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We all could use a little help keeping our homes clean, and now we live in an age where robots are actually capable of lending a (mechanical) hand. Robot vacuums are some of the most ubiquitous smart home gadgets available today with their circular shapes and propensity for bumping into walls. While they provide an undeniable convenience, they can also be expensive. It’s not unheard of to drop close to $1,000 on a high-end robo-vac.
But in a change from just a few years ago, today there are now plenty of budget robot vacuum options to choose from. At Engadget, we consider anything under $300 to be cheap in this space and you may be surprised to see how many there are at that price point. And if you’re new to the world of robot vacuums, you may find that one of these budget gadgets does everything you expected and more.
Are robot vacuums worth it?
Friends and family often ask me if new gadgets are “worth it,” and when it comes to robot vacuums the answer is yes. The most important thing they have going for them is autonomy: Just turn it on, walk away. If you’re someone who wants to spend as little time as possible cleaning your home — or just someone who detests vacuuming — a semi-autonomous robot is a great investment.
There are plenty of other good things about them, but before we dive in let’s consider the biggest trade-offs: less power, less capacity and less flexibility. Those first two go hand in hand; robot vacuums are much smaller than upright vacuums, which leads to less suction. They also hold less dirt because their built-in bins are a fraction of the size of a standard vacuum canister or bag. And while robo-vacs are cord-free, that means they are slaves to their batteries and will require regular recharging.
When it comes to flexibility, robot vacuums do things differently than standard ones. You can control some with your smartphone, set cleaning schedules and more, but robo-vacs are primarily tasked with cleaning floors. On the flip side, their upright counterparts can come with various attachments that let you clean couches, stairs, light fixtures and other hard-to-reach places.
What to look for in a budget robot vacuum
When looking for a cheap robo-vac, one of the first things you should consider is WiFi connectivity. While you may think that’s a given on all smart home devices, it’s not. Some of the most affordable modes don’t have the option to connect to your home WiFi network. If you choose one like this, you won’t be able to control it with a smartphone app or with voice commands. Another feature that’s typically reserved for WiFi-connected robots is scheduling because most of them use a mobile app to set cleaning schedules.
But WiFi-incapable vacuums usually come with remote controls that have all the basic functions that companion mobile apps do, including start, stop and return to dock. And if you’re concerned about the possibility of hacking, vacuums with no access to your WiFi network are the best option.
You should also think about the floors in your home. Do you have mostly carpet, tile, laminate, hardwood? Carpets demand vacuums with more suction power that can collect debris that gets pushed down into nooks and crannies. Unfortunately, there isn’t a universal metric by which suction is measured. Some companies provide Pascal (Pa) levels and generally the higher the Pa, the stronger. But other companies don’t rely on Pa levels and simply say their robots have X-times more suction than other robot vacuums.
So how can you ensure you’re getting a robot vacuum that will adequately clean your floors? Read the product description. Look for details about its ability to clean hardwood and carpets, and see if it has a “max” mode you can use to increase suction. If you are given a Pa measurement, look for around 2000Pa if you have mostly carpeted floors.
Size is also important for two reasons: clearance and dirt storage. Check the specs for the robot’s height to see if it can get underneath the furniture you have in your home. Most robo-vacs won’t be able to clean under a couch (unless it’s a very tall, very strange couch), but some can get under entryway tables, nightstands and the like. As for dirt storage, look out for the milliliter capacity of the robot’s dustbin — the bigger the capacity, the more dirt the vacuum can collect before you have to empty it.
Object detection and cliff sensors are other key features to look out for. The former helps the robot vacuum navigate around furniture while it cleans, rather than mindlessly pushing its way into it. Meanwhile, cliff sensors prevent robot vacuums from tumbling down the stairs, making them a must-have for multi-level homes.
The best budget robot vacuums
Best overall: $274 iRobot Roomba 694
Both iRobot and Shark impressed with their affordable robo-vacs. But we think iRobot’s Roomba 649 will be best for most people thanks to its good cleaning power and easy-to-use mobile app. The Roomba 694 replaced the Roomba 675 last year but, aside from an updated exterior, it’s fundamentally the same vacuum. It looks much sleeker now with its new all-black design, giving it an aesthetic similar to some of the more expensive Roomba models. It has three physical buttons on it — start, dock and spot — and it connects to WiFi so you can control it via the iRobot app. Unfortunately, your $274 gets you the vacuum and its necessary parts only so you’ll have to pay up immediately when you need a replacement filter or brushes.
Setting up the Roomba 694 is straightforward: Open the companion app and follow the instructions. Once it’s connected to your home WiFi network, you’re able to use the app to control the vacuum whenever you don’t feel like using the physical buttons. However, the spot-clean function is only available as a button, which is a bit of a bummer.
iRobot’s app is one of the biggest selling points for any Roomba. It’s so easy to use that even someone with no prior experience will be able to quickly master the robot’s basic functions. iRobot’s app puts most pertinent controls on the homepage, so you rarely (if ever) need to navigate through its menu to do things like set a cleaning schedule.
