Robovacs amusing but no match for old models

Monday, August 23, 2004

BOSTON -- A new generation of robotic vacuums is ready to do battle with dirt, dust and dog hair with more cleaning power and cunning than their ancestors could muster.

Faced with the usual obstacles -- furniture, stairs, low-hanging bed skirts and stray socks -- they intelligently and acrobatically extricate themselves from most tight spots and largely avoid getting stuck or sucking in what they shouldn't.

Yet in-home tests reveal a dirty secret: They're no match for an old-fashioned standup vacuum and some elbow grease.

Their weaknesses notwithstanding, Robovacs have been a hit. The disc-shaped, whirring $200 Roomba Floorvac scooted its way into homes two years ago.

More than a half-million Floorvac sales later, Burlington, Mass.-based iRobot Corp. is following up with a next-generation version called the Discovery that is smarter, quieter, more powerful and easier to recharge.

The $250 Discovery and its nemesis, The Sharper Image's new $300 eVac, represent advances in home robotics at prices comparable to high-end standup vacuums.

What limits these robovacs' performance isn't related to their artificial intelligence so much as to their small size and lightweight batteries. They operate best when traveling freely on an open, uncluttered floor. If your place, like mine, is more chaotic, robovacs provide more amusement than cleaning.

Both vacuums will likely perform well if your home is soiled only by light dirt and other fine particles.

After running both vacuums through my apartment and still finding crumbs, bits of thread and uncooked pasta particles on the carpet and in the corners, I enlisted my high-powered, noisy standup vacuum.

The standup was less fun than the robots. But a task that took the robots 20 minutes to accomplish was done in two minutes. And, in keeping with the primary purpose of any vacuum, it cleaned my floor.

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