Robot vacuum cleaning up orange hair next to a sitting cat.
Sharomka/Shutterstock.com

Robot vacuums sound great in theory. Your floors are cleaned daily by a robotic assistant so that when you wake up or get home from work you have one less thing to do. Unfortunately, the theory doesn’t always translate well in practice.

Robot Vacuums Have Real Benefits

A robot vacuum is exactly what it sounds like: a small, autonomous cleaning device that deploys itself automatically to clean up after you. Once you’ve made the initial investment, they’re incredibly cheap to run and require only periodic attention from you in the form of emptying them as you would a standard vacuum.

Robot vacuums are much smaller than your standard cylinder, upright, or stick vacuum cleaners. They don’t need to be ergonomic since you won’t be “using” them in the traditional sense. Since they don’t have to be human-proof, they can also forego much of the metal tubes and hard-wearing plastic that you might find on a Hoover or Henry.

iRobot Roomba s3+
iRobot

By far the biggest draw of a robotic vacuum cleaner is that they clean your floors so you don’t have to. Most allow you to program or manually deploy them, often using a smartphone app or web interface. They operate on a set-and-forget basis, and if you work out of the house in the day you might never cross paths with one in your hallway.

Not only do they clean your house automatically, but they also return to their charging docks at the end of a cycle so that they’re ready to go next time. You can’t forget to charge a robot vacuum, and most will even notify you when it’s time to empty the dust compartment.

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Since they’re a lot smaller than a traditional vacuum, they’re a lot quieter too. They use additional tricks like small brushes that sweep debris towards the main intake and some can even detect the type of surface they are cleaning and adjust as necessary.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of all is that your cat might just sit on the robot vacuum and gift you with an endless supply of Instagram fodder, as demonstrated in this post from the account reallydumbcats. Be prepared for this to go the other way and for your cat to hate you for introducing a new adversary to their domain too.

Your Abode (and Life) Must Be Compatible

By far the biggest question to ask yourself before you invest in a robot vacuum is: is my house, and by extension life, compatible?

Home layout is one obstacle. Not everyone lives in a modern apartment with level carpets and walls at right angles. Some people live in older houses, while others have quirky layouts that may pose a problem.

If your house has a combination of carpet, tiles, and wooden floors you likely have transitions between surfaces. These can be bumpy and uneven, and your vacuum might not be able to navigate them. You may live in a split-level house with steps leading from one living area to another, for which there is currently no solution in the robot vacuum world. Dyson is reportedly working on the problem, however.

Robot vacuum on the edge of a staircase
esp2k/Shutterstock.com

But layout is only one part of the puzzle. Most of us have a small jungle of interestingly-shaped furniture and objects in our homes like shoes in the hallway or clothes on the bedroom floor. Cables are another unsightly but necessary evil, and if you rent you might not be able to adequately address the problem.

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If you have children or pets, you’re probably used to toys and activities cluttering up the floor. These items are like Czech hedgehogs for most robot vacuum cleaners, and may cause them to avoid large areas entirely. It’s not always possible to clear the way before your robot does its thing.

This isn’t an issue when doing a weekly clean or spot-fixing problem areas. But the whole point of a robot vacuum is convenience, so you might want to consider how much you’ll need to nanny your autonomous assistant for it to work as advertised.

RELATED: Dyson Aims to Fix The Biggest Issue With Robot Vacuums

They Don’t Fully Replace Your Standard Vacuum

Robot vacuums were never designed to be the only vacuum you own but rather to help keep the place a bit tidier. In light of this, you might find that your money is better spent on a do-it-all device instead.

Take a second to think about all the other things you might use a vacuum cleaner for aside from cleaning your floors. This might include:

  • Dusting hard-to-reach places
  • Cleaning your car
  • Freshening up cupboards and drawers
  • Getting in between the cushions on your sofa
  • Vacuum sealing bedding and other fabric

You might also want to consider the things they don’t do so well. Some have trouble with darker floors and mistakenly believe they’re about to take a dive. While most will handle pet hair to some degree, they often pale in comparison to a standard vacuum designed specifically with pet hair in mind.

RELATED: Should You Get a Robot Vacuum or a Regular Vacuum?

They’re Still Quite Pricey

The best robot vacuums will still cost you an arm and a leg, and for good reason. These are the best on the market, with fancy features like smart home integration, long battery life, and self-cleaning or emptying mechanisms.

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For example the iRobot Roomba s9+ still costs in excess of $1000. iRobot claims it’s their smartest and most powerful model, but it’s still limited in terms of what can be achieved. It can’t navigate steps or move your dog’s favorite chew bone, though its performance is among the best in class.

iRobot Roomba s9+

iRobot Roomba s9+ (9550) Robot Vacuum with Automatic Dirt Disposal- Empties itself, Wi-Fi Connected, Smart Mapping, Powerful Suction, Corners & Edges, Ideal for Pet Hair, Black

iRobot's most powerful and smartest robot vacuum cleaner to date features Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa integration, smart mapping, a three-stage cleaning system, and object detection.

Cheaper models are much more popular, but like any cheaper version of a high-tech product, they come with their own set of drawbacks. At the other end of the spectrum to the Roomba s9+ is the Lefant M201 at less than $150. In this price range, the internal components are going to be much less reliable and prone to breaking, and many reviews (even the positive ones) complain about poor software and build quality.

Lefant M201

Lefant Robot Vacuum Cleaner, Auto Robotic Vacuums, Upgraded 6D Collision Sensor, 1800pa WiFi/App/Alexa, Self-Charging, Super Quiet Mini Cleaning Robot for Pet Hair, Hard Floor, Low Pile Carpets, M201

The Lefant M201 is a budget robot vacuum with four cleaning modes, a small 11-inch diameter body, and Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa connectivity.

Budget robot vacuums often lack the more intelligent features that make them attractive in the first place. You should expect to get what you pay for but even the best may fall short of expectations.

They May Do More Harm Than Good

Did you see that news story that made the rounds a few years ago where a dog owner got home to a nasty surprise? Dubbed “poopocalypse” the problem has become so prevalent that iRobot now uses AI to avoid what most of us would consider a nightmare situation.

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Dogs and cats have accidents, it’s a part of having pets. The vast majority of robot vacuums in homes around the world do not use AI to avoid the presents that your dog or cat may leave around the house from time to time.

Inka, an unimpressed cat
Tim Brookes

What starts as an oopsie in the hallway could quickly become a whole-house ordeal. Most stories conclude with only a small area of the house being affected (in addition to the robot vacuum itself, of course) but then there’s always that one guy.

This problem will probably go away as more vacuums are able to identify undesirable matter but for now, it’s something to keep in mind if you live with furry friends.

RELATED: This Roomba Uses Highly-Advanced AI to Avoid Dog Poop

Robot Vacuums Suck

In many situations, a robot vacuum is going to save you hours every month. They’re especially ideal in places where you might not want to carry a heavy vacuum, like open-plan loft conversions, basements, home gyms, or office environments that have been carefully planned.

They’re just not ideal for everyone, and if your life isn’t robot vacuum-ready then your money may be better spent elsewhere (for now). Wondering which one is the best of the bunch? Check out our robot vacuum recommendations.

The Best Robot Vacuums of 2021

Best Robot Vacuum Overall
iRobot Roomba 694
Best Budget Robot Vacuum
eufy RoboVac 11S
Best Robot Vacuum and Mop
Ecovacs Deebot T8
Best Robot Vacuum for Pet Hair
ILIFE V3s Pro
Best Self Emptying Robot Vacuum
Shark AV1010AE IQ Robot
Profile Photo for Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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