We spent a week lazing around while the new iRobot Roomba 650 tirelessly cleaned our house. The model we reviewed falls into the mid-range of robot vacuum technology; low-end models from competitors can be had for less than $100, while high-end units from iRobot and others can approach $1,000; our review unit comes in at $399, although very similar 630 is available for $349. Most robot vacuums have the same basic design: a low-slung floor creeper with top-mounted controls, a spinning corner brush, rotating bar brushes, and a dirt bin. Where they can differ significantly is in the on-board software that controls the robot’s behavior. Every robot vacuum uses some combination of smart room-mapping, wall-running, spiral patterns, and random directions to get its job done, and figuring out the right combination of these behaviors to get the best performance is each manufacturer’s secret sauce. iRobot’s been at this for awhile, and it shows in how well the Roomba 650 does its job. Not that it affects our score, but it’s pretty entertaining to watch the little guy work, too.
In the box
Most of the spartan packaging is taken up by the robot vacuum itself: a thick disk with top-mounted controls and carry handle. Drive wheels, a pair of floor-cleaning brushes, and a corner-cleaning rotary brush hang from the bottom. We appreciated the sleek all-black styling with a thin yellow ring around the controls; a much more subtle look than some other models. Beyond the Roomba 650 itself, the box includes a replacement filter, a cleaning tool, and a charger that can be plugged directly into the vac or into the included drive-on charging dock.
Rounding out the package is a virtual wall accessory that runs on a pair of C-cells; it’s used to project an invisible “Keep Out” line over areas you don’t want the Roomba to enter. Small infrared beacons protrude from the top of the vacuum, virtual wall and dock to help the ‘bot locate them, and the virtual wall’s beacon doubles as a remote on/off switch. The virtual walls included with older Roomba models projected constantly when turned on, burning through batteries quickly. New models (like the one included with the 650) turn on automatically when they detect infrared signals from a nearby Roomba and shut down when no longer needed, so the hard power switch is really only necessary for extended storage. Once the batteries are installed in the virtual wall and the shipping tape removed from the robot’s body and battery, it’s ready to rock.
The controls on 600-series Roombas are pretty basic. A large Clean button on top is used to kick off the fun; it lights up green, yellow or red to indicate charge and ready status. The Clean button is flanked by Dock and Spot-clean buttons. The Dock button tells the ‘bot to go find and mount the included charging dock (an amusing little dance to watch), while the Spot button makes it run a tight deep-cleaning circle around the vacuum’s current location. The higher-end 650 model also includes scheduler buttons and a date/time display to allow for basic delayed operation.The scheduler and the black top-plate seem to be the only differences between the Roomba 630 and 650 models, so if you don’t mind hitting Clean yourself on a silver-topped vac, you can save a bit of cash with a lower-end 630 ‘bot. An optional remote control is also available, for the truly lazy.
How’d it do?
We first turned the Roomba loose in a bedroom. While it had been vacuumed just the week before our test, the Roomba’s dirt bin was totally packed when it was done, because it did such a stellar job cleaning neglected areas. If, like most of us, you’re not OCD enough to regularly vacuum under the bed, you’ll be shocked and awed by how much crud the Roomba can pick up down there (and everywhere else it goes, really). The cheery little vac ran for about 45 minutes in a sparsely furnished 16×20 bedroom before calling it done and returning home; its maximum run time between charges is around an hour.
You’ll be shocked and awed by how much crud the Roomba can pick up under your bed.
The 600-series really needs to be confined to individual rooms to do its best work. The more expensive 700-series offers room-defining beacons that help guide its work. They can work a cleaning pattern around the beacon before moving on to the next room. If not boxed in with physical barriers or virtual walls, a 600-series ‘bot will just bumble around from room to room, providing only mediocre cleaning coverage. It doesn’t seem to have any problems navigating most flooring transitions; the drive system wheels are fairly tall with a spring-loaded suspension that helps significantly. The only trouble we had with flooring was when Roomba encountered tall rugs (thick bath mats and padded area rugs): the suspension had no trouble climbing up, but the bump sensor would send it careening off in another direction most of the time.
The Roomba 630 and 650 include a few high-tech cleaning features. Dirt-Detect is an ultrasonic sensor in the vacuum path that can detect excessive dirt and dust in nasty areas, signaling the ‘bot to spiral around the problem area in a more concentrated pattern before moving on (the 700-series Roombas replace this with a more sophisticated optical sensor). The now-standard AeroVac bin that provides strong suction and excellent dirt containment was a pricey upgrade for previous Roombas.
Roombas have gotten increasingly smart over the years when it comes to freeing themselves from the various robot traps around your home without assistance. The earliest models had basic cliff sensors and obstacle detection that discouraged them from taking a header down the stairs or acting like a battering ram to your furniture and lower appendages, but would easily get hung up and kill the battery by endlessly trying to escape. Those sensors have been refined and augmented over the years with smarter software, to a point where the new 600-series Roomba is the most self-sufficient yet.
