I'll admit it—I was getting a bit worried about iRobot. Sure, the Massachusetts company remains synonymous with the robotic vacuum, but in the 13 years since the first Roomba was released, updates to the line have seemed largely iterative. All the while, a number of companies have tried their hand at the space the company pioneered, including consumer electronic heavy hitters like Samsung and LG.
In September of last year, Dyson tossed its brilliantly engineered hat in the ring, upping the ante with built-in Wi-Fi functionality, a feature now standard on cleaning 'bots by LG and Neato. It seemed like a major missed opportunity, as the rest of the electronics world moved toward such smart integration, iRobot focused its efforts more on refining its existing functionality.
But the company put our worries to rest last month by announcing the Roomba 980, a new 'bot with a slew of upgraded features, including longer battery life, smarter navigation (courtesy of an on-board camera), and, thankfully, Wi-Fi connectivity.
But, as per usual, that functionality comes with the equally grandiose price tag. Certainly iRobot has more experience and know-how than anyone else when it comes to building robotic vacuums, but with a price tag of a couple hundred dollars more than competing products like the Neato Botvac Connected Robot Vacuum, the question is whether the convenience of a smartphone-connected floor cleaning 'bot is worth an $899 price tag.
The 980 has retained most of the basic design elements from recent Roomba. The 'bot is still hockey-puck shaped, keeping roughly the same dimensions as the 880 at 13.9 inches in diameter by 3.6 inches in height, weighing in at a fractionally heavier 8.7 pounds.
iRobot's still given the device a subtle makeover. The glossy top now has a subtle gradient color, which classes up the joint a bit. The big silver Clean button, meanwhile, has shifted from the center to the edge to make way for a small camera, visible through a plate of transparent protective plastic.
The row of five thin buttons is gone completely, replaced by two small, round Home and Spot Cleaning buttons. Above these are a small handle for carrying the robot. It's smaller and subtler than the 880's, letting the user position a few fingers underneath, rather than gripping it with the full hand. Still, the positioning is perfect, with the weight correctly distributed to carry all eight pounds of robotic cleaning power with ease.
While the robot's navigation has been improved, the front is still dominated by one large bumper to cushion the Roomba's contact with walls around tight corners. On the top rear is a large release button for pulling off the vacuum's bin when full.
The bottom of the Roomba is largely unchanged. At the front is a swiveling wheel for direction changes and two metal contact points for charging. A three-armed slide brush is positioned on the right side for hitting corners and two debris-extracting rolls sit in the center between the primary rubber wheels.
Squeezing the pair of yellow tabs will open up the tray so the rolls can be removed and cleaned. Several generations of iteration have evolved the Roomba's undercarriage into a modular and easy-to-clean system. Yes, even our futuristic robotic cleaning appliances have to be cleaned themselves from time to time.
Getting the Roomba connected is a simple process. So naturally, it took me like seven tries. Anyone who's ever set up a connected home device like the Nest will find the whole process pretty familiar. Download the iRobot app, enter your Wi-Fi information, enable wireless on the Roomba, and connect to that network.
That last step is the one that kept tripping me up for reasons neither I nor iRobot could explain. The system just kept booting the robot offline. Persistence pays off. Or, actually, giving up, going to bed and then trying again the following morning pays off. Either way, I managed to get the whole thing up and running before tossing it out the window.
On the upside, the Roomba still works like normal without being connected to the app—but the Wi-Fi connectivity is far and away the most compelling aspect of this most recent upgrade.
A Smarter Roomba
The app element brings a lot of additional functionality to the table, though, as with the rest of the Roomba experience, the core is simplicity. The main page of the Roomba app is a big Clean button. Hit that and the robot goes to work. It's just as simple as that. The main screen also displays how long the Roomba has been cleaning and how much charge is left on the battery.
The app will also let you know when the bin is full and when the 'bot has experienced any show-stopping obstacles. And if you decide to end things prematurely, just tap clean again to automatically send the Roomba back to its charging dock. Otherwise the robot will just go back to charging on its own once it's done working.
A Cleaning Preferences page lets you determine whether the Roomba will take two cleaning passes (go around the room a second time to make sure it got everything), continue cleaning even when the bin is full, and do Edge cleans, going out of its way to locate and clean up against the edge of walls and furniture, where a good deal of dirt and dust can gather.
The Weekly Schedule page is pretty much what it sounds like, letting users schedule a cleaning seven days a week at intervals of 15 minutes. This might well be the most convenient feature of all for those who are slightly annoyed at having to dodge the Roomba when trying to go about their business. The app also logs past work, letting you know how many jobs it's done over how much time and total area cleaned. If you're so inclined, you can also go back and check out past jobs. It's important to make sure your robot servant isn't slacking.
There's even a feature that takes advantage of the Roomba's friendly chimes, emitting a tune from the 'bot with a tap to help you locate it—not exactly necessary in my small New York City apartment.
I do wish the app made it clearer how much of the room had been covered, rather than just counting up the time. Also, unlike the Neato 'bot, there's no manual control for spot cleaning. I spoke to an iRobot rep who told me they'd consider adding the feature if enough people asked for it. Who wouldn't want such a thing? Imagine the built-in camera offering up an image through the app, letting you drive the Roomba around remotely? That's the dream, right?
The Roomba's upgrades are, thankfully, more than just app-based. The cleaning has been improved, thanks to built-in camera, which helps give the robot a better visualization of the room or rooms it's cleaning, rather than just scrambling blindly across the room. That said, I do recommend enabling the two cleaning passes, because even with the improved cleaning functions, the bot did still miss some dirt the first go 'round.
Also new is the Carpet Boost feature, which ramps up the cleaning process when it's time to go over some carpeting. My apartment is all hardwood, but I tossed down a couple of rugs to try it out and it worked like a charm, kicking into gear like four-wheel drive when a different surface is detected. The cleaning volume ticks up a couple of notches as well.
As with past versions, there are also on-board sensors to make sure the robot doesn't drop down the stairs. The 980 also ships with a pair of Virtual Wall Barriers (plus batteries) to keep it from going too far astray. It's a nice touch given that they sell for $50 a pop (though for $900, you deserve a couple of nice touches).
Another extremely welcome addition is Recharge and Resume, which automatically sends the Roomba back to home base when the battery is low, picking up where it left off when it's re-upped. It's a great feature for users with large surface areas, but even those of us with cramped Queens apartments have had a Roomba give up the ghost halfway through the job.
The 980 is, without a doubt a best Roomba yet. Wi-Fi connectivity was the next logical step and iRobot embraced the technology with some really nice amenities that make this appliance of convenience that much more convenient. Scheduling is a big plus, as is remote monitoring. There's still some ways to go on the app front, like manual control, but so far so good.
And iRobot didn't just stop at connectivity. The company continues to work toward an effortless and seamless cleaning experience with features like room visualization and Recharge and Resume.
The Roomba 980 is quite possibly the greatest single evolution in the product's 13-year history. Even still, $900 is a lofty price tag for a robot that doesn't also do the dishes and fold the laundry. But if you have around $1,000 burning a hole in your pocket, you could do a lot worse.