The latest robo vacs won't make cleaning a thing of the past, but they may halve the work that us puny humans have to do. Caramel Quin explains why, and talks to an owner to find out what they are really like

Updated: the first question to ask yourself when shopping for a robotic vacuum cleaner is whether you want one at all. They are great for some things and useless for others. So you need to think about your needs, your home and your lifestyle.

The most obvious limitation is that they can’t clean the stairs. They’re like Daleks in this respect. If you live in a home with stairs, there are a couple of ways you can use a robo vac that don’t mean buying one for each floor of the house. You could keep the robo vac downstairs on its charging base, scheduled to clean regularly, and use a conventional vacuum cleaner upstairs where you’re likely to get less dirt. Or you could base it downstairs but sometimes manually bring it upstairs and tell it to clean.

The next limitation that applies to all robotic vacuums is that they can’t move furniture and clutter out of the way as they clean. They’re best suited to tidy, minimalist, open-plan apartments. The tidier and less cluttered your home, the better job they can do. Designers meanwhile try to keep the cleaners short and compact. They won’t fit under the sofa but they will clean under larger coffee tables and get into gaps and corners as best they can. But you may find yourself permanently adjusting your room layout to ensure there aren’t any awkward gaps too narrow for it to fit in.

On the plus side, robotic vacuum cleaners excel at some things. If you have a fairly tidy home then you can set your vac on a schedule to regularly vacuum the floors. Set it to clean an hour a day, say, and the floors will always look clean. Whereas if you only whizz round with a Hoover once a week, the floor will always look filthy on day six.

Stairs present a challenge for even the smartest robot vacuum

Stairs present a challenge for even the smartest robot vacuum

Your robo vac should do a competent job of picking up dust from floors, whether they’re hard floors or carpets. It won’t pick up ingrained dirt and it won’t cope well with deep, shaggy rugs. Also if a rug is really thick it may bounce off it and consider it an obstruction, rather than rolling onto it.

Another challenge we’ve found while testing them is that the unsupervised nature of robotic vacuums means you’re not there to help it when it’s in a pickle. For example, if it accidentally gets tangled on a cable it will stay there stuck till you rescue it.

Will I need an ordinary vacuum cleaner too?

In a word: yes. But what you require will depend on the size of your home. In a smaller home you can get away with a rechargeable stick vacuum cleaner for awkward corners and a few stairs. It’s best to get one with attachments, or with a pop-out handheld cleaner, for getting into crevices like between sofa cushions.

In a larger home, or if you have pets that shed hair, you’ll want a “proper” upright or cylinder vacuum cleaner powerful enough to tackle the stuff the robot can’t pick up.

If you do have pets then be sure to look for a robotic vacuum that has a large brush bar to pick up hair. As with any vacuum cleaner you’ll need to remove the hair from the brush bar regularly when you’re emptying the dust container.

Either way though, if you employ a robotic vacuum cleaner to regularly clean the floors you’ll find that your cleaning time is more that halved and your home generally feels cleaner.

Robot vacuums: what to look for

Sheer cleaning power is obviously pretty important. Some of the latest models have cyclonic cleaning similar to that of a Dyson. Dyson’s own robo vac, the 360 Eye, was announced a long time ago but is still not on the market, so you’ll have to look to other brands.

Design also plays a part in how well the machines clean. Some have square corners or brushes with long tendrils to get right up to skirting boards and into corners. Most have brush bars for picking up hairs and lifting dust better than with suction alone.

There’s also the cleaning pattern. Some move around fairly randomly, others use a camera on the top, facing the ceiling, to map the room and then vacuum methodically in straight lines. The latter is impressive but it doesn’t necessarily lead to a cleaner room.

And then there’s convenience: how well your robo vac works for you. This comes in two ways. The first is how much you need to think about the cleaning side of things. Does it have a charging base that it returns to automatically? Does it have a timer so you can schedule regular cleaning times? (Robotic vacuum cleaners are much quieter than large models so most won’t disturb you if you’re home.)

The second is maintenance. Your new vacuum will have a dust container that needs emptying. The bigger the container, the less often you’ll need to do this. And as mentioned above, you’ll want to remove hairs from the brush bar at the same time.

Most robots can get under coffee tables and high cupboards but not sofas

Most robots can get under coffee tables and high cupboards but not sofas

Robot vacuums: extra features

Higher-end models tend to have not just more cleaning power but also clever extra functions. For example, some let you take control using your smartphone. This is useful for scheduling but also for spot cleaning – where you direct the robot to a specific spot and then it gives it a deep clean to a small area of floor.

If you’re not a gadgetphile then it’s worth looking at the style of non-smartphone controls. Some robotic vacuum cleaners have large colour displays and easy-to-use remote controls, others are more basic and annoying to schedule.

What you don’t necessarily need is extra accessories. They simply come with one or two boundary markers. These are either magnetic strips you lay on the floor or battery-powered beacons that use an infra-red beam to create a virtual wall. Either way, when your robo vac detects them it turns around as if it had hit an obstacle. They’re perfect for keeping the robot in a particular room or fencing off an area where you don’t want it to clean, for example to protect something fragile.

Robotic vacuums only work on dry floors but there are also robots on the market that will wash your floors for you. For example, the iRobot Scooba 450 (£600) which cleans hard floors in a three-stage process: sweeping, scrubbing then mopping.

