Sunday, February 13, 2005

Roomba madness

A few weeks ago, on the advice of a friend who knows both technology and housekeeping, I purchased a robotic floor cleaner known as the Roomba. I was in the middle of drafting a product review for this blog when my friend Nina came by to visit. Before I could give her a demo of the , we heard a cheery series of beeps behind us and turned around just in time to see it come roaring out from under the buffet (where its home base charger is positioned) and go zooming across the dining room. It had a small stuffed mouse riding on top of it and our cats Kaylee and Zoe in cautious pursuit.

"That's the Roomba," I explained to Nina, and then we both lost it.

(Kaylee had apparently tossed the mouse onto the docked Roomba, then followed it aboard, and stepped on the "Power" and "Clean" buttons in sequence. This caused the Roomba to back out of the dock and embark on a cleaning mission, mouse and all.)

Owning a Roomba is full of surprises, some good, some bad, and some hilarious.

Getting started with the Roomba is much like trying out any new housecleaning service: In the beginning, you may spend as much time preparing the room and instructing the Roomba as you would have spent doing the cleaning yourself. Is it worth it? Maybe.

It's good, but limited.
The Roomba performs best on hard surfaces (wood, linoleum, and tile) and it excels at spot cleaning of things like dust and crumbs. It doesn't do shag carpeting, and doesn't like clambering from a hard surface up onto the higher surface of a thick Oriental rug. Fringe? Hah! That way lies madness. The bottom line is that you'll want to keep your traditional vacuum, and use it regularly. The Roomba is best for a quick cleanup before the guests arrive, or cleanup after a cooking, home repair, or crafts project.

It's lightweight and energetic.
We have a small house with hardwoods, and a fully charged Roomba can easily clean a whole floor of the house without running out of juice. Since it's lightweight, it's perfect for spot-cleaning. Pick it up, put it down, and push the Power, Clean and Spot buttons. No lugging around a heavy vacuum cleaner, changing attachments, and reeling out cords to clean up a dusting of flour in the kitchen or gift-wrapping scraps in the diningroom.

It doesn't do it your way.
Yes, the Roomba would drive your control-freak mother nuts. And the first time you see it in action, you'll discover just how much of her controlling personality you inherited. It sets about cleaning a room in a zig zag pattern that appears maddeningly random to you, but trust the programmers: It works. Let it zig and zag and zig and zag the result will be a well-cleaned floor. You heard me. If you want it to decrease, rather than add to, your workload, you'll have to leave it alone and trust it.

It's intelligent, but only up to a point.
The Roomba is a perfect example of the difference between intelligence and judgment. It gets the floor clean, avoids going over the edge of the stairs into the basement, and finds its way back to the power dock when the batteries are running low--pretty bright. But it's not prepared in any way to either handle or avoid the unexpected. If your cat has a tendency to glorp up its breakfast under the dining room table, or your puppy has accidents, you'd better get there before the Roomba does, or you'll be cleaning both floor and Roomba.

Don't expect to stay in the room where the Roomba is buzzing and clattering away. It sounds like a large child's toy. You'd be better off going in to the next room and washing the windows, dusting the lampshades, or maybe cleaning the sink. While listening to your iPod.

Then, it's your turn to clean.

The Roomba cleaned your house, now you get to empty the Roomba (over a kitchen-size garbage can) and remove and clean the Roomba brushes. The Roomba is a floor sweeper, not a vacuum, and it doesn't use a bag. I found emptying it of cat food crumbs and cleaning its brushes of cat fur more complicated and less pleasant than switching out a vacuum bag.

It's cute.
It's small, easy to store, and it comes in a both neutral and bold colors. I purchased the new model called the Roomba Discovery, in an iMac-like blue/grey and white. Another one of the new ones is the Roomba Red, in a shiny, retro finish. What's not to like about this relative of R2D2, whirling about, nuzzling your baseboards, and starting and ending its cleaning with happy little arpeggios of beeping?


  1. Anonymous9:54 PM

    Hi. I've just discovered your blog today, via Anita Rowland. I enjoyed your article--I've often wondered what Roombas were like, but not enough to seek one out. Plus there's waaay too much crap on the floor around my desk. Someday I will put a cork in that particular entropic vortex, but until then, it's definitely a no-Roomba zone.

    Anyway, that's not what moved me to comment. It's the names of your cats. You, Madam, are a Big Honkin' Geek, and I mean that in the best possible way. I bow in your direction. Cheers.

  2. Thanks, Andrew!
    For anyone curious, the cats, Kaylee and Zoe (aka The Stripe Sisters), are named after two delightful female characters in Josh Whedon's brilliant, short-lived TV series Firefly. Zorg and I were watching the series on DVD last spring when we got the kittens. I think we toyed with using names from Terry Pratchett novels, but Kaylee and Zoe stuck. (BTW, anyone know someone who's named their cats Jaguar, Panther, and Tiger?)

  3. Anonymous4:33 PM

    The Roomba is one of the greatest inventions of the 21st Century!

    Did you see the Roomba Review, full of chat rooms, costumes for your vacuum and Roomba hacking ideas. I've added a drink holder to mine, to deliver a beer to me in my easy chair. Too cool....