Intelligent robotic vacuums have been around for the better part of a decade now, and while they're certainly not an everyday part of life for most people, that doesn't mean that most people wouldn't want one eventually. There's plenty of competition in the smart vacuum space but the two names that will likely pop out to consumers are the iRobot Roomba line and Neato's Botvac line. Late last year both companies unveiled connected versions of their latest products, boasting not only new features for the vacuuming component of each unit, but also the ability to interface with these robots via an app on your smartphone. While both sport similar features and specs in many ways, there's one big difference between the two: price. At $699 the Neato Botvac Connected is $200 less than the iRobot Roomba 980, but which one is ultimately the better buy?
Speaking more about design, since its inception the iRobot Roomba series has sported a round hockey puck-like design that's become iconic in the industry. Conversely Neato uses a capital D-shaped design for the Botvac series, which is specifically designed for getting more of its base into those tricky corners. These designs aren't just aesthetic though, they are absolutely functionally different, but which one is more effective in your home? Let's take a look at a few different ways the design affects how these operate.
Both units are mainly powered by two large rubber wheels with deep treads, and both extend a few inches to give the vacuum the ability to lift off the ground a bit to cover uneven surfaces. The Roomba 980 has 2 different pairs of rollers in addition to these larger wheels to help it navigate your house with its circular design. The vacuum is able to keep straight and steady along the way and automatically adjust its height up to 2 inches on either side to adjust for throw rugs, carpet height differences and more. These wheels don't actually bring the vacuum up to a ledge though, they're just built to adapt to different heights, so you won't find the Roomba climbing stairs or anything like that. The additional wheels give it the ability to completely rotate in a circle rather than having to move forward or backward at all.
While the Neato Botvac Connected's two large wheels certainly resemble the Roomba's in the looks department, their functionality sets them apart. These are actually able to lift up and push the vacuum higher, an integral part of the Botvac's navigation and what enables it to get into more places than the Roomba might. By lifting the rear of the Botvac up, the vacuum itself assumes a smaller profile and is able to wedge itself between spots that it might not otherwise be able to get to. This works hand in hand with the brush to enable it to get into more places than the Roomba can. This includes places like behind the toilet and even into tighter areas like under chairs that the Roomba has a much harder time getting to, or can't get to at all.
What's not quite as obvious at first is how each vacuum deals with corners though. The Botvac's D-shaped design allows it to easily fit right into a corner, but since its rollers don't go all the way to the edge and it has a relatively small side brush, it's not actually able to grab everything that can go into a corner despite the initial thought that it can. The Roomba 980 is of course a circular design, which wouldn't normally fit into a triangular corner in any geometric fashion, however the Roomba's extra long rotating side brush lets it reach into these corners and throw out objects so that the vacuum can later pick them up. It's this side brush that makes all the difference in the world at getting in those hard to reach corners, and we found that more often than not the Roomba was able to grab pieces the Neato couldn't out of corners.
Getting around and into tight places is one thing, but actually being able to navigate to those places and back out again are an entirely different matter. Over the generations Roomba's navigation systems have worked in very similar ways; drive around in seemingly random directions, bump into walls and turn to go the other way. This method takes a lot longer to vacuum your house simply because there was no smart way of knowing where the vacuum is actually going, but with the Roomba 980 you'll find that iRobot has added a camera on the top so that the Roomba really can see its surroundings. In addition to that they've developed new algorithms that more intelligently work around the room to clean more quickly and efficiently as well.
What you'll find is a much smarter robot than previous iRobot vacuums, however the Roomba still relies heavily on the bump-and-go type of navigation. This causes it to miss some smaller areas, like pantries or closets at times, as the navigational path that was interrupted by bumping never ends up getting finished. This doesn't happen all the time of course, but it's still present. As the Roomba drives along you'll find that it slows down as it reaches walls and other objects, but always bumps into them to make sure it has reached the end of its path.
Neato's navigation is considerably better in every way, and it shows just by watching the vacuums do their thing throughout the house. The Botvac Connected is equipped with a laser-guided navigation system that first scans the room, only beginning its navigation after mapping nearby objects. As it drives around it will smartly navigate around objects such as chair and furniture legs, as well as other items around the room provided they aren't too small. The Botvac does still bump into things the way the Roomba does, but it doesn't do it as often and it clearly uses the bump mechanism for different means. This laser guided system allows it to more accurately move about the room and more thoroughly, ensuring that nearly every inch of your home gets cleaned by the Botvac.
