When they first came out, robot vacuums were an easy piece of tech to say “no” to. They were pricy and weren’t that much more convenient than doing the job yourself. But has the technology improved enough to make them worth buying today? We dug in to find out.
The first robot vacuum—Electrolux’s aptly-named Trilobite—debuted in 1996 but ultimately failed to take off in the consumer market. iRobot’s iconic Roomba vacuum, on the other hand, hit the ground running (err, well, scooting) when it came out in 2002. And from there, dozens of other companies created their version of the handy household gadget.
The concept became more universally well-known after 2002, and consumers flocked to the technology as it promised to take over one of life’s more banal chores. The cleverly designed robot would slowly but surely make its way around your house, doing its best to pick up dust, debris, and pet hair along the way.
Early robot vacuums offered hands-free cleaning, except for having to occasionally empty their bins every once in a while. Heck, they’d even automatically return to their dock to recharge once they finished cleaning. You had the ability to manually program them to run on a set schedule, ensuring the floors of your home would be clean all the time. Plus, if there was an area you didn’t want them to go traipsing through (like near your pet’s food bowls), some even came with two boundary gates that would stop it from cleaning beyond that point.
But let’s be honest here.
Yes, these vacuum models could clean your floors, but did they actually do a good job? Older vacuums had a bump-and-knock style of cleaning, wherein they casually bumped into your walls, your couch, your dining table, your curios, your bar cart, your feet, and anything else it found without much regard. Sometimes, this even resulted in knocking stuff off the top of a table, ultimately creating a bigger mess.
Early bot vacs also lacked any discernible cleaning pattern, simply bumbling around your home for an hour or so. This often resulted in them leaving several spots unvacuumed—a gripe you’d likely hear from anyone who owns, or has ever owned, an older robot vacuum. The vacuums would also frequently get stuck in corners or under furniture or occasionally venture towards the forbidden fruit at the bottom of your staircase. And while they promised to return to their dock once they finished cleaning, they often couldn’t find it and would fail to recharge. You’d have to find and return it yourself.
What’s worse—the bins in these older robot vacs always seem to be full. You’d empty it only to see the “empty me” symbol blinking furiously just moments later. And if you had pets? What a nightmare. Early models would get hair stuck in the brushes, and you’d be stuck using scissors, and who knows what else trying to get it all out. Not exactly the luxurious hands-off experience we were promised.
While you no longer had to pull out your clunky upright vacuum anymore, you relinquished any control you might have had over the thoroughness of the job. The cleaning was lackluster, navigation was (for the most part) still not a thing yet. You were even limited to a single set of boundary guards. Sure, your floors would technically get vacuumed, and most of the pet hair and dirt and debris would get cleaned up. But not all of it.
These clever little vacuums were undeniably a big step forward technologically, but still, they left a lot to be desired.
Like so much technology, what we had then doesn’t really work for us now. Sure, a basic robot vacuum can still get the job more or less done, but the technology has been around for quite some time. Performance and navigation should have improved, and there should be waaaaay more features. So, has that happened? Have today’s robot vacs improved?
Simply put, yes! Today’s robot vacuums offer massively overhauled and refined performance, boast tons of creative and genuinely helpful new features, and even have companion mobile apps that give you even more functionality. They’re also smaller and slimmer.
The areas that have seen the biggest (and most welcome) improvements, though, are cleaning and navigation. Newer vacs have much-improved brushes that make them a force to be reckoned with on any surface, from uneven stones or plush carpets. They’re also way more (read: actually) capable of dealing with pet hair. They can clean up more of it, grab it from deep carpets, and they’ll no longer get stuck on it. What a relief!
As for navigation, instead of the annoying bump-and-knock method, new vacs sport much more advanced navigation techniques like LiDAR (light detection and ranging), lasers, cameras, algorithms, and smart maps (or intelligent zoning) to create a basic layout of your home’s floor plan. This helps it learn where static items—like walls, furniture, and stairs are—and better detect where more dynamic obstacles are, including toys or pets (or you).
