Daily Obsession: Little Roomba, Who Made Thee?


Little Roomba, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee a brain, and bid thee sup,
On particulate matter that you clean up;
Gave thee carapace of plastic shiny,
Durable armor, never dreary;
Gave thee such a grating voice,
Making sure thy owners doubt their choice?
Little Roomba, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

…It’s iRobot, duh!

The Roomba 560 is the first and only robot that I’ve ever owned; and while it’s no R2-D2, it is certainly my favorite robot of all time.

About a year ago our household was faced with a rather insurmountable challenge: How do you keep your floors from becoming a dust bunny-laden wasteland when you have 2 adults, 2 young children, and 2 very fluffy cats? The answer? You don’t. You rend your garments, nash your teeth, attempt to keep everyone alive for the next 24 hours, then collapse into bed, exhausted, praying that the vacuum fairy will have magically cleaned the floors while you steal a bit of unconsciousness from the day.

Luckily, I stumbled into a deal for a Roomba 560. Having looked at it as a possible solution for years, I was put off by reports of unreliability and fragility. I didn’t need something that was more of a novelty item than an actual helper.

For those not familiar, iRobot introduced the Roomba back in 2002; the first “home robot” the company created after coming off of several lucrative Defense contracts. It uses a set of logarithms to navigate unfamiliar areas and clean them. Now, the Defense part might worry some, since military brained-bots being pressed into home service only brings about fears that your pets will mysteriously go missing one day as the Roomba decides to eliminate the “source of the problem.” No? Doesn’t worry anyone? Just me, then? No one here saw Terminator? Read I, Robot? Robot uprising? All hail our new vacuum-y overlords? Ohhh-kay. Moving on…

Out of the box, the Roomba is a solidly-built piece of kit. This is despite the fact that it is extremely modular. Unlike the early versions, the 500 series bots can be almost completely gutted and rebuilt with replacement parts (or user-community mods, of which there are legions). But everything fits together solidly; you wouldn’t know you could easily disassemble it unless you read about it in the manual. As with any battery-operated tech, there’s an initial charge time; plug in the base, plunk your new robo-vacuum down, and wait overnight. While it’s charging, though, you can program in a schedule. Programming is a quick matter, with a few basic options and only three buttons…rocket surgery, it ain’t. It’s also the key to Roomba’s success.

As a vacuum, the Roomba is decidedly mediocre. This is no Dyson when it comes to suction and versatility. But while that shiny yellow Dyson might have enough suction to pull dirt out of your carpet in all available quantum realities, how often do you lug it out? For my family, it was far too infrequent to make any appreciable difference. What saves the Roomba from being a disappointment, then, is its ability to go out every day, without fail, and doggedly do its job. Does it get everything on every pass? Nope. Are our floors considerably cleaner since they get vacuumed every day instead of once a week month? Youbetcha.

Reading the Amazon reviews, the one complaint that kept standing out to me was that Roombas died, a lot. Having owned one for a year, I understand now why it’s such a consistent complaint – slobby people remain slobby and that behavior extends to their cleaning equipment.

Roombas are autonomous, yes, but not maintenance-free. There is more work that goes in to making sure they are operating at optimum efficiency (but it’s still less work than vacuuming ever day). Besides emptying bins, there are brushes to clean and lots of little crevices where hair and other debris can accumulate (mostly where it gets wound up around the drivetrains). Filters and brushes occasionally need replacement as well. But as long as you keep on top of it, your wee bot will keep on eliminating dust bunnies with Terminator-like efficiency.

Other downsides? It’s noisy. Not as noisy as a big vacuum, but still chattery enough that you’ll have to notch the volume up on the TV or keep yelling “What? I can’t hear you.” to your 7-year-old who’s trying to relate a story to you while you’re in the kitchen and he’s in the back of his closet, face buried in a box of Legos. Scheduling helps a lot in this regard as well, since you can just set it to clean while you’re not there. Of course, doing that nullifies one of the handier features of the 500 series Roombas. If the Roomba gets stuck, or full, or something isn’t turning the way it’s supposed to be, it will stop and chirp at you. When you press the power button, it will play a pre-recorded message letting you know how to fix the problem. Great if you’re there; but annoying when you come home and the Roomba is two feet away from its base, having been halted 10 seconds after it started its daily run by a wayward piece of string. It sometimes has difficulty navigating back to its base as well, though this is more a function of battery life, as the infrared signal it sends out weakens considerably when it’s near the end of its charge.

Still, all of these things are pittances when compared to the fact that our Dyson has barely been pulled out in the past year, and our floors are cleaner than they ever were for the 3 years we owned that behemoth.

Now I know that some people go nuts over their Roombas, name them, decorate them, take pictures of their cats on them…OK, that last part is pretty amusing; but after nearly a year of ownership, we’ve not yet fallen into that trap. Sure, I find myself referring to it as “Dumbass Roomba” as it bangs about, 2 inches from its home base, trying to mount it much like a Maltese mounting a St. Bernard, but I’m not personifying it yet.

Y’see, it would make only make it awkward when I have to put it down once the robot uprising begins.


3 thoughts on “Daily Obsession: Little Roomba, Who Made Thee?

  1. Always wanted one of these… Thought I could program it to simply follow in Christopher’s Pig-pen (Peanuts) wake, scooping up his detritus before roots were planted and mutant life forms hatched.

  2. Great, post bro, it inspired me to power up Mung Mung, and let her suck up some do dog hair when I got home

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