Cleaning House With Roomba

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I'm using the Roomba, iRobot's robotic vacuum, to keep my house clean, and I have tons to say about it.

But first, a little background.

I'm a house husband. It was a commitment I made when I was in graduate school and Judy was working. Over the years I've learned to enjoy many of the domestic chores.

With Judy mostly retired now, we've started sharing some of the chores. It's clear we have different cleaning styles. For example, I prefer to wait until I can see the dog hair and dirt on the hardwood floors and then vacuum the entire house. Judy likes to pull out the broom and do the room when it needs it.

But we're both being replaced, at least when it comes to cleaning the floor.

The Almost Miraculous Robotic Vacuum

The Roomba is a robotic cleaner that zips around hardwood floors, tile, and low-nap carpeting, vacuuming up dirt. I've had a loaner for almost six months and I like it, though it isn't perfect.

There are five models, and the one I'm using is the iRobot Roomba Scheduler, which Costco sells for $260 (I've seen it for $175 online.

The Roomba is 13 inches in diameter and about 4 inches high, so it's low enough to get under most furniture. It's also noisy as all get out, at about 80 decibels. You'll want to be in another room while it's running.

As you might except, the Roomba is smart. It finds its way around a room, gently bumping off walls and furniture. It senses when it's about to topple off a ledge and turns in the other direction. When it detects a batch of dirt, it focuses on the area and then moves off to finish the room.

On one hand, the Roomba is truly a walk-away device. It's a pleasure to push the Power and Clean buttons, then leave the house, knowing that the job will be done--mostly. The Roomba is also cute, and fun to watch.

But there's the other hand...

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Nothing Is Perfect, not Even the Roomba

Okay, so now I have to warn you: The Roomba isn't miraculous.

You'll need a traditional vacuum cleaner for inhaling cobwebs and cleaning behind the chair cushions. The Roomba won't pick up goopy messes, and it can't reach pet hair in corners or behind furniture.

The Roomba is too big to get into small spaces. You have to move furniture, as you would with a traditional vacuum cleaner--and sometimes you'll just have to grab a broom

There are other trouble spots for Roomba. Take a look at a video (click on "Cleans Your Whole Floor") and note the white areas around the furniture legs and floor edges and corners.

The Roomba can't deal with tassels on throw rugs or stray USB cables on the floor--trust me, I know. You'll need to pick up cords and tuck tassels under the rug.

There's also the maintenance. A newer model has a light that lets you know when to empty the dust collector and clean the brushes. Mine doesn't warn me, so I do this after each use--if I don't, performance degrades.

The Roomba I'm trying out is supposed to dock itself when it's running low on power, and most of the time it does. Yes, that is cool, but unless its sensors are clean of dust and crud, the Roomba can't recharge. Clean the contacts every month and the problem's resolved.

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Battery Battles

Unless you live in a one-room apartment, don't except the Roomba to be able to vacuum your entire home in one session. For instance, I ran the Roomba in our family room for about 45 minutes, then it ran out of juice about 15 minutes after it started another room.

About five months, the battery wouldn't hold a charge, and the Roomba could run for only about 15 minutes at a time. There's a pretty simple fix, but the info isn't in the manual; you need to go to the Web site or call the toll-free tech support line.

I Want a Roomba

Despite its imperfections, I'm buying the model I have. If you're considering buying a Roomba, you've got work to do.

First, check out the various models and decide which fits your needs (and budget). You should start with the iRobot product comparison, then read what others who purchased the same model on had to say. Then browse the iRobot Customer Support forum, the Roomba Review, and owner reviews on the iRobot site.

DIY Fun With iRobot

Why do some people buy a Roomba but never use it to clean the floor?

Because they'd rather fiddle with what they say is an incredibly powerful and sophisticated robot. Take a look at Roomba Community, the premier spot for Roomba hacks; the forums on Robotic Hacking; and the iRobot Yahoogroup. It doesn't stop there. The Roomba Dev Tools site has dozens of hardware and software products for Roomba hacking.

But wait, I'm not through. (I know, I know, I'm running long.)

At CES, iRobot released its Create Programmable Robot so you can do all sorts of weird things around the house. Check a video on YouTube for ideas. For more details, read "IRobot Opens Roomba Interface, Laser Tag Ensues."

And if that's not enough, my colleague, Danny Allen, found a dirt cheap robotic vacuum at the CES show; read "Bargain Robotic Vacuum" for his report.

Steve Bass writes PC World's monthly "Hassle-Free PC" column and is the author of PC Annoyances, 2nd Edition: How to Fix the Most Annoying Things About Your Personal Computer, available from O'Reilly. He also writes PC World's daily Tips & Tweaks blog. Sign up to have Steve's newsletter e-mailed to you each week. Comments or questions? Send Steve e-mail.
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