Robot vacuum cleaners

Time for a clean break - robots are taking over

China's top maker of robot vacuum cleaners Ecovacs launched its range of products in Singapore last month.
China's top maker of robot vacuum cleaners Ecovacs launched its range of products in Singapore last month.PHOTO: ECOVACS

Local consumers paid $2.7m for robot vacuum cleaners in the first half of this year. The Straits Times Digital takes a look at the growing use of such devices.

More Singaporeans are turning to robot vacuum cleaners, and more of these devices are expected to scurry around in homes here in the coming months.

The arrival of a major Chinese player, falling prices and the presence of new e-commerce players such as Amazon are set to spur the budding market here.

Ecovacs Robotics, the world's second-largest and China's biggest maker of robot vacuum cleaners, launched its cleaning robots here last month.

Importantly, Ecovacs' vacuum cleaners start from just $349. This represents a significantly lower price point for consumers who have been eyeing these battery-powered gadgets that use an array of sensors to navigate your home and avoid obstacles like stairs, while sucking in dirt and dust as they move.

Local consumers spent around $2.7 million on robot vacuum cleaners in the first six months of this year, according to market-research firm GfK Asia. They account for 10 per cent of the entire vacuum- cleaner market by revenue.

This adoption rate is similar to Europe's, but lower than China's (20 per cent).

  • Five things to consider when choosing a robot vacuum cleaner

  • YOUR HOME AND FLOOR TYPE

    There is no one-size-fits-all robot vacuum cleaner. Some may be too tall to clean under furniture. Some may be able to handle thick carpets while others get stuck easily.

    Robot vacuum cleaners work with all floor types, though you may need to get one with stronger suction power for thicker carpets. They can't climb stairs and may also get stuck when moving from the floor to a carpet.

    Thankfully, manufacturers have worked around these limitations by creating ways to tell the robot to avoid hazards and obstacles, from deploying virtual barriers to placing magnetic tape on the floor.

    APP OR REMOTE FEATURES

    Most robot vacuum cleaners now offer a companion mobile app that lets you control the robot using a smartphone. Some even let you drive the robot vacuum cleaner like a remote-controlled toy car.

    Others may include a physical remote control.

    A must-have app feature is the ability to schedule a cleaning, or remotely start one even when there is no one at home. PRICE While robot vacuum cleaners are becoming more affordable, the topfull-featured models remain pricey, generally costing more than $1,000. Consider which features you can do without when choosing a more affordable model. For instance, the ability to map your home is cool, but is probably a luxury you can forgo.

    BATTERY LIFE

    You should get around 1hr to 1½hr of usage from most robot vacuum cleaners on a single charge.

    The better models are intelligent enough to head back to their charging stations to recharge when their batteries run low.

    Most robot vacuum cleaners offer only six months' warranty for the battery, so factor in a new battery as a potential cost, especially if you use the vacuum cleaner daily.

    LOWER YOUR EXPECTATIONS

    No robot will do a better job than a human being. The robots cannot handle spilled liquids, may get stuck occasionally or miss that spot near the corner.

    Like the normal vacuum cleaner, you also need to maintain the robot version - empty its relatively small bin and clean its brushes for optimal performance.

    But the robots do a decent enough job so you can afford to cut back on the manual cleaning.

    Vincent Chang

However, this year has seen a faster adoption rate by consumers here, with the local market growing by 20 per cent in the first six months, said GfK Asia.

This is likely because prices have come down over the past year - the average selling price has declined by 25 per cent, from around $850 at the beginning of last year to around $650 in June this year.

In addition, GfK Asia predicts that the arrival of new e-commerce players like Amazon will spur further growth in the robot vacuum cleaner market. This is because such cleaners are often sold online rather than at bricks-and-mortar stores. Ecovacs, for instance, sold US$60 million (S$82 million) worth of such cleaners online in just one day last November during China's Singles Day festival.

"While we may not be as well-known in the Singapore market as our competitors, we aim to differentiate ourselves through our products' unique features. Our robots combine both vacuuming and wet mopping in one device," said Mr Jonathan Tang, Ecovacs' vice-president of global channels.

Euromonitor International analyst Tan Jun Huang expects Ecovacs' entry-level models to spur new purchases. "Shrinking apartment sizes also mean smaller surface areas for cleaning, making entry models seem more value for money," he said.

He said that robot vacuum cleaners are not as popular here as in China, because the cost of ownership is relatively high. Locals can also turn to affordable domestic helpers for household chores.

Project manager Teo Lim Guan, 39, who has been using a robot vacuum cleaner for almost three years, feels that new users should temper their expectations.