We recommend setting cleaning schedules to really get the most out of the device. After all, these are semi-autonomous robots, so why not make it so you rarely have to interact with them? Doing so will ensure the Roomba runs through your home on a regular basis, so you’re always left with clean floors. The Roomba 694 in particular did a good job sucking up dirt and debris on my carpets as well as the tile flooring in my kitchen and bathrooms. The only thing I try to do before a cleaning job is get charging cables off of the floor – the Roomba will stop if it sucks something like that up and it’s relatively easy to extract a cable from the machine’s brushes, but I’d rather not have to do so if I can avoid it.
When it comes to battery life, the Roomba 694 ran for around 45 minutes before needing to dock and recharge. iRobot says run times will vary based on floor surfaces, but the 694 is estimated to have a 90-minute battery life when cleaning hard floors. While 45 minutes may be enough time for the robot to scuttle around most rooms in my apartment, those with larger homes may have to wait for it to recharge in order to clean everywhere.
iRobot has made a name for itself in the autonomous vacuum market for good reason. Its machines are polished, dead simple to use and the accompanying app is excellent. That ease of use (and the reputation of the iRobot name) comes with a slightly higher asking price, which many will be willing to pay. But there are plenty of solid options now that didn’t exist even just three years ago.
Runner up: $250 Shark Ion RV765
The Shark RV765 is the updated version of the RV761 that we previously recommended. Like the Roomba 694, the Shark RV765 has a slightly different design and a longer run time than the RV761, but otherwise they’re the same vacuum. You can still find the RV761, but it’s a little difficult to do so now that the latest model is available. Although we haven’t tested the RV765, we feel comfortable recommending it since we found the previous version to be a great robot vacuum.
One thing that the RV765 fixes about the previous version is the latter’s ugly bowling-shirt design. The new model nixes that and opts for a sleeker, all-black look with three buttons for docking, cleaning and max mode. You could rely just on the buttons, but it also connects to WiFi so you can use the Shark Clean app. As for the longer run time, that’s just a bonus. The RV761 ran for about 90 minutes before needing to recharge, which was plenty of time for it to clean my two-bedroom apartment. The additional 30 minutes of battery life on the RV765 should allow it to clean larger spaces more efficiently.
Some other things we liked about the RV761 include its spot-clean feature; adjustable wheels, which raise and lower automatically depending on the “terrain” and the obstacles in its path; and its intuitive companion app that allows you to start and slop cleaning jobs, set schedules and more.
Best bang for your buck: $230 Anker Eufy RoboVac 11S
Anker’s $230 Eufy RoboVac 11S was one of the cheapest vacuums I tested but it also proved to be one of the most versatile. First thing to note: This robot vacuum doesn’t have WiFi, but it does come with a remote that gives you most of the functions you’d find in an app (including a schedule feature). Eufy also includes additional brushes and filters in the box.
The “S” in this robot’s name stands for slim, and it’s roughly half an inch thinner than all of the other vacuums I tested. Not only does this make the 11S lighter, but it was the only one that could clean under my entryway table. The 11S has a physical on-off toggle on its underside plus one button on its top that you can press to start a cleaning. It always begins in auto mode, which optimizes the cleaning process as it putters around your home, but you can use the remote to select specific modes like spot and edge clean.
The 11S has three power modes — Standard, BoostIQ and Max — and I kept mine on BoostIQ most of the time. It provided enough suction to adequately clean my carpeted floors, missing only a few crumbs or pieces of debris in corners or tight spaces around furniture. It ran for roughly one hour and 15 minutes when in BoostIQ mode and it has remarkable collision avoidance. Sure, it bumped into walls and some large pieces of furniture, but it was the only budget vac I tried that consistently avoided my cat’s play tunnel that lives in the middle of our living room floor.
As far as noise levels go, you can definitely hear the difference between BoostIQ and Max, but none of the three settings is offensively loud. In fact, I could barely hear the 11S when it was on the opposite end of my apartment running in BoostIQ mode. Thankfully, error alert beeps were loud enough to let me know when something went awry, like the 11S accidentally getting tripped up by a rogue charging cable (which only happened a couple of times and neither robot nor cable were harmed in the process).
Overall, the Eufy RoboVac 11S impressed me with its smarts, despite its lack of WiFi. The lack of wireless connectivity is arguably the worst thing about the robot and that’s saying a lot. It’s worth mentioning that this model is rated for up to 1300Pa suction, but you can grab the next model up, the RoboVac 11S Max, which gives you 2000Pa suction (just know that it’ll likely be louder as a result). But you can’t argue with the value of the $230 11S — especially when you can often find it on sale for $160 or less.