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Can Neato's BotVac 85 Compete With the Tried-and-Tested Roomba?

Robot vacuums are pretty amazing -- but some are better than others.

Vjeran Pavic

A couple of weeks ago, I took in a new roommate. I’ll call her “Elaine.” Elaine is very clean, but she also grinds up against chair legs, hides under the bed, and occasionally chews on my laptop cable. Normal stuff, right?

It is if you’re talking about a vacuum cleaner. Elaine is what I named the newest robotic vacuum from Neato during testing. Called the BotVac 85, it has a longer brush and a larger dirt bin than some of its predecessors. It’s also expensive, costing $600.

If you happen to be in the market for a robot vacuum cleaner right now, you’re in luck, because there are at least a few options. In fact, my Re/code colleague Katie Boehret recently reviewed another new bot-vacuum, the $700 Roomba 880 from iRobot, and found it to be a worthwhile investment.

I’ve also tested an older model, the $700 Roomba 790. I named it Truman. (It is pretty much a rule that you have to name your robot vacuum like it’s a pet, FYI. Mine have been named after movies and TV shows.)

After testing Elaine the Neato BotVac 85 for more than a week, I’m intrigued by how it works, but still not convinced that it’s better than iRobot’s newer bots.

On one hand, the Neato BotVac 85 uses laser sensors to smartly survey its surroundings before taking off on a mission, and doesn’t often bump into things like a drunken little sailor the way the Roomba does. I’ve also run the BotVac four times, and haven’t had to empty the dustbin yet.

On the other hand, the Neato BotVac appeared to be less efficient overall than the Roomba, and it had trouble with household obstacles that the Roomba didn’t.

Disclaimer: I didn’t get to test the BotVac on a hardwood floor; I did, however, test it on a pretty standard cut-pile carpet and linoleum in my one-bedroom apartment. I also briefly tested it on a friend’s shag carpet, and the BotVac didn’t do very well.

And I don’t have pets, so I can’t attest to how well the BotVac cleans up fur over time — usually a big draw for pet owners. I do have long hair that apparently is “all over the place,” according to sources like my boyfriend. As part of my test, I commissioned the BotVac 85 to clean up hair — but more on that in a bit.

The Neato BotVac 85 is pretty retro-looking. It’s mostly white, and shaped like a giant Pac-Man ghost, with a teal-blue disc on top. There’s a Clean House button and a Spot Clean button. In the upper-right-hand corner of the vacuum there is a small display for setting up and scheduling the bot. It also shows alerts (“Clean my brushes,” for example).

Setting up the BotVac is easy; the company recommends charging it on its dock for at least 12 hours before giving it a first go.

The BotVac 85 doesn’t come with a remote control, something that comes in handy when you’re trying to dock the Roomba from another room, or you’re showing off for friends. But I didn’t miss the remote much.

But the BotVac does come with magnetic strips that act as boundaries after you lay them out on the floor. I much preferred this to the Roomba’s “virtual wall lighthouses,” which require batteries.

The Roomba and BotVac are shaped differently, and there are technical differences between these two bots. A Roomba uses a bunch of different infrared sensors underneath the body and on its “bumper” to create a path and react quickly when it bumps into something.

The BotVac has a laser array on top of it (not unlike the laser-array sensor on top of Google’s self-driving car prototypes) that spins around and scans an area to get a sense of where it’s going. When the BotVac first sets out, it takes several seconds to scan an area, like it’s puffing out its chest and getting ready for a brawl.

This BotVac also has a combination silicon-and-bristle brush, which the company claims is much quieter than other models on hardwoods, and again, is supposed to be excellent for picking up hair.

That’s all good news for Elaine the BotVac, but the actual cleaning experience was a different story. I scheduled the BotVac to clean on Monday and Wednesday nights at 8:15 pm, and ran it a couple other times, as well. It’s equally as loud as the Roomba — you wouldn’t want either running while you’re trying to watch a TV show — but it’s a little bit slower than the Roomba.

I also tested the Neato BotVac 85 using granola, hair from a hairbrush and bits of styrofoam. I sprinkled the same piles in the path of the Roomba.

Both picked up almost everything I put down, but the BotVac didn’t get all of the styrofoam. They also took different paths. Once it found a pile, Truman the Roomba would run over the same spot a few times, or, if it was spot cleaning, it would run in circles until it got it. Elaine the BotVac took a much more circuitous route, sometimes picking up some debris and circling back later to pick up more.

In most of my tests, the BotVac ran around for about an hour and a half before it started to dock itself. And it found its way home pretty quickly when its battery was getting low, which can sometimes take the Roomba several minutes. The BotVac display would say, “Cleaning suspended.” When it was recharged, it would fire up again and finish the job.

However, I found I had to “rescue” the Neato BotVac more frequently than I did the Roomba. It often got stuck on flat chair legs and under the entertainment console. I ended up using the magnetic strip to keep the BotVac away from the entertainment console, which worked for that area, but then the BotVac got sort of fixated on one obstacle-free corner of the kitchen and needed its path cleared about five times.

At the risk of sounding like the comedian Louis C.K, who famously ranted about the capabilities of smartphones and our insane expectations of them … I still think robot vacuums are pretty amazing. Some people say — and admittedly, I’ve said the same — that for $600 to $700, a robot vacuum should do it all.

In truth, it does not. You will likely need an additional vacuum at home. I mean, these things don’t fly, they’re not going to vacuum your curtains for you, and they’re not going to pick up after your kid. Even though most robot vacuums I’ve tested have a spot-clean option, I’ve found that it’s still easier to whip out the ol’ Dustbuster or Dyson for isolated piles.

The Neato BotVac 85 is not a bad bot by any means, but I personally would still go with a Roomba.

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