"The robot vacuum cleaner does not replace routine floor cleaning but it makes it much easier - it is like pre-cleaning, not perfectly clean but good enough," he said.


Maps your home as it cleans

iROBOT ROOMBA 980

Price: $1,498 at irobot.com.sg

iRobot recently found itself in the headlines for the wrong reasons. Its CEO Colin Angle was quoted by Reuters as saying that it could sell maps of its users' homes - created by its robots - to companies such as Amazon and Google.

Reuters later issued a correction - Mr Angle wanted to share mapping data only with the consent of users, not sell the data . But the incident has raised privacy concerns about the mapping and navigation features of these gadgets.

As the Roomba 980 is one of the iRobot models that map your home as they clean, I was keen to see how accurate its mapping feature is. And it took just one run to produce a very accurate map of my home, albeit an incomplete version, as I had blocked the robot from entering certain places like the kitchen.

This was easily done with one of the two included virtual walls ($60 each), which are small battery- powered towers that beam a Do Not Enter signal to the Roomba. It has two modes: Set it to block off door openings with an invisible barrier or prevent the Roomba from entering a protective radius around the virtual wall to stop it from knocking into things like a pet water bowl or an antique vase.

iRobot has been making robot vacuum cleaners since the early 2000s and it shows, from the ease of use to the Roomba's ability to traverse various obstacles in the home.

The Roomba 980 mounted my children's playpen mat and rode over a thick extension cable without any issues. Its low-slung compact body went under my sofa, TV console and between the legs of chairs and tables.

However, some people may find its cleaning routine uncomfortable to watch.

The Roomba 980 by iRobot is pricey but its ease of use and ability to traverse various obstacles in the home makes it an excellent device.
The Roomba 980 by iRobot is pricey but its ease of use and ability to traverse various obstacles in the home makes it an excellent device. PHOTO: IROBOT

The Roomba occasionally heads off from its docking station in seemingly random directions. It also bumps into furniture - albeit gently - as it makes its way around the home but it is able to clean along walls and furniture legs. Most importantly, it did not get stuck or lost during my testing. It took 47min to clean my home.

The iRobot Home app (for iOS and Android) got the Roomba up and running in minutes, easily pairing my phone with the gadget.

You cannot guide the Roomba with the app like a remote-controlled toy car, but you can start a cleaning job remotely or create a weekly schedule.

It comes with helpful guides on the Roomba's maintenance and usage, as well as a link to the iRobot website to buy additional parts and accessories.

Vincent Chang

•Verdict: The Roomba 980 is an excellent robot vacuum cleaner that offers a stellar user experience. But it is pricey , so it may deter first-time buyers from dipping their toes into this technology .


This robot is neat and competent

BOTVAC D5 CONNECTED

Price: $899 at neatorobotics.com.sg

The Botvac D5 Connected's D-shaped design lets it fit into corners. An Extra Care feature makes it more cautious when it's near furniture.
The Botvac D5 Connected's D-shaped design lets it fit into corners. An Extra Care feature makes it more cautious when it's near furniture. PHOTO: NEATO

Neato's robot vacuum cleaners, like the ones from Samsung, have a D-shaped design that lets them fit into corners for cleaning. The Botvac D5 Connected is not to be confused with the higher-end and more costly Botvac Connected - the latter has extra features like a physical remote control and an LCD screen and produces a coverage map of your home.

Nevertheless, it packs a similar laser mapping system that scans its surroundings as the robot navigates your home. But the circular laser turret sticks out at the top, and it caused the robot to get stuck under my sofa.

Somehow, it had managed to squeeze itself underneath my sofa but was subsequently unable to extricate itself, triggering an error notification on my phone.

If it happens to get lost, the Neato app (for iOS and Android devices) has a Find Me feature - click it and the robot emits a sound to help you locate it.

The robot can also be driven remotely to clean along your desired path using the mobile app. To do so, both the robot and your smartphone must be connected to your home Wi-Fi network and be on the same 2.4GHz wireless band. But here's the catch: as most new phones now use the 5GHz band, it requires tweaking your Wi-Fi router and phone settings to meet this requirement.

Turning on the Extra Care feature in the app makes the Neato more cautious while cleaning near furniture. You can also use the bundled roll of boundary stripes to mark areas where you do not want the robot vacuum to enter.

However, it can be quite unsightly to have these stripes on the floor, especially as they are non- adhesive and, hence, sticky tape is required to keep them flat and in place.

The Botvac D5 Connected, which took 35min to clean my home, works with Apple Watch and Android Wear devices - you can start, stop or receive notifications on those smartwatches. I did not test this as I did not have a smartwatch on hand.

