Cat with a Roomba VaccumIs your floor dirty, sticky, and downright disgusting? No time to vacuum? Then you’ll be elated to know that the new Roomba 500 series (510, 530, 560, 570, 580) actually sucks more (and supposedly scares pets less) than its predecessors. Its new and improved features offer greater time- and energy-saving benefits. Though the Roomba does require some maintenance, in my estimation, its dramatic improvements make the world’s most popular brand in vacuum robot cleaners a smart-life purchase.

Just recently, I purchased a new domicile that is 70% hardwood, 15% carpet, and 15% tile. Being at that point in my life where order from chaos marches closer and closer to a fully embraced ideology, I spent much of the first four months vacuuming with a brand-new Kenmore upright. One morning after chasing a moderately sized dust tumbleweed across the room, I realized that the battle against dust, dirt, grime, gunk, and related interlopers is not for the occasional cleaner: it’s an ongoing battle that must be waged on a daily (if not bi-daily) frequency lest all progress be lost and your life ruined by unsightly items of suspicious origin. So I enter my home command center (the den) and surf the net looking for a means to reduce my vacuuming time allotment while simultaneously increasing cleanliness, a difficult equation for even those studying applied mathematics at MIT, let alone for a math for poets guy. Since I fear purchasing something only to find a day, or week, or month later that I could’ve bought something better, or worse, shouldn’t have bought at all, I conduct extensive research. I find that the next-generation Roomba earns excellent user review ratings for its much-improved features, performance and cost-benefit, as compared to earlier models. So I take the plunge and type in the AMEX numbers.

Several days later, I receive the Roomba 510 model. It comes sooner than expected. When I see the box at my door I have a Rene Magritte (or for you modern art fans, Mark Rothko) moment: no idea what I’m looking at. Once I recall my order, I’m all but knocking my door open with my shoulder so I can it operational. The box is compact and the packing well done so I don’t have to waste my time returning damaged mail-order. (Truly, what could be worse?) Once I find the directions, I carefully read them, which are straight and simple. I then plug the Roomba in for its initial battery charging.

The following morning I’m up early. I place the Roomba on the floor to watch and see if this thing lives up to the billing. I tap the “on” button…and then again…and it begins a very unique whir (to some annoying, but to me a welcome symphony I call “Etude in C: Work I’m Not Doing”). It circles a few times to begin its algorithmic-computed comprehension of the room. Once done circling it begins to move in a straight line until it approaches an obstacle and slows for impact. The Roomba “senses” proximity and changes direction once contact is made and the front section gives, promptly sending the Roomba in a new direction.

At first, I’m very skeptical that this will actually cover the space as well as Roomba’s on-line propaganda claims. How, I ask, is it possible for this object moving in a seemingly unstructured and random pattern possibly going to vacuum every inch? Well, I sit there and watch this damn thing for quite some time (a duration I’ll not admit to) and it does what it promises. It covers every inch (sometimes several times) and intuitively recognizes walls, corners, thresholds and other challenges and alters its agenda to match the situation. A small star of brushes attached to the bottom front spins at a high-speed to gather little pieces just outside the reach to the main body. I see things lodged against the baseboard, and just when I think it will miss something, it gets it. If it does miss it, the suction monster somehow comes around later and snags it. The Roomba also goes under my sofa by slightly bending the skirt and then works its magic hidden from view until it resurfaces either out the front or one of the sides. I hadn’t thought about it getting under furniture but I’m here to tell you it does.

After about an hour of vacuuming, it quits. You’ll find that after several uses, sometimes it stops in a good place and sometimes in not such a good place. If you can’t find it, look under the piece of furniture that will pose you the most trouble to get under and there it will be. Fortunately, the 100 times I’ve run this thing, 85 of those times it stopped in an easy to find spot. For those of you who lack interest in the Where in the World is My Roomba Safari Adventure, I’d recommend the upgraded model; it has several additional features including schedule programming as well as an internal sensor that allows the Roomba to know when it’s running low on juice, prompting it to navigate itself back to its charger. For me, this was an unnecessary feature so I’m completely fine with tracking the Roomba down and plugging it in for its recharge.

So how does it vacuum? Well, I’m perpetually amazed that no matter how many times I run this thing over a given day it ALWAYS comes up with something. It grabs the dust, hair, debris and other items and sweeps them into a fair sized collection bin. Although the collection bin is bagless, it does not collect enough unwanted material to be a pain. While the Roomba is fantastic for relieving you from manually vacuuming every day, it’s not a complete replacement for more tradition sweeping. The suction produced by the whining electric motor is nothing in the realm of even the least anemic upright or canister vacuum but enough to cover light to moderate needs. Despite the limitations of its size and capability, it does a surprisingly good job. Once it completes its cycle, I merely haul the Roomba to the closet where the Kenmore vacuum is ignited and the hose attachment with the aardvark nose piece is employed to clean the bin and small filter (the filter catches most of the dust and hair). After 30 seconds of that vacuuming the vacuum, the Roomba is clean and I reinsert the bin into the body and plug it back in. It generally takes just an hour or two for a pretty good recharge.

This YouTube video, produced by, demonstrates how the Roomba works.

The Roomba is wonderful but it is not a panacea, and you should be aware that it does have certain limitations. For example, it doesn’t clean super deep on shag carpet and only does a fair job on occasional rugs. It’ll get caught on bath mats and, although it uses an anti-tangle mode to deal with the multitude of cell phone, blackberry, USB, and other power cords, from time-to-time it’ll get stuck on these items and shut down. It’s fascinating and almost life-like when it does get stuck as it will buck, turn, and gyrate and flail until it frees itself from the situation. It rarely gets stuck and in terms of starting it and not having to supervise it, I give it an excellent rating.

Another downside is that, like all appliances, this needs some care. The vacuum brushes spin at high speed that can be retarded by hair and carpet fibers that get wrapped around the internal ends. To deal with this, I clean it after every tenth to twelfth outing with a pair of needle nose pliers.

The other issue is the front-side brush arms that articulate at high-speed to snag stuff. While a great idea and very effective, the rubber design is extremely flawed as the arms will break off and end up being acquired by the dust bin. I’ve tried reattaching them but it is merely a stop-gap as they will fall off again (trust me). Perhaps this is not a design flaw but an engineered lifespan that represents a revenue generating endeavor for iRobot, the parent company of Roomba. I see a secondary market for someone who manufactures a better corner and wall sweeping arm (someone owes me dinner or a shout-out on Donny Deutsch for this one).

In the end, I highly recommend the Roomba in any of its many permutations (510, 530, 560, 570, 580). It does a great job of cleaning but be advised you’ll have a little bit of maintenance. Now that you are educated on the efficacy and deficiencies of this modern marvel, I implore you to get out your credit card and make your life easier and enjoy the free (and simple) entertainment of this great product.

Image credit: Eirik Newth / Flickr