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Best robot vacuums: We name the most effective cleaners

Vacuuming is one of the most hated household chores. Here are your best choices for outsourcing it to some automated help.

robot vacuum opening art Rob Schultz

It’s not surprising that robot vacuums are all the rage. Vacuuming is one of the most loathed household chores. While it doesn’t come with the ick factor of cleaning the toilet or the tedium of dusting, pushing and dragging a noisy, cumbersome vacuum is its own kind of torture.

Robot vacuum cheat sheet

Our quick-hit recommendations:

Robot vacuums don’t have unwieldy cords or hoses to contend with, and they require little effort from you: You can run one from your couch using a physical remote or smartphone app, and the higher-end models can be programmed to wake up and start cleaning without any intervention at all. Robot vacs easily dispose of the most common household detritus—food crumbs, pet hair, dust—making them ideal for routine maintenance and quick cleanings when you’re expecting company.

Our top pick isn’t the most expensive model on the market, though it’s price tag is up there. If you’re working with a more modest budget, we have a strong recommendation in that category as well. 

Updated September 13, 2019 to add our review of the Ecovacs Deebot Ozmo 920, a combination robot vac and robot mop that’s capable of remembering up to three floorplans, which makes it very well-suited to multi-level homes. We like it, but it doesn’t displace any of our top picks. See the bottom of this article for links to all the recent robot vacuums we’ve reviewed.

Best all-around robot vacuum

iRobot’s Roomba brand has become as synonymous with robot vacuum as Q-tips is with cotton swabs. The Wi-Fi-enabled Roomba 960 is ample evidence why. It turns a tiresome chore into something you can almost look forward to. With three cleaning modes and dirt-detecting sensors, it kept all the floor surfaces in our testing immaculate, and its camera-driven navigation and mapping were superb. Its easy-to-use app provides alerts and detailed cleaning reports. The ability to control it with Amazon Alexa and Google Home voice commands are just the cherry on top.

Runner-up

When a manufacturer builds one device that’s designed to perform more than one function, you all too often  end up with a product that’s a jack of all trades, but a master of none. We certainly didn’t find that to be the case with the Roborock S6, a highly capable robot that will not only vacuum dirt off your floors, but mop your hard-surface flooring.

Most sophisticated robot vacuum

iRobot has taken the robot vacuum to the next level by creating a model that can empty its own dustbin. A second powerful vacuum in the Roomba i7+’s docking station automatically sucks the dust and debris out of the vacuum when it docks, storing as many as 30 dustbins full of dirt. And it stores it all in a filter bag, so that nothing escapes in your home’s air when you eventually need to change the bag. We recommend this model to all who can afford its $950 price tag.

Best budget robot vacuum

Don’t let the low price tag fool you. The Deebot N79S from Ecovacs delivers several of the features typically found only on robot vacuums costing hundreds more, including navigation mapping, a smartphone app, and support for smart home devices such as the Amazon Echo series. It’s a terrific value.

Best robot vacuum for pet hair

It’s an unfamiliar brand, but we have no complaints about its performance, especially considering its low price tag. If pet hair is an issue in your home, this is the model we recommend. While it lacks the advanced features you’ll find in higher-priced models, it has no equal when it comes to picking up pet hair.

Robot vacuum cleaners are not cheap

The convenience robot vacuums provide come at a cost: As much as $1,000 at the high end, with many of the best models running no less than half that. To help you determine which ones are worth the expense, we tested models from some of the most popular brands in a real-world lab: my home, where the floors are punished daily by two kids, three cats, and a dog. I tasked each one with vacuuming a 400-plus foot space that includes low-pile carpet, hardwood flooring, and linoleum that was regularly littered with food crumbs, pet hair, tracked-in dirt, stray cat litter, and other debris. To maintain the real-world environment, each model also had to contend with random floor clutter during several cleanings.

Be aware even the most premium robot vacuums are a supplement, not a substitute, for your stand-up vacuum. Despite manufacturer claims, most just don’t have the same suction power of an upright. Think of them as an easy way to maintain your floors in between deeper cleanings with your current vacuum.

