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Featured Review: iRobot Roomba 980

February 29, 2016 - Written By Nick Sutrich

Most people who own property likely don’t think about how often their lawn is watered.  Many have their sprinkler systems on an automatic timer for scheduled waterings, and likely even have rain gauges that detect if nature took care of the job first.  It’s this sort of set-it-and-forget-it mentality that the Roomba achieves when it comes to vacuuming, and with one you may never wonder about whether or not your house is truly clean ever again.  With a 2 year old son and everything else going on in life, it’s often hard to keep up on these seemingly rudimentary tasks without help.  iRobot answers this call with the Roomba 980, the latest in its robotic vacuum series that’s been around since the company’s inception in the early 2000s.  At $900 it’s certainly not cheap, but as the highest end model iRobot offers it’s got a series of new features and a brand new connected app for your phone that’s designed to make your life just that much easier, and of course to clean better than any iRobot product has before.  For this review I used the Roomba in my 1,850 square foot home for a period of two weeks on a daily basis, not to mention various spot cleanings and other short uses throughout.

Video Review

Hardware and Design

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The overall design of the Roomba has remained largely unchanged since its inception, with most Roombas looking essentially like large hockey pucks.  Each model has slimmed down a bit, getting slightly smaller and thinner in order to give the ability to go under more furniture, get around more obstacles, and just clean better in general.  The Roomba 980 measures 3.6 inches high and has a diameter of 13.8 inches, making this a pretty small appliance in your home.  While the circular design of the Roomba hasn’t changed much from its inception, the top and underside of the chassis certainly has.  Comparing the 880 to the 980 will show just how big of a difference the internals actually are between the two models.  While the large circular power/clean button sits on top is the same design as the one on the 880, that’s where the similarities stop.  To the left of the 980’s clean button sits a home button, while to the right is a target clean button.  Above the buttons sit a nice handle that’s good for picking the Roomba up and moving it around the house if needed.

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Underneath those buttons sits a brand new camera that’s used to help map your home as well avoid more obstacles than just bumping into them would.  On the front of the Roomba sit the familiar bump sensors that help the Roomba navigate your house, wrapping 180-degrees around the Roomba all the way to the left and right sides for more accurate response.  While the underside of the 980 looks nearly identical to the 880’s at first, you’ll notice a difference once you look a little more closely above that right wheel.  This is where you’ll find a pair of new sensors designed to help map your house so that the Roomba 980 can find its way around more efficiently and even dock itself after the battery gets nearly empty.  An additional Dirt Detect sensor is here too, providing new ways for your Roomba to better clean extra dirty areas.

Also on the underside sits the familiar triple-head spinning brush that helps the Roomba grab junk nestled into corners and against the wall, pushing it into the device’s suction system.  The AeroForce brushless debris extractors, introduced with the Roomba 880, are here in all their removable glory.  Lastly underneath are the tractioned rubber wheels that can adjust about 2 inches in height to better cover different surfaces like area rugs, play mats, carpet transitions, etc.  The dust bin that sits at the back of the Roomba is removable via a push-clip system and features a fairly sizable bin, as well as a HEPA filter designed to filter out particles as small as a single micron.  These filters are removable and easily replaceable when needed, as is the small rotating brush underneath the unit.  One extra filter and one extra side brush is included in the box.

Navigation

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Each main iteration from the 400 series to the 800 series has introduced additional features like the AeroForce brushless cleaning sweepers, cliff detection systems, scheduling features and more.  The Roomba 980 is the biggest upgrade to date and doesn’t just feature new ways to navigate your home and clean, but also a brand new connected app.  It’s difficult to choose between these two features as far as which is the bigger and better one, but we’ll start with the new ways the Roomba has to clean.  Navigation has always been a bit of an issue for Roombas in that they don’t navigate particularly intelligently.  Most of the time you’ll find the vacuum seemingly mindlessly bumping into walls and other obstacles as it blindly makes its way around your home, and while iRobot has improved navigation in the past it did so without any way for the Roomba to actually see your home.

With the Roomba 980 iRobot introduced new sensors for detecting obstacles and floor types, as well as a camera on top of the unit that’s able to see where the vacuum is heading.  This helps the Roomba to actually map out your home and work around any obstacles present, whether they’re always in the same place or not.  It was impressive to see the vacuum not only work its way around my home in a very intelligent looking manner, making its way across rooms and finishing every square inch before moving onto another, but also in the way it handles corners and obstacles.  As it approaches a wall or other object in the way the Roomba visually slows its velocity down so as to not bump into the aforementioned thing too hard.  As soon as a very light tap is placed on the bump sensors the Roomba immediately stops, backs up ever so slightly and begins to turn.

