Robot vacuum cleaners have been around for a long time, trying to clean their way into our hearts and save us from having to get off the sofa and vacuum the house.
The latest robot to try and impress us is the Neato Botvac 85 with its different approach to cleaning your house: it has a combo brush larger than much of the competition that's designed to pick up pet hair. But is this the cleaner to really make us sit up and go robotic? We set the Neato to work to find out.
The Botvac 85 is the top-spec model in the series, complete with three high-performance filters and that combo brush. The underlying technology for all three is the same, but there is also the Botvac 75 (£500) with a single high-performance filter and the Botvac 70e (£480) with a single filter and blade brush.
That extra £70 between entry model and top-spec Botvac 85 supposedly means better hard floor performance and that pet hair gathering.
Like most robotic cleaners the Neato Botvac 85 comes with two main elements: the main cleaning unit and its docking station for recharging the bot's built-in battery. In the box you also get a magnetic strip to mark out any boundaries you want to set and replacement filters and brushes.
Once you've set out the rooms you want to clean it's really just a case of pressing go on the robotic vacuum cleaner and leaving it to do its thing while you go off and grab yourself a coffee.
With most robotic vacuum cleaners the cleaner will chaotically scoot around the room cleaning as it goes. However, the Neato is different as it takes a more pragmatic approach to the cleaning experience. Neato calls it BotVision, using a proprietary laser scanner and navigation software based on simultaneous localisation and mapping (SLAM) to continually scan the room, making instant decisions based on input from its external sensors.
This enables Neato robots to create detailed and accurate maps of the environment and then methodically clean it in an organised back and forth pattern instead of bumping around a room randomly. It's the same technology as used in the Google self-driving cars, and we have to say it works very well.
Once it gets going it first works its way around the edge of the room before running up and down in lines like you would mow the lawn. It's almost calming to watch, and the obsessive compulsive among us will love the cleaned lines in the carpet where the Botvac has been.
A friendly face
It's amazing just how quick you become friends with the robot with the family and friends quickly referring to the vacuum cleaner as a "him". It's designed to pick up pet hair, but it almost becomes a robotic pet in itself.
That might be because of the cute Japanese minimal design that avoids looking industrial and robust or because, caught at the right angle, the large bulbous coloured circle (vent) can be seen as a nose. It's like a friendly face.
It might also be because "he" just gets on cleaning without you having to bother doing anything and even returns to the dock to recharge automatically.
Setting up a timer is easy, although with only a couple of buttons to set the timer, it's cumbersome. Thankfully you only really have to do it once. You can set the cleaner to come on at any time, and at different times on different days.
Our recommendation would be to set it for when the kids are out - otherwise it's just too much excitement - and preferably not in the middle of the night if you have pets otherwise it drives them berserk. In our office environment that meant a 7am clean so we had a clean office to come into every day.
The problem with most robotic vacuum cleaners we've tried in the past is that while they are okay for light work, they aren't that powerful and therefore always miss dirt, especially around the edges of a room.
The Botvac 85 doesn't have a 100 per cent success rate with uptake, although we were a lot more impressed with its performance. That's likely down to the Botvac's brush being around 50 per cent larger than those found on other robo-vacs and that combo brush can operate within 10 millimetres of a wall to catch the harder-to-get debris.
The proof was in the results. Firstly we could see the clean marks in the carpet where the robot had been; secondly was the bin was surprisingly full at the end of the first week, which at 0.7-litres is the largest on the market; and thirdly running over the same carpet with a more powerful Dyson didn't result in much additional muck getting picked up.
Like other cleaners the Botvac isn't perfect. Unless you have a clean room to start with it can get caught out and trapped. The Botvac does have the ability to raise up, on its haunch legs so to speak, to get over the odd obstacle, but if you've got wires or toys in its path it will get tangled. If it is something bigger then you quickly find that it skirts around it creating small atolls of dirt in your room.
In fairness, it's not the robot's fault, but it's something that you need to be aware of. To get the best performance from the Botvac you need to have a room that is clutter free so it can do its job.
Where the Neato Botvac 85 works really well is in rooms that aren't always cluttered and with plenty of access. It does a good job of cleaning up to the edges, although don't expect it to do the stairs - so you'll still need some kind of back-up vacuum too, which given the price point means the cost adds up fast.
If your house is a constant moving assault course that even you struggle to manoeuvre then chances are your new robot friend will struggle too. But busy professionals with no kids or pets might already have a tidyish house and want the peace of mind of automated cleaning.
Install the Botvac 85, set it going once a day, and short of having to empty the bag you'll never have to worry about vacuum cleaning again. It's here that the Neato is perfect, so long as its environment is right.