Lower price and tons of features make this vacuum a winner
iRobot’s range of robotic vacuums continues to expand, with its latest high-end vacuum being offered at a $200 less price point than the top-tier Roomba 980. As a result the Roomba 960 offers a motor that’s not quite as feature-rich, and a smaller battery, but it’s likely that many people won’t notice the difference if they’re in a smaller dwelling or don’t mind the vacuum taking longer to clean up the whole house. Is it worth saving $200 over the bigger brother model, or does the old adage of “go big or go home” apply with iRobot’s line? Let’s take a look.
In the Box
Opening the box reveals that vacuum itself prominently placed at the top, with all accessories and extras below. You’ll of course find a charging dock here for placing somewhere in your house, allowing the robot to charge itself as it cleans. The usual set of manuals and help guides is included too, and you’ll also find a single Virtual Wall lighthouse here, as well as 2 AA batteries to power it. For those first few months of maintenance, iRobot has included an extra HEPA filter and one extra side brush as well, which should help cut down on the initial cost of the investment here.
Hardware and Design
From a design perspective you’d be hard pressed to find any visual differences between the Roomba 960 and the more expensive Roomba 980, outside of a different coat of paint of course. You’ll not only find the same sized device as the Roomba 980, but one that appears to have every function of that vacuum as well. Up top sits the camera, angled and residing beneath protective glass to give the Roomba 960 a visual of the room around it. Above the camera you’ll find three buttons: a large silver Clean multi-function button in the center, with a smaller home button to its left and a target clean button to the right. Above that is the trademark retractable handle that makes picking up the vacuum easy, as well as a small protruding knob at the top that serves two purposes: navigational aide to guide it towards the base and away from the Virtual Walls, and a way to keep the vacuum from going too far under furniture it shouldn’t.
Around the front of the vacuum you’ll find the bumper, which takes up about half of the circumference of the vacuum itself and pushes in to let the vacuum know it has reached an impassable object. Around the back is the removable dustbin, which also houses the removable HEPA filter inside. Underneath you’ll find the bulk of the sensors and other instrumentation, including a number of sensors located all around the edge of the vacuum that act as a way to keep the vacuum from falling off edges like stairs. Starting from the front-most facing part of the underside, you’ll find a small 360-degree rotating wheel for pinpoint turning accuracy. On either side of this wheel sits over-sized charging contacts for easy automatic recharging. To the right is the dirt sensor, which scans the floor beneath the Roomba 960 as it moves and identifies places where there might be more debris than others, triggering an extra cleanup cycle. To the left of the charging contacts is the side-rotating brush that sweeps particles inward toward the suction rollers.
These suction rollers are positioned just below the midpoint of the vacuum and are located between the main wheels. Both rollers are made of a silicone material instead of having traditional brushes, and iRobot refers to them as Debris Extractors instead of rollers to differentiate the technology. These rollers spin inward toward one another, grabbing debris on either side and pushing it into the suction chamber located between and above them. The wheels on either side of the debris extractors are made of a hard rubber and are checkered for extra grip. These wheels also adjust vertically about 2 inches to help with uneven surfaces, as well as climbing and descending small inclines like flooring transition strips.
iRobot’s navigation over the years has improved considerably since the early days of the Roomba series. Since the Roomba 980 made its debut a few years back, we’ve seen improved navigation on all of iRobot’s vacuums, in particular ones that come equipped with a camera. The Roomba 960 is one such vacuum, sporting a camera on top that works in conjunction with the many other sensors on board to provide a whole-home solution for navigation. Using the SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping) algorithm, the Roomba 960 actually maps out your home as it traverses the landscape of flooring types. This isn’t unique to the Roomba 960 by any means, but it, combined with a newly updated app that actually displays the map your Roomba has made, means that navigation is better and smarter than ever. There were a few times in the review process in which the Roomba 960 got stuck on an object, lodging a string in its wheels or an area rug in the suction motor, and pulling up the app showed me immediately in the house where the Roomba was located thanks to the map.
