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© December 2005 Anthony Lawrence
December 2005

Who likes to vacuum? Raise your hands. Anyone?

Didn't think so. That might explain why Roomba has sold more than 1.5 million vacuum robots.

I thought Roomba was just a pricey gimmick without much real value. Reading on-line made me doubt that assessment, so I bought one, though still reserving some doubt.

The first thing that bothered me was the paucity of printed material. The Roomba Discovery I bought came with three very small, very terse manuals which really didn't tell me much more than how to charge it up and turn it on. As the initial charge takes several hours, that left me thirsting for more information: how does this thing really work? What do I need to know? Why are these manuals so short?

The best place to find details and help is, of coures, on-line. Message boards like https://www.roombareview.com/chat/ and https://groups.yahoo.com/group/Roomba-users/ are good to read before purchasing. Also read the Wikipedia entry and other reviews at reviews on Roomba. You'll find that early adopters have had their share of problems, but that newer models have improved greatly. There is still plenty of room for more improvement, but a good number of Roomba owners seem quite happy with their little robot helper. I do recommend reading these boards before plunging into ownership; this technology is not fully mature and you should be aware of its limitations.

First, Roomba is patently stupid. Although the latest models supposedly are "able to determine how large the room is and plot the most effective cleaning tactic based on the room's layout" (https://www.pcworld.com/news/article/0,aid,116854,00.asp), its basic navigation skill is "move until you hit something, then turn randomly". There's apparently no memory involved; Roomba can get stuck for short periods in tight spots. It won't stay stuck - the random maneuvering will eventually get it out, but sometimes you almost feel sorry for it and want to give it a little help. With the remote control unit, you can do that, overriding its control, pointing it in the right direction, and setting it off for new adventure.

Roomba "senses" dirt with microphones. That is, if it hears more noise near its vacuum pickup, it will concentrate cleaning in that area by going into a tight circle around the dirt. Roomba also has optical sensors and these apparently can cause it to circle repetitively, annoying its owners greatly. If you experience this and search for "roomba circle dance", you'll probably come across references to Osmo. Osmo is a little dongle that upgrades Roomba's firmware to a version that has less repetitive behavior problems.

The Roomba Discovery comes with a home base charging unit that the robot is supposed to automatically return to when it is done with a room or when it needs to recharge. That has not worked for me at all: if I put it near the base and tell it to return home, it will succesfully dock, but I have yet to see it accomplish that on its own volition.

On the other hand, the "virtual walls", which are infrared transmitters you can set up to keep Rooma confined, have worked perfectly. As we have recently moved, a lot of our home is still a mess of piled up boxes. From Roomba's viewpoint, those areas are a complex maze where vacuum robots get totally lost and confused; I set the virtual walls to keep Roomba in more open areas.

Roomba can have a hard time navigating surface transitions, for example from a hard floor to a soft rug. It sometimes does a cute lifting maneuver, raising up one side to get unstuck, but is apt to just turn around and get stuck again immediately. None of this is detrimental, though it can be frustrating to watch. You want to yell "Stop going there!"

Roomba does an excellent job cleaning, especially on hardwood, tile and linoleum. Short carpet is no real problem, but a high pile can slow Rooma down to a crawl. Roomba cleans edges well with a circular wisk that brings wall dirt to it, but it does miss corners: you can sweep out any corner dirt into the room for Roomba to get at.

I was actually surprised at how much dirt Roomba does pick up. As a test, I dropped a handful of peanut shells on the carpet in front of Roomba's path. They disappeared as Roomba drove over them. Strands of hair are picked up as easily, though long strands do tangle in the rolling brush and those and other bits of carpet strand will wind around the brush and rubber rollers and will have to be cut out now and then. Cleaning Roomba isn't difficult, though it would be a better idea to include a brush for getting into the tighter parts of its bin. You can wash the removable filters, but don't immerse the bin in water. Do watch out for the bright yellow bearings on the brushes and rollers; these fall off easily so it's best to just take them off before you start maintenance.

