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How to buy the best robot vacuum cleaner

Can these clever household helpers really get the job done? Here's what you need to know.

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.


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How do robot vacuums work?

Robot vacuums are designed to clean your home with minimal help. Powered by a rechargeable battery, these cordless machines can learn their way around your room using sensors and cameras. They're generally able to dodge stairs and are small enough to vacuum under low furniture.

After fully recharging your robot vacuum, you should be able to let it start cleaning straight away. It may take a few goes before your robot vacuum can properly learn the layout of your room. They tend to 'feel' their way around by bumping into walls and furniture so you should leave your room as uncluttered as possible (and free of any fragile vases!).

All but the most basic models can connect to your home Wi-Fi network, so you can monitor and set up your cleaning regime using its related app. This is recommended, as they'll then be able to accept firmware updates (the software built into the vacuums) which could iron out bugs or include new features.

How much do they cost?

The models in our latest robot vacuums test range in price from under $100 up to over $2800, with a median price of $1000. You'll find robot vacuums at different price points, with the more sophisticated models able to achieve tasks such as self-cleaning, or detecting particularly dirty areas.

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. However, they're great for in-between cleans and can be used on a daily basis, especially if you'll be out of the house. 

Despite their autonomous nature, filters, dust bins and brushes will still need regular cleaning and you'll still need to make sure your floor doesn't have stuff lying around which could get caught in the robot vacuum, even if it does claim to be able to detect the obstructions.

Our lab-based tests show a significant range in performance scores.

Cleaning test scores Average Range
Hard floor performance 87% 33–99%
Carpet performance 37% 8–60%
Pet hair performance 51% 20–90%
Corners and edges performance 58% 20–80%

Cleaning performance on hard floors and carpet

Hard floors

Most of the robot vacuums 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. 


Despite sophisticated technology – navigation software, stairs 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 vacuum to get most of the dirt out.

What about pet hair?

In our tests, we've found robot vacuums 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.

Do robot vacuum cleaners get stuck?

It depends. Sometimes, if you've got a mixture of rugs and hard floors, they might have a little trouble travelling from one surface type to the next. Tassels or fringes on rugs, home entertainment cables and deep carpet pile could be problematic as these can get tangled in wheels or brushes. With a bit of preparation, you can avoid these incidents.

Are cheap robot vacuums any good?

Our test results reveal a range of performance scores at different price points, and there are some robot vacuums worth considering if you're on a budget as some are excellent on hard floors. However, the cheapest robots may not have all the features you're after.

Features to look for

Stairs 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 to block off open doorways or other areas you don't want the robot to enter. Many robot vacuums will define the virtual wall using an app, but some use infrared towers to define barriers (these may cost extra).

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 out of the house.

Automatic docking

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

Running time

Battery life is important, especially if you have a large area to be cleaned. You'll want a robot vacuum that cleans for long enough to cover your floor area before returning to the charging station. While we're seeing battery life improving, we've noticed some models that keep running well after the motor has actually stopped 'cleaning'. Essentially, these vacuums have a cleaning mode and a return to charging station mode. In these cases we measure the running time to be until the motor stops running (i.e. cleaning has stopped).

Noise level

Robot vacuums are generally quieter than standard vacuums, 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.

Mopping function

Some robot vacuums also have a mopping function, but these are best suited for light stains only. Usually, this involves putting a small amount of water into a tank which moistens a microfibre pad that's attached to the vacuum's base.

Self-emptying function

We're seeing more high-end robots with an automatic dirt disposal unit on the charging base. Once the robot goes back to charge, the dust bin gets emptied which saves you from having to continually empty the tiny dust bin.

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.

The basic ability to manually turn your robot vacuum on and off and operate basic settings either at the unit or via a remote control is still handy. However, more and more robot vacuums are lacking this basic functionality with full reliance on Wi-Fi connectivity and operating the vacuum via an associated app on your phone.

To get the most out of all the features and functionality you'll need to familiarise yourself with the app. Some apps are easier to navigate than others, and keep in mind that if you encounter internet connection issues it can limit the vacuum's capabilities and make ease of use tedious.


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

Some models still come with a physical remote control to change the settings or direct the vacuum around the room but these days many will only use apps.