Featured Review: Neato BotVac Connected

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In 2010 when Neato Robotics launched as a major competitor to the well-known iRobot brand, many wondered how they would differentiate themselves from iRobot's products.  While the Neato vacuums are indeed similar robotic vacuums with automatic scheduling features and the ability to return home to charge mid cycle, Neato prided themselves on having both a lower cost product and one that more intelligently navigated around your house.  When it initially launched the first Neato XV series was the first to offer laser guided precision and whole-house mapping to help clean your house better than the competition.  Since then iRobot has launched the Roomba 980 with advanced navigation and connectivity with smartphones via an app, and Neato's BotVac expands on 2014's BotVac model with some tweaks to the design and internals, as well as a brand new app to keep it connected to you no matter where you're at.  Once again coming in at a pretty significantly cheaper price of $699, $200 cheaper than the Roomba 980, does this one offer a better value than the Roomba, or does it fall flat?  Let's take a look!

Unboxing and Setup

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Hardware and Design

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Since its inception, Neato's vacuums have featured a unique D shape that allows the vacuum to better reach corners without the aid of a side brush as the Roomba requires given it's circular design.  The advantages of this design are pretty immediately obvious, especially in scenarios where corners are involved, but there are also setbacks to each shape.  While the D shape offers considerably better corner cleaning, the unit could run the risk of not being able to maneuver itself between furniture or other objects that reside closer to one another, while a more round shape could possibly offer more ways to squeeze around this.  To get around this Neato has designed the BotVac with the ability to pick itself up, and the vacuum will actually lift its back-end up a few inches in order to fit itself more easily around and between objects when needed.

These large rubber wheels are found on the underside of course, mounted on the edges of the left and right sides right about at the midpoint of the vacuum.  These are the way the BotVac Connected pushes itself around the house, while 4 smaller rollers accompany it for smooth travel.  These rollers are located on the very back and just before the roller brush.  Also found on the underside is the rather small side brush which connects magnetically for easy cleaning and replacement when needed.  In addition to this are two cliff detection sensors, positioned on the very front of the unit on both left and rightmost sides for early detection before the wheels fall off the cliff.  Also towards the front is the roller brush, which consists of a standard fabric brush found in most vacuums, as well as a secondary silicone brush for better hard floor cleaning.  These brushes are spiraled around the BotVac to bring dirt and debris in toward the center.

Up top you'll find the flat side is actually the front, while the round side is the back of the BotVac, and as such the Clean and Spot Clean buttons are positioned right at the very front before the bumper.  This bumper helps the BotVac precisely navigate by lightly bumping into objects as it comes into contact with them by pressing in only a few millimeters.  The Spot Clean button features an obvious icon that looks like it would be cleaning the place around it, but the regular Clean button was a bit odd.  It's in the shape of a house, which to me means return home rather than clean my house, and while this is only confusing at first I think it could do with some rethinking for ease of use initially.

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Also a bit confusing were the navigation elements of the screen on the top right of the Neato, which is located near the laser navigation system.  The buttons to the right of the screen seem obvious at first, with up, down and left arrows seemingly letting you know which way to move through the menu, however I realized after getting frustrated with the selection process that the large rectangular button below the screen is actually the enter button, not the left arrow.  While I felt a bit dumb at first having not realized this (or read the manual first thing), it's not obvious that this is actually a button located under the screen, rather it looks like some sort of place to put a sticker or sub-model name instead.  Having this screen is a thing of genius though, and allows users access to all of the BotVac's features and settings instead of requiring users to connect it to the app the way the Roomba 980 does.