Vincent Chang

•Verdict: The Botvac D5 Connected comes with an easy-to-use app while the robot cleans well enough. It is the most affordable model among those reviewed here.


Complete vacuum-cleaning solution

ECOVACS DEEBOT R98

Price: $1,199 from Hachi.tech and selected consumer electronics stores

The handheld unit docks at the same charging station as the robot. One great feature is that when the robot docks at the station, it automatically transfers the contents of its bin to the handheld unit's dustbin.
The handheld unit docks at the same charging station as the robot. One great feature is that when the robot docks at the station, it automatically transfers the contents of its bin to the handheld unit's dustbin. PHOTO: ECOVACS

Ecovacs takes the kitchen sink approach with its top Deebot R98 model.

It has more features than its competitors, including a separate cordless handheld vacuum cleaner for those hard-to-reach areas.

This handheld unit docks at the same charging station as the robot, so you will need a fair amount of floor space for the entire set-up. It also acts as a larger, secondary dust bin for the robot unit - when the robot docks at the station, it automatically transfers the contents of its bin to the handheld's dustbin, which I feel is rather clever.

You can even attach a reusable microfibre cloth to the bottom of the robot, behind its suction mouth, so that it mops the floor as it vacuums.

On first use, the Deebot took about 15min to move around and map my home. Once this map is created, it will start to clean. You can see the robot moving on the map in real time using the Ecovacs mobile app. Areas that have been cleaned by the robot turn from grey to white, so you will know when it has missed a spot.

Most robot vacuum cleaners use physical boundary markers to denote areas that the robot should not clean. This incurs extra cost as you have to buy the markers separately. Ecovacs does this differently - simply use your finger to draw lines or zones on the map of your home in the app, to mark out those areas that are not to be covered.

The robot will subsequently avoid these areas.

The app also lets you drive the robot manually, as well as specify a spot or zone for it to clean.

Like the Neato that I tested, the laser mapping turret jutted out at the top of the Deebot, so it could not go under my sofa or TV console. It cleans in a methodical fashion, with two brushes sweeping dirt to its suction mouth. It took around 35min to clean my home and it was quiet enough that I would not mind running it at night.

The only blemish in its performance was that it partially fell off a small step between the living room and the kitchen and got stuck.

The robot emits a sound to tell you it requires help - you'll also get an app notification.

•Verdict: A full-featured robot vacuum cleaner that offers great value and quiet operation, and comes at a competitive price.


Just point and click to get the job done

SAMSUNG POWERBOT VR7000

Price: $1,299 at all major consumer electronics stores

The Samsung Powerbot VR7000 comes with a remote control that lets you guide it like a laser pointer or drive it like a remote-controlled toy car.
The Samsung Powerbot VR7000 comes with a remote control that lets you guide it like a laser pointer or drive it like a remote-controlled toy car. PHOTO: SAMSUNG

Of the four robot vacuum cleaners that I tested, the Samsung Powerbot VR7000 is the only model with a physical remote control.

While I would not consider this a must-have feature, it is surprisingly fun and convenient to use. This is because you can use the remote control like a laser pointer to guide the VR7000 to a specific spot to clean.

You can also use the directional buttons on the remote to drive it like a remote-controlled toy car.

Samsung's Smart Home app can also be used to manually control the robot vacuum cleaner, but it felt very laggy when I tested it, probably because of network latency.

The good thing about this app is that it does not just work with Samsung robot vacuum cleaners. As its name suggests, it is for all of Samsung's smart-home appliances, from washing machines to refrigerators. It has a multi-device feature for selected gadgets - for instance, you can set the VR7000 to start cleaning when you are out of the house, as well as turn on your Samsung air-con when you get home. Of course, you can also use the app to schedule a timing for cleaning.

The VR7000, like the Roomba 980, builds a map of the home as it cleans. Its map is not as detailed as the one produced by the Roomba, probably because the VR7000 is not circular, but with a straight wide front that makes it difficult to scoot between the legs of smaller furniture. At only 97mm tall, the VR7000 is said to be 28 per cent slimmer than the previous model. Unfortunately, it still won't fit underneath some of my furniture.

It moves in orderly straight lines and is careful not to bump into furniture or fall off a ledge. However, it got entangled with a small rug, instead of climbing over it. Bigger rugs or carpets should not be a problem.

Cleaning performance is good - it took 33min to clean my home at normal-strength suction power. It also runs more quietly, compared with most of the other models tested.

Vincent Chang

•Verdict: It cleans well, is relatively quiet and comes with a useful remote control. It may be a bit tall for some homes and can get stuck occasionally.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2017, with the headline 'Time for a clean break - robots are taking over'. Print Edition | Subscribe