Think of robot vacuums and the iconic iRobot Roomba will likely come to mind. Since the first Roomba crawled across a customer's carpet back in 2002, the Boston-area company has become the market leader in robot vacuums.
California-based Neato may not be as well known, but the company's Botvacs have quite a following—including those who swear they're better at picking up pet hair.
We decided to bring this East Coast–West Coast robot rivalry into our testing labs, where we pitted iRobot's latest creation, the internet-connected Roomba 980 (MSRP $899), against Neato's tried-and-true Botvac 80 (MSRP $499).
From their shapes to their navigational patterns, these two automated cleaners take completely different approaches to maintaining floors. That's why we put them through the same series of tests, rating dirt pickup, navigation, and features to see which one would come out on top.
Overall, the Roomba proved to be a better robot, while the Neato did a better job at actually picking up debris. But depending on what you're looking for in a robot vacuum, our results may surprise you.
The 980 replaces the 880 as iRobot's flagship, with an $899 sale price to match.
The most notable upgrade is the addition of iAdapt 2.0 Navigation with visual localization, which—among other advances—puts a low-resolution camera on top of the vacuum so the 980 can use landmarks to navigate around a room. It's similar to what we've seen on the Samsung Powerbot VR9000 and Miele Scout RX-1, and promises to help the Roomba avoid obstacles and optimize its cleaning prowess.
According to iRobot, the new vacuum can navigate between multiple rooms, where other robot vacuums might get lost. It also has improved carpet-cleaning performance, virtual walls that can create a "halo" to keep the robot away from cords and dog bowls, and an upgraded lithium-ion battery. Finally, with the iRobot Home App, you can control your 980 from your smartphone—a fun feature that we had trouble getting to work properly during our tests.
By comparison, the Neato Botvac 80 is down to $328 on sale, although its features are a little less shiny. In part, that's because it's due to be replaced by the new Botvac D series, which we're in the process of testing.
Neato does things a bit differently than iRobot. For instance, you'll notice that the Botvac's shape is different from most circular robot vacuums. Having an edge at the front allows the Botvac to clean closer to walls and have a wider cleaning path.
To guide this little robot where it needs to go, Neato has equipped the Botvac with Botvision. This omnidirectional-laser-navigation system allowed the Botvac 80 to avoid getting stuck like its predecessors.
Other than that, the Neato didn't come with any more mind-blowing technology. Instead of virtual walls that can easily be set up, the Botvac came with a magnetic strip that has to be placed on the ground to act as a Do Not Cross line. (A Connected Botvac, with Wi-Fi control, will be available soon.)
Duking it out for robot vacuum supremacy, the Botvac 80 and the iRobot Roomba 980 finished neck and neck. After reviewing all the data, we've come to the conclusion that the Roomba 980 is the better robot, while the Botvac is a better vacuum.
The 980, with its iAdapt 2.0 technology, cruised around our testing room, avoiding obstacles and actually learning the space's hiding places and pitfalls. After multiple test runs, the 980 reduced its cleaning time by 17% while suctioning up the same amount of dirt each time–around 8.5 grams. At first, that might sound like a paltry amount, but since the 980 can be set to clean automatically each day, you can multiply that 8.5 grams by 7 days and get 59.5 grams of dirt and debris each week–a comparable clean to a full-sized vacuum.
But while the 980 had no trouble with our low-pile carpet test, it shied away from our high-pile area rug entirely in every test run. Because it never even got up on high-pile carpet, we never got to see how well it could clean. So much for improved carpet cleaning.
If you're looking for a robot vacuum that acts more like the old human-operated kind, you'll find that the Botvac 80 comes closer.
From the floor to its tippy top, the Botvac 80 measures 3.9 inches—about a third of an inch taller than most robot vacs. Although this makes it harder for the Neato to fit under furniture and counters, it gives it more clearance to get over obstacles. In fact, our testing has shown only about a third of robot vacuums can transition from bare floors to high-pile carpet without skipping a beat, and the Neato Botvac 80 is among them.
Getting at the dirt in our high-pile rug meant that the Neato edged out the iRobot in pickup. At the end of the day, the Botvac 80 collected 10.3 grams of dirt in its bin. Multiply the daily intake by 7 and you get 72.1 grams a week—about the same as a good once-over with an upright.
The Botvac 80 and the Roomba 980 live in different worlds. The Botvac 80 inhabits the reality of today while the Roomba 980 is the promise of tomorrow.
Of all the robot vacuums we've tested, the Neato Botvac 80 sits at the perfect crossroads of price, performance, and technology. It sucked up plenty of dirt on a variety of surfaces without getting stuck. It's simple, effective, and doesn't break the bank.
But if you want to invest in a vacuum that you can control from your phone—one that will also leave your dog's dish alone—the iRobot Roomba 980 your best bet. It contains a variety of new technologies and programming that aren't available from any other brand, and that may make it a clear winner for some consumers. Still, its high price tag will keep it out of reach of most buyers.
Our final verdict? Early adopters and micromanagers should get the iRobot Roomba 980, but anyone who just wants clean floors—and is interested in saving a few hundred dollars—should pick up a Neato Botvac 80.