Navigation buttons are all good except for the odd Enter button below the screen
Navigation buttons are all good except for the odd Enter button below the screen

Aside from this up top is the laser guidance navigation ring, which actually swivels to map the house without requiring the entire robot to swivel as well.  This laser guidance module sticks up about an inch above the top of the unit and generally doubles as a way to keep the BotVac from getting under places too small for it, keeping it from getting stuck more often than if this weren't a protruding module.  Removing the dust bin, located just above the navigation buttons on the top, is done with a simple lift, no button press or latch release required.  An air filter is located on the dustbin and is detachable via a push clip.  Also located in this compartment is the on/off switch.  There's also an area here to use as a handle, which is located in the same indentation as the dustbin and can be used when it's attached or detached.  Around the back you'll find the exhaust for suction, as well as some additional sensors on the right side only, nothing on the left.

The charging base is much larger than the Roomba's and works very differently as well.  On the large vertical base station sits a pair of inductive charging stripes in which the BotVac Connected simply touches to charge, and given their size the BotVac doesn't have to precisely navigate right to the specific charging pin spot as the Roomba does.  It also features a nice cable management area on the back side to keep extra cable from hanging all over the place.  In the box you'll also find an additional silicone brush replacement, two ultra performance level filters

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Navigation

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Watching the BotVac Connected move throughout the house, gracefully rounding each corner and chair leg as it completely cleans the whole floor, is a thing of beauty.  While it's obvious that iRobot has improved their navigation in ways previous Roomba models could never dream of, Neato's laser-guided navigation and SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping) really are the better design.  The vacuum gets within millimeters of any object or piece of furniture and really accurately navigates throughout the house in an intelligent manner not really seen from other vacuums on the market.  It also breaks that room down into segments and cleans each segment thoroughly, not leaving until that segment has been completely covered.  This keeps the vacuum from getting lost and also ensures a more thorough cleaning.  This thing really is a perfectionist and it proves it every time it rolls off the charger and begins cleaning.

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The BotVac Connected can also find its way back to the base station to charge, or just when it's done cleaning your home.  The vacuum was able to get back nearly every time for me, and the only times I found it having trouble were when I had the base station placed too close to other objects or if it was located next to the Roomba I've still got in my house.  While you won't likely have both a Roomba and BotVac in the same house, it's entirely possible that one of iRobot's many other robots, like their mopping robots for instance, could be sitting near the BotVac in your house.  I found that moving the Roomba to somewhere else in the room helped return the BotVac home every time afterward.  The manual does also say that you'll need to give it some space to navigate on and off the base station, so a few feet on either side is optimal.

Some downsides to the navigation are that it isn't able to store the physical location in your house unless it actually moved there by itself.  This becomes a problem when you pick it up to spot clean, as when it's finished it'll just stop and tell you it's done.  The other issue comes when you hit end cleaning cycle on the app or vacuum and don't choose the "reset map and return home" option, as I've done on a number of occasions accidentally.  This second one is due more to the wording than anything else, but in either situation the vacuum simply cannot find its way back home and must be placed back on the base manually.

The perfect shape for cleaning corners
The perfect shape for cleaning corners

Inside the box you'll find a roll of magnetic striping that can be cut to any length to prevent the BotVac from entering certain areas of your home.  This could be done to protect wires and other small objects from becoming lodged in the BotVac, or to just keep it out of a room temporarily or permanently.  This methodology has it's positives and negatives when compared to the Virtual Walls that iRobot uses, including the fact that it requires no batteries and is generally cheaper overall.  Of course laying striping down won't work everywhere, as it either won't be the right size to fit in every space and the shape itself may not be the most efficient depending on what you're trying to cover.  Having rubber magnetic striping laid down all over your home doesn't exactly look great either, and you'll likely not be leaving these down on a regular basis.

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Cleaning process

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The BotVac sports a different brush design than the Roomba series does in a number of ways.  First off it's 50% larger than the Roomba 980's roller system and it placed on the very front of the unit, with Neato claiming that it works significantly better than the Roomba's because of these two things.  In addition to this it uses both an actual brush and a silicone one, which both alternate to help work on both carpet and hard floors evenly.  The obvious downside to having an actual brush instead of just silicone rollers is that hair and other small particles are inevitably going to get caught inside, and Neato acknowledges this by including a small comb in the box with the vacuum.  After having used the vacuum for the last 3 weeks, however, I can happily report that only a few hairs have gotten themselves stuck in here, and there's very little that needs to ever be cleaned out of the brushes.

