TECHNOLOGY: Home robots have come a long way in 10 years
A DECADE after iRobot introduced its first Roomba vacuum cleaner, home robots not only sweep up dust but also clear gutters and cut grass. New designs launched this year have made the devices more useful than ever, but how do they compare with the traditional methods of getting the chores done?
1. Roomba 790
I have been fascinated with home robots since I first saw B-9, the robot in the 1960s TV series Lost in Space. Sadly, when the first real home robots arrived 30 years later they looked more like oversized pucks than the chunky B-9, whose extensible arms could pack a punch against an alien threat.
I learnt, however, to appreciate the smart design and functionality of iRobot’s first entries into the home utility robot market. These were the 2002’s Roomba floor sweeper and the Scooba floor washer, launched a few years later.
Since then iRobot, which also manufactures models for military and police use, has sold more than 5-million home devices.
The company has introduced a host of improvements this year and the top of the line Roomba 790, which I tested, features them all including software that adapts to the environment, a wireless remote control and cleaning on a schedule.
The product, which was launched in the UK in October is better than its predecessors at navigating around obstacles, clambering over doormats and disentangling itself from the tassels on our rugs.
The ability to programme the robot to clean the floor at night or when the house is empty will appeal, and the machine is quiet enough to make this feasible.
Criticised in the past for not doing a thorough job, iRobot claims its top model gets rid of 98% of dirt and debris, and is particularly suitable for homes with pets. As I am allergic to pet dander yet live with two dogs and too many cats to count, this is important to me.
I found the Roomba 790 did a good job of removing most of the pet hair on our hardwood floors, though some escaped into the corners, which means occasionally having to use a regular vacuum cleaner.
In my view, it is still best viewed as a complement to a traditional vacuum rather than a replacement. It is a "nice to have" rather than "must own".
2. Robomow RL2000 and LawnBott LB1200 Spyder
Many people hate mowing the lawn. For them, robot lawnmowers such as the Robomow RL2000 and LawnBott LB1200 Spyder Robotic Cordless Electric Lawn Mower can — for a price — make the job easier.
The Robomow costs $2,500, while the LawnBott — which claims to be the first that does not require the mowing area to be marked out with wire — costs $980.
Both machines run on rechargeable batteries and mow in a random pattern using circular blades that mulch the cuttings rather than blowing them into a bin. Provided the grass is not too long — and you accept the first pass will not be perfect — both do a reasonable job. But they will disappoint anyone looking for a striped lawn.
Robot mowers are utility machines, not horticultural artists. Given the price, it is hard to recommend them for any but the most devoted gadget fans.
3. Looj 330
iRobot’s Looj gutter robot is designed to undertake a potentially dangerous task that I have grown more concerned about as I get older. Clambering about on a roof 10m off the ground is not a good idea, so I am delighted to report that the latest version of iRobot’s Looj robot undertakes a dangerous and dirty task efficiently and safely.
Instead of reaching perilously along the roof, you can set the battery-operated device in the gutter and it will automatically scrape away leaves and dirt, flipping them out with its rotating rubber paddles. A remote control starts and retrieves the Looj from the end of the gutter once it is clean.
In my tests, a 10m length of badly clogged gutter took about seven minutes to clean. The Looj 330 costs $300 and, in my view, is well worth it.
Planet of the Apps
What it is: UpTo for Android (free)
Why you should try it: Sign up for UpTo and you should always know what’s coming up. Once set up, this free calendar app provides users with a personalised stream of upcoming events, including sporting events, music and movies. It can be synchronised with everything from Facebook and Google Calendar to Outlook. Users can share what they have scheduled with friends, family and colleagues, and, if they reciprocate, see what they have planned.
© 2012 The Financial Times Limited