My Own Personal Rosie

Anyone who ever watched The Jetsons has been waiting for the day when we’d have Rosie the Robot running around cleaning our houses for us.  We certainly have come a long way – after all, I rarely wash dishes manually anymore and I certainly never need to open the garage door myself.  Just because our robotic friends don’t crack wise like Rosie doesn’t mean they haven’t been quietly invading our lives in the background.

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iRobot first brought the robotic vacuum to the mainstream in 2000 with Roomba.   I waited several years before taking the plunge, finally buying one in 2005.  At first I thought it was fantastic, merrily cleaning the floors while I was away at work.  Everything was fine for about nine months and then Roomba started to have problems.  After spending some time on the phone with iRobot tech support, it was determined that we needed to ship it back – our Roomba was dead.

We waited several weeks before we finally saw a replacement.  Instead of the same model, they had shipped us a different model.  When I attempted to look up the model number on the website, it didn’t seem to exist.  Figuring it was a prototype or something I didn’t push the issue since it had all the same features as the original model.

It ran for about another year and then stopped.  A replacement battery and things seemed OK until it died a third time.  This time I decided enough was enough and, after roughly two-and-a-half years of service over the course of four years, Roomba was relegated to the basement with my other obsolete electronics before finally hitting the electronics recycling depot last month.  So long old friend.

I didn’t wait long before moving on to a new unit.  In the years since I purchased my Roomba a new player had emerged on the market.  Neato Robotics had shown up in 2009 and announced the XV-11which sounded an awful lot like the Roomba killer people had been waiting for.  I wanted to find out if the XV-11 was to the Roomba what Firefox was to Internet Explorer.

I’ve now been using the XV-11 for about a month, so this is certainly not a long term test by any means.  However, in that month the XV-11 has really been an outstanding purchase, although retailing for $399 CDN means I won’t be getting a new camera lens any time soon.  (I purchased mine online through RobotShop since they advertise how they will offer a five-year warranty on domestic robot products.)

So, with that – on to the comparison!

The first thing you notice is how the XV-11 has a squared off front which, according to the company, allows it to get into corners better than the rounded Roomba.  Certainly makes sense, especially since it lacks the side brush which the Roomba uses when cleaning along walls.  In terms of size they are comparable, although the XV-11 is slightly taller according to the specifications.

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The XV-11 next to a pop can for scale purposes.

The charging station is a better design than the Roomba.  Whereas the Roomba’s charging station has a flat base and requires the vacuum to drive up onto it and dock, the XV-11’s charging station is designed to be flat against the wall and the vacuum just has to back up against it.  (Yes, it backs against it.  I learned this the hard way because during my initial setup I naturally put the flat side of the vacuum against the flat charging station and wondered why, when I returned a few hours later, it hadn’t charged the battery yet.  Hey, I don’t do manuals!)  The XV-11 hasn’t had a single problem docking, whereas the Roomba would often need to make multiple attempts at getting connected properly.

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The XV-11 charging.

Once I had my charging issue sorted out, it was time to clean.  This is where the real differences between the XV-11 and the Roomba become apparent. 

The XV-11 pulls a few feet away from its base and then turns in a complete 360 and scans the room.  It determines the layout of the walls and the obstacles such as furniture and then plots its attack.  It will start by doing a trip around the perimeter and then methodically move back and forth across the open spaces.  The Roomba, on the other hand, seems to move erratically in a random zig-zag.  When the XV-11 cleans your entire room you feel as if it was planned, when the Roomba cleans your entire room you feel it was dumb luck.  I know iRobot says the Roomba has an advanced algorithm which it uses to cover the room, but the XV-11 certainly “feels” smarter.

This smarter feel also comes into play when it comes to covering multiple rooms.  Whereas the Roomba would wander off down the hallway, do a couple of sweeps and then wander into one of the bedrooms, and then maybe work its way back to the living room, the XV-11 will actually sense the entrance to the hallway and make a note of it.  Once it completes the room it is working in it will then return to that entrance and start cleaning that area.  This is a robot that actually creates the impression of having true intelligence.  (Yes, I know iRobot now offers models which use “lighthouse” beacons to guide the Roomba from room to room but the fact that the XV-11 will do this without the need for additional hardware is a huge win for Neato.)