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In general, the BotVac Connected is an extremely aggressive unit that really loves to get into every single nook and cranny it can cram itself into.  This is of course appreciated when you have lots of little spaces of miscellaneous sizes, like that small space in between chair legs, the space inbetween the bathtub and toilet, and anything else you can think of in your house that the BotVac wouldn't normally be thought to fit in.  The unit does this by raising its back legs up to thin the overall length of the unit out, and interesting technique that is followed by a shimmying movement to get all the way back into a space.  Besides this the unit will constantly try every little millimeter along the way to wedge itself between objects.  For instance I set up a magnetic strip between my dining room chair and a section with my son's train sets out, but the strip didn't extend the whole length of the area.  The BotVac tried for several minutes to keep coming back to this small section of uncovered floor in order to clean the area it saw beyond the strip, but since it can't actually pass the magnetic barrier it never made it through.

This super aggressive nature can get the BotVac into trouble though, and more than once I had it get stuck in a weird spot.  I also found that it aggressively will climb small objects such as toys, or again my son's train sets.  These sorts of obstacles can become big problems depending on their size or fragility, and you really need to be aware of what's lying around the floor as the unit won't necessarily stop for just anything it comes in contact with, usually only things as hard as furniture or walls.  I definitely felt like this made my house the tiniest bit cleaner than the Roomba 980 might have left it, but it was at the expense of having to worry about picking up every single little thing on the floors, whereas the Roomba would normally just ignore spots it detected anything in.  Being a robot this isn't consistent, as it relies on a limited set of sensors to map its environment, but in general this aggressive behavior meant I had to micromanage the vacuum more than I would have liked to.

After learning what objects can and cannot be left on the floor the cleaning process went much more smoothly than the first couple of days did.  I also found that there were certain sections of my couch that it would wedge itself under and get stuck, so adding some magnetic striping to those sections helped perfect the vacuuming process.  Most of the time I found this out via the app notifications, which are explained the in the section below, but the vacuum itself also makes some audible tones to let you know of status messages.  Most of these are just simple beeps though, unlike the Roomba's sing-songs, and don't really give the BotVac the charming character that I found the Roomba had.  This obviously isn't a big deal since, in the end, this is just a vacuum, but I enjoyed that little touch to the unit.  I also just generally don't care for the sounds the BotVac makes and don't feel they are distinct or obvious enough to give you a hint at what the problem is before viewing the status message.

It really wants to do the laundry too, but unfortunately it can't
It really wants to do the laundry too, but unfortunately it can't

This status message can be read either on the app or on the screen on the unit itself, and can range from the brush head getting stuck to the battery getting low, and all sorts of other status messages too.  What's funny are just how polite these error messages are, and they really help make up for the overly generic sounds the unit emits.  The robot always asks please and always presents a generally polite tone when asking you to do something and in general is very nice about its verbiage.  The vacuum also has two running modes that it can operate in: eco and turbo.  By default it's in turbo mode and is certainly louder than eco mode, although many other vacuums on the market are considerably louder.  If you've like a quieter mode, or one that just saves more power in general so the BotVac can get through the whole home without having to charge, switching to eco mode before starting is the way to go.  The BotVac will not automatically change between these modes, and there's no way to switch modes in the middle of a cleaning cycle, so choose wisely before starting.  Also notable is that the suction level is consistent no matter which surface the vacuum is on, so it won't turn up the suction when it hits carpet or turn it down on hard floors.