Winner: Neato Botvac Connected
It might seem strange to attach a term like behavior to an object like a robot vacuum, but part of the vacuum's navigation system and programming inherently means it's designed to do something differently than the other would. As a rule of thumb the Botvac Connected is a very aggressive vacuum, and seems to take its job very seriously. This means that it sometimes will climb into places it shouldn't try to go, or suck up objects that are simply too large for its design. This means that if you have children who like to hide toys around the house, or you just forgot to pick up that lone sock after peeling it off your toes, the Neato is likely to try and suck it up. I found that the Botvac often got stuck where the Roomba wouldn't, and that also goes hand-in-hand with the Roller Brush section below.
The Roomba 980 feels quite the opposite of the Botvac Connected in attitude, and more like a happy-go-lucky droid from Star Wars rather than a purposeful robot on a mission. That doesn't mean the Roomba doesn't do a good job by any means, rather it means that the Roomba is more sensitive to things in the way, and will try its best not to get stuck on objects or in places it shouldn't go. Sometimes this meant that it didn't cover 100% of my floor because some object was in the way and covered a portion of the ground that the Roomba didn't want to try to get to, but most of the time it meant that the Roomba was able to complete its cleaning job of the whole home without getting stuck at all. This definitely wasn't the case with the Botvac Connected, so if you're someone who tends to have a few things lying around the floor, for any reason at all, the Roomba 980 will likely be a more stress free product for your life.
Winner: iRobot Roomba 980
Most vacuums on the market feature some sort of hybrid fabric and silicone roller brush in their cleaning heads, and as such the Neato Botvac Connected features a similar design for its roller brushes. The large single roller head underneath the Botvac connected contains an alternating spiral of two different kinds of materials; one a traditional brush style, while the other is a smooth silicone ribbon. These work hand-in-hand to alternate the types of friction and shape placed on surfaces, helping to ensure that particles are knocked loose from their grip by changing up what's actually trying to grab at them. While this works on some types of surfaces, it seems to be a mixed bag in general as far as actual cleaning power goes. Couple that with the fact that the bristles get hair and other long fabric stuck in them, which need to be dislodged from time to time, and you'll find the Botvac's rollers have some room for improvement. Cleaning this one is a bit of a pain too, as you need to use a comb (preferably the one included in the Botvac's box) to get all the hair out.
iRobot developed a new type of roller starting with the Roomba 880, and kept them onboard when releasing the Roomba 980 as well. This roller system actually contains two different rollers, each completely made of a silicone material, and each rotating inward to push particles toward the center suction valve. The ribbed silicone "brushless extractors" as iRobot calls them still pick up plenty of hair and other objects all without having to have the traditional bristles the Botvac Connected has. This doesn't mean the Roomba 980 can't pick up hair and other things that brushes are thought to pick up better though, in fact the truth is quite the opposite. Instead of getting hair stuck in its bristles (that don't exist), the rollers actually collect the hair in their hollow sides, which need to be cleaned from time to time, but don't get in the way of picking things up like they would in a traditional brush roller.
Winner: iRobot Roomba 980
Dust Bin and Filters
Regular maintenance of both vacuums means, among other things, emptying the dust bin and cleaning out the filter after every use. While this isn't necessarily a requirement, it's certainly recommended for keeping both vacuums up and running at their peak performance, as well as ensuring that their cleaning cycle doesn't get interrupted by a full dust bin or clogged filter somewhere along the way. What makes a good design though? There are multiple parts to this system and all of them come together to crown a winner. Starting with the Roomba 980 we're looking at a HEPA-style filter capable of filtering out particles as small as 10 microns. This filter is at the end of the AeroForce cleaning system and is the final destination for particles that have been sucked up from your floors.