Robot vacuum features and functions

Fundamentally, the robot vacuums in our guide all operate the same way: They autonomously maneuver around your home on a couple of wheels suctioning debris from your floors. Two to four brushes on the bottom—both rolling-style agitators and spinning side brushes—grab dirt from the floor and wall edges respectively, and guide it into the suction area or direct it straight to a small, filtered dustbin. When cleaning is complete, or their battery is running low, they return themselves to their charging dock.

But just how they get the job done can differ across manufacturers and models. Here are some features and functions to consider beyond the basics.

Control

Autonomy puts the “robot” in “robot vacuum.” Virtually all models include an “automatic” mode that requires you to do nothing more than press a button on a remote, in an app, or on the vacuum itself to clean a room. This is great for ad-hoc cleaning, but most models can also be programmed to clean on a schedule. The latter scenario is great if you want them to work when you’re not home or to create a regular cleaning routine. Some higher-end models also integrate with smart speakers, such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home, which allows to control them using voice commands.

Cleaning modes

Just as your stand-up vacuum can be adjusted to clean either carpet and hard flooring, so to can a robot vac. Most feature the ability to change suction and other cleaning functions to adapt to different floor surfaces, either automatically or with input from you. They may also have a spot mode for more concentrated cleaning on a small area (cleaning up a spill, for example), include options for single- and double-passes of a room, or offer an option to focus just on cleaning along wall edges and baseboards.

Navigation

The allure of robot vacuums is their promise to complete their task with minimal management from you. In order to do that, they must be able to navigate a room’s unique layout, maneuver around furniture and other obstacles, and avoid hazards such as falling down stairs and getting tangled in electrical cords.

Robot vacuums “see” the world through a combination of sensors. Cliff sensors let it know when there is an increase in distance to the floor—e.g., stairs or a sunken living room—so it doesn’t tip over the edge. Other sensors tell it when it has bumped into an object, so it can change direction, or is near a wall, so it can follow it. Still other sensors help the robot vacuum track how far it has travelled. Depending on the manufacturer and model, a robot vac might also include sensors that determine the amount of dirt present so it can adjust its cleaning mode accordingly.

Mapping

Manufacturers are increasingly including mapping capabilities in some of their robot vacuums. These models use an onboard camera or laser reflections to produce a 360-degree view of the room. This allows the robot vac to create a map of the space and locate itself within that map.

The advantage of mapping is the vacuum will know which areas it has already cleaned and which it hasn’t, to avoid going over the same spot unnecessarily. It also lets it know where to resume cleaning if it must stop and recharge midway through the task. This makes it ideal for larger rooms and—because it’s still something of a premium feature—larger budgets.

Boundary blockers

In an ideal world, you’d clear all your floors of clutter before using your robot vacuum. But we live in the real one and that’s not always possible or desirable. Knowing this, many robot vacuums include some way to block off areas you don’t want it venturing into, whether it’s a pet’s area, your kids’ room, or a cluster of device cords in the corner. Often it’s just a length of magnetic tape you stretch in front of or on a forbidden area that the vacuum’s sensors will detect and tell it to avoid. But some models employ virtual barriers, such as the ability to designate boundaries on a floor plan that signal the robot to steer clear.

Size

The dimensions of a robot vacuum matter for a couple of reasons. First, they will determine how well it can get into tight spots, such as under your kitchen cabinets and low-clearance furniture (couches and recliners). If it’s too tall, it won’t be able reach into these spots, or worse, it will get in and get stuck until physically free it. Second, the bigger the robot vacuum, the larger the dustbin. Robot vacuums don’t use expandable bags like many of their stand-up brethren do, so when it comes to debris capacity, what you see is what you get.

There is no sweet spot for robot vacuum dimensions that we could determine—it really depends on your particular room layout—but a diameter of 13- to 14 inches and a height of 3.5 to 4 inches are the most common measurements we encountered.

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi-enabled robot vacuums allow you to control them with a smartphone app instead of, or in addition to, a physical remote. That convenience alone doesn’t really warrant the extra cost these models command, but some model’s apps also provide other perks, such as detailed cleaning histories and the ability to save and edit floor maps for better navigation. Those models are worth considering if you’re cleaning large, intricate spaces.

Our robot vacuum cleaner reviews

We will add to this list as new models come to market. 

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