Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Android Invasion: My impressions of our new Neato XV-11 robotic vacuum

So, my girlfriend has always been saying that the one thing she wishes she had more of is time. She joked around with me several months back about getting a Roomba to make life a little easier for us, and my curiosity was piqued.

Tomorrow is her birthday, so I went all-out and bought a Neato XV-11 robotic vacuum. I've only played with it for about an hour, so consider this more of a "hands-on" review than anything thorough.

First, important "good boyfriend" tip. Never get your girlfriend something that you're even more excited about getting than she is, even if she said she wanted it. She certainly likes it, but I've definitely been given the "oh I see why you got it" treatment. I really did get it for her because I wanted to see her smile as a machine cleaned the house for her, but since it benefits the both of us, perhaps it wasn't exactly the best birthday present choice. Duly noted!

Read on past the break for my review.

Alright, on to my impressions of the Neato XV-11. I am, as you may be aware, the kind of individual that does a fairly extensive amount of research before any major investment. I read up on the Roomba and a couple of the alternatives such as the iClebo and Navibot. iClebo isn't available in the US yet (AFAIK) and the Navibot is very pricey. So really, the choice was really between a 700-series Roomba (I couldn't bring myself to get anything other than current-gen) and the Neato XV-11.

There were a few reasons that made me pick the XV-11 over the Roomba. First and foremost is it's ability to map a room out using its infrared laser. Having a lidar-guided robot in my home is simply an awesome prospect. Secondly, there are a few different modes of 700-series Roomba, and even the cheapest, the 760, is priced at $449 to the XV-11's $399. The next step up, the Roomba 770, priced at $499, features a supposedly more-advanced dirt detection system (which it should be pointed out, is a feature the XV-11 does not have) and a full-bin indicator (which the XV does). The 780's primary distinction from its little brother is capacitive buttons instead of mechanical. This upgrade will only cost you another $100, putting the 780 at $599. Yikes!

The Roomba does have collision-detection and collision-avoidance systems (hopefully some of you network junkies out there keep reading that as CSMA/CD or CSMA/CA like I do) but they're a combination of bumper switches and infrared sensors. The vacuum operates essentially by changing directions every time it comes into vicinity of an object until the entire room is clean. It does do perimeters, and it does have a little sweeping brush to ensure corners get cleaned. It also has a bristle brush instead of a solid plastic brush like the XV-11, but it does require more cleaning and maintenance.

In short, the combination of no room mapping, higher cost, and more frequent maintenance is what made me choose not to get a Roomba. And I'm very happy with my choice, the XV-11 is an amazing little beast!

After a trip to get my daughter's hair cut this evening, we returned home and I got to get the XV-11 running. My girlfriend had the day off and had already set up the docking station, gotten it charged, and had already had put it through a trial run. As she put it, "If I could take the thing out of the box and get it working without opening the manual, it's a good robot."

I pressed the Start button to wake it up. It had turned off its LCD display while we were away. It showed a full charge. I pressed Start again, and the display announced that it was beginning to clean the house. The vacuum spooled up (it's a centrifugal fan like the one on the graphics card I fixed in the March 17th blog post, for those of you who remember) and it trundled away from its charging station to get to work.

It immediately made for the perimeter of the room, carefully weaving between chair legs and rarely actually bumping into anything, while the corners of the device generally came within a centimeter of the objects it was navigating around. It began working its way around the edge of the room, turning to try to reach into crevices with the front corners of the vacuum as much as possible. Anything that it could go underneath, it would, and without hesitation. If it got stuck on something, it would try turning different directions and moving forward or backwards until it was freed, and then would get back on track. The device can turn with absolutely no turning circle due to two rugged, spring-loaded rubber wheels on the bottom that extend off of a pair of durable arms that allow it to clear obstacles a good inch or so high.

It did once get stuck on a long curtain which it had run over and then tried to free itself from. After several minutes of determined wiggling, it finally beeped and asked me for help. The curtain was securely lodged between a spring-loaded "wheel arm" and the chassis, and it did take a good tug to get it free. With the curtain now set up on the window sill, I set it down and it returned to where it was last working.

After the perimeter was complete, it began doing rows back and forth across the center of the room, until everything had been cleaned. At this point, I had to get my daughter to bed, and had to prevent it from moving on to cleaning the next room, though the manual assures me that it will find doorways and move into other rooms to keep cleaning until the entire house is done, and will take trips back to its charging station when necessary. I did watch it shut off its vacuum and drive back to the charging station, where it turned itself around and backed up until its rear charging contacts contacted the vertical dock. It chimed to let me know that it was successfully charging. As long as I remove the obvious sources of trouble, I'm confident that the XV-11 is self-sufficient enough for me to schedule to run while I'm at work. I look forward to coming home to a house that has been cleaned for me while I've been away!

Without taking too much longer here (I got 4 hours of sleep last night and intend to do better tonight), I have to say that I'm impressed with the Neato XV-11. It truly seems like an intelligent device, and the 3 bins packed full of cat hair and child snack food crumbs it has pulled out of my carpet this afternoon proves its effectiveness. The fact that I had to do little more than watch and empty out the dirt when it was done means that in terms of time saved, the Neato XV-11 will pay for itself very quickly.

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