iRobot’s Cheapest Roombas Might Finally Be Worth Buying

Image: iRobot
Image: iRobot

Robot vacuums have always been dubiously “smart” for the average person. Sure, high-end models do a pretty good job at automated cleaning, but cheaper models tend to be more hit-or-miss. But today, iRobot has released a new AI platform for its Wi-Fi connected Roombas and Brava jet robomops that might actually make buying a cheaper, more reasonably priced robot cleaner worth it.

After 30 years of tinkering with robots, iRobot has released its new iRobot Genius Home Intelligence platform, which also includes a redesigned iRobot app. This is a fancy-pants name that boils down to smarter, more personalised automation. It’ll vary depending on the Roomba — unsurprisingly, premium models will get more advanced features than affordable ones — but the entire package is still impressive.

Advanced Roombas like the i7/i7+ and s9/s9+, as well as the Braava Jet m6, were already capable of methodical navigation, mapping, and emptying out their own bins into a massive home base. Now they’ll also gain the ability to have specifically designated “clean zones” that are suggested by machine learning. The clean zones may be based around specific furniture that’s prone to mess, like a couch or dining table — essentially, it’s spot cleaning. They’ll also get “Recommended Keep Out Zones.” No-go areas aren’t new, but what’s different here is that the robots will learn for themselves over time which areas to stay away from. Lastly, premium bots will also be able to learn and recommend room-specific cleaning schedules, like vacuuming the kitchen after dinner or cleaning the hallway on Wednesday afternoons.

Great, but also — yawn. iRobot has been teasing this stuff since it introduced mapping in 2018. Plus, you expect flashy features on high-end products to justify the bonkers cost. More interesting is the tech that’s trickling down to the cheaper bots. With iRobot’s update, cheaper Wi-Fi enabled robot cleaners will gain event automations via IFTTT and favourite routines. The former means that if you have other smart gadgets, you can get them “talking” to each other. So, if my cat’s litter robot finishes a cycle, it might then trigger the Roomba to begin cleaning. So maybe, just maybe, I might one day live in a home that is free of random litter. More reasonably, if you have a smart lock, your Roomba will know to start cleaning when you leave and to stop when you arrive home. As for favourite routines, you can create pre-set routines like “after dinner” or “bedtime” to clean during specific times. iRobot is also including seasonal recommendations, so you may get tips to schedule more frequent cleaning during allergy or pet shedding seasons.

It might not seem like much, but these new scheduling options are nifty. Cheaper robot vacuums used to not only lack Wi-Fi but scheduling had to be done via shitty remotes that didn’t work half the time. That improved with Wi-Fi but just a few years ago, you needed to fork over at least $US800 ($1,116) for a Wi-Fi connected bot.

Now Wi-Fi connectivity can be found on budget robot cleaners under $US300 ($418). However, a lot of the app functionality on cheaper bots was limited to manually setting up schedules. Easy enough right? Not always. If you had a variable routine and forgot to manually change the schedule, you could end up with a disaster. I once brought a wily Roomba to my office. Because I forgot to turn off its night-time cleaning schedule, it ended up wandering to the office next door, where my work neighbours summarily tried to kidnap it. A custody battle ensued. Something like the event automation with a smart lock might help to prevent that, or at least provide more intuitive scheduling options.

Still, iRobot’s update won’t change the fact that its most “affordable” robot vacuums are navigational disasters that ping-pong across your room with no rhyme or reason, occasionally destroying furniture by banging into it and likely missing the mess you wanted it to clean in the first place. (I once tested a Roomba 600 series that bowled over a dining chair in the pursuit of a dust bunny. It was the same one that got robo-napped.) This isn’t exactly worth it if connected features are limited to a paper-thin app — even if the robot vacuum is dirt-cheap. That said, I abhor vacuuming with the blazing fire of a thousand dying suns. I’d be willing to put up with haphazard navigation if I had more options for controlling the robot. Which this update provides.

It won’t be enough for some folks — I admit, watching a cheaper robot vacuum continually miss the ONE AREA you want it to clean is excruciating. But at least now you can get more bang for your buck. (By the way, where the hell is iRobot’s cute ‘lil lawn bot?)