Review: Xiaomi Mi Robot Vacuum

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By Nick Sutrich January 26, 2017, 10:00am
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Highlight - Half the price of the competition, yet equal performance and better navigation

2016 was a hallmark year for Xiaomi. Once a company that more or less made custom aftermarket firmware for Android phones, Xiaomi has turned into a bustling member of China’s technology infrastructure, selling everything from phones to cars, rice cookers to air purifiers. Keeping in the theme of making our homes smarter, Xiaomi has jumped into the robot vacuum wars, and it’s doing so in the usual Xiaomi style. Offering a product that appears similar to its competitors in both looks and function, Xiaomi is selling the Mi Robot Vacuum for about half the price of the competition, or around $350. At this price Xiaomi must have cut something out, or did they? Let’s take a look.
Hardware and Design

It’s pretty apparent that most robot vacuums get their design from the top-name competitors in this sector, namely iRobot’s Roomba series. While the Xiaomi Mi Robot Vacuum certainly looks a lot like the Roomba 980 that iRobot released in the last year or so, there are enough changes here in both design and function to set it apart from that particular unit. Featuring the same hockey puck-like design as the Roomba 980, the Xiaomi Mi Robot Vacuum indeed has nearly identical measurements to iRobot's latest robot vacuum too. Measuring in at 34cm in diameter and 7cm high, the Mi Robot Vacuum is a sizable vacuum that's designed to get under as much furniture as possible.

Up top the laser-guided navigation hump measure about 1.5cm high, giving just enough of a bump to hopefully keep the Mi Robot Vacuum from getting lost under furniture of a certain height. On top you'll find a simple button setup; just two buttons, a power button and a home button, of which we'll describe the uses for later. Around these buttons is a lid that lifts up and covers most of the top surface of the vacuum. Under here is a description of what each button does, as well as a WiFi indicator LED and a reset button for a full factory reset if something goes wrong. Sitting above these buttons is a removable dust bin, which features a built-in HEPA filter. Air flow comes in through the rollers on the bottom, into the dust bin and out via the HEPA filter to the back of the vacuum.

Around the back you'll find the oversized charging pins, which gives the vacuum a bit of leeway when parking itself for charging sequences.  Exhaust vents sit on either side of these charging pins, and you'll find a set of sensors both on the right side of the vacuum as well as on the front. On the front of the vacuum you'll find a molded plastic button that stretches around the entire front half, giving the vacuum a button that essentially tells it to stop moving whenever pressed. Much like the Roomba 980's design, this button is pushed any time the vacuum runs into something and helps it map the space around the room.

The underside of the vacuum features two large rubberized wheels with alternating traction points, both of which push in about 5-6cm. These wheels have a tensor that keeps them extended when weight is not immediately pressing on them, meaning when the vacuum is on an uneven surface it's more likely to even itself out using these tense wheels. Xiaomi has placed a wheel at the very front of the bottom of the Mi Robot Vacuum that spins 360-degrees, giving the vacuum an easy way to take tight corners at a whim. Just like the Roomba 980 you'll find a large rotating brush with 3 extensions, like spokes of a wheel, sitting just in front of the right back wheel. This brush rotates clockwise toward the center of the vacuum, pushing particles inward to the brushes and suction in the center.

It's the design of the rotors that differ the most from the Roomba 980's design, and it's here that we see an almost identical design to the Neato Botvac Connected. The single rotating brush on the Mi Robot Vacuum is made up of a silicone core with 3 extensions outward, making 3 flat sweeping components in a spiral shape. Additionally you'll find 3 traditional brushes wrapped around this silicone core, making an alternating pattern between bristle and silicone wipe, theoretically providing a perfect balance between sweeping and scrubbing actions. All this is held into a container that's secured via a removable plastic flap, making cleaning and other maintenance schedules as easy as possible, as the brush simply sits inside the container and doesn't need to be locked or unlocked into place.

Navigation


Prominently placed on top of the unit is the laser guided navigation system, a piece that looks similar to the likes of Neato’s Botvac Connected, and indeed shares many behavioral and navigational patterns with that product. Utilizing a Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) algorithm to map your home and calculate intelligent patterns to move throughout, Xiaomi’s claim to fame with the Mi Robot Vacuum is its so-called AI navigational routines. Xiaomi states that the Mi Robot Vacuum doesn’t just follow a map and attempt to clean 100% of the floor space in your home by following simple directions, rather that its vacuum can actually think to some degree and calculate the best cleaning pattern, no matter the obstacle. This is evident in the way the vacuum handles obstacles like chair legs and other things that it can simply navigate around and between.