Robot vacuums: should I buy now or wait?

Several robot vacuum cleaners currently on the market are Wi-Fi connected so you can control them via app. This means, in theory at least, that they could be integrated into a bigger smart home system via a platform like Google Nest or Apple HomeKit.

The question is why: what could you do with this? One answer is that you could control all your smart home technology from a single dashboard. Rather than hopping on six different apps to trigger six different events, you could have a “morning after a house party” button that sets your robo vac to work, followed by the robo mop, turns on the dishwasher, makes you a pot of coffee and turns on the lights… gently. The beauty of internet-connected smart devices though is their potential. Anyone can come up with new ways to make use of the connection.

Roomba 880 in action

Roomba 880 in action

Robot vacuums: what’s it like to own one?

Chris Krzan bought an iRobot Roomba 880 to help tackle the mountains of hair left by his big, black dog Roscoe. Here’s what he thinks of it:

In use

“The Roomba starts automatically at 3:30pm everyday and spends about an hour sweeping every available inch of my open-plan living room and kitchen. It’s very methodical and really helps break the back of the weekly chores… but I do still need to vacuum everywhere at least once a week as it can’t quite get into every corner, and certainly can’t manage the stairs. I don’t bother using it upstairs.

Pros and cons

“But it isn’t without issues. At least twice a week it will get trapped on a rug, or under the sofa, or on the doormat which is irritating. As a result I now try and lift as many things off the floor before I leave the house as possible. Not ideal – especially with toddler toys all over the place.

My verdict

“So, I would highly recommend it if you’ve got hard floors and live a minimalist open plan lifestyle. I don’t, but it still helps to clear up the piles of dog hair while I’m at work. Any time saved on housework has to be a bonus!”

Robot vacuums: four of the best

Miele robot vacuum

1. Miele Scout RX1

The Miele Scout RX1 (£500) may not have smartphone control but it’s efficient at cleaning and boasts lots of sensors. It rarely bumps into obstacles and a digital camera scans the ceiling for reference to ensure the entire floor is cleaned. There’s therefore little need for accessories but it does come with one metallic strip that you can use to fence off a doorway or keep your robot away from fragile stuff.

There’s a basic remote control to program it to clean later in the day but you can’t schedule it to clean at regular weekly times. You can also use the remote to navigate it to a spot to clean. It’s good at cleaning right into the corners thanks to long brushes that stick out. But overall cleaning power isn’t as impressive as some, perhaps because of its small (six-inch) brush bar. It’s therefore not great for pet hair.

  • Capacity: 0.6 litres
  • Battery life: 120 mins
  • Power/suction: 22W

Samsung robot vacuum

2. Samsung Powerbot VR9000

The Samsung Powerbot VR9000 (£700) is taller and bulkier than most thanks to its cyclonic cleaning. This delivers an impressive 35 Watts of suction, backed up by a huge 12-inch brush bar which really lifts dust and hair. The only downside is that this makes it louder than most. Also it lacks side brushes for getting right up to skirting boards and corners.

It comes with one battery-powered Virtual Guard to block off a doorway or area of the room. Sensors include a camera that takes 15 pictures a second to help it navigate the room. While the remote control has an unusual feature: a laser pointer than you can use to tell it which spot to aim for. This sounds gimmicky but it’s much easier than navigating it like a remote control. There are seven cleaning modes including spot, auto and two scheduling modes so it will clean automatically at a time that suits you – it’s a good idea to set it to clean when you’re out of the house because it is loud for a robo vac.

  • Capacity: 0.7 litres
  • Battery life: 100 mins
  • Power/Suction: 35W

3. Neato Botvac Connected

The Neato Botvac Connected (£550) has some impressive features, both in terms of vacuuming and smart controls. Its compact size and two corners means it’s well suited to getting under furniture and cleaning right up to skirting boards and corners. Its 36W power means plenty of suction. A camera sensor maps the room so it can clean methodically and magnetic boundary markers can be laid down to tell it where’s off limits.

It’s also smart app enabled via Wi-Fi. This doesn’t just mean your phone acts as a remote control, it means that you can set it cleaning from your smartphone from anywhere in the world. There’s no sign of smart home integration as yet, but the fact that it’s internet connected now at least makes it a possibility in the future.

It’s also the world’s first robo vac that can be controlled via smart watch (Apple Watch or Android Wear) as well as smartphone or tablet.
  • Capacity: 0.7 litres
  • Battery life: 120 mins
  • Power/Suction: 36W

iRobot (3)

4. iRobot Roomba 980

The iRobot Roomba 980 £800 is another robotic vacuum cleaner that boasts smartphone control. It cleans an entire floor of your home, tracking its location and returning to its base to recharge after 2 hours. If 2 hours wasn’t enough cleaning time, it will recharge its battery and then intelligently pick up where it left off.

It comes with two battery-powered virtual barriers for fencing off doorways or areas of a room. The app lets you set the Roomba cleaning from anywhere in the world. Or change your weekly cleaning schedule. And while it doesn’t integrate with smart home systems, it certainly could in the future thanks to its Wi-Fi internet connection.

  • Capacity: 0.6 litres
  • Battery life: 120 mins
  • Power/suction: N/A