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Review: Roomba 880, where have you been all my life?

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A robot vacuum may not be a necessity, but it sure is a nice luxury to have.

roomba880

THE GOOD: An excellent complement to a manual vacuum.
THE BAD: High price tag and a lack of explanation for shut-downs.
RATING: A A A A

I have to admit that I’ve wanted a Roomba for a long time, but two things have generally held me back: the cost, and the fact that iRobot’s lower-end vacuums haven’t had HEPA-certified filters.

The cheapest Roomba currently available in Canada, for example, is the 650 model, which sells for around $479. For that price, you can get a decent HEPA-certified Dyson, otherwise known as the Cadillac of vacuums. HEPA, or a high-efficiency particulate air filter, is important for anyone with pets because it better picks up their tiny hairs. With three cats running around, it’s a definite must for me.

The dilemma has therefore always been about whether I wanted to pay a lot for an under-performing vacuum that wouldn’t really do the job I needed it to, or whether I wanted to pay even more for one that actually did.

I was pretty excited, then, to try out iRobot’s top-of-the-line vacuum, the Roomba 880, which has a HEPA filter. After years of writing about iRobot products and even having driven one of the company’s military PackBots, I figured it was about time to check one of these things out for myself.

At the risk of overstating it, I found the experience life-changing – so much so that I’m happily going to shell out the whopping $799 for the 880 ($699 in the U.S.). I don’t think I can go back to having just a manual vacuum again.

Set-up is as easy as it should be for any tech product: you simply pull the robot out of its box, pull out the battery-protecting tabs and set it down on its charging base. A few hours later, all you have to do is press the big round “start” button and it’s off.

The Roomba is a curious device. It builds a map of the room it’s in and motors around it a few times, with no apparent rhyme nor reason to its movements. I watched it for a while to try and discern a pattern, but nope, it seems to go wherever looks good next. It takes about half an hour or so to clean a mid-sized room, at which point it heads back to its station for a recharge.

Speaking of the cats, they’ve found no shortage of fascination with the thing. Our guys seem to teeter between intense curiosity and screaming fear. Not surprisingly, there’s a whole cottage industry of cat-meets-Roomba videos out there.

I’ve read many reviews over the years that have found the Roomba to do an inferior job to regular manual vacuums, and that’s completely understandable. There’s no doubt a human can do a better job as we can often see where dirt has accumulated, and we can get into corners better. The 880 has a spinning brush that combs those corners and kicks the dirt out to where it can be reached, but it’s still not as accurate as it could be.

Such criticisms miss the point of a robot. While the Roomba certainly isn’t going to do as good a job as its human master, it does do a job so that you don’t have to – and it can do it a lot.

The 880 can be easily programmed to clean daily, which is fantastic for anyone who owns pets or mess-making children. No one wants to vacuum every day, which is why it’s great to be able to offload that task to a machine.

Seeing is ultimately believing, so here’s a photo of what the 880 picked up in one room. This is two days after its previous clean in the same area:

roomba-crud

It’s incredible to think this much crud materializes on my floors in that short a time, and that if it wasn’t for the robot, my wife and I would be breathing it in.

The value of the Roomba thus becomes apparent every time I run it: it’s not necessarily a manual vacuum replacement, but it is a fantastic complement to it.

My wife and I generally vacuum once a week; having the Roomba pitch in every couple of days helps with that immensely. Our floors don’t just look and feel cleaner, we know they are every time we empty it.

Having said all that, the Roomba isn’t without its flaws. Despite being a very sophisticated and smart machine, it can be really dumb at times. I’ve watched it get stuck under chairs several times, circling and banging around the legs in a vain attempt to find a way out. I usually put my chairs up on a table now to keep the poor thing from getting lost in an infinite loop.

I’ve also found that it frequently shuts down in the middle of a job, leaving me to wonder what happened. Part of this might actually be my fault (or our cats’ fault, to be more specific), since the Roomba – according to various support fora – can turn off when its bin is full. That’s my guess, anyway; it would be nice if the machine could give some indication as to why it had to stop.

The price tag is still pretty steep, which is the only thing that keeps me from giving the Roomba 880 top marks. Then again, while a manual vacuum is probably still the right choice of necessity, a robot is one of those luxuries that’s quickly becoming a must-have.

I’m glad I got the chance to test it out, because I’m not going to hesitate to buy one now. I, for one, welcome my robot vacuum overlord.

iRobot supplied a loan unit for the purposes of this review.

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