As a rule the Roomba begins each cleaning cycle by moving forward until it comes in contact with an object or wall, and then turns around to cover the center of a room in a grid-like pattern. Once the edges of a room are identified, as well as edges or legs of furniture, the Roomba 960 will go around these edges and clean up any stray debris that may have made their way into the corners. Edge cleaning can be turned off if you so desire, but out of the box this is the standard behavior. The general navigation of the Roomba 960 doesn't feel as smart as something like the Xiaomi Mi Robot Vacuum, but it's considerably better than some other vacuums out there, and a bit of that has to do with the camera found on top of the vacuum. The Roomba 960 keeps track of where home is at all times, so if it needs to return to charge before finishing cleaning, it can automatically resume and go back to where it’s last known location was. Roomba also outfits the 960 with a ledge detection sensor, keeping the Roomba from falling off stairs or other steep drops and averting disaster.
Aside from simply closing a door or placing a physical object in its way, iRobot includes a single Virtual Wall with the Roomba 960 which allows users to place the virtual barrier in one of two ways. Line mode shoots out an invisible laser beam that acts as a simple straight barrier, keeping the Roomba 960 from crossing the laser line and protecting whatever is on the other side. Circular mode will similarly keep the Roomba 960 from getting within a 4ft radius of the virtual wall tower itself, helping to guard the Roomba from running too hard into things like dog bowls or getting stuck under furniture of awkward height. These virtual walls require two AA batteries and last seemingly forever on such a trivial amount of power, showing yet again that iRobot has by far the best barrier solution of any robotic vacuuming product out there.
One of the few differences between the Roomba 960 and the Roomba 980, aside from price of course, is the motor found inside. The Roomba 960 uses the less-featured Gen 2 motor, which provides great suction but doesn’t provide the additional Carpet Boost suction found on the Roomba 980’s Gen 3 motor. The bright side of this is that the Roomba 960 is quite a bit quieter, not having the extra suction strength of course, yet didn’t seem to affect the cleaning performance in my home. I mostly have wood and tile flooring, with some area rugs scattered throughout, so folks with more carpet may want to consider the extra suction to keep those rugs extra clean. What I found in general though was that the Roomba 960 handled the traversal of area rugs, particularly shag style rugs, far more easily than other robot vacuums. As we showed in our 3-way robot challenge, the Roomba 980 was the only one that could traverse any kind of shag carpet that we tested, and the Roomba 960 does an even better job of this.
It's likely part of this extra performance on rugs has to do with the fact that the Roomba 960's motor isn't as powerful as the one found in the Roomba 980, however real-world performance didn't seem to be effected by this for the most part. The Roomba 980 will certainly grab more hair and particles out of thicker carpet than the Roomba 960, so for those with houses that are mostly carpet it might be wise to get the model with more suction power. As it stands in my home, which is all wood and tile floors interspersed with the occasional area rug, the Roomba 960 does more than a good enough job. iRobot says the Gen 3 motor found in the Roomba 980 provides 5x more air suction power than the Gen 2 motor found in the Roomba 960, but keep in mind this is the same motor used in the Roomba 800 series too. This reduced power also means reduced noise though, and as a result the Roomba 960 is much quieter than the 980, especially when Carpet Boost on the 980 comes into play.
The extra long side brush on the Roomba 960 is able to grab most particles out of corners, edges of the walls and underneath counters, whereas other competitors either have shorter side brushes or don't have them at all. As we've seen in our robot vacuum comparison tests, Roomba's side brush often times grabs more dirt out of corners than others can. The Roomba 960 features the same dirt detect sensor of the Roomba 980, a godsend when it comes to extra dirty floors. Instead of just meandering on its usual route throughout the house and ignoring extra piles of dirt, hair or other debris, the Roomba can actually sense these moments and take action. Using a special sensor located underneath the vacuum, the Roomba goes into extra cleaning mode when it detects lots of debris. This means that the Roomba will back up and move over the extra dirty spots a number of times until it feels the spots are clean. Anyone who has pets or children will surely be thankful for this feature, as it generally proves to be extra efficient at picking up messes versus other robot vacuums out there.
iRobot uses different types of rollers than other robotic vacuum companies too; in fact these are so different that iRobot calls them Debris Extractors. These rollers are made of a silicone material and feature a number of grooves on them instead of the traditional brushes that most vacuum rollers have. As such these work differently and don't get hair trapped around the brush itself. Instead the hair makes its way toward the side and into the inside of the rollers thanks to an ingenious design. This keeps the rollers operating at full speed for longer than a traditional brush, and also keeps them free from hair and other particles that might adversely affect sweeping performance.
What the brushes won't guard against are objects laying around the room, something that always needs to be considered before starting the vacuuming process. As with any robot vacuum, you'll need to walk around the house and pick up any small objects that might get in Roomba's way or get tangled underneath the vacuum. Children's toys, cords and anything else that might be laying around the floor could become an issue if left lying around, and it's entirely possible that you'll need to dislodge the errant sock from the rollers or wheels from time to time.
The Roomba design is slim enough to get underneath most furniture, cleaning places that normally don't get cleaned by regular vacuums. The downside to this is when furniture is only just barely tall enough for the Roomba to fit under, in which case the Roomba will get itself stuck sometimes. My couches are one such type of furniture, and I have to block them off every time I vacuum. It's not something that will happen to everyone, but it's incredibly annoying if it does.
As was the case with the Roomba 980, the Roomba 960 can be connected to your home's 2.4GHz WiFi network and will communicate with iRobot's cloud service. Recent months have seen some significant upgrades to the iRobot Home app, and the entire iRobot ecosystem as well. Since our Roomba 980 review nearly two years ago, iRobot has added a number of features including, but not limited to, a custom built map of your home made by the Roomba. As the Roomba 960 works its way around your home it maps out the layout in real time, helping keep track of not just where it needs to clean next, but also where it has been and where it currently is. This gives customers a glimpse into the spatial awareness that was hidden before; a feature that's been available on iRobot's devices since the Roomba 980's inception but not accessible by any easy means.
The problem with iRobot's implementation of this feature is that the map isn't viewable in real-time as the robot is doing its job. In fact the map is not visible at all until the Roomba is finished and delivers its cleaning report, in which the map is included. The bright side to this is that you'll be able to see all the spots in your home where the Roomba 960 wasn't able to clean, as the map is incredibly accurate and is extremely easy to pin-point locations on. The downside here is that, since you can't see it in real-time, you don't know where in your house the Roomba might be. This isn't necessarily an issue per say, rather it's just something that doesn't quite come to the level of what Xiaomi, Neato or Dyson have going in their apps. If the Roomba ends a job stuck you will be able to see where the vacuum ended in the house, otherwise the report will only go out when it gets back to home base.
iRobot has also jumped on the virtual assistant bandwagon, integrating its cloud services with the likes of Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. This means that anyone with access to Amazon Alexa, via the Echo Dot, full sized Echo or any other product that's powered by Amazon's virtual assistant can control their Roomba 960 with their voice. The same goes for Google Assistant, and owners of either a Google Home or the myriad of devices now powered by Google Assistant can simply tell their Roomba 960 to start cleaning, pause, stop, go home, or a number of other commands as well. Roomba can even deliver status messages over these services, and a special Roomba voice comes through the speaker rather than the Alexa or Google Assistant voice, letting you know you're connected to the service.