If the camera detects a corner of a wall or another object, such as the foot of a piece of furniture, it will intelligently move in a semi-circular fashion around the entire corner until it’s been swept clean.  The sweeping brush that extends a few inches out of the right side helps the Roomba better grab particles left in corners or against walls too, where the suction wouldn’t otherwise reach.  What’s not entirely clear is how the Roomba stores the visual information it maps out in your home, and while sometimes it felt like the Roomba remembered how my house was laid out, other times it definitely didn’t.  For instance, if you pick it up and put it somewhere to use the spot cleaning feature it won’t be able to find home no matter how long you let it wander.  This tells me there’s no way for it to actually find the base station via a sonar pulse or something similar, rather it just follows a known path back to the base station instead.

The only time I found it wasn’t able to make its way back to home base was when I physically moved it though, and even then so long as it wasn’t too much the unit had no issues getting back to charge.  This automatic charging process is a Godsend too and really helps take the pain out of just how long it actually takes the vacuum to clean your house, especially the larger the dwelling gets.  iRobot recommends using the 980 in areas up to 2,000 square feet which should work well for most individuals in the world.  Those with multi-level homes or larger homes will likely need to get additional units, as there’s no way for the Roomba to ascend or descend stairs.

The Roomba 980, like a few models before it, features cliff detection sensors around its circular base toward the outer edge to keep it from falling off a ledge.  Initially I had difficulty testing these, as I don’t have stairs or other quick drops that would normally trigger the sensor.  As it is the only drop I’ve got is off onto my back porch, which is separated from my house by a sliding glass door.  This sort of stepped decline fools the sensors into thinking it’s just going over a transition strip or something, and by the time the Roomba tried to correct course it was too late.  Testing this out on a tall table proved that the sensors work perfectly as advertised and assuaged my fears of it tumbling to its doom.

The Roomba 980 measures 3.6 inches tall and as such is designed to get under a wide range of furniture around the house.  I have two couches that has exactly a 3.6-inch gap between it and the floor beneath, a coincidence that came in handy for this review, and while the Roomba avoided going under these two couches, most of the time there were two or three times it somehow fit itself underneath.  This caused an inconsistency in whether or not the unit could even get out at all, and only one of the times this happened allowed the Roomba to make its way out from underneath and onto its next cleaning area.  There were plenty of areas that often get neglected by my own cleaning that the Roomba thankfully was able to get to though, like the edges of carpets next to the closet and that scary space under the bed.

Oh, hi there!
Oh, hi there!

iRobot includes two Virtual Walls in the box that can be used to keep the Roomba away from certain areas or rooms.  These small units are often referred to as lighthouses and help keep the Roomba from going where it doesn’t need to.  The Virtual Walls sport a dual-mode feature that works by either projecting an invisible beam that the Roomba will not cross, an easy way of making a threshold for the vacuum, or by projecting a circular beam to keep the Roomba away from objects like pet food and water bowls.  This halo projects about 10 inches out from any side of the Virtual Wall (20in diameter), so be sure to keep it close to whatever you don’t want the Roomba going near.  These are powered by two AA batteries, included in the box, and will let you know if they get low via the built-in lights on the units.  The design of these is much more attractive than previous generation Roombas and will definitely look nicer in your home.

Cleaning process

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Closely related to navigation is the actual cleaning process of the Roomba.  Upon starting up it presents a cute beeping tone reminiscent of a large truck or construction vehicle when backing out of the dock, followed by starting up its suction motors when it gets a few inches out of the dock.  iRobot recommends putting this dock against a wall instead of in a corner, and you shouldn’t put furniture or other obstacles around it either.  That being said I only gave it about 6 inches of space on either side of the dock and there was never a time that the vacuum couldn’t get back (during normal operation) or sit on the dock properly.  Not placing it against a wall will cause a problem though as the Roomba will push the dock instead of mounting it, causing some obvious problems.

The noise levels emitted by the vacuum are less than most manual vacuums out there by far, and in normal mode it wasn’t disturbing to normal noise levels in the home.  You certainly don’t want it running at night while people are sleeping, but it’s not going to drown out conversation or music as many vacuums would.  When moving from a hard surface to a carpet the Roomba 980 automatically increases the suction power of the vacuum up to 10x the original hard floor amount, and it’s here where the noise levels ramp up considerably but don’t get louder than you would expect from a vacuum.  As the Roomba meanders around your abode it will adjust the suction to tailor itself to better cleaning, and when it detects extra dirty places thanks to the new Dirt Detector sensors underneath it’ll make multiple passes until it feels the floor is clean.

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Before starting you should always pick up as many things as possible so as not to trip up the vacuum on any cords or other obstacles.  As the father of a two-year-old this isn’t always the easiest task, especially when small toys come into the mix, or ones with cords and other soft parts.  In fact, you’ll find that cords in general are a mixed bag for the unit, and while I observed plenty of times where the Roomba would stop once it hit a cord and turn around, there were a handful of times where the unit would get hopelessly tangled in cables, sucking them up into its debris extractor system until it got tangled enough to drop an error message.  Loose extension cords, headphones, and even that familiar rolling telephone toy are certainly the Roomba’s worst enemy, and it’s best to either set up the two Virtual Walls included in the box or just keep these off the floors in general if possible.

