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iRobot sent me a Roomba 560 robotic vacuum a month or two ago.  My family and I debated buying one a few times over the years they’ve been on the market, but who can justify spending $300+ on what amounts to a toy that obviously can’t clean floors?  It was fun to see the vacuum running around the floor in the stores vacuum department, but it was also pretty obvious that a robot that’s about a foot around and a couple of inches tall just can’t do a good job on the floor and we already had a couple of good, upright vacuums that could do the job for us — so we never bought one.

In March, we decided to have them on the show.  You can see the write-up on my show site here, and listen to the interview on my podcast site.  Matt Palma, the VP of Sales & Marketing over at iRobot, was pretty convincing.  We talked about some of the new technology embedded in the new 500 series of Roombas and it sounded impressive, but I’ve seen the Roombas before and since I wasn’t terribly impressed with them I knew that his talking points had been bravado.

Then the impossible happened.  They sent me one to try out.  And I tried it.  Things changed.

It took less than five minutes to get the Roomba set up.  We programmed it to start every morning at 8:30 and set up a couple of “Lighthouses” in rooms we wanted it to clean.  Then we hit the “Clean” button to send it on its way, and after playing a little tune on its internal speaker, off it went.

It uses a special pattern combined with numerous sensors to make passes on the floor and try and cover the problem areas, which is does quite effectivley.  It even monitors the stream of junk that it’s sucking in to see when it hits an area that deserves some additional attention, and will immediately go into an intense spot cleaning mode by spinning around and cleaning in some concentric circles.

The version we have, the 560, uses two brushes combined with the vacuum to do its job.  The first brush is a bristle brush not unlike those found in beater bars in regular vacuum cleaners, and the second is a four-bladed rubber brush that Roomba uses to clean tile, wood and conrete (non-carpeted) floors.  Actually they both run together in most, if not all, circumstances.

The results?  An excellent job of maintenance cleaning.  Roomba’s two trash compartments were full.  It had picked up everything from small pieces of paper and even sand all the way down to dust.  The pet hair that was on the carpet — even in corners — was gone, and the 560 isn’t even their pet hair model.

Then there’s the computer wires, power wires and tassels on the carpets.  We always have had to be careful when we’re vacuuming because the beater bars will rip up most of these wires.  Not a pretty picture.  I was concerned that the little Roomba would have some real trouble with all of these, so we spent some serious time cleaning before letting her go loose.

Of course, over the next few weeks, we stopped all of the preventative cleaning.  Wires were left laying around, the carpet tassels weren’t moved out of the way.  Things kind of got back to normal.  But how would Roomba do?

Amazingly enough, Roomba detects when it’s pulling on a wire, tassels or other obstructions and hasn’t damaged a single thing.  All of the wires have been left in-tact, all of the carpet materials are still in great shape an Roomba keeps going.

The robot takes about an hour and a half to clean our entire first floor, and it even remembers the layout of the room if it is started at the same point each time.  We use it’s “Spot” button when when take it to an area that needs cleaning and let it clean an approximately 3-foot square area, then we hit the “Dock” button and off it goes to find its dock and plugs its self in, recharges and is ready for the next vacuuming job.

My opinion of this little robot has come a long way since I first saw it cleaning a small spill at the retail vacuum store.  The Roomba is still not a complete replacement to getting out the big old vacuum and going to town, but it does do an absolutely acceptable job of keeping things fresh and clean, eliminating 6/7th of our vacuuming jobs as the old equipment (and out backs) get a break.

Good job, iRobot!

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