Aside from this you'll find all the usual great features of the iRobot Home app here and fully functional as they are on the more expensive Roomba 980. You'll be able to track how full the dust bin is, how much use the filters have seen, and how dirty the rest of the sensors and other components are on board remotely. This helps with the maintenance schedule and lets you know when the vacuum might need a little assistance. Real-time status updates when problems arise are delivered via notifications through the app, and every single problem features a how-to tutorial and video showing where the problem lies and how to troubleshoot it. Scheduling your vacuum to run up to once per day can be done through the app, and all firmware updates and other settings can be completely controlled through the app as well. In short there's nearly nothing the iRobot Home app doesn't do at this point, and its integration with other smart home services really seals the deal now. iRobot also offers its app in dozens of languages, a strong point for the company's worldwide availability and patent portfolio.
Maintenance and Battery Life
Aside from the motor, the other big difference between the Roomba 980 and Roomba 960 is battery size. The Roomba 960 features a battery rated at 75 minutes of run time, while the Roomba 980 boasts a 120 minute battery. In real world terms, however, I found the Roomba 960 cleaning 90-95% of my 1200 square foot house on the initial charge, taking about 1 and a half hours to do this portion. After slightly over one hour of charging, the Roomba 960 made its way around the final 5-10% of the house, resulting in a 2 hour and 45 minute final time to clean the whole house. This equates to around 900 square feet or so cleaned per hour, meaning it could take quite a bit longer for the Roomba 960 to clean your home versus a Roomba 980 if you've got a large home. This obviously needs to be taken into consideration if you're pressed for time, but if you regularly have the vacuum clean during the day while you're not at home, it's not really an issue. Since the Roomba returns to home base and charges itself automatically, you'll never need to worry about it actually finishing the job because of low battery.
iRobot recommends cleaning out the dust bin after every cleaning cycle, and there may be times where you'll need to clean out the dust bin before the vacuum can finish its current job. The dust bin will hold around 2 cups, or around half a liter of material before it needs to be emptied. For those that run the vacuum regularly this bin size shouldn't be an issue. Folks that have pets and only run it once per week will certainly run into issues, as hair will take up quite a bit of space and most certainly require emptying before the cycle fully ends. Roomba's rollers underneath generally need to have hair pulled out of the sides once per week or so, and there may be a stray particle or two in the suction chamber between the rollers and dust bin that occasionally needs cleaning out.
iRobot also features a HEPA rated filter inside of the dust bin, which prevents particles from flying out of the exhaust vent on the back of the bin. This HEPA filter is rated to strain out particles as small as one micron in size, meaning nearly everything will stay put in the bin until emptied. The filter is designed to last a few months before needing to be replaced, and can be extended significantly with proper care and a good can of compressed air to clean it off. The various sensors around the sides and bottom need to be cleaned off occasionally as well, although the iRobot Home app will notify you when these things really need to be done. Overall the vacuum is fairly maintenance free and won't require much attention outside of the regular bin and filter cleaning schedules.
iRobot has certainly made a winner with the Roomba 960. At $200 less than the Roomba 980 it's difficult to argue with a product that's extremely similar in features and looks but has less power. It's this last part that's particularly important to note, especially for folks with lots of carpet. Without the carpet boost technology that the Gen 3 motor in the Roomba 980 has, the carpet cleaning power of the Roomba 960 will likely register as more than acceptable to many people, but a stronger vacuum might be needed every now and then for particularly dirty spots or those with pets. Many other important features are still here though, including connectivity with the iRobot Home app and all the features that entails, as well as the dirt detect sensor to make multiple passes on extra dirty floors. iRobot's navigation is better than ever with the Roomba 960, and the new features in the app make it simply a fantastic product to choose.
Whether or not it's truly worth spending the extra money over Xiaomi's product is really a tough call, but the Roomba 960 does have advantages over cheaper competition. First off it is readily available in stores, the company backs its products with great support, more languages are available for worldwide usage, and iRobot consistently updates its app with hot new features like virtual assistant integration. The Roomba 960, like its bigger brother, traverses rugs incredibly well, including thicker shag rugs that many robot vacuums get stuck on. It's of course also worth noting that iRobot's virtual walls are superior to other company's solutions, and there's one included in the box too. As far as robot vacuums go though, it's one lean cleaning machine that's up for nearly any task.