Can today’s robot vacuums handle the mess of two toddlers?

One of the interesting things about becoming a parent is that your home is no longer your own. Things disappear from drawers, mysteriously topple off shelves, and somehow wind up in the toilet. You learn which strange sounds need immediate attention and which can be safely ignored. And the mess. Oh, the mess. It blooms like mushrooms after a rainstorm, appearing out of nowhere, spreading suddenly across rooms that just an hour ago where spotless.

I have two boys under the age of three, and in the fall of this year my will to fight against the endless tide of clutter started to fade. I began just tidying up the surface mess, sure, but underneath, a steady layer of deep debris was accumulating. I needed reinforcements, warriors who wouldn’t flag in the face of such a ceaseless foe. So I brought in a new breed of cleaning soldier, the robotic vacuum.

I had resisted these gadgets for years, assuming that they wouldn’t be able to really handle the work, and in fact might create more headaches than they saved. And the cheaper unit I tested confirmed those fears. It wandered around the house like a drunken sailor, going over the same areas needlessly, missing others, and getting hopelessly snagged on the smallest of obstacles. But the higher-end units impressed me with their intelligence and autonomy. And my sons, who were of course curious about the robot, have grown fond of the new beings that roll, beep, and suction their way around our home.

robot vacuum

There is a mind-boggling variety of robotic vacuum cleaners on the market. You can get units that specialize in wood flooring, carpet, or tile; units that will wet mop your home; and units that are customized to pick up pet hair. For this story, we looked at the new offerings from the biggest brands with basic cleaning capabilities: the Roomba 980Deebot 35, and Neato Botvac Connected. They ranged in price from $150 to $899, and the gap in cost showed in their performance.

Let’s start with the DeeBot 35, the cheapest of the units we tested. It can’t see the world around it, so it relies on touch, bouncing off objects and adjusting accordingly. Using it is a supremely frustrating experience. The DeeBot frequently goes over the same areas multiple times, takes extremely inefficient paths, and gets stuck in corners and on carpet. It’s not representative of the brand overall — Deebot has more expensive units that can connect to Wi-Fi and empty their own bins — but it certainly speaks to what you get when buying a cheaper robot that has a limited ability to sense its surroundings.

When you jump up to the Neato Connected Botvac, the difference is clear. It still bumps into things as it moves around, but far less often. It uses laser scanning to map the space around it and then sweeps the floor in a smart, methodical pattern. It even circles around tricky areas like couch legs. It did miss corners, and struggled to find its way back to its charging station, but at a basic level it got the job done well.

The next step up is the Roomba 980, the most expensive and sophisticated unit we tested. It has a camera and floor sensor to track its location and avoid obstacles. I found that it was incredibly good at navigating my home and working its way into nooks and crannies. And when it needed a charge, the 980 was always able to work its way back to the dock and connect, something the Neato did often, but not always.

robot vacuum

All of these units had one major problem, which was that in a house as messy as mine, they filled up their trays after just a room or two, and while the Roomba and Neato can recharge on their own, you have to empty their trays by hand before they can get back to work. All promise to have the power and space to clean an entire apartment. But to make that happen, you need to religiously run them everyday, keeping the overall level of dirt down to a manageable level.

Luckily the newest Neato and the Roomba we tested are both Wi-Fi enabled, and can be controlled remotely by an app. This makes it far easier to program routine cleaning — set a schedule and just let the robot run once a day. Or if you prefer, start it when you remember, either in person, or with a few taps on your phone. The ability to connect to Wi-Fi is what really sets these units apart from their predecessors, like the Roomba 880, which I also tested. If you’re at work and the Neato gets stuck, for example, it will send you an alert. You can switch to manual control and help to guide it off the obstacle so it can get back to work.

As you can see in the video above, two kids means a ton of clutter. Both the Roomba and Neato were able to work over and around most toys, although even they got snagged on the occasional toothbrush. Overall I found the Roomba struggled less with tangles in its brush, an issue that caused my Neato to stop working several times, and which requires you to be on hand to manually fix.

The Neato came with a magnetic strip which you could use to keep it from going past a certain point. The Roomba, on the other hand, came with two battery-powered towers that could cordon off a certain area, either with a straight line or a halo with a roughly 2-foot diameter. This was really helpful if I wanted to simply push all the toys in a pile and then have my Roomba clean around that.

In my testing, the Deebot is a waste of time for any home which doesn’t have very simple, flat surfaces. By comparison the Roomba 980 was clearly the best overall, both in terms of its cleaning power and its ability to operate autonomously. The Neato, which is $200 cheaper than the Roomba, is, in my opinion, the best deal, offering a solid if not quite superlative clean.

Not quite the Jetsons, but getting closer

You shouldn’t consider this a comprehensive review of the category, however, which is simply too vast and diverse to cover without many more months of testing. Think of this as an introduction, with more reviews and comparisons to come. We haven’t quite reached the Jetson era miracle of a completely autonomous robot that can clean your whole house, but these little gizmos are getting extremely sophisticated. The technology on the market today, especially for a busy parent, is a huge asset in the daily battle against clutter and chaos.