Spot cleaning is also a highlight of the BotVac Connected's features, and works incredibly well for when you've got a specific spot in your house that's gotten particularly dirty, such as the entrance after a rain storm for instance.  Settings the BotVac down and pressing the spot cleaning button on the top (or in the app) will send it on its merry way and will clean a multi-foot square or rectangle of space in front of and to the side of the vacuum.  This is in stark contrast to the Roomba 980 which cleans in a circular pattern about 3 feet out from where you place the vacuum, and I felt like it did a better job of spot cleaning in general.  Also notable is the fact that it will move around chair legs and other obstacles even while in the spot cleaning mode, something the Roomba simply didn't do.

App

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From the get go it's obvious that Neato is going for a clean and friendly aesthetic with its products, and that look and feel extends to the app as well.  Featuring a mix of Material Design and iOS design, the app overall is very attractive and mostly laid out well.  The initial setup process is painless and easy to go through, as you'll see from our unboxing and setup video, and the main interface is very clean and easy to use as well.  One of the biggest advantages the Neato app has over the iRobot app resides in the fact that your robot vacuum actually registers to your account, not to your phone.  This means that the vacuum can be used on multiple devices at once instead of a single device, so no matter how many Android or iOS phones you've got you'll be able to control your BotVac from the app.  Starting the vacuum from anywhere, no matter where you are in the world as long as you've got an Internet connection, really is an incredibly satisfying feeling.

The main screen features a card-like interface that'll be immediately familiar to all Android and Google Now users.  Each card represents a vacuum that can be controlled with the name, status and battery level right on the card face.  From here you'll be able to change the name of the vacuum, schedule cleanings and find out the model and serial number via the three buttons below the vacuum name.  Clicking on the card will bring up the controls for the vacuum, which resides on a separate screen.  Right in the middle of the controls screen sits a large play button, which becomes a pause button once the robot has started its job.  You'll also find battery level, status information and whether or not the vacuum is in eco or turbo mode.  The only part of the app where I felt the design could be better is in the bottom "drawer" in this controls section.  It's here that you'll change the mode between Clean House, Clean Spot or Manual Clean, and whether or not the vacuum should return to base or just to stop cleaning where it stands.  It would better serve users to just have these options located under the play/pause button, as I didn't realize that these modes were located here upon the first couple of uses (again see the unboxing video).

Eco or Turbo mode can be selected when scheduling cleanings, allowing users to give deep cleanings once or twice a week, with eco cleanings on other days.  The schedule can be adjusted for any day of the week and repeated on those days, and any number of different schedules can be added to the list.  One of the coolest features of the app is the manual mode, which is wholly unique to the BotVac.  In this mode you can completely manually control the robot, and it will let you run it into anything or over anything too, so being extra careful is very important while using this mode.  You'll also need to be on the same WiFi network as the BotVac Connected for obvious latency issues, and in general it's a pretty responsive mode.  You can only input one command at a time, so moving forward or backward will need to be done separately from turning, etc.  This mode is particularly handy if you've got a tricky spot that needs to be cleaned and the robot isn't able to do it on its own, or a spot cleaning is better done manually.

Notifications are a huge part of the app as well and provide the best way to receive messages from your BotVac.  These notifications alert you when any status change happens with the vacuum, whether it's beginning cleaning, successfully finishing cleaning, stopping to charge temporarily or a more specific error message.  In addition to notifications on your phone you'll of course receive notifications on your Android Wear powered watch, which are well laid out and can be read in a glance as they should be.  You'll also be able to start, pause and stop the BotVac right from your watch too, a convenience other robot vacuums simply cannot claim.

Maintenance and Battery Life

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Any machine will need maintenance from time to time, and the Neato BotVac Connected is no exception to this.  Thankfully the bulk of the maintenance is going to be simply emptying the dust bin and shaking off the filter after vacuumings, with little else needing to be done other than this on a regular basis.  Occasionally you will need to clean out the brush with the included comb, and the side brush may need to be re-attached or cleaned out as well.  Removing the main brush is done via a latch system that's removable easily by hand, and the brush just pops right out of its casing.  The side brush is even easier, as it's just magnetically attached to the rotating screw underneath.  In fact this brush might be a little too easy to remove, as I actually witnessed the vacuum run over a toy once and the brush popped right off, but once in 3 weeks time really isn't bad at all.

