Life with a Roomba 960 (A Review)

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For the last few years, the Gremlin has followed the development of robotic vacuums with some interest. Any piece of technology that removes or mitigates a daily life annoyance is something I enthusiastically embrace, but until three months ago, I had avoided the Roomba.

Why? Because every Roomba owner I knew seemed distinctly “meh” about them. On paper, they seemed to be the perfect solution to minimizing time spent cleaning the house, but friends unfurled rumblings of navigation problems, poor performance over time, and a general sense that their robotic companions created as much hassle as they removed. In addition, we live in a two story house with a step-down family room on the lower level, meaning that a single automated vacuum could only clean part of the house. They’re also expensive, and even the most ardent fans admit that they don’t completely remove the need for a good old fashioned human controlled hoovering.

Today, the Gremlin is here to give you an honest assessment of how valid these concerns turned out to be, using my experience with the Roomba 960 over our initial months together.

A few caveats. The high end Roomba lineup is notably different from the base models (and the models of some competitors) in that it uses a more advanced sensor system (namely a camera) to aid in navigating your home from room to room. It also uses a different roller/suction mechanism than early Roombas, and some competitors. As such, avoid applying the conclusions of this review to robot vacuums “in general,” or even to other cheaper Roombas. Their performance may (and almost certainly will) vary.

Our Pre-Roomba Cleaning Routine

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“Regular cleaning” means different things to different people. As a way of understanding our POV, it’s time for an honest admission…

Mrs. Gremlin has often reminded me that various magazines and Martha Stewart admonish anyone who vacuums less than twice a week. By that standard, the queen of cleanliness would have us flogged. We’re more of a “once every few weeks” kinda house. If I’m being honest, during our busiest times of the year, it hasn’t been entirely uncommon for a month to pass between vacuuming (we’re not proud of it). As the designated vacuum-operator in the home, I also should admit that some of those vacuuming sessions were rushed. A lot.

On the Day You Were Born

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Charging Area

Setting up the Roomba was a real treat. It’s clear from the moment you open the box that iRobot has been doing this for a long time. The device doesn’t involve any assembly (beyond removing some stickers). Their iOS app is also well designed and intuitive, and paired quickly with the 960. Delightfully, the setup process asks you to name the Robot, much like a pet (the app even saves unboxing day as the little fellow’s “birthday.” Pretty cute).

The Roomba package included a single “lighthouse” module used for blocking off areas you don’t want it to clean. These had batteries included, so you simply needed to put the batteries in and flip the lighthouse between “circle” mode, or blocking off a straight line. More on this in a bit.

As is typical of lithium-ion devices, the Roomba needed a few hours of charging to be topped up and vacuum-ready.

The charging dock just plugs into the wall. From there, I simply set the device down on its contacts, and it began its first charge.

Roomba Proofing

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A lighthouse defend’s Buzz & Sally’s water dishes

The most tedious aspect of setup had nothing to do with the device or its accessories. Rather, having done my homework, I came into this well aware that all robo-vacs have specific kryptonites, namely a dislike of loose cables, and an indifference to knocking into sensitive items, like pet water bowls. Mr. and Mrs. Gremlin have two misbehaving feline children, and as such, we needed to do some extra legwork before setting our new companion loose.

Our cat litter is tucked away in an open closet, so a single lighthouse in “straight line” mode, placed in the doorway, blocked this area off. Problem solved. The water and food bowls are simply set on our dining room floor against the wall. For these, we had to purchase an extra double-pack of light houses. which we placed behind the bowls, against the wall, in “circle” mode. This projects a semi-circle IR wall for a couple of feet around the lighthouse, blocking off these sensitive chunks of our dining room.

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Lighthouses are great for blocking off doorways

After picking up some cat toys off the floor, and a few hours of charging, we pressed the start button on our new companion (neé Wallace), and watched him work.

