October 31, 2006 4:00 AM PST

My life with Scooba

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Left to its own devices, the robot does fairly well covering a floor. In our house, we have one small hallway with six doors and a total of 16 corners (when all the door frames and heating vents are counted). The Scooba cleaned the entire surface area, which made for a good half hour of viewing. If it accidentally veers over the top of the staircase, sensors get the robot to retreat--that's good for another five minutes of viewing.

The robot also successfully navigated and cleaned the floor in an L-shaped laundry room. The only spot it consistently missed in six different rooms was the triangle under the breakfast room table.

To be honest, my daughter and I found the waste products quite compelling. We're not alone.

The machine also gets the floors quite clean. A mop gets continually dunked in a bucket of increasingly dirty water. With Scooba, jets spray a mixture of water and cleaning fluid (or water and white vinegar) on the floor that then gets sucked up by a squeegee blade and vacuumed into a water tank. Dirty water, thus, is not recycled. The floors, whether wood or tile, glow.

The water that comes out of the dirty-water tank is generally brownish-white or gray and more foul than you might expect. The filter, at least in our case, also contained more cat food, crumbs and hair than most people even know is on their floors. I had no idea we lived like savages. To be honest, my daughter and I found the waste products quite compelling. We're not alone.

"I agree, pouring the filthy solution out is the best part," Helen Greiner, iRobot chair and co-founder, wrote in an e-mail.

Scooba brings on the noise
The Scooba isn't perfect. Charging the battery is difficult for starters--the first charge takes 16 hours, but it takes far less time later. Give it 45 minutes of juice, and you're good to go.

The first big problem is the film of liquid it leaves on the floor. Most of the fluid gets sucked up into the machine by the vacuum and the squeegee blade, but a visible, relatively continuous film remains. With tile or linoleum floors, that's not really a problem. But with wood floors, which can be damaged by fluids, you feel compelled to wipe up with dish towels. On a warm day, the fluid dries fairly quickly, but on colder days, wet spots can still be there 20 minutes later.

Personally, I can live with this. My wife, however, would probably rather have her teeth removed with rusty pliers than harm the floor. The wet spots, in her view, need to be wiped up.

Which leads to the second problem: the noise. The Scooba can be as loud as 80 decibels, which, according to Reader's Digest, is about as loud as city traffic noise. When cleaning the bathroom, you can shut the door on it and cancel out most of the noise. But in an open room like the kitchen, the noise carries into other rooms and can be a bit annoying. You can't operate it if someone is resting in bed.

After baking cookies for Halloween, we tried absentee cleaning, letting it run 45 minutes alone while we were out of the house. It got the vast majority of sprinkles and a smear of stepped-on frosting. The floors were dry when we came back.

Finally, removing and inserting the fluid tank from the unit can cause some anxiety. You push the handle to remove the tank, but it looks like you should pull it, like a door handle. I thought I broke it a couple of times.

Overall, on a scale of 100 (with 100 being an unequivocal thumbs up), I'd give it an 85. And I think we'll miss it.

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