Robot cleaners – worth the cost?

I’ve looked at a few robot cleaners over recent years for Register Hardware, where you’ll find my tests of the Samsung Navibot, Roomba 581, Neato XV-15 and very soon, the new Roomba 780, which was announced today at IFA, and which I played with last week.

Roomba 780
iRobot's newly announced Roomba 780 - watch out for my review soon at RegHardware

There’s no doubt that for someone who detests housework as much as I do, these devices can be pretty helpful, at least in keeping things to a more manageable level. But, with varying degrees of efficacy, they’re not so brilliant in the corners or round the edges of rooms, so you’ll still probably need to get your traditional cleaner out.

If you choose a model that has side brushes – all the ones I’ve looked at, bar the Neato – and you live in a place that has mostly square rooms, without too much clutter, then I guess you might just about get away with it. But aside from those who manage to live such lives of perfect minimalism that even a stray placemat is immediately tidied away into a hidden cupboard, I think that for the majority of people, a robot cleaner really has to be considered as an extra.

True, it might mean that you have to get out the full size vacuum less often, to do the edges, and the deep cleaning that none of these robots can really manage – it’s impossible to squeeze a battery and a really powerful motor into something so small. And if you’re wealthy enough, that might mean you can cut down on how often you pay the cleaner to do those bits.

I love gadgets as much – or possibly a lot more than – the next man. And I’d quite happily have one of these robots scurrying around my flat, doing the cleaning while I get on with my work.

But, honestly, not at the current prices. You’re looking at around £400 for one of the robot cleaners that I’ve tested. Yes, you could buy the most basic Roomba for £200, but that really is entry level – no remote control, no scheduling, no virtual walls, smaller bin, and less powerful suction, so I’m not really convinced the saving would be worth it.

And, the other thing that I’ve been unable to test, but have heard from other users of robot cleaners, both personally and in the comments to some of my reviews, is that battery life is not brilliant. Not in terms of running time, but in terms of longevity; in short, many users have found that they need to replace the rechargeable battery in their cleaner, sometimes after not much more than a year. And when you’re already spending hundreds on a cleaner, another £50 or £60 every year (or even two years) seems like quite a bit to add on to the cost.

The current top of the Roomba range, the 780, that I’ve just looked at will set you back a whopping £500; the makers, iRobot, say they’ve improved battery management to extend life by 50%, but obviously that’s not something that can be tested in a one week review.

Perhaps, if a top of the range model came in at around £200, I could justify one of these. But at £500? I’m afraid not – especially not when I still need to get out the Dyson for some of the really stubborn bits of fluff, and to go round the corners of the room.

Robot cleaners are a great idea, for sure. But for me, there really needs to be a better balance between price and performance before it’s worth taking the plunge.

3 Replies to “Robot cleaners – worth the cost?”

  1. I’ve been trying to decide if we should get one of these for our house. My partner and I spend 12 hours a day out and anything which helps keep the house cleaner can only be good, but I don’t really want to spend more than £250 and I want it to be good. I’ve considered eBay to try and get something cheaper but as you mention battery life is probably an issue.

    When you find one which hits the mark then let me know!

  2. Whether a robot could do the job, at any price, is dependant on the shape of your house. What does it do when it gets to a bit of furniture or some steps?

    If you live in a “featureless” flat, then it can wander around all day doing the hoovering when you are out.

    In a house it would get a few metres and then need the door opening for it. Or it would come to a rug or a table or chair. And then it suffers the Dalek dilemma when it gets to the staircase.

  3. I agree with the comments about the price. I managed to get a Roomba 560 on eBay for under £200 and I’ve been very pleased with it but I could never have justified paying £500 for it.

    As you say, it doesn’t replace the Dyson but it cuts down significantly on the frequency of Dyson use.

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