Eletiofe This Lower-Cost Roomba Needs Some Navigation Help

This Lower-Cost Roomba Needs Some Navigation Help

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When I first started reviewing robot vacuums, iRobot’s Roomba series was so far ahead of the pack it seemed impossible that any other company could catch up.

They were incredible, with pinpoint navigation and standout features like Dirt Detect, which lets the vacuums sniff out dirty spots on your carpet with unnerving accuracy. Not to mention proprietary rubber rollers that were 1,000 times less gross than any other carpet roller. Once iRobot introduced a self-emptying bin, it was game over.

I was excited to review the Roomba i3+, a more affordable incarnation of our top-of-the-line pick. But over the years, other robot vacuums have improved exponentially. This one now seems obsolete. It lacks features even midrange vacuums have, like mapping capabilities. And its navigation software is behind the times too. It has iRobot’s Reactive Sensor navigation tech but nevertheless kept tripping up. I’ve had to rescue it multiple times over the two weeks I’ve been testing it—it even fell off my kitchen step. Watching the i3+ tip over the edge was my version of standing on the deck of the Titanic as it sank.

Tower of Power

Photograph: Roomba

Like earlier models, the Roomba i3+ has the 19-inch-tall Clean Base tower to empty the bin automatically. You won’t be able to hide it discreetly under a couch. The vacuum itself is also big, beefy disc (3.63 inches tall and about 7.5 pounds), but I like heavier vacuums, because they help apply pressure when vacuuming dirty rugs.

Pairing the i3+ (or Rainbow Kitty, as my daughter named it and as it shall henceforth be known) to the iRobot app is easy. You can also connect it to Google Assistant or Alexa. The app is clutter-free and easy to use, and the customizations are pretty simple. Set a schedule and choose how many cleaning passes to make—one, two, or automatic cleaning—or whether to pause the cleaning to empty the bin.

You can set how many passes the vacuum will make, but you can’t change the setting. For example, you can’t switch from an Eco energy-saving setting when you’re doing a daily clean to a Max setting for when the kids have been crafting all day. The software is so much simpler than what I’ve slowly become accustomed to.

And that’s all you can do. I had to double-check to make sure there were no mapping capabilities. Making a map of your house to set virtual boundaries and designate specific areas for cleaning was once a highly vaunted feature. It’s now in many midrange vacuums though, so setting up tiny, expensive virtual wall barriers to protect the inside of my messy closet feels like a step backward.

Roller Derby

None of this is to say that even a basic iRobot vacuum isn’t great. Rainbow Kitty has a run time of about 100 minutes, which is decent, and I measured the volume at a little over 60 decibels, which is quieter than most robot vacuums (I still wouldn’t run it while I was in a virtual meeting). It’s heavy and powerful enough to be one of the few robot vacuums leaving detailed ridges on my carpets as it cleans, almost exactly like my Dyson push vacuum.

Dirt Detect is as astounding as ever. One morning, I watched as the i3+ did orderly rows back and forth precisely over my living room carpet, thinking, “What witchery is this?” Trouble spots like our entryway and under my kid’s seats at the kitchen table were clear.

Rainbow Kitty also has iRobot’s distinctive green rubber carpet rollers. My daughter and I both have longish hair, which regularly gets snarled around the roller and side brushes on most vacuums. Slicing through hair rat kings with a pocket knife is one of the worst parts of vacuum maintenance, but iRobot’s rollers are squishy and don’t have bristles. It’s easy to slide hair off them without a bunch of grimacing, detangling, and cutting.

Also, I highly, highly recommend automatic bin disposal. I have two children of my own, four children every other day, a large dog that sheds, and two adults, all in a smallish 1,000-square-foot house. We are messy. It took about two longer runs for Rainbow Kitty to familiarize itself with the layout of my house, and then each cleaning run took 45 minutes. In that time, Rainbow Kitty usually empties the bin twice. After the weekend, it usually empties the bin within the first 10 minutes.

Without a bin sensor and bin disposal, your robot vacuum would just be dragging dust balls stuffed in the entry chute from one part of your house to the other. I run robot vacuums during the day because it’s my job. I can check my watch, leap up from my computer, and empty a robot vacuum bin at a moment’s notice. Not everyone has that ability.

Map Quest

Photograph: Roomba

Still, the whole point of buying a robot vacuum is that the cleaning process is automated. Rainbow Kitty had a hard time getting around. Over the course of two weeks, I had to rescue it almost every other day. It got stuck on some electric cords under my kitchen cabinets, which no robot vacuum has done for over a year (there are some robot vacuums that can even identify cords!).

The cliff sensors seem miscalibrated. It fell off my kitchen step, and it kept mistaking the edge of the carpet in my children’s room for a dangerous cliff. And yes, you do have to do some rudimentary picking up around the house before you run any robot vacuum. But as I dug yet another fist-sized Lego chunk out of a stranded Rainbow Kitty’s innards, I thought, “For $600, don’t we have the right to expect a little more than this?”

I think you do. If I were purchasing my own, I might grit my teeth and shell out for the i7+’s, or even the S9+’s, superior navigational abilities. If the i3+’s price is too much to stomach at once, you can also buy the components separately—for example, buy the robot vacuum now and then the cleaning tower later. I do think automatic disposal is worth the higher cost. But as it can’t seem to make a run without help, Rainbow Kitty is a little annoying.

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