Removing the dustbin on the Roomba 980 takes quite a bit of force though, and often times I was worried that I would break the latch that keeps the bin inside of the Roomba's back section when trying to pull it out. This force has also caused me to spill some of the contents from time to time, although the design of the dustbin's hinge generally prevents that. Opening the container to empty it is simple enough, but cleaning out the filter is a little more messy. The filter itself has a small tag on it for easy removal, but it gets clogged very easily and needs to be blown out frequently. It also contains lots of loose particles that will fly away when removing it, meaning you should always do this outside if possible.
Neato's design on the Botvac Connected seems to be better in basically every way, starting with the design of the container. Located on the top and just a simple lift away from pulling it off the Vacuum, the dustbin on the Botvac Connected is effortless to remove and clean. The one caveat is that you'll need to make sure you don't tip it toward the opening on the bin, as that will spill a fair amount of its contents out before you make it to the garbage can to place the goodies the Botvac has picked up around your home. In addition to this the filter that ships with the Botvac Connected is an "ultra" filter as Neato calls them, and is the highest rated of the 3 filters Neato offers for its vacuums. This filters out particles as small as 0.3 microns in size, a significantly smaller size than iRobot's filters so.
Winner: Neato Botvac Connected
While it's nice to be able to let the vacuum roam around your home and clean to its desire, sometimes there are places you just don't want the vacuum to go. Many rooms in your home likely have doors if you want to keep the vacuum out, but what about those places with cables and other things that can be easily sucked up, or get your vacuum stuck during the cleaning cycle? Both vacuums ship with barriers to keep them out of unwanted places, but these are vastly different designs that not only look different but function wholly different as well.
Neato ships the Botvac Connected with a large rolled up strip of magnetic "tape" that you can place around your home to keep the Botvac out of these forbidden spots. These worked best for me when placing them around my entertainment unit, for instance, where the strips could overlap the legs of the piece of furniture and keep the vacuum from going underneath to suck up cables and potentially cause monetary damage. They didn't work so well in other parts of my home though, particularly where there was nowhere for the magnetic strips to hold on to. Neato has designed the Botvac to stop instantaneously when it reaches these magnetic strips, however the vacuum has to traverse along the perimeter of these strips to figure out where the boundary lines are. It's in this situation that you'll find the strips often get pushed along the floor, especially if you've placed them on tile or wood, and become significantly less effective than initially intended.
iRobot's design is far superior though, and it utilizes a laser barrier to keep the Roomba 980 from getting anywhere near the barriers. These barriers are small 6-inch tall towers that function in one of two ways depending on which way the switch on the side is placed. The top mode is a straight line, where an invisible beam is sent out from the small hole on the front of the unit which the Roomba will not cross. This is ideal for blocking off doorways or hallways, among plenty of other areas. The bottom selection is a radial shield, which keeps the Roomba from coming within a 10-inch radius of the tower for a total of a 20-inch diameter circle around the tower. This type works best for pet food dishes and the like, but of course there were a few times where these seemed to pass through thinner walls, like a pantry, and cause the Roomba to have navigation problems in these spots. There's also the downside to requiring 2 AA batteries, whereas the Botvac's obviously don't, but the other positives far outweigh the negatives.
Winner: iRobot Roomba 980
Having a connected app is literally the biggest feature of either of these two models over previous generations of products from either company, so it seems fitting to crown a winner in this category. Each app has a very different design to it, both in navigation and function. Both apps feature the ability to remotely start, pause, stop and return your unit to its charging base. Both apps let you schedule times during the week where each vacuum will automatically clean on a schedule, and both apps also feature tutorials and helpful ways to keep each vacuum running at its best. Both apps also deliver notifications letting you know if your vacuum got stuck or has finished its job. There are plenty of similarities, but let's take a look at what's different.
Neato's app uses an account sign in where you pair your robot vacuum to your account. This allows you to sign into your account on multiple devices and to control the vacuum from any of these devices. It also makes a neat way to keep track of all your Neato products and additional vacuums if you have them. In addition to that you can manually control your Botvac Connected from the app as well, a feature that's wholly unique to the Botvac Connected. This gives you very precise control using a virtual directional pad and lets you clean any area that might need extra manual control instead of letting the robot do it itself. Neato has also built in Android Wear (and Apple Watch) support for easy management of your vacuum straight from your wrist, including richer notifications. What it doesn't to terribly well is provide detailed information about your vacuum, or allow you to configure all the possible settings. These missing settings are found on the display on the vacuum itself and need to be configured there. There's also no way to remotely update the firmware of your vacuum, rather you need to download the firmware to a computer, drop it on a USB drive and plug it into your Botvac.