Xiaomi’s vacuum runs an initial scan of the surrounding area upon start and splits the room up into approximately 4 by 4 meter (13x13ft) sections. You'll find the vacuum generally faces its right side toward walls in order to fully utilize that rotating brush, pushing particles inward toward the suction and brushes. From here the vacuum makes a perimeter sweep around this sectioned off area first, mapping out any obstacles that might get in the way of its path. Next it “fills in” this section by making rows of passes, all a calculated distance away from each other so as not to overlap.

It's pretty clear the Mi Robot Vacuum is able to navigate around other objects that get in its path without obstructing the bigger picture of cleaning the room. Unlike some other vacuums in the industry that hit an obstacles and immediately go the other way, Xiaomi's AI-guided navigation spends the time to not only clean around objects present in the room, but doesn't overlap them as it goes back in its normal segmented pattern. The sensors on this vacuum are so accurate that it comes within millimeters of walls and other objects without normally bumping into them. It will occasionally bump into chair legs or other smaller obstacles like that, but it's infrequent enough to take notice. You'll also find that the cliff detection sensors on the bottom of the vacuum will keep it from falling off ledges, like stairs or other changes in floor elevation.

One thing that's hard to tell initially is how aggressive the vacuum can be. Gliding around the floor as it does, avoiding objects as much as possible and taking intelligent routes are certainly the norm, but when it sees a spot it can't quite get to, or gets stuck under something, the gloves come off. As was the problem with the iRobot Roomba 980 and Neato Botvac Connected we reviewed last year, the height of the Xiaomi Mi Robot Vacuum is just short enough to fit under my furniture at times, a problem that rears its head since the frames of the couches aren't flat on the bottom. This makes the vacuum simply get stuck under the couch, and eventually it simply gives up and throws an error. Other times only part of the vacuum will get stuck under the frame, and it's these times that can be really worrying.

I've seen the vacuum force its way sideways as part of it is stuck while the other is free enough to move, and this can easily damage some furniture out there in just a few seconds. It also creates a rather nasty skidding of the wheels as they move sideways, a direction the non-rotational wheels in the back aren't designed to move. It's in these times that it feels like Xiaomi has a bit of work to do when it comes to tweaking the navigation and behavior at times, but this is the only place I found that it truly needs work of any kind.

Virtual barriers are certainly a point of contention too, but this is more down to the design of Xiaomi's virtual barriers than anything on the vacuum itself. Much like Neato's virtual barriers, Xiaomi's virtual barriers are simple magnetic strips. This stripping can be cut into pieces to fit between door frames, under furniture and in places you simply don't want the vacuum to go. While this sounds like a great idea, in practice it doesn't work so well. These strips have little weight to them and often get pushed by the vacuum as it attempts to move around the pieces as if they were a real wall and somehow physically capable to push back against the force of the vacuum. It's certainly possible to make these work, but they require a little more ingenuity on the customer's part than iRobot's easy lighthouse virtual wall design does. To make matters worse Xiaomi doesn't even ship the vacuum with them, rather you'll need to add these to your cart when buying the vacuum to ensure you have a way to block its path when needed without having to use physical barriers.

Cleaning Process

A big differentiation between Xiaomi's vacuum and others on the market are the use of actual human voices and speech for its status messages. All other vacuums either only make noises like a Droid out of a Star Wars movie, or make no sounds at all and only give LED lights as an indicator that there might be a problem. What's particularly nice about Xiaomi's voice errors is that there's no questioning what the error might be. A friendly female voice comes through the speakers on the vacuum loud and clear, and there's no way to muddy up the message at all.  There's just one big problem for quite a few folks out there; it's only spoken in Chinese.

Just as we'll cover with the app below, Xiaomi only officially sells this product in China, and while it's super easy to import through a company like GearBest, it's still only supported in Xiaomi's home land. This is the only real negative in this section, and we thought it prudent to cover it first since it's a big part of the daily operation of the vacuum. Still it's not hard to listen for the cadence of the voice to eventually figure out what common errors sound like, even if you cannot understand the words themselves. The vacuum gives messages for every little thing too, including starting pausing, returning home, and of course any problems that occur in the cleaning process.

By default the Mi Robot Vacuum runs at a medium suction level, or level 2 of 3 suction levels. Users can only adjust this suction level using the app, unfortunately, and unlike the Roomba 980 there's no sensor on the bottom to automatically adjust the suction level depending on the surface. This suction level has a direct effect on battery life, for obvious reasons, which we'll discuss below. At this default medium level of suction the noise level is actually quite low, and it would be comfortable running the vacuum at this level even while going about regular business in the house. Ramping this suction level up to high creates unpleasant levels of noise, and it's likely you'll only want to run the vacuum at this level to give carpets an extra cleaning while you're away from the house, as it's pretty easy to get annoyed by this noise level constantly going around the house.

