I was an extremely late adopter of robot vacuums. The first iRobot hit stores 15 years before I finally purchased a robot vacuum for my own home. When I did, I went cheap: I bought an inexpensive vacuum without any mapping capabilities from Amazon. That cheap robot vacuum has served me well, even if it does just bump around the room until its battery runs out. I still don’t believe that robot vacuums can replace a proper weekly vacuuming, but my little bot has surprised me with its ability to suck up dust and debris.
iRobot’s Roomba i7+ is on the exact opposite spectrum of robot vacuums from the one I own. If the cheap robot I have is a Kia, the i7+ is the Cadillac of robot vacuums. It can map my entire house. It can be controlled by a voice assistant or from a smartphone app anywhere in the world. It can even empty its own bin. It also costs $949, which is five times more than the robot vacuum I purchased. iRobot also sells an i7 model that has identical cleaning capabilities but doesn’t come with the special automatic bin-emptying base for a couple hundred dollars less, but that’s a bit like buying a base model BMW.
The i7+ is definitely the future of robot vacuuming that’s available in the present. But there are still things I’d like to see improved.
The i7+ is an update to iRobot’s high-end Roomba 980 from three years ago. The 980 was capable of mapping a space and efficiently cleaning it, but it would discard the maps after each cleaning session and rebuild them from scratch every time. The i7+ upgrades this feature in a major way: it can now save the maps it creates and use them to improve its cleaning patterns. It also lets me name various rooms in my home so I can tell the vacuum to specifically clean a particular space and ignore others.
I can manage up to 10 different floor plans in Roomba’s app for iOS and Android, and I can control the vacuum via voice commands to Alexa, Google Assistant, or from the app itself. My home has three floors, and I can use the app to see each floor and what rooms are in it. If I place the robot on a different floor than its home base, it uses the various sensors and cameras on it to identify which floor it’s on automatically and load the appropriate maps. Sadly, it can’t yet climb the stairs to get to different floors; I still have to pick it up and carry it like a philistine.
Watching the i7+ clean a floor is a mesmerizing experience, and it’s wildly different from how a non-mapping vacuum gets the job done. Instead of just randomly crisscrossing the room until it runs out of steam, the i7+ follows a logistical and predictable pattern, almost like how a lawn care professional trims a field before a sporting event. It will clean an entire room before moving on to the next one, and if its battery runs low or its bin fills up before it’s finished, it will remember where it stopped and return to that spot when it’s recharged. It’s very satisfying to watch it do its job, and if you’re running a cleaning cycle, the predictability of it means you can safely move around the vacuum without really having to worry about getting in its way.
iRobot says it takes two to three cleaning runs for the i7+ to “learn” the room and produce a map, which is about what I saw in my testing. My main floor, which has three larger rooms in a mostly open plan, was mapped in two runs, while the upstairs floor with multiple bedrooms, bathrooms, and hallways took more runs to fully map. Once a floor is mapped, the app will attempt to identify specific rooms, but you can adjust the virtual boundaries and then name them after it’s tried to sort them out. From there, you can tell Alexa or Google Assistant to clean a specific room with voice commands. Should you move furniture or otherwise reconfigure a space, the i7+ will adjust its map the next time it runs a cleaning job and update its database.
iRobot claims these mapping abilities not only ensure the Roomba cleans the entire floor before giving up, but it also allows it to clean in a quicker, more efficient manner since it already knows what areas it has covered and what has yet to be done.
The app also has the usual scheduling options and battery-monitoring features. Unique to the i7+ are the reports after it has completed a job: it can tell me how many square feet it cleaned, how many “dirt events” there were, and how long it took to finish the job. It also shows me a map of all the areas it hit during the cleaning run.
But smart mapping isn’t the only luxury feature on the i7+, it also can automatically empty its own bin. The i7+ has a special charging base that sucks all of the dust and dirt out of the vacuum and puts it into a sealed disposable bag. The bag in the base holds 30 bins full of dirt, and you can purchase a three-pack of replacement bags for $14.99 when you’ve gone through the two that the iRobot comes with.
This system has two advantages over the standard way you empty a robot vacuum: it eliminates putting the dust back into the air when you knock the bin into the garbage can, and it means you only have to worry about emptying it every month or so, instead of every time it runs. Of course, the downside to this is that the base is much larger than a standard charging base, the bags are an added cost that you need to shoulder, and the process for sucking the dirt out of the vacuum is extremely loud.
That leads me into the shortcomings of the i7+. iRobot says the new vacuum is quieter than the 980 it replaces, but this is not a quiet vacuum. It’s considerably louder than the basic robot vacuum I’m familiar with, and the cleaning base sounds like a jet engine when it sucks the dirt out of the i7+. If you like to schedule your robot to run in the middle of the night when everyone is sleeping, you might find it to be too loud when cleaning and emptying. iRobot says the i7+ has 10 times the suction power of its base models, but the cost of all that power is more noise.
The i7+ also needs some light in the rooms where it’s running in order for its various cameras and sensors to work, so running it in a dark room overnight isn’t the most efficient way to use it.
And finally, though the i7+ got stuck far less often than my dumb robot in the months I’ve been testing it, it still has trouble with high-pile carpeting. The shag carpet runner in my upstairs hallway proved to be particularly difficult for the robot to figure out, and it got stuck on the carpet almost every time it ran over it, requiring a manual intervention and reset.
The i7+ is an impressive robot vacuum with unique features that you won’t find on lesser models. I don’t necessarily think it’s worth five times the cost of a standard vacuum, but once this technology trickles down to lower-end models, it will be very nice to have.
Now, if only robot vacuums could figure out a way to climb stairs.
Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge
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