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Wednesday, October 22, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 1/25/2014 - Updated: 9 months ago

Robot vacuum a fine cat toy, but its cost is not as playful

BY DAMON DARLIN
NEW YORK TIMES

BLADE ILLUSTRATION BY TOM FISHER Enlarge

The robots are coming. Every week, it seems, announcements hail a coming era of personal robots: Machines that will ingratiate themselves into our homes by liberating us from despised chores like folding fitted sheets.

Vacuuming is one of those chores. And for that, help is the Roomba by iRobot Corp.

More than 10 years ago, I bought the first-generation version of the Roomba, intrigued by the algorithm that sent it scooting automatically around the room, entertaining my cat along the way. But the vacuum didn’t clean very well, and when the battery no longer held a charge, the expensive cat toy found its way down to the basement, where I imagine it still sits.

The latest Roomba, the 880, probably will not share that fate. The machine, which has the same hockey-puck profile of the earliest Roombas, not only cleans floors as well as an upright or canister vacuum cleaner, it actually may do a superior job on pet hair.

The algorithm still sends the robot careening around a room in what seems like a random pattern. When it comes across a bit of dirt, the little machine focuses on the spot, twirling around in a spiral until it licks the problem.

A little spinning brush under the Roomba whisks the dirt into two rotors that never seem to get tangled with hair and string, unlike many of the most expensive vacuum cleaners. (The trick? No bristles on the rotors.)

The machine signals when the dirt bin is full, and when I was alerted, I found a large clump of cat hair and dirt inside. Very satisfying.

The Roomba emits a pleasant hum, not the high-pitched whine of most vacuums. Aside from it gently thumping into table legs and walls, you get used to it working in the background as you go about more important tasks.

And like previous generations of Roombas, you don’t need to worry about it crashing down stairs. Sensors stop it from going over the edge.

The machine comes with two pillars that block off portions of the room you don’t want cleaned. The pillars shoot off an infrared beam that acts as a fence, maybe to wall off a precious vase or the pet bowls on the floor.

In my experience, the Roomba never grabbed carpet tassels, which can’t be said of many regular vacuum cleaners I’ve tried. (The iRobot engineers added what they call “anti-tassel mode,” by making the rotors momentarily go in reverse if it detects a cord or carpet fringe.) And at 3.6 inches high, the machine can slip under most furniture.

It’s also easy to schedule the robot, so the machine can work every day without you raising a finger. You can see the house getting cleaner. Every day there is less debris in the bin, so you know it is working.

The robot returns by itself to its recharging station when it runs low on power. It docks itself, beeps out a little salute, and prepares itself for its next bout of cleaning.

But you may want to know, how does it do as a cat toy? I suppose results may vary, but in a test of four temperamental cats and one dog that is frightened of its own shadow, let alone vacuum cleaners with tubes and hoses, we got unanimous approval. The dog ignored it. The cats were intrigued and spent hours watching it, though they didn’t ride around on it like the cat in the YouTube video wearing a shark costume.

(There is an entire Tumblr page devoted to cats riding Roombas if you care to verify the Roomba’s usefulness as a cat toy. )

If the Roomba is at the vanguard of the robot army that will take over our lives by folding our clothes and cooking us dinner, well then I say, bring them on. It made my life a lot easier.

IRobot makes other consumer robots, such as a new floor-scrubbing device, the Scooba, and one that cleans roof gutters of leaves and debris, the Looj. (It also makes some robots for the military.)

IRobot also does something I rarely see in consumer electronics today, and certainly not in a Dyson, a machine honored for its great design: You easily can take apart its products and replace modules that fail. You even can replace the Roomba’s battery, which iRobot says is good for about three years.

But this robot is not yet perfect. The 880 has a remote control so I can focus the Roomba’s attention if necessary — sometimes it gets a mite confused — but the vacuum lacks a connection to the Internet, so I can’t schedule it via a mobile device from the office.

(I can control my thermostat that way; why shouldn’t I be able to manage my robots?)

And here is the real downside to our little robot friend: its $700 price tag. With a Dyson costing $400 or $500, that seems a little steep. (An older model, the Roomba 630, sells for $350.)

I’d have to go through considerable financial contortions to justify the purchase. But when it comes to finding ways to avoid housework, I can be pretty flexible.

Here is my thinking: The Roomba saves me a half-hour of vacuuming every other day. That’s about two hours a week, 52 times a year. If I value my time at $15 an hour, the Roomba saves me $1,560 a year.

Slam dunk for this wonderful machine. Right?

Not so quick. On second thought, I’d still have to own another vacuum and use it on occasion to clean tight corners, the stairs, couches, and chairs, and the spots between the furniture the Roomba can’t reach.

And to really have a work-free life with robot vacuum cleaners, I’d ideally have one for every floor. So my outlay could be at least $1,400, making my time-saving investment far less appealing.

But oh, did I enjoy the extra free time the Roomba provided. The truth is, when I used the Roomba every day, very few dust bunnies accumulated in corners. And I could use a cheap handheld to do the stairs and couch. The Roomba is light (8.4 pounds) and portable, so I could move it from one floor to the other each day without much trouble.

And did I mention it works fabulously as a cat toy?



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