Early Quirks

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The first 24 hours with our 960 left us with a couple of “mehs” of our own. Despite navigating rather impressively through the jungle gym that is our dining room table and chair legs, the robot got stuck trying to vacuum up the power cord energizing its own base station. In the immortal words of Yoda, “How embarrassing.”

The following morning, the robot didn’t turn on as scheduled. A quick examination revealed that the device’s battery was dead. It hadn’t charged at all.

Despite deep misgivings about the future of my new friend (and some deeply skeptical glances from my wife), I went about trying to solve these problems.

First, we taped the power cord to the base of the wall. Job done.

Next, I did some sleuthing. I recalled that during setup, the iRobot app had identified Wallace as in need of a software update. Unlike a smartphone, these could not be installed in real time, but rather “queued” for automatic install by the device. I had pressed that update button in the app the night before, and yet this morning, the little guy was still not up to date. My assumption was that the robot got stuck in a loop trying to update, which killed the battery.

After verifying that he was once again charging, I left him alone, and was pleased to find him fully charged and up-to-date by the end of the day.

Performance

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Rocking the transom, like a boss

My reaction to Wallace in the first few weeks was, in a word, “gleeful.” Watching him skillfully wrangle his way over the inch tall transom into our kitchen was impressive. Seeing him work around our cats, avoid falling down the stairs, and dutifully ignore the areas we’d virtually cordoned off was even more so.

Most importantly though, our floors were… shiny. We’d forgotten what that was like. In fact, our floors were shiny EVERY morning. This was a new experience in our home.

Our main floor is hardwood, with tile in the kitchen and bathrooms, a couple of the aforementioned transoms, and a couple of low-pile area rugs. None of this posed a problem for our new friend (or mechanical slave… perspective’s a fickle thing).

The oft-mentioned mantra of the robo-vac is that a mediocre vacuuming every day is better than a thorough vacuum once a week. For us, this was a dramatic understatement.

One of the coolest features of the 960 is its ability to map, on the fly, the area that it’s vacuumed. At the end of each session, the app will show you a blueprint of the area that was covered by that sweep. Through this (and some casual observation) we were able to see that Wallace tends to get about 80% of our main floor each day. If he misses an awkward corner one day, he gets it the next. The result is that our house is cleaner than it’s ever been. We’re quite happy.

Performance Mapping in the iRobot App

The Great Roomba Migration

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Our love for Wallace had us salivating at the notion of a Roomba for every floor. Then we remembered his price and came to our senses.

The beauty of the 960’s navigation is that, despite its camera and mapping system, it still starts navigating with a clean slate whenever it powers on. If it “sees” the IR light on its base, it will try and park when it’s finished its work. If it doesn’t, it will vacuum until it’s either cleaned everything it can, or run low on battery, and then make its way back to its starting position.

This makes it pretty easy to use a single Roomba on multiple floors. There is however, one real annoyance. The second floor of our house is primarily the master bedroom and a hallway. Having foolishly not considered our potential Roomba acquisition when choosing our decor, we had several areas with exposed charging cables which we couldn’t easily stow away.

The solution is workable, if a little awkward. Each time we run the roomba upstairs, we pick up the light houses and set them up to block off the two areas where our cables live. Once the roomba’s finished, we bring the whole setup back downstairs.

Our upstairs is also an interesting comparison point, as its entirely finished in a thick, densely piled carpet.

Wallace’s carpet performance brought back echoes of our friends reservations about their roombas.

The first time we ran him upstairs, he ran out of battery (despite the space being about half the size of our main floor). The Roomba intelligently increases or decreases suction based on whether or not its on carpet, and as such, puts more elbow grease in on the thick surface. However, our carpet still had some visible pet hair after the job. Charging Wallace fully, then running him on a second pass, did the trick (although our high end Miele vacuum still does a better job in one go).

