Today, iRobot is announcing the fanciest, most amazing, and most expensive addition to its line of Roomba robot vacuums. The Roomba i7 can do two big things that no other Roomba can do: The navigation maps that it makes persist between cleaning sessions, meaning that the robot "remembers" the layout of your home and can use that data to clean in a smarter and more efficient way. And the i7 can autonomously recharge on a new Clean Base dock that has its own large dustbin and vacuum system, and can suck the dirt out of the robot's bin so that you don't have to. The Clean Base is cool enough that we've written a separate article about it that you can read here, but essentially, it's a drive-on dock with an internal vacuum that can access the i7 's dustbin through a special port underneath, and then transfer the contents of the dustbin into the dock's own bin, which is large enough to hold about 30 Roombafuls. While the Clean Base was a total surprise, what wasn't a total surprise is that the i7 now features persistent maps.
When it comes to cleaning, there's one thing we can all agree on: vacuuming is no fun. First, there's the setup that requires you to grab a clunky vacuum from your closet, find a nearby outlet, and somehow not trip on a long cord. Then, you pray for the thing to work, considering the lights flicker whenever its power button goes on. When you're finally cleaning up week-old Cheerios or a dust colony, you realize the vacuum doesn't suck up the mess. Oh, and we can't forget about the noise. It's an awful soundtrack of clicking, rolling, and picking up that drives you nuts and scares your pets.
It's no secret that one of the most annoying things about Roombas and other robot vacuums is that despite all of their autonomy, you still have to empty out their dust bins, which is not only messy but also breaks you out of that "effortless clean" fantastical dream that these robots promise. With that in mind, it's not at all surprising that we've been hearing rumors about self-emptying Roombas for like a decade--for example, there's this 2007 iRobot patent that I wrote about years and years ago. We've been wondering about this for so long that we'd stopped asking iRobot about it, stopped thinking about it ourselves, and just kind of figured it would never happen. Good gravy, were we dead wrong about that! Today, iRobot is announcing a new charging dock for the equally new Roomba i7 that incorporates its own dustbin plus a vacuuming system that can automatically transfer the contents of the Roomba's bin directly into the dock while recharging the robot at the same time.
Six years ago, I drove from my crummy little apartment in the part of Berkeley that's too close to Oakland to somewhere in the south bay that I don't really remember to pick up, in person, what I'm pretty sure was a development prototype of the Neato XV-11 robotic vacuum. I was instructed to return it in 24 hours, or they'd send a robotic hit squad after me. I wrote a blazing fast review of the XV-11, taped a butter knife to it and let it duel my iRobot Roomba 560, and then brought it back to Neato, having inflicted a bare minimum of physical (and emotional) scarring. Since then, Neato Robotics has established itself as a solid and capable competitor to iRobot's Roombas in the autonomous vacuum space. The XV-11 series has been incrementally upgraded, with a much more significant redesign in 2014 in the form of the BotVac series. Late last year, Neato announced the BotVac Connected, which adds WiFi connectivity and an app that lets you control your robot from anywhere in the world. This is Neato's top of the line model and currently sells for US 700. We took a look at it at CES, and then Neato promised to send us one to check out at home. Neato's robots, starting with the XV-11 and continuing with the BotVac Connected, are notable because of their ability to rapidly generate accurate maps of the spaces that they're in, and then localize and navigate to efficiently clean those spaces in nice straight lines.
Robot vacuum pioneer iRobot has big plans in the works. From new Roombas that clean themselves to smart vacuums that communicate with floor-mopping machines, and even robotic lawn mowers, iRobot has been busy. But while these sophisticated home care systems sound impressive, even useful, they suffer from one glaring downside. They are all staggeringly expensive. This move by iRobot is no accident.