iRobot Home, on the other hand, pairs with your vacuum instead of using an account system. This means you'll need to open the app and find the vacuum on the local network with each phone you want to control the vacuum from. This is more of a hassle than a simple account system, but ultimately doesn't affect how many phones can control the vacuum remotely. You also can't control the vacuum manually like you can with the Neato Botvac Connected, so you'll just have to rely on spot cleaning or automatic cleaning. What the app does do very well, however is not only provide a place for all your connected iRobot products, but also deliver information about each as well. From here you can check the how full the Roomba 980's bin is, how dirty each of its sensors onboard are, and how dirty the debris extractors are. This provides an easy to see way to know exactly when you need to maintain your vacuum on a regular basis, and also provides in-app videos and instructions on how to clean and repair all these things too, whereas the Neato app just launches your browser and navigates to the Neato support site.
In addition to this you'll find that you can adjust all the Roomba 980's settings from the iRobot Home app, something that's very good since there's no way to interface with the vacuum otherwise. iRobot also tracks detailed statistics for every single thing the Roomba 980 encounters such as how many times the robot has cleaned your home, the square footage covered, how many spots it found that were extraordinarily dirty, total run time and the number of total cleaning jobs completed. This helps you know when the vacuum has actually run and provides more information than you might have realized you wanted. While manual control, accounts and Android Wear support are definitely an excellent part of Neato's app, the rest of the features of iRobot Home end up eclipsing Neato's efforts simply because they are more useful in the end if you can only have one set of features or the other. This one isn't a hands-down winner by any means but it's clear enough for us to pronounce a winner in this category.
Winner: iRobot Roomba 980 (iRobot Home app)
While this isn't a category that will determine which vacuum operates or cleans better, it's a category that you might not initially think of when considering which of these robots will reside in your home. Personality isn't normally something we associate with appliances, but these think a little harder than an oven or washing machine, and as such end up becoming a little more than an appliance in our minds. The beeps and boops from the Neato Botvac Connected are pretty rudimentary and generally consist of one or two different kinds of beeps. The problem with these isn't the sounds themselves, rather the lack of variety or interest in the sounds. Most of the time it's impossible to distinguish from an error or any other kind of notification the vacuum is trying to tell you as it uses the same beep for nearly everything.
iRobot built a little more personality into the Roomba 980 though, as it sings and whistles with various commands or error messages, and even makes cute backing up sounds as it moves from its charging base to clean your floors. I gave my Roomba 980 the name of R2-D2 before I even knew this, and I realized after using it that this name turned into a prophetic name of sorts. It really does feel more like a droid from Star Wars than a simple appliance, and the distinct sounds and calls from the vacuum will have you recognizing what it wants almost every time.
Winner: iRobot Roomba 980
We could spend seemingly endless paragraphs describing the nuances of each vacuum's cleaning powers and which situations work best for each design, but we thought pictures would speak louder than words on this one, specifically moving pictures. We put each vacuum through a series of 6 tests to see which vacuum would clean the best, and the results were very surprising at times. Check out the YouTube video below to see who won that!
The iRobot Roomba 980 came away with 5 wins in this comparison, while the Neato Botvac only came away with 2. The actual cleaning results were pretty even though, and prove that design choices don't mean everything when it comes to performance at the end of the day. What's more it really seems to depend on what sort of home you have as to which vacuum you're going to want to pick. At $699 the Neato Botvac Connected retails for $200 cheaper than the iRobot Roomba 980, and that sort of price difference could make or break your decision when you're having a hard time deciding between the two. There are trade-offs no matter which one you choose, but for us the Roomba 980 takes the slight edge in terms of performance and design, while the Botvac Connected takes a clear win in the price and value category. Either way each vacuum is going to deliver a solid experience that will keep your home cleaner than ever before and completely change the way you think about something as menial and annoying as vacuuming. Weigh your options here and sound off on your favorite, and don't forget to check out the full written reviews of both the iRobot Roomba 980 and the Neato Botvac Connected if you want more specific details on each of these fantastic products.