Area rugs can be one particularly tough spot when it comes to robot vacuums, and it's all down to how the brush moves these lighter pieces around. Xiaomi's design with a single roller brush does a respectable job of cleaning area rugs, but those lighter area rugs will need to be picked up first, otherwise there's a very high chance they'll get sucked into the vacuums rollers and cause the vacuum to forcibly stop. More rigid area rugs, or cut pieces of larger rug samples were able to be cleaned by the Mi Robot Vacuum without issue, and as such it was nice not to have to pick up every single thing along the way when running the vacuum.

Smaller objects should always be picked up before running the vacuum, but the Mi Robot Vacuum handled many smaller objects without issue. Items like Nerf darts, army men and other small toys either were simply pushed around the floor as the vacuum made its way around, or if they were sucked up they successfully made their way completely into the dust bin, keeping the vacuum from getting hung up on them. Strings should always be avoided though, as these could get wrapped around either the rotating side brush, or the roller underneath the vacuum itself, causing the vacuum to get stuck and needing to be freed from the string's clutches.

Spot cleaning is another task the Xiaomi Mi Robot Vacuum performs incredibly well in, but it's a setting that's unfortunately hidden. Some other robot vacuums have a button specifically dedicated to the spot clean, or target clean as iRobot calls it. The Mi Robot Vacuum, however, requires a long press of the power button for a few seconds to activate this mode. This is obviously confusing and unnecessarily hidden, especially given it's an important function of the vacuum itself. It's also a shame because there's the very real possibility that users will never know this mode exists without reading the documentation provided. Xiaomi's spot clean mode works exactly like a miniature version of its whole-house cleaning mode, and maps out an approximately 3x3 meter square in an area to clean. It starts by making a perimeter of the area, followed by rows of cleaning to fill the square in. Any obstacles within the square will be worked around intelligently, and the Mi Robot Vacuum covers 100% of this square with ease.

App

Xiaomi uses its universal Mi Home app to interface with the Mi Robot Vacuum, meaning if you have other Xiaomi smart home products, all of them will be linked in this single app. This creates an obvious easy management point for all your Xiaomi smart home products, and is a brilliant design on Xiaomi's behalf in order to keep the consumer both more informed about the existence of all Xiaomi's smart home products, as well as keeping them from getting confused by dozens of different apps for different products. The biggest downside here is that Xiaomi's products are sold on a regional basis, meaning selecting Mainland China as your location is the only option to add all of Xiaomi's products into this app. Any other location, be it India, Singapore, Taiwan or the US, will simply not allow users to add the Mi Robot Vacuum to the app. This is a strange design decision, as it's understandable that Xiaomi has regionally sold and marketed products, but restricting them unnecessarily in the app causes confusion.

Something else that's unfortunate, and maybe even a bit strange depending on how you view it, is the fact that all the menus and options for the Mi Robot Vacuum within the app are in Chinese. Regardless of your physical location, you can set your default language within the Mi Home app, however it appears to ignore this setting for products that are only sold in mainland China. Luckily Google Translate offers a visual way to translate languages, and in fact using another phone to translate what's on my phone made it easy to understand how to use the app. Use it enough times and you'll remember where things are and what the icons mean, but this won't help people who don't have another phone or way to translate the text. Below we've placed screenshots of what Google Translate has translated in each section of the app, just to get an idea of what the app looks like.

Setting up the vacuum within the app is simple, again as long as you've selected Mainland China as your server from the settings menu of the Mi Home app. The Mi Robot Vacuum is automatically discoverable when it cannot connect to a WiFi access point (i.e. if you've freshly taken it out of the box), and as such the app will automatically find the vacuum and pair with it when choosing to add a new device to Mi Home. From here everything is connected to your Xiaomi account, so the Mi Robot Vacuum can be easily controlled via any phone running the Mi Home app and signed into your Xiaomi account. There's no need to pair the vacuum with your phone or anything like that, and it uses your home's WiFi in order to connect to Xiaomi's servers.

Essentially all modern robot vacuums are now equipped with Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) algorithms to keep track of where the vacuum has cleaned in your home, but Xiaomi is one of the few companies that openly provides that visual data to users via the app. This app isn't just a map of your home though, it's also a real-time tracker to show where the vacuum is in your house, as well as a way to see exactly where the vacuum has cleaned and how its path throughout the home is laid out. This can help identify any problem areas, as well as help find the vacuum in case it gets lost or stuck somewhere.

The main interface of the app also provides some quick important information including battery life remaining (or if it's charging), as well as how long the last run took and how many square meters the vacuum cleaned. From here there are three buttons on the bottom that will give quick access to three vital functions of the vacuum; from left to right, send the vacuum home to charge, start a cleaning, and adjusting the suction power between low, medium and high. Much of the rest of the app is pretty standard fare for a robot vacuum, but they are nice features to have regardless of commonality with other vendors out there. Cleanings can be scheduled once per day for any day of the week, and you can even set up a "do not disturb" time where the vacuum will never run (i.e. at night).