I was a little concerned about Roomba's bumping. I thought it might damage some of our more delicate furniture. It does hit hard enough to move light objects, but I've seen no scuff marks at all. More expensive robots like the Electrolux Trilobite can avoid objects entirely, and mapping the room lets them know where they have cleaned. Roomba blindly goes over the same terrain again and again.

The latest Roomba's can be controlled externally. That's attracted some interest from robotic hackers, though more for the mechanics of the device than its limited intelligence. There are even decals to give your Roomba a new skin..

As I finish up this post, Roomba is busy cleaning my office. It does make some noise, but not enough to bother me and certainly not enough to disturb my still sleeping wife.

It will be interesting to see how much these home robots improve over the next few decades. There are already competitors producing similar devices.

AS the unit gets older, cleaning does get more difficult. I finally gave up and got rid of it - more trouble than it saves, I think.

But speaking of cleaning: I recently found out about Melanime Sponges - these are FANTASTIC for cleaning so many things!.

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More Articles by © Anthony Lawrence

Tue Dec 27 17:11:28 2005: 1461   BigDumbDinosaur

Robots like Roomba make you appreciate just how smart the average moron is when compared to the most intelligent machines human thinking can conjure, and how primitive real bots are compared to the ones described in Isaac Asimov's classic robot sci-fi story. If only I could live for another 100 years to see where this will all go. On second thought, I don't think I want to hang around that long. I might not like what is yet to be.

Thu Nov 26 22:09:34 2009: 7650   Slim

This is hardly the most advanced robot...not even close if it was it wouldnt get stuck at all and no-one could afford to use it as a vacuum.
Everyone likes to bash these things but comm-on this is the first company to make a robot that does something usefull. It might take awhile to bring one to the masses cheaply that is perfect. Its like saying the wright brothers suck because they only flew a short distance....though I doo pray for the fix to the Circle dance.. optical sensors???? magnetic would be better I think they wouldnt go blind unless you were picking up iron fillings.

Thu Nov 26 22:45:49 2009: 7651   TonyLawrence

Hmm - I really didn't think I was bashing it.

Thu Nov 26 23:36:47 2009: 7655   slim

Sorry tony it was more a reply to BigDumbDinosars post...
But Ive read alot of reviews and comments by people bashing them I guess its understandable when you shell out $300-400 (how much they cost now?) for something and it dies in a year... I was just saying its all relative and trying to put it in perspective. I have the very first generation roomba cant say how old it is I forgot when I bought it and it just started the circle dance when the battery is low.

Tue Dec 29 16:29:37 2009: 7835   TonyLawrence


Five Roomba robots playing Pacman: (link)

That's a creative (though expensive) use!

Wed Dec 30 14:44:27 2009: 7836   BigDumbDinosaur


We have a cleaning lady come in every other week. Among other things, she vacuums without getting stuck in corners or bashing into the furniture (most of the time). I'm sure we've paid her a lot more over the years than a whole house full of Roombas might cost, but unlike the Roomba, she's actually quite intelligent and her battery never seems to run down. <Grin>

I'm all for technology (been making a living from it since high school) but don't see it as a replacement for real, live, breathing human beings. Betcha that Roomba can't participate in a discussion about how well the economy is doing!

Wed Dec 30 15:01:39 2009: 7837   TonyLawrence


If it had been easy to clean, I would have kept it. It doesn't replace real vacuuming entirely, but it could let you put it off longer.

Wed Jan 27 17:56:59 2010: 7955   oldmary


Question: I have one of the earlier model roombas..I cannot find a mode'l # on it...I still have the box...I need a new battery..however after reading this post maybe I need to try charging again. It has been sitting idle a long time. Thanks

Wed Jan 27 18:44:15 2010: 7956   TonyLawrence


I have no idea, sorry.


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