Robot vacuum holds a few surprises

11 Feb
The Neato is a robotic vacuum that cleans floors without human intervention. Our tech reviewer wonders: it boon or boondoggle? (Geoff Meeker photo)

The Neato is a robotic vacuum that cleans floors without human intervention. Our tech reviewer wonders: it boon or boondoggle? (Geoff Meeker photo)

In the domestic Olympics, my least favourite event is vacuuming. It’s a noisy, bothersome exercise from which I derive zero pleasure.

So I paid attention on hearing several years ago about the Roomba robotic vacuum. It resembled a giant bug as it criss-crossed the room in an apparent random pattern, like watching a pinball game in slow motion. Alas, most reviews of the device were not good and, although the Roomba has improved over the years, it never really caught on. It continues to be dismissed by many as a gimmick.

Recently, my sister Sue acquired the Neato XV-21 robotic vacuum, supposedly the next generation of giant dust-eating bugs. I have seen the Neato in action, and had a chat with Sue about it.

In a nutshell, she’s impressed.

“It has a few limitations and issues but I can look past them all because I still enjoy using it so much and having it clean my house for me,” says Sue, who professes a deep aversion to vacuuming. “It works. It sucks up dirt really well. It’s not 100 percent, in that I can walk across the carpet and see a little fleck of something here and there, but that’s normal with other vacuums too – you can go back and forth over something and never pick it up. Overall, the house looks clean. You can tell that it works.”

The Neato may look similar to the Roomba, but they are very different machines. The Neato has much smarter technology under the hood, including an infrared light that scans the room to identify the placement of walls and furniture. It stops and changes direction before hitting objects, and can detect and avoid stairwells, people and even pets. A thin magnetic strip is included, for placement outside rooms that, for whatever reason, are off limits to the Neato – it will recognize the bar and change course.

Once it has scanned a room, the Neato does a run around its perimeter, presumably to confirm its calculations, then begins cleaning the room in a series of straight, overlapping rows, pausing as necessary to steer around obstacles. When it is done, the Neato returns its home base, which doubles as a charging dock.

One charge is enough to clean an apartment or small house, though in most houses it will need to return to its charging dock at least once during a vacuum. Sue enjoys watching it do this, marveling at how it takes a direct route back to the station, rather than retracing its steps, and then, when recharged, rolls straight back to where it left off. It’s a pretty sophisticated little machine.

The Neato is not as noisy as conventional vacuums. It fact, it runs so quietly that the dogs don’t even bark. And my mother’s pooch, an adorable shih tzu named Lucy, actually plays with the machine by placing her ball in its path, then chasing it when the Neato bumps it out of the way.

There are some minor issues with the device. “If it can go under furniture it will,” Sue said, adding that any flaps along the bottom of the couch need to be pinned up or the Neato will read them as walls. “Sometimes, a couch is uneven underneath and the Neato can get stuck in there. If it does, it makes a little bleep sound, which means you have to come and rescue it. And sometimes it gets lost and confused. It got stuck in a closet once. It goes under the kitchen table and will circle around each leg, but if the chairs are there it’s just too much. You should move them out of the way.”

All that said, Sue still loves the Neato.

“I dump the dirt while it’s recharging and the bin is always full, so I know it’s working. It amazes me how much dirt it gets. It’s so novel that when it’s on I’m still walking around watching it, fascinated, and still learning little things I can do to make it work better. I will leave it alone and then lose track of where it is and can’t see it, and then it rolls out from under a bed, working just fine. And it’s so nice to come home from work and have the house already vacuumed.”

The Neato XV-21 can be purchased online for $429 (bestbuy.ca, homedepot.ca), though you may find it on sale if you poke around.

Blackberry 10 arrives

I received a demo unit of the new Blackberry 10 last week, and sat through an hour-long information session with Telus. The device definitely does move in bold new directions for Blackberry and cannot be easily dismissed as another misfire by RIM – though some critics are already doing just that. Some hands-on use and further research will be required before I write about this, the smartphone that is going to make or break Blackberry.

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