Despite the complaints, we’ve only hand-vacummed (like barbarians) once on our upper floor since getting Wallace. He’s just that convenient (or we’re just that lazy). Knowing that the main difference between the 960 and it’s more expensive siblings is increased suction power, I would definitely opt for the i7 model if your home is primarily thick pile carpet.

As a matter of recommendation, I’d highly suggest anyone in a similar situation with multiple floors consider buying a second base station and extra lighthouses (if necessary) to leave permanently installed upstairs. This would allow the robot to automatically charge and run again as necessary, and greatly simplify the logistics of running one roomba in multiple spaces.

Upkeep

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So why is it that our experience has been almost uniformly positive, despite all those middling reviews and griping friends? The gremlin’s theory has to do with upkeep.

There’s a good reason why most quality vacuum cleaners have a cord. Despite decades of pipe-dream Scientific American articles, battery technology has still struggled to advance much over the years, and as such, power intensive devices like the electric motors of a high suction vacuum simply cannot run for any length of time off of a compact battery.

To circumvent this problem, robo-vacs use a power efficient low suction motor, in combination with brushes and rollers that assist by feeding the dust and debris into the suction’s “range.” The upside of this system is that it allows the Roomba to perform well out of the box, while remaining quiet and compact.

The downside is that all of these different components are vulnerable to wear and tear. Failing to perform regular maintenance like removing built up hair from the rollers, or replacing a bent brush will result in reduced performance.

We’ve seen some limited evidence of this (namely a few days where the floors just didn’t have that same “sheen” we’d come to expect). The good news is that roomba has made maintenance incredibly easy.

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Our routine has boiled down to the following:

1. After each cleaning, we dump the Roomba’s dustbin, unclip it’s dust filter, and bang it against the inside of the trash bin. This takes about ten seconds.
2. Every couple of weeks, we wipe off the interior sensor windows of the dustbin to ensure that it reports accurately as full. Again, about ten seconds.
3. Once a month, we remove the rollers by pressing on the tabs underneath the device. We pull out stray hair that’s coiled around each roller, than slot them back into place (the roller’s are keyed so you can’t insert them the wrong way). We also pull out the front guide wheel and remove debris, and if necessary, unscrew the brush to remove stuck hair. This takes about five minutes.
4. Every two months, we replace the Roomba’s filter.

Is Roomba worth it?

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If you’re reading this article, you’re either annoyed by having to vacuum on a regular basis, or you’re too lazy to do so. Either way, I can highly recommend the high end Roomba’s (960 or i7).

Out of all our smart home gadgets, Roomba has brought me more sheer joy than anything else. Aside from our Nest thermostats (which have saved us a fair amount of cash over the last few years), Roomba is the Gremlin’s top smart-home recommendation. It’s expensive, but you’re paying for a marked quality of life improvement, both in the time it will save you and in the cleanliness factor it will add to your home.

Wondering which model to pick up? Let’s get into it.

Roomba 960

I think for most people, the 960 is the way to go. It’s navigation capabilities are a cut above the simplistic “bump and turn” mechanics that other devices solely rely on; it’s quieter than its more powerful big brother; and it’s priced competitively for what it offers.

Roomba i7

For those looking to use a roomba mostly on thick pile (greater than a 1/2 inch) carpet, I’d suggest the i7 model (or a 980 if you can find it cheaper). As discussed earlier, smart vacuums are inherently more limited in suction power than traditional ac powered tools, and on thick carpet, the 960 doesn’t come close to a proper vacuuming without multiple passes. Purportedly, the i7’s additional power makes a measurable difference.

Finally, I strongly encourage you to pickup at least one extra lighthouse than you think you’ll need. Once you adjust to a post-vacuuming lifestyle, it’s incredibly annoying to have to delay your Roomba’s schedule because of unforeseen life mess (like when your cat decides to pee on the front door…) A backup lighthouse makes it easy to temporarily cordon off areas that could be problematic for your new pal.

Lighthouse Two-pack

Looking for maintenance tips? Check out iRobot’s fantastic support site.

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