It seems impossible, but we live in age when robots can clean our floors for us. You don't have to be Donald Trump or Emperor of Mars -- this is science fact. But which floor-bot is dominant? We have answers.
A robot cleaner has to suck up the dirt, obviously -- and most importantly. But it also needs to be smart. It needs to navigate around the shoes you've strewn about, your couch and not fall down stairs. It needs to be able to find its way back home without knocking things over. It needs to not get stuck. It needs to be precise enough to get into those deep, grimy edges under your kitchen counter.
We brought together the current triumvirate of sanitation automatons. Only one will rule supreme -- the other two will be shot with a disintegrator beam, their ashes cleaned up by the champion as one final act of domination. Let's begin.
Third Place: Mint Plus
The Mint Plus isn't a vacuum cleaner. It's a robotic broom. But it's also the smallest and quietest of the trio -- and has a very interesting navigation concept behind the scenes. So let's give it a fair shot.
Unlike the Roomba, the tiny Mint has no suction -- again, it's not a vacuum -- and ergo no place to store the dirt it encounters. This is its greatest flaw. The mint relies on reusable cloth pads or store bought Swiffer wipes that are somewhat clumsily tucked into its foot, whereupon it'll slide neatly across your floor, through dust and silt and whatever. It's not a very methodical slide, however -- the Mint doesn't have the rigorous mapping of its competitors, navigating in lazy back and forths, avoiding walls, and often failing to link up with the "NorthStar" navigational unit that supposedly tells Mint where to go from above. Which is a shame, because the idea of outsourcing the nav process to a little box you can place anywhere is great! Shucks. Instead, the Mint just shuffles around like a quiet toddler. And in the process, it'll accumulate a giant, disgusting hairball in its wake. Remember, this isn't a vacuum.
Surprisingly, it works at getting dirt off the floor. Granted, it's in the most inelegant way -- just dragging it along into one big snowballing dirt mound -- but at the end of the cleaning cycle, my floors were clean. But what then? Getting the crap off the cleaning cloth is a chore -- no amount of slapping and scraping into the trash would bring it back to its original freshness. So I have to do laundry between sweeping cycles? No thank you.
Mint's wet mop functionality is useless. Taking a shower with my clothes on and rolling around on the floor moaning would have done a better job. $US300.
2nd Place: Neato Robotics XV-12
The XV-12 is the only serious competition. But it's really serious competition. If the Roomba is a great, reliable sedan, the XV-12 is a goddamn vacuum tank.
Its stylings might not be perfect for you. It looks like what it is: a robot. It doesn't hide the fact that it's an appliance, yet it does have a sort of retro, SNES-meets-space-cargo-ship appeal, with its chunky body and orange trim. It lacks the Roomba's sweeping brush, but truly beats the hell out of the 770 in terms of raw strength. It sucks dust out of carpets like a black hole, munches coins, nails and other hard debris -- consistently, satisfyingly filling the dirt trap after every cleaning. Consequently, it is the loudest object I've ever heard. Seriously. When you hit clean on the XV-12's simple button interface, it sounds like a jet turbine just switched on inside your home. It's unbearably loud -- like, you have to shout over it loud. Luckily, you can (and pretty much have to) schedule the thing to clean when you're out.
Neato's power isn't confined to its floor-suckage -- the amount of mechanical brute force the thing is capable of is impressive and frustrating. Like I said, it's a tank -- which means it can cruise over rug bumps and magazines. with zero problems. This is an all terrain robot. Unfortunately, this hulk-smash power comes at the cost of sensitivity. Although the XV-12 has terrific navigational abilities, thanks to its laser-sweeping room mapping, it still bumps into things, just like the Roomba. But where the Roomba realises and apologetically backs away, the XV-12 often says FULL SPEED AHEAD and tries to tackle its way through obstacles. In my apartment, this meant headbutting my TV stand until it got stuck underneath, shortly after getting stuck on a speaker stand that it insisted on vacuuming and/or crushing. $US400.
BESTMODO! iRobot Roomba 770
The gold standard. The only one of these that's a household name -- at least among bourgeois households considering which floor-cleaning maid robot to buy. But iRobot's got a wide lineup of vacuum bots, and they've finally hit the point at which they're no longer a lux novelty. The 770 does serious cleaning.
It's also the brightest of these brainy cleaners. The Roomba's IR-sweeping navigation system gives it great pathfinding abilities -- allowing it to give each room a thorough sucking before moving on, always sliding along walls and corners with grace. But the 770's collision detection (and avoidance) is at the top of the heap. It has the power to push through thick carpet and run over debris, but it never actually hits anything—its bumpers are sensitive enough to change course with just a tap. This not only means it'll be careful with your furniture, but it won't try to blast through your shoes, books, or whatever else you might have left lying around.
And once it's out there, it does a pretty great job. Combining a spinning brush with a traditional cycling vacuum slot, the 770 kicks up stuck dirt and slurps it up, even hunting down large clumps with its IR eye. Your floor might not look that dusty, but each time the Roomba goes out, it returns with a stuffed dustbin. Your mileage will vary based on how inherently dusty your abode is, but suffice it to say the 770 is a very solid vacuum cleaner. Scheduling is a huge convenience, letting you tell the thing to do its job when you're out—which is nice, because it is loud.
I have found, however, that the 770 has an annoying tendency to get stuck on the way home. Even in my small-ish apartment, where the base charging station is never far off, I've often returned from work to find the 770 completely stranded. Sometimes it's because it's jammed -- its brushes are prone to sucking up wires -- but sometimes it just ran out of batteries on the way back. This is an annoyance at most, but still marks the Roomba not delivering on the promise of true autonomy; if I have to bend over, for any reason, the future isn't totally now. $US500.