August 21, 2007 9:01 PM PDT

Sucking it up with the new Roomba

Sucking it up with the new Roomba
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It swallowed a pit from a plum.

And over the course of three test drives through our house, the Roomba 560, the new top-of-the-line Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner from Burlington, Mass.-based iRobot, also gobbled up three rubber bands, two stray edamame, seven coins, a couple of beads and a grapefruit-size wad of pet hair.

And that was just what I found in the dust bin. An additional chamber that captures fine particles and sits next to the air filter captured a disc of dust that would cover a butter dish. The house was dirtied on purpose for this article, but, to be honest, a lot of this stuff wasn't planned.

"It picks up more dirt than previous models and the dust bin is 20 percent larger," said Nancy Dussault, director of marketing communications at iRobot. "We've changed everything."

Photos: iRobot's new 'robust' Roomba

The Roomba 560--one of a series of models making their debut this week--isn't perfect. It's noisy when cleaning hard floors, takes far longer to clean floors than a regular vacuum, and often likes to wrestle with backpacks and area rugs. You might come home and wonder who put the plastic footstool in the middle of the kitchen.

But here's the much larger upside for the $250 to $400 devices: I didn't have to vacuum. The machine did it. Also, it can be programmed fairly easily to run when you aren't at home so the noise won't bug you.

But the most tremendous thing is that it picks up more of the macro bits--loose change, small rocks, etc.--than standard upright vacuums. The coins and the plum pit would have been regurgitated by my Hoover.

These large solids also go down without a lot of fuss. The motor speeds up a bit and then there's a muffled clunk. You don't get that "ack-ack-ack" sound of mechanical gnashing when a regular vacuum tries to take on change.

Revamping the Roomba comes at a crucial time for the company. It has sold more than 2 million Roombas, but increasingly faces competition from companies like Samsung and LG, which have come out with their own robotic vacuums.

iRobot's revenues have been increasing rapidly. The company reported $86.5 million in revenue for the first half of this year, a 19 percent hike from the $72.8 million in sales for the first half of 2006. During that same time, however, iRobot also saw net losses increase to $10.3 million, up from $4.7 million in the first half of 2006. Besides selling consumer robots, the company works with Taser and different branches of the military to create robots for security.

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Video: iRobot's new Roomba gets put to the test
A newer, smarter Roomba

Highlights of the new Roomba
Traction: iRobot has improved the suspension system so that it can traverse from hardwood and tile to different types of carpets much easier than older models. "We can clean pile, medium pile, shag," said Dussault. Better traction also improves battery life because the robot can surmount obstacles quicker.

I can't disagree there. It switches from carpet to hard floors fairly easily. Sometimes, if it can't get onto the carpet, it will back up and try to climb onto it by approaching at an angle, which almost always works.

Sometimes, the traction is a bit too good. I've found it wedged under the lip of a cabinet, on top of a weight bar and grounded on a small stack of Martha Stewart Living magazines, among other places. But it did manage to get around most obstacles, which is a big benefit. You don't have to pick all the stuff off your floor to clean first.

Suction: A lot of the design ideas and technology from the Dirt Dog, a robotic industrial vacuum released last year by iRobot, were incorporated into the 500 series. Wimpy, inadequate suction was one of the primary complaints about the first version. "It will pick up bolts, nuts, screws," said Dussault. It lives up to billing here.

Durability: A Roomba 500 series vac will last more than 1,500 hours, or about five years, according to the company. The previous versions would often stop working well after one or two years, Dussault admitted.

Anti-wall-bashing technology: Front-mounted sensors detect walls and cabinets and slow the vacuum down as it approaches. The machine then lightly rebounds off the wall. The old versions hit walls at their regular speed.

This also comes in handy with feet. It just sort of taps off your leg, like a cat. We used it while cooking in the kitchen. The vacuum bumped into a lot of people but didn't really become annoying. My wife, who is very protective of the walls, found this to be one of the best features.

Tassel savers: When it detects tassels or loose wires in the brushes, it reverses and takes another approach. At one point, it bobbled the cord of a floor lamp, but backed away.

Navigation: The Roomba is supposed to be able to wander from its home base and, by following the beacons from two "lighthouses," clean two other rooms. In our tests, it never made it back to home base. Most of the time it got stuck on something or simply never returned. It went into rooms guided by the lighthouses, but also other rooms.

But it follows the outline of objects incredibly well. When it came to a box along the wall, it tracked the three exposed sides of the box and then returned to tracking the wall. It also managed to get underneath a table surrounded by chairs and weave its way out without a huge amount of trouble.

Noises and whistles: More sounds than R2D2. When it backs out of its driving bay, it makes the same warning signal ("eee eee eee") as a dump truck in reverse. It has a song for going into battle, and one for when it finishes. The company has also included a recorded English-language tutorial.

Finally, entertainment value: Like the Scooba and other household robots, it's a definite kick to watch this thing in action. As an added bonus, it terrifies the cat.