The robot itself keeps tracks of how much floor space it has cleaned, as well as how much time it has spent cleaning. This is given in a cumulative number at the top of the "clean record" section, with a breakdown of each cleaning cycle below. Impressively the mapping data for each section is also stored, so you can see exactly where the vacuum went in your home every single time it ran. This is probably one of the more impressive historically tracked aspects of the vacuum and the software itself. In addition to this Xiaomi provides a full user manual within the app, as well as how often maintenance needs to be done on the vacuum, which is discussed in more detail below. Lastly all firmware updates for the vacuum are handled directly through the app, and it will notify you any time there is an update available. During the testing period since mid November we've received one firmware update, which addressed some bugs and connectivity issues the vacuum seems to have had before hand.

Maintenance and Battery Life

Part of cleaning your home means the vacuum inherently gets dirty itself and needs to be cleaned. Xiaomi's dust bin design is nothing short of excellent, and seems to borrow concepts from Neato's Botvac line, all while adding some unique touches on this design to make it even better. Lifting the lid reveals the dust bin, which easily slides out as it's not locked in to place at all. The design of the dust bin sucks debris in from the front side of the bin, pushing the particles toward the back and through the HEPA filter, out the back of the vacuum. This HEPA filter meets the criteria to be European E11 HEPA certified, meaning it's designed to filter out 95% of all particulate matter that gets pushed into it. This design also helps the vacuum's suction from being affected negatively so long as there is room in the dust bin, however the more full the dust bin gets, the less effective the suction is going to be.

The dust bin should be emptied with every use, and the filter is designed to last a handful of uses (regularly one week) without needing to be blown out. I found knocking the filter against pavement outside, or another hard surface like this, releases enough particles to suffice for cleaning it on a regular basis. Compressed air will help keep the filter good for longer, but these filters are rated at a 3 month life span and should be replaced accordingly to ensure ample suction and cleaning power. Subsequently the brushes on the underside, including the main roller brush and the side brush, should be visually inspected on a weekly basis, or if the vacuum gets stuck.

The main roller is attached via a simple drawer on the bottom, which locks into place with two push pins. These push pins are easily released with fingers, and the brush slides out without fuss. As this is a hybrid brush/silicone roller, you'll find that hair will get wrapped around the bristles and occasionally needs to be cut free. In general most of these types of particles get wrapped around the main brush, but every now and then you'll find one that will make its way to the edges, however these don't seem to affect the performance of the rollers at all. Similarly the side brush, which is held on by a Phillips type screw, can be easily removed and cleaned if hair gets wrapped around it.

The unit seems to hold up to wear and tear quite nicely, and it's likely that much of this is because it is white and doesn't show scrapes and bumps as easily as the darker colored Roomba 980 and Neato Botvac Connected do. After 3 months of usage I found the Mi Robot Vacuum only looks a tad bit worn, even though it managed to lodge itself under my furniture just as much as other robot vacuums of the same size and shape did. Similarly the battery life on the Mi Robot Vacuum seems to be above average too, and I found that in most circumstances the vacuum was easily able to clean my entire home (1,350 square feet total) without having to return for a top-up charge on medium suction settings. Turning the suction up to high forced the vacuum to return at around 60% of the job being done to top-up charge, which added an additional hour to so to the total cleaning time. The 5,200mAh battery inside the vacuum is roughly double that of the average smartphone battery, for size reference.

Xiaomi ships the Mi Robot Vacuum with a large charging base that includes wide charging pins; the perfect design for keeping the Mi Robot Vacuum in tight places so that it doesn't have to precisely line up its pins like the iRobot Roomba 980 or Dyson 360 Eye have to. The Mi Robot Vacuum will charge itself automatically when the battery gets low, and I never once had a time where the vacuum died during cleaning because it couldn't make its way back to home base. This base station charges rather quickly, about an hour in total from empty to full.

Final Thoughts

Xiaomi has crafted one of the best, if not the absolute best, robot vacuums on the market. For around $350 you're getting a robot vacuum that's comparable in nearly every way to other considerably more expensive options on the market, all while offering some features that they don't. Couple this with the excellent cleaning power and the superb navigational skills of Xiaomi's new AI-powered logics, and you've got a vacuum that's difficult to beat. Users who don't speak or read Chinese will definitely have a learning curve here though, as the app and spoken voice are solely in Chinese, and at this time there's no way to change that. Regardless of this hurdle, the vacuum is more than worth spending a little time to figure out, as it's not only going to make your home cleaner than ever, it's guaranteed to make you happier.

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January 26, 2017, 10:00am
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