Should you ever buy a robot vacuum?

Robot vacuums are notoriously expensive and don't always work. Is it ever worth buying one?

An iRobot Roomba Combo j9+ Robot Vacuum and Mop
(Image credit: iRobot)

As a product tester, I've tried my fair share of robot vacuums. It's part of how I earn a living. My day-to-day is testing products and writing and editing reviews. In this case, I was lucky enough for iRobot to send me a sample of a  iRobot Roomba Combo j9+ Robot Vacuum and Mop to review, and I've been living with this robot for the past month. Pretty standard stuff.

But before I publish my full review, it dawned on me that with Black Friday here, a lot of people will be wondering more generally if a robot vacuum is worth it it. The marketing makes it seem like they're the product of the future, but the marketing has been saying that since before I was born. What's more, they're very expensive machines. Out of sales periods, this particular model costs $1400. To be fair to iRobot, this is as fancy as a robot vacuum gets, but it's still a lot of money. 

After living with this robot vacuum for a month, I think these vacuums are certainly worth the money, but not for the average person. If you can't stand vacuuming and have the cash, a robot vacuum will sort you out. If you don't have robot money ready, you're better sticking to a cheap cordless. 

Do robot vacuums do a good job of cleaning carpet?

Robot vacuums can do a great job at cleaning. This particular robot runs around my apartment and for the most part does an excellent job. We bought an area rug that sheds a lot and this robot has largely dealt with all the fluff. As the weather becomes wintry, it does a great job at keeping our entryway free from mud.

However, the frustrating thing with a robot vacuum is that even the good ones are almost perfect. The corners of the room always have one noticeable piece of lint, or there's a piece of leaf trod in from outside that it missed. It's not even really a problem of suction - some of the best vacuums might miss these too. 

The iRobot Roomba Combo j9+ Robot Vacuum and Mop in my apartment

The Roomba Combo j9+ in my apartment

(Image credit: Future)

The problem is that the robot can't know that it's missed anything. It's a robot – it doesn't 'know' anything, and it can't 'see' that it's skipped a spot. If the stars aligned  that a string that fell off your coat and the vacuum missed it, then this tiny spot you'd just clean up in a couple seconds with a cordless or a handheld will simply sit unvacuumed until the next time. I find whenever I've tested these vacuums that there's often a couple spots to just pick up after it yourself; at which point you're just vacuuming, which defeats the purpose.

I also find it a little frustrating that you have to clean up before your robot runs. A lot of the detritus of everyday life is a potential hazard. I found that on the days I set this robot to run, I'd have to jump up from my desk and move things out the way. It's nothing huge – cables and shoelaces, or the straps of my backpack resting on the floor – but any of them could strangle the robot. Things I can just avoid as I vacuum myself, or quickly lift out the way, have be dealt with before the robot cleans. 

Do robot mops do a good job on hard floors?

iRobot Roomba Combo j9+ Robot Vacuum and Mop mopping my kitchen floor

The Roomba Combo j9+ mopping my kitchen floor

(Image credit: Future)

I think the mop function on a robot vacuum can be particularly effective. I'd rarely bother mopping our little kitchen but the a robot mop genuinely makes a difference. It's genuinely amazing to see this particular robot switch from carpet to hard floors. Our kitchen floor is noticeably cleaner and in spots it genuinely shines. This model is particularly good, because it has a scrubbing function that gets rid of most of the usual cooking stains you might find in a kitchen.

But just as with cleaning on carpet, robot mops always have a spot they haven't cleaned, and it's often a crucial spot. In the case of my kitchen, it's by the trashcan. That's an obvious place to find little stains from throwing out food waste, but the robot couldn't reach them. The combination of a round trash can and circular robot did not work well, so there was often a little corner I had to wipe up after. Don't get me wrong, it's much easier than mopping the whole floor yourself, but it's not perfect.

Are robot vacuums noisy?

There's no way around it, these are noisy. I usually find they're a little quieter than a cordless or upright vacuum, because they're smaller, but it's still a vacuum. It's loud. Because these vacuums take longer than a person (most of the programs in my apartment take 30-40 minutes), I find it mildly annoying, low-level noise. You won't be able to take meetings, read, or watch tv while this runs. When I've used it on the weekend, I ended up putting my headphones in and watching Tiktok. If you're dreaming of a robot that will run round and vacuum while you put your feet up watch TV, I don't think one exists. 

