The dream of having a truly autonomous smart home feels closer than ever in 2018. Smart speakers sales are booming and the Internet of Things bubble continues to expand with more and more connected devices available for automating processes around your home. It's an exciting time for early adopters, but its always important to keep tempered expectations as the fantasy of living in a Jetsons-style future world is easily undermined when up against real-world challenges.
Ecovacs Robotics is a company designing robots that will keep your futuristic smart home clean today. I was sent one of its latest models, the Deebot N79S, an autonomous vacuum cleaner you can command from your smartphone or with your voice, using Alexa for reviewing purposes. I've been putting it to work around my home for the past few weeks and have been impressed overall.
It makes a great first impression
Robot vacuums have been around since 2002, but I always viewed them as an aspirational household accessory reserved for the uber-wealthy or a punchline for mocking tech-savvy hipsters. They're quirky and cute.
The Deebot N79S was my first experience using a robot vacuum and it's got the exact look and feel I'd expect from a robot vacuum designed for 2018. It's got a sleek design with an array of sensors and bump-guards to help it navigate around your home, with a low enough profile to fit under most furniture in our home, including under the living room couch. Given that NOBODY likes vacuuming under the couch, that was pretty awesome to discover.
After unboxing, I let it charge for the required 4 hours and prepped the house for the first clean. That meant clearing any bags or shoes off the floor, tucking away power cords, and looking for other smaller objects that could damage the vacuum.
The Deebot N79S has four cleaning modes which you can control with the wireless remote:
- AUTO mode: This is the most common mode you'll use and sets the Deebot to automatically cover as much floor space as possible by cleaning in straight lines. It works its way around the room, changing directions whenever it meets an obstacle. Despite its random nature, this mode does seem to offer the most efficient clean.
- Spot Cleaning mode: The Deebot drives in a slowly widening spiral. This mode is meant for cleaning up a specifically dirty area of floor in a room.
- Edge Cleaning mode: As the name suggests, this mode sets the Deebot to patrol around the edges and corners of the room. It will still work its way around obstacles as needed and will work around door frames and down hallways to cover multiple rooms.
- Single Room mode: Essentially works the same as AUTO mode, but is specifically designed for smaller rooms with the door closed.
You can also manually control your Deebot using either the app or remote control.
On its maiden voyage, I gleefully watched as it spent the first 20 minutes slowly exploring the living room, cheering it on as it crossed the doorway into the kitchen for the first time, and watching proudly as it proceeded to make multiple passes over the entire main floor.
The sad reality is any time-saving claims are negated by the fact that you're going to closely shadow your robot vacuum around your home the first couple of times — partially to appreciate the novelty of a freaking robot vacuum cleaning your house, but also because as smart as the N79S is, it will still manage to work itself into trouble.
Babysitting the vacuum
As silly as I felt following the Deebot around the house, it served a practical purpose. You will need to identify any spots in your home that might cause problems for the Deebot. The N79S features a bunch of smart sensors for recognizing obstacles and detecting stairs and big drops, but they do not always operate flawlessly.
This is a deep-cleaning model designed to effortlessly transition from hardwood to area rug or carpet, but it can't run on long pile carpeting, and area rugs with long fringes can easily get tangled in the brushes. And while it's got a low profile for navigating under furniture, if there's a spot in your home where it can get stuck, it will find it every time.
For example, while it maneuvers itself under the couch with no issues, it somehow manages to wedge itself pretty good under our fridge. This became a recurring issue as it tried to clean as far under the fridge as possible. I appreciate the attempt to get into every tight area it can, but this is where a room-mapping feature would have come in real handy.
This, unfortunately, means that any time the vacuum is working on the main floor, I must keep an ear out for distress beeps that indicate the Deebot needs help. This has happened a handful of times during my testing: I've had to free it from under the fridge more than a few times, and there was one time I came down to find it tangled up with the strap from a backpack I had foolishly left lying around. This managed to mangle one of the side-brushes pretty good, but I was able to work it back into shape so there was no lasting harm done
Initially, I had planned to schedule the Deebot to run during the nights, as I found the N79S to be slightly quieter than the standup vacuum it replaced — certainly low-volume enough to run in the middle of the night without waking the house. But knowing that it might get stuck in the fridge every night has kind of kiboshed that idea. That's not to say that I exclusively run the robot vacuum whenever I have the time to follow it around, but when I do run it, I half expect to find it crying for help midway during each clean. Chances are you will find similar problem areas in your home, too.
You have to keep your cleaning bot clean
One thing I immediately noticed was how well this thing attracts dust and dirt — but not in the way I expected. After a full crawl through the house, there almost seemed to be as much dust and hair clinging to the outer casing of the Deebot as there was in the removable dustbin. Furthermore, when Ecovacs says you need to fully clean the vacuum and its filters at least once a week, it absolutely means it. By the end of the first week, it was clear the N79S was in dire need of a good cleaning as it didn't seem to be cleaning as efficiently as it did fresh out of the box.
Because we have pets in the house, Ecovacs recommends giving this vacuum and its filters a thorough cleaning twice a week. This is significantly more maintenance than any standard vacuum I've used before, but it's also entirely possible I was ignorant of proper vacuum maintenance before the Deebot rolled into my life.
(Side note: Despite all the cute internet videos of cats riding robot vacuums, my cat hates this new addition to the house.)
It takes about 30 minutes to thoroughly clean the Deebot brushes of tangled hair and debris and to rinse and air dry the filters. Its a somewhat messy process, but fortunately Ecovacs has made it really easy to remove all the brushes and filters for cleaning and replacement purposes.
Replacement parts are available as a kit for just $25 and you can conveniently track your usage from within the app. Each kit includes enough replacement parts for a full year, so your annual upkeep costs should always stay around $25.
App and Alexa voice control
I've dealt with enough app-controlled tech to know that not all products work as smoothly as advertised, but kudos to Ecovacs for developing an app that's quick and easy to use. Ultimately, I found the physical remote to be more convenient to use because I did run into issues where the bot wouldn't connect to the network for whatever reason. The remote, on the other hand, just works and includes most of the same functionality as the app, including manual controls.
Anyone who owns an Amazon Echo has tried to show off a cool new feature to a friend... only to have it not work. It's embarrassing, right? Setting up the Deebot skill was painless and the Alexa commands worked perfectly the first time, and every time I've tried it. This should be how all Alexa skills work but sadly that's not currently the case, so the ease of use here was a pleasant surprise.
The Deebot N79S has absolutely made it easier to keep our floors clean, and I feel its fair to say that the floors get vacuumed more often now thanks to the convenience of using the Deebot. The tradeoff is that to use the Deebot N79S on a schedule or when your out of the house requires vacuum-proofing your floors to make it as easy as possible for the little bot to do its job without getting hung up somewhere or damaging the brushes.
It's easy to view robot vacuums as a quirky novelty, but the technology is really impressive in 2018. Having finally spent some time with a robot vacuum, I can say that it's more practical than I initially thought it would be. Yes, you can be the ultimate couch potato and vacuum your living room without lifting a finger, so long as you're willing to keep up with the weekly maintenance, keep your floors clear of objects that will impede its cleaning journey, and be available to help if it gets stuck.
At $250, the Deebot N79S is worth the money for anyone willing to keep their space tidy enough for the robot vacuum to do its thing on a scheduled basis. It would make an ideal accessory for apartments or condo life where there isn't multi-levels to contend with, and also integrates surprisingly well with Alexa. If you've been looking to automate cleaning in your smart home, the Deebot N79S is a great place to start.