See more CNET content tagged:
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Maybe it terrorizes YOUR cat...
Mine just finds it mildly annoying and doesn't like being bumped. Then again she doesn't like being bumped by me either.
Posted by aaroberts (82 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Same, pretty much
Our cats basically ignore it, which is really surprising considering how quickly they disappear when we roll out the Dyson.
Posted by AndrewRich (217 comments )
Link Flag
My cats play with it...
Two of them will deliberately lay in it's path and then try to grab the small brush which comes out on one side. My third (oldest) cat just ignores it now though she was scared by it the first few times it ran.
Posted by aabcdefghij987654321 (1721 comments )
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This is awsome!
Maybe I'll buy one and just put it in the parking lot and scare the cats away from my car.
Posted by inachu (963 comments )
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Sorry, cat friendly
I have both a Roomba (sage) and a Scooba and like them both. My house has seen a massive reduction in pet hair tumbleweeds from using them on a a regular basis. My two cats? They sit on the couch out of harms way and watch until they fall asleep.
Posted by menty666 (53 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Mmmm, cats.
Is there a way to reprogram the Roomba?
If you could include "Cat Detection/Cat Attack" circuitry, I'd buy 1
for Christmas.
2, if they disposed of the evidence.

Posted by GGGlen (491 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Love the roomba
Good review.

I have had one for about a year, and just love it. ( I had last year version) I had to install an os patch and new brushes, but that's it.

One of the big benefits is the low profile allows it to clean under couches, tables, etc....things that otherwise would wait for a major cleaning. We definitely notice a difference.

When mine gives out I will look forward to the next version. However, the old one works well enough that I am not tempted to upgrade based on the incremental improvements.
Posted by nrhinela (6 comments )
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Vacuum cleaner - said it all
Cleans vacuum
Posted by areiku (15 comments )
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Yeah, right.
Why would anyone believe the tech shills (excuse me, "reporters") who push these tinky fugitives from Sharper Images catalog of "neat toys" that don't work.

We read the glowing reports of the first models of these units -- but quickly found out what a truckload of hogwash they were.

It would be greatly surprised to see an improvement in the effectiveness of these devices or the trustworthiness of "product reviews" like this.
Posted by obn2006 (2 comments )
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Do you own 1 or are you just a Hater?
I have one. It's cut vacuuming by 90%.
It works!
So what's your problem?
Posted by dahnb (49 comments )
Link Flag
Does warranty cover "killed by cat?"
My cat tries to kill anything that frightens it (a somewhat feral Siberian Forest Cat). And especially if this robot puts up a "fight," my Chewbacca might just do his best to destroy the thing.

So those of you who have one--any thoughts? Is this thing pretty solid and well built, i.e. not in danger of death-by-kitty? If it's not in mortal danger, will the robot still manage to vacuum if it's being attacked?
Posted by natejohnstone (110 comments )
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if it attacked it dumbs$$ owner.
Posted by woodygg (110 comments )
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Love my Roomba!
We got one for Christmas during black friday. It vacuums the floor and plays a happy little tune at the end. We normally let it do its thing alone while we do other things. Rarely do we have to monitor its process. I'll tell you this, it picks up so much dirt, it makes me feel like a dirty slob sometimes. I keep asking, "Where is all this dirt coming from?"
Posted by thedreaming (573 comments )
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Clogged by Dog Hair
I loved my Roomba, but there was one serious flaw and after going through about 3 of them, i had to give them up. THe problem was dog hair. The old versions would perpetually get dog hair wrapped around the axles of the cleaning brushes and sometimes the wheels until the machine would stop running. Cleaning it was a nightmare as even with the tool, the hair was tightly wrapped around the axles even if you cleaned it every day (Which is not my idea of acceptable). The cleaning job was a real mess which outweighed the benefits of the machine. If this machine was designed to repel dog hair in the axles of the wheels and cleaning brush, it is definitely worth it. If they haven't figured that out yet, then don't get it if you have a long haired dog. It will be more trouble than it's worth, and it'll eventually be rendered useless due to the hair slowly breaking the machine's motors down.
Posted by jdavidlove (30 comments )
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I have a roomba for last six months (don't rem the model# but it was the latest model when i bought it - some 550). Anyways, I have both good and bad things to say about roomba. Good new sfirst, it helps to keep your room clean. The particular model has a scheduler, which works as a wake up call for the chorus. since it does it every week, the room stays clean through out (if you are a procrastinator like me, this especially helpful). Here's the bad news, it's not totally hands free. My Rooba is addicted to cleaning under the sofa. At first I was excited (this was touted as an axciting feature for roomba). Later I realized that the machine is not cleaning in the middle of my room, also i noticed that roomba likes to clean more near the walls that in the empty space in the middle. Unfortunately, in my case (and in most others cases as well) most of the dust and dirty usually is in the middle of the room or in the empty space. Also roomba doesn't do verywell with hair. As with most other vacuum cleaners, the hair winds up on the rotating stuff. But unfortunately roomba stops working once this happens, which is every 5 minute in my household. So my rooba experience is so so...still i will buy one if they correct because i believe mundane task of house cleaning is something technology can solve for us!
Posted by (3 comments )
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The Roomba's are getting better. The new larger model, the pet series is not only good for pet hair but for high traffic areas.
Posted by Nelmsc (2 comments )
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