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Roomba SchedulerRoomba Robots Easy to Live With

By Jim Bray
July 31, 2007

You’ve probably seen those little manhole cover-like iRobot vacuum cleaners advertised, or maybe a friend has one. The idea's marvelous: they promise to end the drudgery of pushing or pulling a vacuum around your home by doing the job for you.

I've reviewed two Roomba robots over the past couple of years, the original Roomba Red and the Roomba Scheduler that followed it. But I hadn't reported on what it's like to actually live with them and use them over the long term, for obvious reasons, so here's an update on them, written after using the Roombas for a couple of years.

The quick hit is that they're a great idea as long as you live on a single level and don’t have a lot of furniture or wires and cables in your room. Both the Red and the Scheduler do a good job of vacuuming, and for the most part they work as advertised. Alas, you still have to turn the Red on and off (the Scheduler can be preset to vacuum whenever you choose, automatically) and such is the impact on the space-time continuum that you really should stick around to supervise because if you don't the little critters are sure to get snagged, confused or even lost.

 

That doesn't mean that when you fire them up – or when your back is turned – these little robotic cowpies run amok in your home or office. Hardly. The virtual walls that come with the vacuums work very well at keeping the Roombas reined in, but sometimes one gets kicked a few inches out of position by scampering cats, allowing the robot to sally forth occasionally where no Roomba has gone before.

The Scheduler is the more self sufficient, not only because of its timer operation but because of its base station/battery charger. And I dare you to watch the Scheduler leave and return home again without being amused: when the anointed time comes for Artoo to attend to his chore, he springs to life and emits a warning tone reminiscent of the ones trucks use when they're backing up, then it spins around and heads off in search of adventure, or at least dirt. Later, it finds the base again and rolls up to it, virtually spent, then parks itself with a little audible fanfare before gorging itself on wonderful, restorative electric current after its hard day at work. It's hilarious.

Roomba RedYou get two virtual walls with the Scheduler (the Red came with one) that keep the robot from staircases, open doors or wherever else you may not want it poking its, er, nose.

To look at the Roombas, you might not think they'd hold a lot of grunge, but we've never had a problem with overloading. You just have to remember to dump them out after each excursion, or every second at the least. It only takes a few seconds.

Care and feeding of the Roomba, besides giving it a steady diet of electricity for its rechargeable battery and evacuating its grunge receptacle, amounts to keeping the brushes, wheels and the other moving parts clean – and they can get mucked up really quickly, especially if you have pets.

We have three cats, all of whom shed incessantly, and it was entertaining to watch them the first couple of times they were confronted by a Roomba diligently going about its business straight toward them. Needless to say, their residue keeps the Roombas busy.

Keeping the Roomba clean and snag free can be a real ordeal, but if you don't do it the device will either up and refuse to move or start behaving erratically, almost as if the little person inside driving it is over the legal limit.

If the Roomba gets confused or develops a mild flutter, it'll beep a code that's supposed to tell you what's wrong. Sometimes it does, too. I had trouble initially with the Scheduler, in that it basically packed it in, wandering around the room drunkenly or flatly refusing to work.

Time Sagas

Roomba had a brain transplant all ready for it, though, and it worked for a while before the old habits proved too hard to break. A second Scheduler has been working flawlessly, however, except for last week when, having forgotten to keep it clean, it rewarded me with an hour of picking stuff out of it, with much cussing involved.

If you live on multiple levels, you have to run the Roomba on each one separately, perhaps on subsequent days after their thirst for electricity has been sated, using a virtual wall to keep them from going ass over teakettle from level to level.

We live in a four level split and Roombas live on two of them, scrubbing our living room/dining room and family room instead of forcing us to haul out the old faithful built in. That doesn't mean "O.F." sits in the closet feeling sorry for itself; we just don't use for everything anymore. We have to use it for stairs, of course, because that's far more productive than hanging around each step, waiting to flip the fallen Roomba over.

What they really need is to invent a robot that'll push around our built in vacuum! But that's a few years away yet….

And every few weeks we run the "old tech" vacuum around the house anyway, just to make sure we're getting all the crud that we can – but, in a pretty good testament to their ability, it doesn’t usually find much that the Roombas have missed.

Even though the Roombas don't replace my normal vacuuming completely, it speeds up the job immensely, since I'm only doing half the castle now instead of the entire estate. To me, its minor flaws are more than made up for by its benefits.

Now if it would only make the bed.

Maybe soon. As it turns out, Roomba the vacuuming robot family now has an extended family whose talents extend to floor scrubbing, workshop sweeping and pool cleaning. The good people at iRobot are undoubtedly hoping these potentially profit-making progeny will be a blessed event for their shareholders. And why not? I haven't tried them, but if they work as well as their older siblings they could be pretty cool.

Heck, they're cool just as conversation pieces!

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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