Charging after a hard day's work
Charging after a hard day’s work

Watching the unit move its way around my house was impressive.  It would pick itself up with ease as it got near the large area rug in the living room, the raised foam playmat with toys on it, and even the cushy support mats in the kitchen with ease.  When it came across a lighter area rug or bath mat however, the Roomba had a much harder time cleaning these.  Often times I’d find them jumbled up in a corner or against a wall as a result of the Roomba just pushing them rather than having any good way of actually holding them down to clean them.  It’s these times where you realize the Roomba can’t do absolutely everything, but those times are pretty few and far between.  Coming home to a clean home after being out for a while and seeing the Roomba charging itself for another go-around is incredibly satisfying, and I found my house to be the cleanest ever thanks to running the Roomba on a daily schedule.

It’s amazing how dirty simple daily life can make a home, and having the Roomba around to clean it up constantly is nothing short of amazing.  There wasn’t a single time I found the Roomba leaving behind dirt.  Occasionally when it would get to areas with high dirt levels (read: under my toddler’s high chair) it would make multiple passes, and while it would throw some of the particles the first time around, subsequent passes would clean them up.  Heavy spills of dry material are a cinch for the Roomba, but larger things like broken glass or wet messes should be avoided.

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If there’s a single area in need of spot cleaning the Roomba can do it quite quickly.  Instead of getting out the broom and dustpan the Roomba can do a quick sweep in a 3ft diameter by placing it on the floor in the middle of the spill and pressing the target button on the top.  This will generate an audible tone that’s different from others on the unit, followed by the Roomba moving in a circular motion outward to about 3ft, then back inward again.  Thanks to the sensors onboard it easily moves around walls and other obstacles, like that pesky dining room table for instance, and completes its 3ft diameter cleaning as closely as possible given any possible obstacles.  Once done you’ll need to drop it back on its charging station though, as stated in the above section it can’t find its way back after such a move.

App

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Of course one of the other huge new features of the Roomba 980 is the new iRobot HOME app for Android and iOS.  This app allows you to remotely manage your Roomba 980 in every way possible, from scheduling regular cleaning times, adjusting settings or even starting a new cleaning job right away.  Previous Roomba models only allowed users to change these sorts of features via buttons on the top of the vacuum, however since the Roomba 980 is a connected vacuum the only way you can perform most functions is to use the app.  Pairing is a simple process, following the steps given in the app links you to your Roomba via your home’s WiFi connection.  I found that this pairing process wasn’t the most reliable thing in the beginning, as I set it up on 4 phones total and had to perform the step to connect the vacuum to the WiFi twice on all but one of these phones.  Once you pair the vacuum with your app it’s linked to your phone, and setting it up on a new phone means you need to pair the vacuum again to the phone.  After pairing and naming your Roomba you’ll be directed to the main screen, which prominently displays the giant clean button in the center of the display.

This clean button alternates between green and gray depending on the status of the vacuum.  Gray means the vacuum is between commands or is unable to be reached by the app, and a small globe in the top right will give you more information in case of a communications-based error.  A gray outside ring and green inside ring means it’s ready to accept commands, and will likely also display an additional message letting you know it’s fully charged and ready to clean.  Fully green with an exclamation mark means there’s been a problem during cleaning, and clicking on the error sign will give you additional info that’s not already present above the button.

Below the large button you’ll find some additional options, starting with the cleaning preferences button on the bottom left.  This allows you to select between carpet boost modes, making multiple cleaning passes for a spotless finish, cleaning the edges specifically where walls and floors meet, and finishing the cleaning if the dustbin gets full.  Back at the main screen, the middle button on the bottom denotes the scheduling feature, which allows you to schedule cleanings up to once per day at any given time, any day of the week.  Lastly are more options found in the bottom right button which include the care section, which will display how full the dust bin is and how dirty the debris extractors and other components of the vacuum are, as well as an included link to buy needed additional parts such as HEPA filters.

Additional help sections and how-to tutorial videos are found in this section as well in case you need assistance or information when taking care of the Roomba 980.  Job history is found here too and will let you know how many cleaning jobs the Roomba has completed, how long the Roomba has run, how many square feet it has cleaned and how many times the Dirt Detect sensor has spotted extra dirty spots.  Click on each entry in the history list will give you additional detailed information about cleaning time, duration, status and errors, how much area was cleaned and how many extra dirty spots were detected.  Lastly, the settings for the robot itself are found in this more options section as well, including the name of the robot and its birthday, WiFi settings, measurement units, language, toggling the standby mode and performing a factory reset if needed.

