Waiting for a better Roomba – iRobot is nuts

I’ve written about the robot vacuums called Roomba in the past, and my wife and I have been Roomba owners for quite a while. While we loved it when it workd, we no longer use our old Roomba Discovery because it died. After spending a lot of time cleaning and repairing the thing, it finally developed problems that required real service. The problem is there isn’t any from iRobot, who make Roomba. We can buy a new one, but they don’t service them. It’s either that, or buy a $70 battery and hope that fixes it.

So, even though we now live in a larger ranch house and a robot vacuum would be a great solution, we haven’t been using ours. Recently Susan and I were talking, and it came up, and I thought I would go see what iRobot had been up to.

They’ve gone nuts.

They have ELEVEN models. Eleven. Not only do they have way too many models, it’s very hard to tell them apart. Mostly it seems to be which accessories come with them or perhaps battery life. It’s not easy to figure it out.

They now go up to $550. For a vacuum with a life expectancy of perhaps a year and a half, with no ability for anyone to repair it when it breaks, which it will. This is crazy. It was a crazy price for a Dyson, which will last decades and surely is repairable by someone – maybe even Dyson. For a disposable appliance it’s rediculous.

They’re still fragile. Reading the reviews on Amazon, it doesn’t seem that the many design flaws of the original products have been resolved. They still need to be emptied after every use and frequent maintenance, and still have certain bits that die an early and frequent death.

The good news is that they offer a model at only $129. Even though that’s still more than I’m willing to spend on a disposable appliance, it does show they’re at least considering a reasonably priced product. They also now offer a wider array of spare parts, at highish prices, but at least they’re available.

iRobot: You need to make these things last, make them repairable so they’re not disposable, or make them cheap enough that we just don’t care when they die. My vote is to make them repairable. Preferably by anyone who’s willing to read a service manual and buy the replacement parts.

Still, it would be nice to have one with our kitchen being as large as it is. Maybe the local batteries plus can make a replacement battery…

Roomba’s eye view – why didn’t I think of this?

I’m finding a lot of folks who have put cameras on their roombas. This is one of those things that I feel like I should have thought of 8-) Preparing for parenthood is making me a little soft in the head. There are some videos on some of the pages: Andy’s Waste of Bandwidth,
Roombacam, and Roombastuff. These are all pretty darn cool.

Looking at the Curtronics page, I’m thinking that with a smaller digital camera (they all have “movie mode now”) like my Canon SD10, this could be kind of fun. It would be reall neat if there was a way to mount it low enough that you could see under furntiture that Roomba couldn’t get under – might end the mystery of any number of lost objects.

Anyway, have a look and enjoy!

Roomba – a fragile machine…

My wife and I have really enjoyed having Roomba around, it really does a nice job of keeping our floors clean. But we have found that it is a pretty fragile device.

First, it needs pretty frequent cleaning. This is not so bad – I take down to the workshop and blast it with air for a while, and all the sensors are clean and it goes back to being it’s efficient self. The main brush gets wrapped in hair, along with every other rotating part, and they need to be unwound from time to time. This I really don’t mind because it’s fixing something, and I enjoy fixing things. But that’s not the real problem.

Second, and the real problem, is that it seems to break pretty easily. If you scan the Roomba discussion boards, you will read about the death spiral, which in our case was more like the line-dance of death. The machine clearly thinks it’s stuck when it’s not, and keeps trying to free itself. When this started to happen to our unit my heart sunk because I had read that the fix is to send it back to iRobot. So I took it to the shop and cleaned it very thoroughly. Somewhere in that process I learned that the little yellow bearing on the main brush had disappeared. Figuring the system must work by sensing motor current, and figuring the missing bearing was certainly increasing friction and current, I called iRobot and begged for new bearings. They were very kind and sent a new set, although it took a couple of weeks. I put in the new bearings just sure it would fix things. It didn’t. I recleaned all the sensors, and checked everything again, but still it didn’t work right.

So, as panic set in and both of us struggled to deal with the possibility of going back to the stone age (remember when you had to push a vacuum around?) we began to think of ways out of this. We’d bought the unit at The Home Depot, and we still had the receipt. A quick look online showed we could still return the unit. Phew! An hour later and the little tyke was again cleaning our house. The folks at The Home Depot were kind enough to return & repurchase the unit, so we regained a 90-day return period.

A lot of folks suggest getting these units at Hammacher-Schelmmer because of their lifetime guarantee, but that means sending it back. Roomba is just big enough to be a pain in the butt to send back. I think if our first unit went bad in two months, our second will be hard pressed to make it much further, and who wants to send a 12lb package 4 times a year? I figure as long as THD will allow us to return & repurchase every three months, the unit’s fragility shouldn’t be much of a problem.

I’m hoping that as more folks buy these units, the fragility of them will drive iRobot to make a more robust unit. This product is such a joy to have around when it’s working, that when it breaks it has a real psychological impact – leaving a door wide open for a competitor who can invent a machine that cleans as well, but lasts longer. C’mon iRobot – figure out a way to make this thing last longer! Better yet, sell (cheaply, please) a service manual and rebuild kit. I would happily fix the thing myself as long as I know how and can get the right parts.