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Robot vacuum buying guide: What you need to know

Robot vacuum buying guide

Having trouble deciding which robot vacuum to purchase? Let our robot vacuum buying guide help.

There are myriad robot vacuums available at a variety of prices that can help you with the tedious chore of cleaning your floors. Whether you've got carpet or hardwood, or a corral of pets, there's a robot vacuum to suit your needs. These machines also come with plenty of extra features — some of which make them nearly as efficient at cleaning as a standard, upright vacuum. And if coming home to a spotless abode is your primary concern, you can choose a robot vacuum with Wi-Fi connectivity.

We've compiled the following guide for those of you who are stuck on how to start shopping for a robot vacuum. And if you want the short end of it, here are some quick tips to start you off.

Quick tips for buying a robot vacuum

  1. Start by surveying your house. Is there hardwood or carpet? Do you have pets, and does your cat kick her litter out of the box? These are factors to consider when shopping around for a robot vacuum for the first time.
  2. Decide on your budget. You can spend less than $200 or more than $1,000. However, be prepared to do without some popular features in models in the lower price tiers — like tractioned brush rollers and Wi-Fi connectivity.
  3. Do you want an app with that? Many robot vacuum models use companion apps that make it easier to control and schedule the robot vacuum. Some models can even map out where they've cleaned.
  4. Some models clean better than others. Not all robot vacuums clean the same. Some are better at picking up pet hair from carpets, while others might perform better on hardwood or vinyl.
  5. Battery life is a factor to consider here, too. Usually, the bigger the battery, the better the cleaning job, especially if you have a larger home. But it's OK if you'd rather save some money by choosing a model that has to park itself and recharge in the middle of a session.

Why do you want a robot vacuum?

This is the future, and we have robots doing it all: Cars that drive themselves, drones that navigate the sky and robot vacuums that find their way around furniture. A robot vacuum keeps things relatively clean and saves you the hassle of scheduling a maid service or nagging your kids to do their chores.

A robot vacuum doesn't replace an upright vacuum or a deep house cleaning, but it does help pick up things like food crumbs, cat litter, hair of all types, dust bunnies and every other dense particle we leave behind on the floors when we're living in a house. They're suited for office spaces, too, because the last thing you want to worry about when you're on deadline is why the floor is covered in sprinkles. Many robot vacuums can be scheduled to run as often as once a day or several times a week, and some are available with companion apps. If you're concerned about allergies or dust, you can also find models with built-in HEPA filters.

Robot vacuum buying guide: How big is your house?

First things first: Consider how big your house is before you start browsing the Amazon aisles. Some robot vacuums, like the iLife V3s Pro, work better in small environments like apartments and townhomes, while models like the iRobot Roomba S9 are better-suited for spaces of up to 2,000 square feet with multiple rooms and multiple floors. Your pick will mainly depend on the size of your dwelling.

You'll also want to figure out how much room you have under the furniture for the robot vacuum to pass through. Robot vacuums like the Dyson 360 Eye are more than 4 inches tall, so it can't fit under as many dressers and beds as other models. At just under 3 inches tall, the Eufy Robovac 11s, for example, has an easier time navigating through tight spaces.

Do you have carpets or hardwood?

Most robot vacuum models can easily handle cleaning both carpets and hardwood, but some are better at cleaning one or the other. Higher-end robot vacuums such as the Roomba S9 can accommodate rapid surface changes by ramping up power whenever carpet is detected, and then throttling back down when it senses hardwood. Rugs should also factor into your buying decision. You might find that lower-end models will get caught up in tassels.

If you're just looking for hardwood maintenance, you can go as cheap as the $159 iLife V3s Pro, as it does very well with cleaning pet hair off hardwood floors. If your floors are vinyl and tile, and you're hoping for some mopping help, there's the iRobot Braava Jet, which is specifically made for wetting and washing floors. We've tried robot vacuums that can both vacuum and mop, but found they do neither task particularly well.

Do you have cats or dogs?

Thankfully, many manufacturers make robot vacuums that are suited for cleaning up after pets. Models like the iLife V3s Pro and the Roomba S9 scored the best in our robot vacuum lab tests, picking up nearly all pet hair on both hardwood and carpeting. And if you suffer from allergies, these robot vacuums have HEPA filters to help eliminate allergens that are hanging in the air.