Many newer vacuums have excellent battery life, upwards of 90 minutes per charge, though some even have another 20-30 minutes on top of that. If your home has a lot of square footage, don’t worry. Several options will automatically return to their dock base if they run out of battery before they finish cleaning; once they’ve recharged, they’ll make their way back to the exact spot where they left off and resume cleaning the rest of your home.
Some even have the capacity to empty their dustbins into a larger bin within their dock automatically when they recharge. Even though is usually available as an expensive add-on, it’s a total game-changer. This way, they’re always ready to do a thorough job cleaning and you won’t have to chase after it to empty the bin—it solves a huge annoyance. Robot vacuums that can empty themselves can realistically vacuum an entire level of your home.
One of the best features that new robot vacuums have is companion mobile apps, which unlock even more functionality and features. Though each company’s app varies a little in what it offers, you can safely expect about the same few things. Most let you set virtual boundaries that allow you to name rooms and even tell the vacuum a specific area to avoid, like the nest of cords underneath the desk in your home office. You’ll likely also be able to tell it to vacuum a specific room or area with voice commands; for example, “Hey Google, ask Roomba to vacuum the living room.”
In fact, it’s all of this hands-off functionality that makes robot vacuums so appealing and, well, worthwhile. Aside from taking a moment to set up its schedule, and occasionally emptying the debris bin, and ensuring your pets and kids are out of the way, that’s it. We love that.
Like any other piece of tech, robot vacuums have a few downsides that are worth knowing about if you’re in the market for one. The first one that’s likely on everyone’s mind is price. Yes, it’s true that they’re a little pricier than upright and stick vacuums, but there’s also a great variety of budget-friendly vacuums that are on par with their traditional counterparts.
That said, pricing for premium models can reach far beyond the higher end for uprights and stick models, as they are often loaded with more functionality and an excellent selection of convenient features. Ultimately, it all comes down to the feature set you’re looking for, and believe us, you’ll get what you pay for. We’ve found that the sweet spot is between about $350-$700; that’ll net you the most features—like great navigation, battery life, mobile app enhancements, and hybrid functionality—without totally busting your budget.
It’s also worth noting that you might still need a handheld vacuum or small stick vac to spot clean on stairs or other areas your robot vac might miss. There’s also the possibility that your bot vac might create a bigger mess if it encounters any “treats” your pet left around the house, too, though new models can use AI to detect and avoid such messes. And, of course, you can’t exactly use a robot vacuum to clean your car or between your couch cushions either.
Another concern is privacy. Because some newer models use cameras to map your home’s layout and connect to the Internet, it’s understandable to question whether or not any data gathered by your robot vacuum (like your home’s layout and contents) is being collected along with dust and debris. Many companies have set up the vacs to store as much data as possible locally on the vacuum itself and to minimize what’s sent online to a server.
Vacs with companion apps don’t offer much in the way of additional security, though. You won’t see two-factor authentication here, but we hope these companies add this soon. Some vacuums might still collect simpler metadata, like how often you use your vacuum when you use it, and your home’s square footage. And as with any other Internet-connected device, there’s always the possibility it can be hacked by anyone dedicated enough.
Of course, the easiest solution in this instance is to not choose a vac with any connectivity. That’s the way to go if you’re worried about hackers or companies accessing your data. You’ll miss out on some of those handy connected features, but you’ll be secure.
If you want a connected vac, choose a vac from a reputable brand, like iRobot, Samsung, or Ecovacs. These companies have the resources needed to properly offer and manage data privacy; they will be more likely to use encryption and issue software updates regularly to keep your vacuum, its app, and your data safe and secure. And hey, you can add on a DIY lens cover whenever your vacuum isn’t in use.
Today’s robot vacuums are exponentially more powerful and feature-rich than they were a decade ago, and we absolutely think that it’s worth buying one for your home. Their navigation and performance are much improved, plus some can empty their bins and even mop your floors. They make quick work of one of life’s less exciting chores—that’s hard to argue with.
There are spectacular robot vacuum options across every budget and feature range. No matter whether you live in a tiny NYC apartment or a sprawling estate, there’s a robot vac perfectly suited to your home’s floor-cleaning needs. Even though some of the premium models can get pretty costly, there is a vast selection available to you, and we can’t recommend them enough.
Ready to choose one for your home? Take a look at our favorite picks: