Review: Coming clean on the Neato Robotics Botvac D80 robot vacuum

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The Botvac D80 does well to maintain clean floors and carpets with little human intervention(Credit: Stanley Goodner/Gizmag)

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It seems that each week brings exciting news from the world of robotics. From solving Rubik's Cubes to maritime swarming and filling potholes, modern robots can do some pretty incredible things. But if you're looking for robotic assistance around the home, there are quite a few designed to keep the floors clean to choose from. We spent the past few weeks letting the Botvac D80 do most all of the vacuuming work for us, just from programming a simple schedule.

Design & connectivity

The Botvac D80 is one of the latest robot vacuums from Neato Robotics. Measuring 12.7 x 13.2 in (32.1 x 33.5 cm) across and 3.9 in (10 cm) high, the D80 is sizeable yet not too cumbersome. At 9 lb (4.1 kg), it weighs about as much as your typical canister vacuum does. The top of the Botvac D80 features a small LCD screen with touch controls, buttons, and the bagless dirt compartment/bin. Underneath the body are two, large rubberized wheels along with four small rollers to keep the Botvac D80 moving steady over uneven surfaces.

For cleaning, the Botvac D80 has a pre-installed spiral brush, featuring both bristles and silicone blades. Included in the box is a straight-blade silicone brush that's ideal for hard floors. These brushes run almost the full length of the robot's front end, which makes for more efficient vacuuming. Other noteworthy aspects of the Botvac D80 are infrared navigation, a front bumper/sensor, and rear charging connection.

Setup is simple to set up, requiring just the removal of all the sticker peels, flipping the switch on (under dirt bin lid), plugging in the base station, and setting the Botvac D80 against it to charge. That's all that needs to be done. From then on, it'll recharge itself as needed.

The menu has enough options to run the device, and no more. If you can program a coffee maker on a schedule, you'll have no problem with giving direction to the Botvac D80 to handle things on its own. Or you can just push the home button on the vacuum and have it clean on command. The LCD screen is bright enough to read indoors, and the only notifications that pop up are when cleaning has been completed or if the battery needs to charge some more. And if someone happens to pick the robot up, it chirps at the offender to put it back down.

The Botvac D80 comes with a combination brush (installed), silicone brush, standard filter (installed), filter cleaning tool, and a flexible magnetic strip. The brushes are easy to swap out, needing fingers only and no tools. The strip is used as a boundary marker to keep the vacuum from going where you don't want it to. There is no adhesive backing on it, although it's recommended to apply some so the strip won't slip out of place. Although the Botvac D80 pays close attention to the boundary, it'll still toe over the line by about an inch or so.

Navigation

Put the Botvac D80 in any room (with its base station), press the green-glowing "home" button, and the robot will take off to do its thing. Each time you set it loose, it takes a measured approach, circling the room to figure out the space before pathing back and forth in between and taking care of edges/corners. So long nothing in the room(s) have changed position, you should see the Botvac D80 maintain a walking pace in a similar, methodical pattern each time. The noise level is not unlike that of a large handheld or canister vacuum – it's not necessarily loud, but there's no secret that vacuuming is going on.

One thing the Botvac D80 is pretty good at is covering open spaces in neat, parallel rows. Once in a while it might leave one slim gap, up to half an inch in width at a foot or two long. But such missed areas normally get taken care during the next round of vacuuming. The Botvac D80 moves easily from any thickness of carpet to flat (e.g. hardwood, tile, linoleum) floors and back. And because of its flat stature, it's able to go places that are inconvenient to manually reach with a canister or upright vacuum, such as under beds, dressers, or tables.

When it comes to detecting and navigating around objects, the Botvac D80 does well. Most of the time it senses the edges of furniture and corners them smoothly, making sure the side spinner brush hits edges as best as possible. When stuck on a corner for more than a couple of seconds, Botvac D80 will back up and make a slightly wider turn to hug that curve. It's not perfect, but you can see how it really tries to get it done right.

And it can't always tell the difference between immobile matter and, say, a dark, low-hanging tablecloth that can be pushed through. Skinny things, such as table and chair legs, usually get run into, but once the Botvac D80 knows something is in the way, it's quick enough to figure it out, and keeps that info in mind as it continues on. Such details are remembered only for the remainder of current cleaning jobs. so it's a clean slate of navigation each time.

The Botvac D80 usually avoids tight, enclosed spaces. But if it can sense sufficient clearance on each side, it'll press forward and continue on no matter the consequences. On occasion, the vacuum can get held up in areas with little room for maneuvering, such as a dining table with chairs all around it. It usually figures it out on its own without wasted time, performing multi-point turns and rearing up on its wheels for clearance. If the Botvac D80 manages to convince itself to fit through the slimmest of gaps with only one possible entrance/exit point – it can spend upwards of 10 minutes puzzling over how to get out. It's a little amusing to watch, actually, sort of like witnessing someone trying to parallel park a vehicle just a tad too big for the allotted space.