Of course, the downside to having a robot vacuum clean up after your pets is that you'll also have to make sure you plan for frequent maintenance. Things like the roller brush, side brushes and HEPA filters will eventually wear out and need replacing. And even if you just want a robot vacuum to help with kitties that scoot their litter over the side, you'll need to remember to empty out the dustbin frequently so that it doesn't overflow. Look for dustbins larger than 600 milliliters if you only want to worry about emptying it out every few cleanings or so. Smaller bins are more likely to fill up after just one cleaning.

Do you want a "smart" robot vacuum?

The internet is a glorious thing that helps keep us connected, not only to other people but also to our appliances. When you look at various Roomba models or the Shark Ion R85, for example, you'll see that they all offer companion app control. Many of the app feature sets differ, however, which means they often deliver different user experiences. 

If a robot vacuum has app capabilities, it often means that it also offers Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant integration. If it does, you can enable its voice-command capabilities by saying,  "Start cleaning!" and the vacuum will get going.

If you don't mind eschewing Wi-Fi connectivity in favor of saving a little cash, many entry-level robot vacuums come with remote controls that run on alkaline batteries and are simple to use. Even the app-connected Samsung Powerbot R7070 comes with an additional remote in the box, just in case you don't want to bother with setting up an app.

Hybrid robot vacuum/mops aren't great

There are more than a few robot vacuums that also have a mopping feature built in, which is in theory a great idea: A single device to clean both your carpets and your hardwood floors. However, the models we've tested didn't excel at one or both functions. So far, our favorite of these was the iLife V5s Pro, which was inexpensive and great at vacuuming, but was a poor mopper. Yes, it'll cost more, but if you want a robot mop, it's worth investing in a dedicated device.  

Battery life isn't a huge concern, unless you have a huge house

Here's the thing about battery life on a robot vacuum: It only matters to some extent. Most of the robot vacuums we tested lasted throughout an entire cleaning session without needing a charge.

On average, a robot vacuum can clean for up to an hour and a half, with some high-end models lasting a full two hours. Some vacuums will even navigate back to their base stations, charge up and then finish cleaning to get the deed done.

Settle on a budget

Robot vacuums are available in all sorts of shapes and sizes and at varying prices. As with most things in life, the more you spend, the more features you get. For example, higher-end robot vacuums will have better mapping capabilities, which means they can clean your house more quickly. 

However, we've found robot vacuums less than $200 that clean just as well, if not better, than models that cost three to four times as much.

What you get for less than $200

Low- to mid-end robot vacs will offer long cleaning times, large dustbins and low profiles, but, to save you a few bucks, they often forego such things as Wi-Fi connectivity and sophisticated navigation. So, instead of moving around a room in an orderly fashion, they'll ping-pong around randomly until the job is done.

Our top pick under $200 is the iLife V3s Pro, which is just $159, but was one of the best cleaners of all the robot vacuums we tested. 

What you get for $200- $600

If you like the idea of a robot vacuum that can adequately navigate your labyrinthine house, you'll have to pay more. At the lower end of this range are models like the Roomba 675, which has Wi-Fi and works with Alexa and Google assistant, but lacks a mapping feature. Towards the higher end are robot vacuums like the Neato Botvac D4 and Neato Botvac D7, which has more sophisticated sensors for mapping their environments, which means they can clean your house faster and more efficiently, and, depending on the model, can be directed to clean specific rooms. 

What you get for more than $600

Good help doesn't come cheap. There are relatively few robot vacuums in this price range, and most people won't need the features that come in this bracket. These include the ability to map multiple floors of your house, clean specific rooms on command, and work in partnership with other robot vacuums.

Our top pick in this bracket is the iRobot Roomba S9+, which is not only an excellent vacuum, but also has a recharging base with a dustbin that sucks the dirt out of the vacuum. This means you don't have to empty the vacuum after each cleaning. The S9+ also works in conjunction with the iRobot Braava jet M6 ($499), a robot mop, so that when the vacuuming is done, the mop can take over. However, the S9+ costs $1,099 ($899 without the self-emptying base), so it's a real investment.