In the case of the model I'm testing at the moment, I've found that the noise of the  autodock is the single worst feature. In theory, I adore the autodock. It tops your robot up with water for you, and it removes the waste from the robot after every clean. This is a great fix for one of my least favorite parts of robot vacuums. Most robot vacuums have tiny dustbins which mean you spend half your time emptying them and the process doesn't feel very automatic. But with the Roomba Combo j9+, I still haven't had to empty it once after weeks of use. It even looks good; iRobot fitted this particular autodock with a wood top, so it almost looks like a sidetable. It's not invisible, but it doesn't stand out. I can't praise these features enough. 

But I promise I'm not being hyperbolic, the autodock emptying sounds like a jet taking off. It is incredibly loud to the point that I am sure it's disturbing the neighbors. You can barely hear yourself talk under it and it makes me jump every time it goes off. Sure, that's not a problem if you're out of the house, but it's so loud I worry the neighbors will make a noise complaint and I won't be in the apartment to sort it out. 

Should I buy a robot vacuum?

With everything considered, if you have the money and you love a gadget, I think you should buy a robot vacuum. It's not perfect but I've loved having one of these in my apartment. If you're one of those people that hates vacuuming, one of these will do a good enough job that it will save you the job. I also think that if you have a large home, running one of these is a good way to keep it clean. You can set it to clean a specific room every day and keep on top of your vacuuming throughout the week. 

However, for most users, a robot vacuum is simply too expensive for the performance. If a robot like this that costs $1300 is your big purchase of the year, you'll be a little disappointed. While I love having this around, I find that if I need to quickly vacuum before friends and family come over, I'll reach for my cheap cordless that costs ten times less. 

iRobot Roomba Combo j9+ | $1399.99 at iRobot

iRobot Roomba Combo j9+ | $1399.99 at iRobot
I'm still to write up my full review, but so far I'm very impressed with this robot vacuum. However, I just can't get over the price. I don't think there's anything better, but I think $1400 is a lot to spend on clean floors.

Shark AI Ultra 2-in-1 Robot Vacuum | Was $449, now $249 at Best Buy

Shark AI Ultra 2-in-1 Robot Vacuum | Was $449, now $249 at Best Buy
If the iRobot I'm testing now is too much, the Shark AI Ultra is a more budget-friendly pick. One of the best robot vacuums, the self-emptying base that can hold up to 60 days' worth of dust, and the two-hour battery life to clean the whole house, the Shark AI Ultra works hard - but you have to swap the mop head out yourself, which defeats the point. 

Ultenic U12 Vesla Cordless Vacuum |Was $239.99, now $129.99 at Amazon

Ultenic U12 Vesla Cordless Vacuum | Was $239.99, now $129.99 at Amazon
I think this is probably the best value vacuum deal you can get at the moment. It's not as flashy as a robot, but I think it's makes much better financial sense. 

Robot vacuum FAQs

Do robot vacuums have cameras?

Yes. Most robot vacuums operate with cameras, including most iRobots. If you're at all worried about privacy, you should get a robot with LiDar, which won't take images of your home.

Why are robot vacuums so expensive?

The clue is in the name – robotics is expensive. Think of all the fancy tech that needs to go into one of these for it to work. It needs cameras, lasers, a pretty powerful processor, sensors to know if it's full or bumped into a wall, the ability to map out a room – the list goes on. Until everyday robotics is cheap, robot vacuums will be pretty expensive. 

Final thoughts

If this all sounds like too much work, you need to think about the best cordless vacuums. Robot vacuums are infamously poor companions for pets, too, so it's worth considering the best vacuum for pet hair if you need to pick up after dogs and cats. 

Alex David
Head of eCommerce

As Head of eCommerce, Alex makes sure our readers find the right information to help them make the best purchase. After graduating from Cambridge University, Alex got his start in reviewing at the iconic Good Housekeeping Institute, testing a wide range of household products and appliances. He then moved to BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine, assessing gardening tools, machinery, and wildlife products. Helping people find true quality and genuine value is a real passion.