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How to buy the best robot vacuum cleaner

Can these clever household helpers really get the job done?

three robot vacuums

We'd all love to be able to sit down and relax while an artificially intelligent device cleans the house, but can a robot vacuum do as good a job as your regular vacuum? The answer largely depends on whether you have carpet or hard floors.

How much do they cost?

The models in our latest test range in price from $199 to $1699.

Are robot vacuum cleaners worth it?

After conducting our rigorous lab testing of robot vacs, we wouldn't recommend any as a complete replacement for a regular stick, barrel or upright vacuum, especially in homes with carpeted floors.

Cleaning performance on hard floors and carpet

Hard floors

Most of the robot vacs we've tested are very good at cleaning hard floors – albeit not always in the corners and edges. 

For a house with mostly hard floors, most of the robot vacuum cleaners we've tested will do a reasonable job of keeping the floors clean when run on a daily basis, though a more thorough cleaning with a standard vacuum (or a broom) will still be needed occasionally. 

Carpet

Despite sophisticated technology – navigation software, stair detection, cameras to detect dirt – robot vacuum cleaners are still comparatively poor at removing dirt from carpet.

Robot vacuums can't generate the suction of a standard vacuum and while they can leave the carpet looking clean, below the surface a lot of dirt is left behind. Over time, this can damage the pile. 

In a home with carpeted floors, a robot vac is fine for a tidy-up, but the carpet will need a regular going-over with a standard vac to get most of the dirt out.

What about pet hair?

In our tests, we've found robot vacs can pick up a reasonable amount of fluff (such as pet hair) along with some dirt, but on carpet they also seem to push the remaining dirt even deeper into the pile. 

Features to look for

Stair detection

This feature, now standard across almost all models, helps the robot sense when it has reached a ledge or step so it can back off and avoid a damaging tumble.

Virtual wall

An accessory used to create an invisible barrier, for blocking off open doorways or other areas you don't want the robot to enter.

Programmable times

This handy function will allow you to set times of the day or week to run the robot – for instance, you could set it to run only while you're away at work.

Automatic docking

When the battery charge is low the robot vac finds its way back to the charger and docks automatically. All the models in our test do this.

Noise level

Robot vacuums are generally quieter than standard vacs, but some have an annoying high-pitched whistle and others make a mechanical grinding noise. 

This may be less important if the robot mainly runs while you're out of the house, but these sounds may be loud enough to annoy neighbours or scare pets.

Some robot vacuum apps can map out the room the robot vacuum cleans.

Some robot vacuum apps can map out the room while the robot cleans.

Robot vacuum apps

All but the most basic robot vacuums are smart-home enabled. They'll connect to your wireless router and work with a dedicated app to help you control your cleaning schedule. 

While functionality varies depending on how sophisticated the robot is, they should all have the basic ability to turn the machines on and off or pause the cycle, and program your preferred cleaning time and frequency. Other functions may include a map of where the robot has cleaned, cleaning log/history, manual cleaning, spot cleaning, battery status or notifications when the robot has done its job.

Webcams

We've seen some high-end robot vacuums even double as a security camera. In conjunction with an app, you can log on and monitor your home remotely (or see if the cat has decided to hitch a ride on it).

Remote control

Most models come with a remote control to change the settings or direct the vacuum around the room. But if the robot needs too much overseeing by its owner, you might find that using a regular vacuum cleaner is the more effective (and cheaper) way to go. 

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