Speaking of intelligence, how about this?  If the XV-11 determines its battery it too low to allow it to complete its cleaning cycle, it will navigate back to its base, recharge the battery and then return to the spot where it left off and continue cleaning until it has covered the entire house.  When the Roomba would run low on battery it would try to navigate back to base, relying on being able to see the infrared signal rather than knowing where the base was.  If it made it back to home (which was hit and miss at best), it would simply consider it’s work done for the day and wait for the next automated schedule to kick off before starting all over again.  This meant if you had a big enough space the chances of the far reaches of your floor getting vacuumed weren’t all that great.

One of my favourite differences is in the navigation method.  Roomba had a large front bumper and would contact an object and then attempt to navigate around it.  This meant that it would wander around gently and blindly bumping into everything in your room.  The XV-11 still occasionally runs  into things, but it does an excellent job of actually sensing and avoiding them without the need to resort to its bumper.  You have a lot more confidence in the XV-11 that it won’t knock your planter over while you’re away at work.

Another advantage of the XV-11 is the LCD screen which gives you instructions and messages in plain language, not depending on your to decipher a mixture of lights and status beeps like the Roomba.  It will tell you when the dust bin is full, it will thank you for emptying the dust bin, it will tell you if it needs to have its stair sensor cleaned.  It’s a user friendly experience – I had done a manual clean, scheduled cleanings for twice a week and pretty well figured out the whole thing before cracking the manual.  The interface is simple, with buttons for Up, Down, Back, Select and Start.

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The LCD is easy to read, the interface is intuitive and understandable.

Neato seems to have thought of everything.  When the XV-11 has finished cleaning, it actually shuts down the vacuum and drives back to home base in a much quieter method.  It’s that sort of small touch that really makes me think Neato was intent on taking robot vacuums to the next level whereas iRobot gives me the impression of a company that is content to make slight tweaks to their models rather than actually innovating.

What about the similarities between the models?

Neither vacuum is really quiet, although I don’t find them any louder than a traditional vacuum.  You can still watch TV while they work, but it will mean you need to have the volume cranked pretty loud.  You’ll certainly want to schedule them to run while you’re away at work – it’s just easier that way.

Both units do an excellent job of getting under furniture such as beds.  In fact, being ever so slightly shorter, the Roomba actually holds the edge here.  The XV-11 has gotten stuck under the bench by the front entrance once, as it is just small enough to wedge itself in there tightly if it hits it wrong.

Both the XV-11 and Roomba have built-in abilities to detect stairs and stop before falling down them.  The only stairs in the current house are guarded by a door so I haven’t had reason to test the XV-11’s ability in that area. 

The dust bins are roughly the same capacity, although I believe the specs say the XV-11 has a slight advantage.  Honestly, with a dog and a cat in our household both vacuums pick up enough hair and dust that I want to clean the bin after every run anyway.  I prefer the XV-11’s dust bin because it lifts out of the top of the unit whereas the Roomba required you to pull it off the back of the vacuum.  The Roomba’s system had a higher probability for accidental spillage when emptying.

The XV-11 seems to have a better brush underneath, in the sense it doesn’t have the pet hair wrap around it as much.  With the Roomba I needed to clean the brush after almost every cleaning but the XV-11 has only needed that once in the month it has run.

I don’t want to seem like I am being too negative on the Roomba.  I had given serious consideration to buying another Roomba to replace our original.  Certainly iRobot offers a wide variety of models to suit a range of budgets whereas Neato seems to be content to let the XV-11 stand alone.  The Roomba also has a better system for blocking off areas where you don’t want the vacuum to go, relying on infrared “virtual walls” vs. the magnetic strip used by Neato.  The magnetic strip idea is nice because it doesn’t require batteries, but if you don’t have carpet to hide the strip under you need to either pick it up and put it down every time or leave it in plain sight.

I also need to be fair and say that the Roomba did a great job in our old house of navigating from carpet to vinyl.  It has to be harder on the units to deal with carpet.  By contrast, the XV-11 has a simple task as everything is hardwood and tile.

It could also be argued that it isn’t fair to compare the Roomba model from five years ago with the relatively new XV-11.  iRobot could have made a number of improvements to their models that I am simply not aware of.  (If iRobot wants to send me a demo model I’d certainly give it a fair shake…just sayin’.  I also need to see how well the XV-11 holds up over a long term testing period – one month is not enough to determine the overall durability of the product.

Regardless, my floor has never been neat(o)er, Smile

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