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Are robot vacuums worth it? Here's what you need to know

Are robot vacuums worth it?
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Ever open your closet, look at the Dyson in the back and think “I really should vacuum this weekend,” as you grab your jacket to leave for work — forgetting about vacuuming as fast as you thought about it? Or maybe you’re out with friends and your partner invites everyone back to your house? If you’re like me, you really wish you could dispose of the dog hair in the living room and cracker crumbs in the kitchen before the gang shows up. Alas, your Dyson stick vac can’t save you now, but a Wi-Fi-connected robot vacuum can.

Can a robot vacuum replace a regular vacuum? In short, not totally. A robot vacuum serves best as a companion to a traditional upright or canister vacuum, as it is able to clean up everyday crumbs without you having to lug the big vacuum up from the basement. Plus, it can do it on a schedule, leaving you to set it and almost completely forget it (aside from cleaning out the dustbin). Here are some factors to consider if a robot vacuum is worth it.

Editor's Note: The Tom's Guide Awards 2021 for smart home devices have been announced, and the Roborock S4 Max has won the Best robot vacuum overall award! Head to the smart home devices awards page to see all the winners and recommended runners-up.

What’s on your floor?

Before buying any kind of vacuum, mop, or even a Swiffer, think about what you’re trying to clean. Is your home full of bare floors or wall-to-wall carpet? Is the centerpiece of the living room a thick shag rug? Have decades of linoleum created a large threshold to your kitchen?

Modern robot vacuums have improved performance on multiple surfaces and rarely need a fully lit room to do their job. Models such as the Roborock S4 Max and the iRobot Roomba 694 are even able to automatically detect carpet and increase suction accordingly. In our lab, we test robot vacuum performance on both hardwood and low-pile carpet because many vacuums perform better on one than the other.

Most robot vacuums are able to climb medium-height thresholds, but you’ll want to measure your threshold and check the robot’s specs.

Are robot vacuums worth it?

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

However, shag rugs are still a hard no. Roller brushes on the robot may damage the rug, and its wheels don’t offer enough clearance to drive over the rug easily. Additionally, the robot is likely to get stuck because the shag blocks its sensors.

Who’s in your home?

Furry household members are one of the top reasons to invest in a robot vacuum. Frequent vacuuming cuts down on dust, dander, and hair and keeps it from getting ground into carpeting. 

Consider how much time you spend vacuuming each week to keep up with Fido and Fluffy. Don’t forget — Fido is often not the only shedder in the house. Girls with long hair outnumber the boys in my home and I’m routinely finding hair everywhere — thankfully the robot vacuum collects most of it.

How much time do you want to spend cleaning?

One important difference between robot vacuums and traditional vacuums: Since they’re unmanned objects, they’ll try to pick up whatever is in their path. That means the kids — or more likely, you — will have to clean their rooms before letting the bot loose. If your children leave Legos and other toys around, be sure to get them out of the way before unleashing the cleaning beast. (be sure to check out our tips for using a robot vacuum for the best performance).

Are robot vacuums worth it?

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Any vacuum activity, whether traditional or robot, requires a bit of pre-cleaning. Shoes, children’s toys, dog toys, and other items should be picked up off the floor and moved out of the way. Then you still have to actually vacuum the house.

With a robot vacuum, you’ll have to do all of your pre-cleaning before the vacuum runs. If it’s on a schedule, you’ll end up on your own pre-cleaning schedule. But the good news is that then your work is done. Plus, if the robot vacuum supports no-go zones or room-specific cleaning, you can toss the stuff in a corner and deal with it later.

Mobility considerations

While robot vacuums are often considered a timesaver for busy people, the machines may also be of use to older adults who can no longer maneuver a traditional vacuum. The compact dustbins on robot vacuums are typically easy to remove and shake into a garbage can. If bending down is an issue, a robot vacuum with a self-emptying base, such as the iRobot Roomba i3+, might be the answer. The Clean Base on the i3 uses a vacuum bag that only needs to be replaced every one to two months, depending on use. The small bag in the base is less of a hassle to use than even the onboard dustbin.

Are robot vacuums worth it?

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Most robot vacuums weigh between 4 and 9 pounds, making them relatively easy to pick up for maintenance. Since they’re so compact, they’re easy to place on a table while popping out the brush rolls to remove hair.

Should you buy a robot vacuum?

Robot vacuums have improved exponentially in the last few years. Earlier models would clean the same spot over and over while missing another area entirely. Plus, the balance between suction power and battery life has improved, with many models offering mid-cleaning recharge, meaning the robot will go back to its dock, charge, and then continue the cleaning job where it left off. Many robot vacuums are able to map your entire living space and give you control over which rooms get cleaned and how often it happens, but all that technology doesn’t come cheap.

Meanwhile, the best vacuums tend to offer more suction at a lower price, but they also require more manual labor. In fact, they’re all manual labor. There’s not yet a way to tell your Miele Complete C3 Calima canister vac to clean your living room without a lot of human intervention and elbow grease — much less give it a weekly cleaning schedule.

Though they don’t fully replace the deep-cleaning power of a traditional vacuum, we think robot vacuums are worth it for regular vacuuming in between occasional deep cleaning sessions, without the hassle of lugging a vacuum out of a hall closet and doing it yourself. They’re especially handy for households with pets, which can accumulate fur and dander easily. Plus, you can get a robot vacuum to clean up before unexpected company drops by.

Meghan McDonough

Meghan McDonough is a journalist who currently tests and writes about robot vacuums. Since 2008, she’s written about laptops, mobile phones, headphones, speakers, and other consumer tech. When she sees an unfamiliar device, Meghan has a habit of asking complete strangers, “What is that? Does it work well for you?”

In her spare time, Meghan enjoys seeing live music, tending to her garden, and playing endless games of fetch with her Goldendoodle, Duke of Squirrel.