Maintenance and Battery Life

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The recommended maintenance schedule for cleanings is pretty simple.  iRobot recommends emptying the dust bin after every use and cleaning out the HEPA filter once per week.  Only one time during the last two weeks did the Roomba actually warn me that the dust bin was full, a sign that the dust bin is clearly large enough to do a full pass of my house without having to stop halfway to be emptied.  On the back of the Roomba you’ll find the detachable dust bin, from here the bin opens up via a simple pull-to-release flap and you can dump the contents into your household trash bin.  As is the issue with any bagless or waterless vacuum you’re bound to get lots of dust in the air if you’re not careful, a problem that’s not easily fixed with this type of bin.  The HEPA filter pops out behind another cover on top of the dust bin and can be brushed or air dusted via can of air and popped right back into place.  After a while this will get too dirty to keep cleaning and will need to be replaced, but that’s likely at least a few months down the road.

It's a bit of a fingerprint and dust magnet
It’s a bit of a fingerprint and dust magnet

Occasionally I needed to clean out the side-brush that’s located on the underside of the unit, as small strings and hair would get trapped in here.  One time the Roomba ran over a paddle-ball toy of my son’s and pulled off the elastic cord, which then got tangled in the side brush.  This was the only time the tangle was so bad the brush could no longer spin, which would not have been as big of a deal if the Roomba let me know this fact.  Unfortunately, it took me at least 2 days to notice this issue, which meant it cleaned the house for this long without using the side-brush to more efficiently clean.  Thankfully removing the side brush is done by a single flat-head screw and is easily placed right back on top.

The brushes on the underside worked just as well, only ever getting stuck a single time when it sucked up a cord just right and got it tangled on one of the grooves next to the brush tray.  Removing the cord was easy in this case and I never had to even remove the brushes, but if you do need to remove them it’s a super simple task.  The red tray that holds the brushes in the unit pops off with two spring-loaded plastic clips, and the brushes themselves pop right out of the unit.  I found a few hairs tangled in the sides after a few days but nothing significant and nothing that hampered the movement of the brushes.  The white brush always faces the front while the dark gray one faces the back, which is denoted on the unit underneath where the brushes are inserted.  Pay special attention to this because the grooves of each brush work differently and won’t even fit in the other spot, much less work properly.

Roomba's Worst Enemy
Roomba’s Worst Enemy

I found the outside of the unit got scuffed up quite a bit, and now there’s quite a few scratches and scrapes all over the place on the sides of the unit.  Some of these can be buffered out while others can’t, as you would expect from anything that get scraped or scratched.  Some users may not care for this look, but the thing to remember that, at the end of the day, this is still a vacuum and not a shiny piece of entertainment equipment that sits high for all to see.  Any additional maintenance related tasks including cleaning sensors and wheels regularly can be found within the care section of the app, all of which include helpful how-to videos.

Battery life wasn’t a concern at all for me personally, but it could become an issue depending on how last minute you schedule your cleanings.  In my testing it took about 3 hours to complete a full cleaning of my house, which included a full charge about 2/3 of the way through the cleaning.  It seems the Roomba can clean around 1200 square feet on a single charge, at least in my home, and then it has to return to home base for a fill up.  This charge takes about 80 minutes to fully complete, and then it’s off again to finish where it started.  As the Roomba likes to get every nook and cranny it can cram itself into, the more places like this you have in your house the longer the cleaning will take, and subsequently may require this additional charge or so.

Final Thoughts

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If anything having the Roomba around has made my house cleaner, and that’s not just to say because it’s sucking up the loose particles on the floor either.  Because it forces you to organize yourself a little better I found that the last two weeks of use have been some of the cleanest and most sane since my son was born two years ago, as my wife and I have had to reorganize and declutter our home to keep the vacuum working at its peak.  That’s not to say the vacuum couldn’t work around this, but it keeps it working better than it would otherwise, and it’s a great encouragement to keep things tidy where we otherwise might not.  Having the Roomba do the vacuuming for us really is a relief of burden that we never thought of having, but when it’s done automatically a new appreciation for such cleanliness is certainly realized.

Folks with kids or pets will know how impossible it seems to keep a clean house all the time, but I’ve found that my time with the Roomba 980 has easily been the cleanest and most organized my house has ever been.  While that’s certainly a combination of behavior on our part and performance on the Roomba’s part, the combination of the two has created a sort of zen-like home experience that we’ve wanted for a long time.  Will the Roomba 980 completely replace your manual vacuum at all times?  Absolutely not, there’s always going to be some place it can’t reach or some mess too large or ridiculous for it to adequately clean up, but in the vast majority of your home you’ll find a cleaner, tidier place than you’ve left it, and that sort of peace of mind is hard to put a price on.

Buy The iRobot Roomba 980 Vacuum