It can pretty reliably free itself from cords, strings and rug fringe by automatically reversing the brushes and backing up when they get stuck. Bump sensors help keep it out of trouble by rotating away from objects that can trap it. Even with all those smarts, though, we still managed to find a few places that got our unit stuck to a point where it needed help to get back to work (it will stop and plays an “uh-oh” sound, sometimes accompanied by a voice prompt of what the problem was).
Carpet-edged cliffs like stair edges and sunken living rooms were our biggest problem; the cliff sensor was fooled into thinking the carpeted edge was solid, so it would ride too close, drop a drive wheel off the edge, and get stuck. We never had issues with the unit taking a tumble, but there were a couple of rooms with long carpeted cliff-edges that just had to be off-limits, because it would repeatedly get stuck on them. Cordoning off trouble rooms was a good use for the included virtual wall accessory; it automatically turns on when it detects the Roomba working nearby and throws an invisible beam that tells the ‘bot to avoid crossing it. We could’ve used a couple more of them (they’re available for about $40, and a circular version is available to keep Roomba away from things like pet food).
Even with all those smarts, we still found a few places that got our unit stuck to the point it needed help.
Since our house was so spread out, we found it best to lock the vac in one area with a virtual wall, set the scheduler for midnight, then empty the bin and move it to a different room each day. Depending on how big your home is, investing in an extra $40 dock or two might not be a bad idea (so it can charge each night without the need to haul the dock around from room to room). We only encountered one problem on the overnight cleanings: a low clearance toe-kick under the kitchen cabinets. It was just tall enough for Roomba to get wedged underneath (and gouge the crap out of its plastic top trying to escape). To its credit, it eventually gave up and shut down, instead of running down its battery by constantly trying to work free.
Is Roomba a Good Roommate?
A good roommate shouldn’t be too loud or too messy, and one that helps clean up is indeed a rare find. Roomba gets the nod on all counts. We had no trouble carrying on a conversation or hearing the TV while the Roomba was doing its thing in a carpeted room. It is significantly louder, however, when cleaning hardwood, stone or tile; both the vacuum and drive system can border on the obnoxious while cleaning hard surfaces (especially if you have downstairs neighbors). Roomba also likes to sleep in: the full recharge time for 30-45 minutes of cleaning can exceed six hours. On the plus side, it earns its keep as an excellent pet-sitter/babysitter, at least for those carpet-dwellers that aren’t terrified of it.
Roomba requires a fair bit of care and feeding; it’s definitely not a “set it and forget it” appliance. Depending on its cleaning area and how much scuz lands on your floors, you may find yourself emptying the dirt bin anywhere from once a week to every day. It’s a pretty easy two-step process, and the improved AeroVac bin on the 600-series is much cleaner to deal with over older bin designs, which suffered from a problem amusingly referred to as “Roombarf” by the Roomba community. There’s also a small filter in the dirt bin that needs to be tapped clean when emptying; it should be replaced every few months (depending on use).
iRobot kindly includes a brush cleaning tool that resembles a letter opener (including a small protected blade). If your floors see a lot of long hair, you’ll become intimately familiar with it, because like all brush vacuums, hair will become wrapped around the brushes and decrease their effectiveness very quickly. Luckily, removing the brush bars is a very simple and tool-less operation; we found the need to clean the brushes a couple of times during our testing (full disclosure: our test house has two very long-haired inhabitants).
Unless you happen to live in a padded cell, Roomba’s plastic body won’t stay pristine for long. Our review unit looked like it had been through the war after just a few days, with dings, nicks and scrapes all over. These issues are purely cosmetic, though; the Roomba seems quite solidly built, and most parts are designed for easy replacement, should the need arise.
We do wish the battery warranty was little more generous; the meager 6-month coverage on the included battery makes it seem like iRobot doesn’t have a lot of confidence in its longevity. There’s also no battery meter. The Roomba will try to find its home base when it needs a charge, but especially when it’s being toted all over the house, the lack of battery charge status makes it hard to know if it’s going to die mid-job or not.
Unless you’ve got a really small place with a lot of open floor space, you’re probably not going to get by with a Roomba as your only vacuum. But, it does do an excellent job of keeping high-traffic areas tidier between vacuuming, especially with small children or pets doing their best to keep it busy. And, it’s just so damn chipper about its mundane job, we had a really hard time saying goodbye. We think the new Roomba 600-series makes a good addition to your floor cleaning arsenal, as long as your expectations are reasonable.
- Cleans rooms while you sleep
- Powerful suction
- Easy to empty and maintain
- Navigates most surfaces and transitions without incident
- Long charge times
- No battery meter on unit
- Only works well in clearly defined spaces