Hype Check: Neato Robotics XV-11 Sucks, In All the Right Ways
Why it's different: Neato took the basic concept introduced by the Roomba, and tried to improve upon it with smarter, laser-guided navigation and a no-mess design.
What we like: Out of the box, the Neato's first impressions on us were very good. The XV-11 is roughly the size of a Roomba, with a straight, pressure-sensitive bumper on the front. It's also very well designed, with clean lines and simple aesthetics; the forest green body with tasteful touches of bright orange give it a demure yet visible presence in one's living room.
Of particular note is the dust bin, which is infinitely neater, cleaner and smarter than that of the Roomba; you can easily empty it without spilling its dusty contents all over the place. Likewise, in our week of testing, we never once needed to fretfully pull junk from the gears of the unit (which has to be constantly done with the Roomba, and certainly represents one of its biggest design flaws). Like the higher-end Roombas, the XV-11 has an onboard LCD screen that lets you schedule the machine for daily or weekly cleanings.
Turn the thing on, and it whirls into action like a jet engine. It's a hard thing to measure precisely, but, to us, the Neato seemed like it sucked considerably harder literally (and, in that sense, sucked less figuratively). It nimbly shimmied along walls and around objects, picking up the bulk of dust and dog hair it encountered. It even dealt well with carpeting, making its way (albeit slowly) over a particularly fluffy carpet that presents problems for the Roomba. Rolling office chairs, which prove to be impossible obstacles for the Roomba, were no problem for the Neato.
But what impressed us most was how quickly it learned the space around it; using a hood-mounted laser, the device quickly discerned the layout of the room, efficiently covering territory and avoiding problems. Where the Roomba generally bumps into stuff and goes in the other direction, the Neato rather deftly avoids trouble. This is key, and means you don't need to worry as much about anything that might prove messy: glass art frames leaning against the wall, full doggie water bowls, upright PlayStation 3's, and the like. If the Neato is mid-clean and the battery begins to run out (a rare occurrence), it will stop its work, make its way over to the charger, charge up, and then pick up where it left off.
What we didn't like: The first couple of times we ran the Neato, the device awkwardly got stuck mid-clean -- on heater vents, in difficult corners, and behind beanbags. But, as mentioned, after a couple of cleanings, it seemed to get its bearings, consistently finishing its duties without a hitch. The motor is pretty loud -- louder than that of the Roomba -- but it's not overly shrill, either. (Unlike the Roomba, it didn't scare our dog out of the room.) While the Neato was supposed to be smart enough to avoid dangerous stairs, it managed to spill out the front door, and awkwardly plop sideways onto the step below (at which point, it shut down for lack of solid ground).
The one other stumbling block for the Neato lies in its included magnetic strips, which are supposed to serve as a definitive "do not cross" line when placed on the ground. These don't stick very well, and generally become a much more awkward solution than Roomba's "virtual wall" sensors (which serve the same purpose and can invisibly cover more ground).
Is it worth the hype? If you've been considering a Roomba but haven't pulled the trigger, the Neato makes a far more appealing option. It's smarter, more powerful, far easier to clean than the Roomba, and, to boot, a more attractive robot to have hanging out in your living room. It's even comparable in price; the Neato costs $400, while Roombas range from $200 for the low-end unit to over $500 for the high-end models. Keep in mind that this is still, sadly, not quite 'The Jetsons.' You're going to need to do real vacuuming to get every corner and suck the deepest particles from your carpet. But if you live in a dusty home and/or have pets that shed, running this sucker every few days will make a significant contribution to your domestic cleanliness.