Remember that you'll need to pick up small objects, especially anything with cords or other long cables that can get stuck in the suction, as this will almost assuredly stop the vacuum completely.  I have little reason to think that anything like this would actually break the vacuum, as it simply shuts off when it gets stuck like this, however there's a distinct possibility that it could break objects that it runs over or sucks up, depending on their fragility.  More than once my son's train tracks were dismantled when being run over, but thankfully these sets are durable enough to withstand such torture.  Other items may not be so durable, such as cords that are low hanging and could get sucked out of their ports or sockets.  During a particularly nasty lodge you may have to take the brush out, which is as easy as popping off the clips and dislodging the cord or item.

The filter on the vacuum has to be cleaned much less than on the Roomba 980, which is likely due to the fact that it filters particles considerably smaller than the Roomba's filter can.  At 0.3 microns the Botvac Connected's filters keep even the smallest of particles from re-entering your household, trapping as much dust as possible inside that dustbin.  The filters are not washable, although brushing them out with a small brush or blowing them out with compressed air will likely extend their life beyond the 1-2 month life span Neato recommends.

Battery life was generally the same as on the Roomba 980, and I found that it cleaned somewhere around 1200 square feet before needing to return to base and recharge.  I found that it took about 3-4 hours total to clean my 1850 square foot dwelling including the charge time, which is a little longer than the Roomba 980 but not really a big deal.  Most of the time you're likely to schedule a cleaning while you're away from home, whether or not you manually press the clean button or actually just schedule this while you're at work or school.

Lastly we'll cover durability of the BotVac, which in general seems to be quite high.  It's a sturdily built piece of equipment, despite being built completely out of plastic (the Roomba is the same way for comparison's sake).  Unlike the Roomba, however, this one is mostly covered in a matte plastic with a bit of grit to it like sandpaper.  This makes the outside material much more resistant to scrapes and scratches, which is apparent if you look at one of the only shiny parts in the pictures; the dust bin.  It also picked up a bit of white paint from something, likely a baseboard or wall, which has been difficult to remove from the back of the vacuum.  In any case all of these are cosmetic blemishes, not any actual damage, and at the end of the day don't matter too much since this is just a vacuum, not a trophy or piece of the entertainment system.

Final Thoughts

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Neato's latest entry into the robot vacuum market is a true competitor in every sense of the word.  It's about 20% cheaper than its closest competitor and offers features the competition doesn't, even if it doesn't match toe for toe on every single level.  Having the Neato BotVac Connected in my home for the past 3 weeks has been a joy to say the least.  There were a few times in the first week where it got stuck on more obstacles than I would have liked, but once I learned what was OK to leave lying around and what needed to be blocked off things got much better.  Pair this with the advanced app with manual control, easy pairing to your Neato account and even Android Wear control and functionality built in, it's easy to see why this is likely the best value in all of the robot vacuum world.  At the end of the day though this will not replace your regular vacuum 100% of the time.  It can clean probably 90% of your dwelling without issue, but you might run into a situation where busting out the old reliable makes more sense.  This goes for any robot vacuum and is more of a limitation of the form factor than anything.  At $699 it's still not a cheap product, but it's cheaper than its competitors and again offers more functionality in many ways too, making this a surefire recommendation.

Buy The Neato Botvac Connected

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Assistant Editor

Nick has written for Android Headlines since 2013 and has traveled to many tech events across the world. He's got a background in IT and loves all things tech-related. Nick is the VR and Home Automation Editor for the site and manages the Android Headlines YouTube channel. He is passionate about VR and the way it can truly immerse players in different worlds. In addition, he also covers the gamut of smart home technology and home automation. Contact him at [email protected]

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