Wayne Thorp will speak at the 2015 AAII Investor Conference this fall; go to www.aaii.com/conference for more details.
A few years ago, I received an iRobot Roomba 500 Series vacuum robot for Christmas. While it is something I definitely would not have purchased for myself, I quickly discovered that this novelty item carried with it a great deal of utility. To this day, I still use it around my condo, especially in my bedroom where it can get under the bed.
Over the last couple of weeks I have been using a new model of the Roomba—the 780. This updated version has new touchpad controls, a HEPA filter, a full bin indicator, a larger bin, and better debris pickup. The question, though, is whether it is practical enough to justify its $600 price.
When your Roomba 780 arrives, be prepared to unpack a lot of things, a lot of which will go into a junk drawer until they are needed somewhere down the line. In the box you receive the iRobot Roomba 780 with rechargeable battery, battery charger, self-charging home base, two virtual wall lighthouses (more on these later), remote control, instructional DVD, a myriad of replacement brushes and filters, and brush-cleaning tools.
The Roomba 780 itself is a beefy thing, measuring 13.9 inches in diameter and weighing 8.4 pounds. At 3.9 inches tall, it can get under beds and into hard-to-reach spaces that may rarely see a vacuum. Its black and gray color scheme is low key, and the touchpad glows with blue, green and amber indicator lights.
Having used a Roomba previously, I knew how to get the 780 up and running without assistance. If this is your first Roomba, be sure you have a DVD player or computer handy, as there is no printed manual. Instead, iRobot has opted to include all its support materials on DVD. This is one of my personal pet peeves when it comes to consumer products. Unlike with software, where I have no problem going to the help menu for instructions and support materials, I don’t want to have to boot up my computer or turn on my TV before I can start using a consumer product.
After unpacking and unwrapping everything, the first thing you need to do is charge the Roomba, which may take several hours. Once you have done that, it is ready to start cleaning. The more open spaces the Roomba has, the easier its job will be. The biggest thing you will want to do is to get as many cords out of the way as possible. While iRobot claims the Roomba has an anti-tangle system that shuts off the brushes when it senses cords to avoid getting tangled, I haven’t found that always to be the case.
To start the Roomba 780, press the “Clean” button on the top of the machine to turn it on and then press it again to start a cleaning cycle. The Roomba has on-board sensors that allow it to navigate furniture and avoid falling down stairs. When it comes across an obstacle—a wall, furniture, etc.—the Roomba will rotate to get away from the obstacle and resume cleaning. One thing I don’t like about my old 500-series Roomba is that it has left more than a few marks on table legs from running into them. However, I have noticed that the 780 slows down as it senses an object and more gently touches the obstacle with its bumper before changing direction. This seemingly will cut down on the wear and tear on your furniture.
The Roomba 780 uses iAdapt Responsive Cleaning Technology, a proprietary system of software and sensors to monitor its cleaning environment more than 60 times per second. This is a fancy way of saying that the Roomba has on-board sensors that monitor the type of surface it is on and the level of dirt and dust and adjusts accordingly.
The Roomba 780 has three cleaning modes—clean, spot and scheduled cleaning. In clean mode, the Roomba automatically calculates the room size and adjusts its cleaning time appropriately. In spot mode, the Roomba will move in a spiral approximately three feet in diameter and then spiral back to where it started to provide a localized cleaning to those areas that need it. Finally, for scheduled cleaning mode, you determine when the Roomba leaves its home base, cleans and returns to recharge. Setting the time and schedule for your Roomba is very easy. I schedule mine to run during the week while I am at work so I don’t have to deal with the noise (although I find the Roomba to be quieter than many upright vacuums I have used). Most of the time, I come home to a clean floor and find the Roomba back at its charging base. Every once in a while it will have gotten caught up on something and I have to get it back on track.
When the Roomba’s cleaning bin is full, the 780’s Full Bin Indicator will illuminate. Compared to previous generations, the 780’s bin holds more debris, meaning you have to empty it less frequently.
Also, the Roomba 780 has dual HEPA filters, which allow it to capture finer dust particles.
As I mentioned earlier, the 780 comes with two virtual wall lighthouses—sensors that allow you to keep the Roomba out of certain rooms or areas of your house or to guide your Roomba throughout your house and back to its charging base when it is finished cleaning. Each virtual wall lighthouse has a switch where you can select the mode: lighthouse mode for navigation, or virtual wall mode for barrier use. No matter what mode it is in, the lighthouse will automatically turn on when the Roomba is running and turn off when the Roomba stops. This preserves the two C batteries needed to run the lighthouse, which are not included.
In my condo, I have the home base in the master bedroom, so I place one of the lighthouses in lighthouse mode in the doorway. When the Roomba is finished cleaning the bedroom, the lighthouse in lighthouse mode helps it navigate into the hallway. I use the second lighthouse at the end of the hallway, to direct the Roomba into my kitchen and living room area. Once it is finished cleaning the kitchen and living room, the lighthouses help the Roomba navigate back to the master bedroom and its charging base.
In virtual wall mode, the lighthouses create an invisible barrier that the Roomba won’t cross. You can use this mode to keep the Roomba out of certain rooms or areas of your house.
I was not able to find any specs related to the 780’s battery life. My 500 Roomba series can clean the first floor on my condo on a single charge, and this area is roughly 1,200 square feet. I have found consumer reviews from users whose Roombas are able to clean 4,000-square-foot spaces on a single charge. When Roomba has finished cleaning, it will return to its home base to charge. The light on the home base stops blinking and turns solid green when Roomba makes a good connection. Also, Roomba’s battery indicator will pulse amber to show it is charging, and will turn solid green when it is fully charged.
I am happy with the Roomba 780 as a cleaning machine. It does an especially good job on hardwood floors. I also like having the ability to program the Roomba to clean while I am away at work or on vacation. While I would be able to vacuum a given area more quickly than the Roomba, it is nice to come home to clean floors. In addition, its small size allows the Roomba to get into hard-to-reach areas, which means I don’t have to move furniture to vacuum under my bed, dresser or couch.
The overriding issue is the cost. As much as I love the convenience the Roomba offers, I personally cannot justify paying that much for a vacuum; especially when you can buy very good uprights for only a fraction of the cost. If you are fortunate enough to have money to burn and aren’t a fan of vacuuming, the Roomba 780 is for you. For the rest of us, we will have to cope with vacuuming ourselves or risk being overrun by dust bunnies.
Wayne A. Thorp, CFA, is the author of “Gadget Corner.” All reviews are based on firsthand experience of the product or service. No third-party compensation is received for opinions on products, services, websites or topics. However, sometimes the author is not required by the manufacturer or their PR firm to return the product under review. In such instances, it is our policy to convey this within the review. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are strictly those of the author. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider.