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Not all robot maids created equal: Roomba vs. Scooba

While the Roomba 650, left, can’t vacuum as well as a human it’ll save you time on a weekly basis. The Skooba 390, right, might look like a great option, but requires a large amount of preparation time.

For the past 12 years, iRobot's done its best to help us forget that the flying cars and jetpacks we were all promised in our youth have failed to materialize. How? By filling our homes with robots, of course.

I recently spent a week with iRobot's Roomba 650 Vacuum Cleaning Robot and Scooba 390 Floor Washing Robot. How well they worked depends on how you look at what they're designed to do.

Priced at $479, the Roomba 650 is designed to scrub, dislodge and vacuum up dirt from bare floors on up to medium pile carpets. Using the 650, couldn't be simpler: plug its charging base into a wall outlet and set the 650 on it to charge overnight. Once the robot's battery is juiced up, users can elect to start the 650's cleaning routine with the push of a button, or set it up on a timed cleaning schedule. In either case, working with the 650's few controls is simple and mostly self explanatory. One buttons starts and stops its cleaning routine, and a few others, all found on the top of the robot, can be used to set up its internal clock and seven-day cleaning schedule.

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The first thing you'll notice is that the 650 takes longer to clean your floor than you would. It spins in spots and changes direction in the middle of the room, often covering the same areas more than once. It took 20 minutes to clean my living room – an area that I can normally vacuum in five. This isn't because the Roomba 650 inefficient. Rather, it's designed to attack a floor from a number of different angles in order to pick up as much dirt as possible. At the end of the 20 minutes, my floor was clean, and I didn't need to lift a finger. The Roomba continued to clean the rest of my apartment's floors for another 25 minutes before returning to its charging dock, making for a total of 45 minutes of cleaning time.

Along with the charging base and two vacuum filters, iRobot also ships a Virtual Wall device with Roomba 650. It's a small IR emitter that can be placed in any area you'd rather the Roomba 650 didn't roam into, such as at the top of a set of stairs. When I removed the 650's dust bin to empty it, I found that it was fit to burst, full of cat hair, dirt and dust.

Overall, I was pleased with the 650's performance – but it's not perfect.

First, let's talk about it's dustbin: it's not big. If you don't clean your floor often, chances are you'll be forced to empty it at least once during the Roomba's 45 minute cleaning cycle. That said, if you let the robot clean your floors on a daily basis, there should be more than enough room to house all of the dirt it finds. I also found that while the 650 was able to contend with transitioning from bare floors to area rugs and carpeted rooms, it didn't do so well with cables and wiring of the sort that you'll find in most living rooms and home offices. The robot would try to mount the cables, get stuck and then drive off in another direction. Also, due to it's size, the 650 wasn't able to clean in tight areas, corners and definitely couldn't manage stairs. In the end, you'll likely have to do a bit of spot cleaning with a manual vacuum to make up for its inadequacies.

But when you buy a robot designed to take on as banal a task as vacuuming, you're not paying for a device that'll clean your home to perfection: you're paying for a robot that'll let you spend a few extra minutes a day reading to your kids or watching TV. Buying a Roomba 650 is an investment in leisure. With the world demanding more of us on a daily basis, I say that If you have the money to spend on a luxury like a Roomba 650, go for it. The time you'll bank from not having to vacuum as often is worth every penny.

However, the same can't be said for the Scooba 390. Slightly larger, and at $559.99 more expensive than the Roomba 650, the 390 is designed to vacuum, scrub and wash hardwood, cement and tile floors. But I'm not a fan.

Where the Roomba 650 gives you back the time you would normally have to spend on vacuuming your home, the Scooba 390 requires so much preparation and maintenance to use that you may as well mop your floors yourself. Unlike the Roomba 650, the Scooba 390 doesn't come with a charging base. Instead, it must be unplugged before using it and plugged back in once it's finished cleaning. Additionally, the robot's onboard water tank needs to be filled before each use, and then emptied of dirty water after its cleaning cycle is completed. I was also disappointed by the fact that iRobot suggests using their proprietary floor cleaning solution in the 390, as regular cleaners, like Pinesol or Mr. Clean can damage the Scooba 390's inner workings. Running out to the corner store to pick up a new bottle of the stuff is out of the question. That's almost as much hassle as a mop and bucket will cause you, but at close to 30 times the price.

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VERDICT: While the Roomba 650 can't vacuum as well as a human, if you can afford it, the time it'll save you on a weekly basis is well worth the asking price. For anyone looking to wash their floors, the Scooba 390 might look like a great option, but the large amount of preparation required to use the robot negates its raison d'être.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled iRobot's Scooba with a "K". We regret the error.

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