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iRobot's Newest Vacuum Hungers for Hair

Finally, a robotic vacuum that works as hard as a high-end upright.

iRobot Corp.

If you’re lucky enough to have a robot cleaning your floors, you should have better things to do than sit around watching it. Yet that’s just what I did over the past week, as I was lulled into a tidiness trance watching the Roomba 880.

This is iRobot’s newest robotic vacuum cleaner, the eighth since the first Roomba debuted in 2002. Back then, when I tested it, the robot inadvertently locked me out of my office by nudging my doorstop out of the way, leaving me stuck outside while it kept vacuuming.

This time I had better luck all around.

It’s worth noting that the Roomba 880 costs $700, which is steep even for iRobot’s messiest, laziest clientele. Yet high-end vacuum cleaners, like Dysons, can cost the same amount, and won’t include a robot who does the the dirty work for you. I happen to own a Dyson, so I have a high bar for vacuum cleaners. My past experience with Roombas, and feedback from friends who own them, led me to believe that these disc-shaped dynamos have a trade-off: They automatically vacuum the house for you, but they don’t work quite as well as an upright vacuum.

The Roomba 880 changes that.

Its new technology, called AeroForce, is designed to suck up 50 percent more dirt, dust, hair and debris. After tests in my office and home, including on wall-to-wall carpeting, hardwood floors, area rugs and a shag carpet, I was convinced that the Roomba 880 did a better job than I do with my Dyson.

And, unlike me, this Roomba won’t be too busy with other distractions to vacuum. It can be set to clean at specific times every day, automatically turning on and exiting its charging dock to clean, then returning to the dock when it’s done. I set mine to clean at 6 am on Saturdays, and, while it worked, it also startled me.

This Roomba uses AeroForce extractors, which are two tread-covered rubber cylinders positioned beside one another on the underbelly of the vacuum. They eliminate the use of vacuum bristles, instead sucking up hair and breaking it down, so strands don’t get stuck like they would on bristle brushes. This concept is a huge boon for people with long hair, like me, or people who have pets that shed. We’re usually forced to stop vacuuming and clean out bristles, yanking on hair or even cutting it out with scissors. It’s gross.

Despite these hair-free claims, I found that the Roomba 880’s extractors still got wrapped up in some of my longer hair, though this didn’t seem to slow down its productivity. And the extractors’ rubber design made it a cinch for me to snip the hair and pull it off in one step, versus the icky routine of cleaning out bristle brushes.

In iRobot’s defense, the hair entanglement occurred during the Roomba’s first pass of my bedroom, which was a lot dirtier than I thought, though I had vacuumed it with my Dyson less than two weeks earlier. The owner’s manual talks about a conditioning process, meaning that the Roomba’s system fills up very fast on the first use, because it cleans the floor so thoroughly. When I opened the dirt bin and looked at the Roomba’s filter, it was covered in dust and dirt, which prevents air flow. If air flow is starved, hair will wrap around the round extractors, because nothing is pulling it off.

Cleaning one large room could take the Roomba as long as an hour, but if you have guests arriving and want to do a fast pass of an area, you can set this robot to spot clean. I tested this all over my house, placing Roomba in notably dirty areas and pressing its circular Clean button once, then tapping the button labeled Spot.

In this spot-cleaning mode, the Roomba’s cleaning pattern develops in a circular motion, moving out from the center. This was the ’bot’s default method for all cleaning until 2011, when iRobot replaced this pattern with what they call “persistent path,” or straight lines across the floor, where possible. On a carpet, the result of this looks like a chambermaid has vacuumed, leaving neat parallel lines across the floor.

One of the coolest features of the Roomba 880 is its ability to sense the edges of carpets. In my home, this was particularly helpful, because it could tell where area rugs ended and hardwood floors began. Instead of getting stuck on the edges of the area rugs, the Roomba scooted along with ease and even moved back and forth over these edges, as one might with an upright vacuum.

In heavily trafficked areas, like the entryway, the Roomba sensed more dirt and hung out longer, repeatedly passing over the same surface to suck up every last crumb. This is indicated by a blue Dirt Detection light on the top of the robot.

Another new feature of the Roomba 880 is its bin, which is 60 percent larger than its predecessor’s, meaning you can go longer before emptying it — though initial cleans during the conditioning process are the exception to this rule.

Depending on how dirty your house is, the Roomba’s battery could slow you down: It lasts for about 75 minutes on one full charge. This may seem like a lot, but if you have an extra large room that takes this robot an hour to clean, you’ll only have 15 minutes left for it to work on another area.

Two accessories, called Virtual Wall Lighthouses, come with the Roomba 880; extras cost $39 each. These are battery-powered and, when set to Virtual Wall mode and placed in a doorway, limit your robotic vacuum to just that space. In Lighthouse mode, they restrict the Roomba to one room until it’s finished, then let it into the next room to continue.

I can’t justify spending $700 on a robotic vacuum when I already own a Dyson. But if you put off vacuuming as often as I do, the Roomba 880’s thorough and scheduled cleans will be worthwhile.

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