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Robot vacuum buying guide: What you need to know

Robot vacuum buying guide

Considering buying a robot vacuum cleaner, but not sure which to choose? Our robot vacuum buying guide will answer any questions you have and will help you decide which is best for you. 

If you’re new to the robot vacuum market, you might notice that there’s a huge range of features available. Some modern designs come with self-emptying bases, while other robot vacuum cleaners can also function as mops. But, before you buy one with all of the bells and whistles, consider which features you actually need. Some robot vacuums will be better on carpets, while others have better pick-up on hard floors. If you own pets, some models are even designed to pick-up shedded fur. A robot vacuum can cost anywhere from $200 to over $1,000, so your budget is another important factor.

After testing a range of robot vacuum cleaners, we’ve used our expertise to create a comprehensive robot vacuum buying guide. Before you get stuck in, here are some quick tips. 

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.

Quick tips for buying a robot vacuum

  1. Start by surveying your home. Consider whether you mostly have hard floors or carpet. If you have carpet, how thick is it? Think about pets as well — will the robot vacuum have to pick up kitty litter or thick fur? These are all important aspects to consider before you start shopping for a robot vacuum.  
  2. Decide on your budget. As mentioned earlier, robot vacuums with the latest features can cost over $1,000. Cheaper models are available for around $200, but be prepared to lose some of the premium features, such as WiFi connectivity or the self-emptying dustbin. 
  3. Do you want an app with that? Some robot vacuums can be connected with dedicated apps. Apps are useful for monitoring your robot vacuum and scheduling cleaning sessions. These can also help with mapping out your home and creating no-go zones.  
  4. Robot vacuums use varying methods of navigation. If you invest in a lower-end robot vacuum, it will likely move sporadically and bounce off walls and obstructions in the process. Whereas, some medium and high-end models use lasers and optical sensors to guide them. 
  5. Some models clean better than others. Every robot vacuum performs differently. Some collect dust and debris more effectively than pet hair, while others might work better on hard floors rather than carpet.  

Why do you want a robot vacuum?

The iRobot Roomba i3+ charging

iRobot Roomba i3+  (Image credit: Future/Meghan McDonough)

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 hauling out the heavy canister vacuum every time a bowl of peanuts falls on the floor.

Though robot vacuum technology has advanced a lot recently, you’ll probably still want to keep a traditional vacuum cleaner around for deep cleaning. Robot vacuums are great for daily tidying-- picking up stray crumbs, cat litter, hair of all types, dust bunnies and everything else that finds its way onto your floors. 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. They’re also great for roommates as it means there’s one less chore to split up. 

Many robot vacuums can be scheduled to run as often as multiple times a day, and some app-enabled robots allow you to watch their progress as they clean. If you're concerned about allergies or dust, you can also find models that empty the on-board dustbin into a larger bin in the base — minimizing your exposure to dust.

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 Roborock S4 Max 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 iRobot Roomba i3 are 3.6 inches tall and likely can’t fit under a couch, At just under 2.85 inches tall, the Eufy Robovac G30, for example, has an easier time navigating through tight spaces.

A robot vacuum cleaner charging on a hard wood floor

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.

iRobot Braava jet m6 charging

iRobot Braava jet m6 (Image credit: iRobot)

If you're just looking for hardwood maintenance, you can go as cheap as the $118 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 m6, which is specifically made for dusting and washing floors using a spray nozzle. (It's tops on our list of the best robot mops). 

We've tried so-called hybrid robot vacuums that can both vacuum and mop, but found the trade-offs rarely justify the price and don’t actually make the tasks any more convenient. The one exception is the Roborock S7, which is the first robot vacuum/mop we've tested that performs both jobs well. 

Do you have cats or dogs (or any other pet that sheds)?

Roborock S4 Max robot vacuum

Roborock S4 Max robot vacuum  (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Thankfully, many manufacturers make robot vacuums that are suited for cleaning up after pets. Models like the iLife V3s Pro, the Roomba S9, and the Roborock S4 Max 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 high-efficiency filters to help eliminate allergens that are hanging in the air.

The new Roomba j7+ has been announced

iRobot’s newest robot vacuum, the Roomba j7+ was recently announced and features machine learning to identify objects and learn from its encounters. This means the Roomba j7+ is the first robot vac guaranteed to avoid pet poop — a revolutionary development for pet owners. We’re testing one as we speak and will let you know if it can deliver on this claim. Watch this space.  

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 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. Don’t want to think about it? 

There are now several robot vacuums available with self-emptying dustbins such as the iRobot Roomba i7+, the Roomba i3+, the Ecovacs Deebot Ozmo T8, and the Shark IQ. Some manufacturers allow you to purchase the auto-emptying bases separately, so you can upgrade if you decide it’s a feature you’d like.

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. Most robot vacuums now offer companion apps for your smartphone that give you full control over your bot wherever you are. Even vacuums that don’t support mapping, such as the iRobot Roomba 675, are connected to your home’s WiFi and controlled via an app. While features vary by manufacturer and model, most robot vacuum apps allow you to start and stop the bot, schedule cleanings, and increase or decrease suction intensity.

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 enabling the skill and saying "Roborock, start cleaning!" and the vacuum will get going.

There are still a few entry-level robot vacuums that come with a remote instead of connecting to an app. While you’ll save some dough, it could be a hassle to use all of the vacuum’s features if the remote goes missing. At the very least, all robot vacuums include an onboard start/stop button.

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 favorites are the Roborock S7, the Roborock S6 MaxV, and the iLife V5s Pro. The V5s Pro 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. For smaller homes, the iRobot Braava jet 240 ($179) is a simple, affordable dedicated mopping bot.

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

Here's the thing about robot vacuum battery life: It only matters to a certain extent. Throughout all of our robot vacuum testing, nearly every vacuum we tested lasted through an entire cleaning session without needing to 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. Many 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 and include features like keep out zones, single room cleaning, and targeted area cleaning for high traffic spaces. They also have more add-on features such as charging docks with auto-emptying dustbins and sonic mopping attachments.

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. Just don’t expect too many fancy features. Also, keep in mind that many manufacturers will discount older models as they release newer ones. 

Robot vacuum buying guide: 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 $118, but was one of the best cleaners of all the robot vacuums we tested. Almost as impressive is the WiFi-connected iRobot Roomba 675, which can be found for $199 and works with Alexa and Google Assistant.

Robot vacuum buying guide: What you get for $200- $600

If you’re able to budget more for home cleaner, you’ll have a lot of options with features such as home mapping, room-specific cleaning and automatic dirt detection. Mapping is incredibly handy because it increases a robot vacuum’s cleaning efficiency and ensures that the vac is cleaning the whole level and not aimlessly bouncing around under kitchen chairs.

Our current overall favorite robot vacuum, the $429 Roborock S4 Max sits right in the middle of this price range and multi-level mapping and room-specific cleaning. Other solid picks in this range are the Neato D4 for $299, the quiet cleaning Eufy Robovac G30 Edge, and the iRobot Roomba i3+ with self-emptying base for $599.

Robot vacuum buying guide: 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 of the advanced features available in these bots fall under “nice to have” instead of “absolutely necessary.” These include the ability to map up to 10 floors, avoid specific areas, empty their own dustbins, 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 nor do you have to deal with the dust. The S9+ also works in conjunction with the iRobot Braava jet M6 ($399), 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.