You'll also want to pay attention to furniture and wall surfaces as the Botvac D80 can and will leave marks from rubbing against things, usually when backing up while trying to free itself. Most of these marks wipe right off with a finger, but some need a little more effort to remove. The D80 seems to pay zero attention whatsoever when backing up, except to get clearance to continue on. Front impacts are ok since the sensor/bumper is there, and it's less than what you might do yourself with an upright vacuum. However, the Botvac D80 is still strong enough to shove doors closed or lightweight objects, such as light chairs, around.

For best performance, you'll want to have floors cleared and clutter-free, which can be difficult for households with kids. If as object is too small to be seen or too light to offer resistance when the Botvac D80 runs into it, it doesn't exist as far as the robot is concerned. So all of these things can end up being pushed around by the vacuum, eventually forced to the outer edges of rooms. Only the smallest of objects, like Legos, get brushed up into the dirt bin. You know it's too big when you hear a constant rattle. Also, the Botvac D80 does not appreciate dark floors or carpets, especially when there isn't much light. It can get confused with pathing, sometimes circling like it's drunk, and end up taking longer to complete. However, it does recover on its own – eventually.

But the most important thing to watch out for are power strips, USB cables, or anything resembling a string, especially if attached to something. The Botvac D80 cares little about power strips and extension cords. So if it pushes enough, anything plugged into that strip will be tugged along for the ride as the robot has some muscle behind the wheels. Lamps can be pulled off end-tables, and wireless routers dragged across floors – so don't immediately blame the dog. Loose cables or low-hanging curtain cords can also end up wrapped around the brush and require attention like any typical vacuum.

When the Botvac D80 has finished cleaning, it turns the fan off before making its way back to the base station to recharge. You get about an hour's worth of automated vacuuming from three hours of charging time. There is no indicator for the dirt bin, so it's usually best to check how full it is frequently. It's a bagless design, so you pull the filter off and dump the contents. The filter itself tends to collect hair, dust, and fuzz, but the included comb-like cleaning tool makes quick work of clearing out all the attached debris. The top end of the tool has a thin, protected blade that helps to cut through hair and string wrapped around the spinner brushes. Although efficient overall, you'll still have to use fingertips to get the stuff at the ends.

Clean floors

The Botvac D80 works by brush and suction, picking up a respectable amount of hair, dust, crumbs, etc. – at least for a vacuum of this type and size. As powerful as it may be, the Botvac D80 is unable to handle super-fine particles on non-carpeted floors – the kind that require dry mopping or wiping with a cloth. So even though the flat profile lets it reach under beds to scoop up all the dust bunnies, you'll need to pull out a dusting wand if you want the floors completely clean. However, it's still super convenient to send the robot under to do all the heavy work.

Overall, the Botvac D80 performs better with light to moderate cleaning jobs, such as with unsettled dust, hair, cereal, Altoids, paper shavings from making snowflakes, etc. Dry stuff. It's not really designed to go after anything wet or gummy. For the best results, you'll want to have the Botvac D80 stick to bare floors and thin carpets/rugs. Anything thicker than low-pile carpeting will require a more powerful upright vacuum to get everything out, even if you're patient and allow the Botvac D80 multiple passes over the same areas. You may or may not see it, but rest assured that your bare feet will feel those remainders immediately. The reality is that this robot is better at spinning a brush than sucking everything up.

Dirt that is too thick and heavy can end up being pushed around, often over areas that had been previously vacuumed. The suction power also struggles where there is a transition in height, such as moving from carpet to hardwood floors, even if it's not by much. You can often find traces or lines of dirt right at the edge of a rug or tile or linoleum lip. Again, bare feet will be the judge. The Botvac D80 won't be able to get everything, but it does an admirable job at regular maintenance. Even though you'll have to manually vacuum for a more thorough cleaning, you'll spend less time overall keeping the floors neat and tidy.

The verdict

If your home creates dirty floors faster than you have time to vacuum it all up, the Neato Robotics Botvac D80 is more than happy to help out. It takes longer to unpack the robot than it does to program its cleaning schedule. Although neither loud nor quiet for a vacuum of its size, it doesn't matter so much if the Botvac D80 is set to run autonomously while everyone is out of the house. This vacuum is quite capable of navigating rooms, transitioning from carpets to floors and back, and returning to the base station for charging. You'll just have to remember to try and keep areas clear first for best results.

Although the Botvac D80 is new, it doesn't really offer anything totally new. The body shape is similar to previous units from Neato Robotics. There are no in-depth options/settings on the D80, or mobile device connectivity (that's the Botvac Connected). But if you're more concerned about clean floors, especially in a house with furry pets, the Botvac D80 proves its worth – empty the bin every couple of days during the working week and you'll be able to see exactly how much. Your feet will certainly appreciate it. The Neato Robotics Botvac D80 is available now, retailing for US$499.

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