Most robot vacuums kinda suck. But Neato manages to make one that's better than most — but still has its own room for improvement.
Robot vacuums are, with few exceptions, expensive toys that occasionally clean things about as well as asking a 7-year-old to run a regular vacuum. Many of them have obstacle-avoidance issues that cause them to crash into everything, and you basically have to pre-clean your floors of most things that aren't dust bunnies to avoid clogging or property damage. The ultimate goal of these machines is to run unsupervised, with enough intelligence built in to avoid obstacles and keep from trying to suck up a stray sock.
Unfortunately, few of these pricey little robots have reached that point.
Neato is one company that has been working on robot vacuums for a while now, and the company thinks their latest version is smart enough that you can confidently start a cleaning session from your phone even when you aren't at home. It's called the Neato Botvac Connected, and while it's not without flaws this little robot is one of the better automated cleaning systems available today.
Botvac Connected is smart and connected, but it could still be smarter. And better-connected.
The cleaning bits of the Botvac are fairly simple. There's a single rotating brush with rubber fins to throw everything to the suction tube, passing everything it sucks up into the tiny dirt trap. A small set of bristles on the right side of the robot stick out just far enough to sweep things from under places the robot head can't reach, and that's about it. A pair of wheels in the middle of this design raise and lower to handle moving over separators in door frames, with just enough tread to climb over things like rugs with raised corners or the occasional book on the floor. The rest of this robot is the stuff that makes it run automatically, the display and sensors on the top and a pair of charging pins on the back that line up with the charger dock you leave on the floor.
Once Botvac is set up physically, you pair it to your phone and connect it to Wifi. By making this connection, you gain the ability to initiate a clean from wherever you are, set up scheduled times for cleaning, or jump into a manual mode where you drive the robot with your phone as though you're holding a controller. Manual mode suffers from a slight delay between tapping something on the screen and seeing the instruction happen on the robot, but if you're unable to move and need to vacuum something in a specific area, this mode gets the job done. everything else you do with the Botvac Connected happens through the automated cleaning system, where Neato's smarts map out the house and clean everything the robot can reach.
This new Botvac does a decent job mapping rooms and dodging obstacles to clean things. If you are standing in the room, Botvac won't just run into you. It'll clean around you, and if you're not there when it makes another pass through that part of the room, it'll clean where you were standing. This logic is great for most things, but less great for cat trees that are the same color as your carpet. On several occasions, the Botvac we tested would use its raised wheels to try to clean up and over the base of the cat tree instead of skipping it when appropriate. Still, Neato's object detection is better than most and carries over to things like wheel tangles and sucking up more than can be handled by this little vacuum. On several occasions we tried to trip up the vacuum with power cords wrapped around the wheel, and in every case the system was smart enough to detect resistance and back up to avoid any serious issues.
A pretty smart system for avoidance, but it still tends to eat things it shouldn't.
Where this vacuum didn't fare so well was when it sucked up something it shouldn't, which in this house usually meant socks. Botvac tries with limited success to regurgitate when it eats something it shouldn't, but most of the time we're left with a message on the display that asks to clean the brush so cleaning can continue. In fact, Botvac frequently will throw messages to your phone and on the display that try to tug at your heart a little. Things like "I'm finished cleaning" and "Please put me down" are small but personal, and quickly create a mild emotional attachment if you've got children around to read the messages. Even the way it wiggles itself back onto the charging dock is almost like watching a pet curl up on a blanket. It's a nice touch, but also highlights how much supervision this vacuum needs on a fairly regular basis. Pre-cleaning is still an important part of using a robot vacuum, which is a problem when the system is designed to be started when no one is around to do so.
The biggest problem with the Botvac Connected is that it isn't connected enough. You have an app on your phone to start cleaning, but that's basically it. You don't get to see the map of the house Botvac has made, you can't schedule out specific parts of that map to be cleaned on different days, and there's nothing in the experience that makes the phone feel like it's adding much. Neato has the ability to empower the user with this vacuum, and instead offered up little more than an on/off switch to a robot that's only slightly more impressive than the previous model. It's the start of a cool idea, and hopefully it gets better over time thanks to the ability to do things through the app. In the mean time, Neato's Botvac Connected is a strangely cute robot servant that you have to keep an eye on so it doesn't accidentally eat something dangerous and die.
As a vacuum, $700 is far too much for what you get. As a robot that will most of the time keep your floor clean without needing a lot of maintenance, $700 is a great price if you've got the cash to spend.