, depending on how often you run your device.
Are robot vacuums worth the money?
If you’re a pet owner, a robot vacuum helps get at balls of fur that are everywhere. As a floor maintainer between manual cleanings, they can save a lot of time and energy. The way to get your money’s worth is to set a robot vacuum to automatically run every day. Getting one with an app is also a bonus for those times you need to give your floors a once-over before coming home to any last-minute surprise guests.