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Roomba cleans floors with style

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What do you get when you cross a personal robot and a Hoover vacuum cleaner? No, I’m not soliciting punch lines. The people at iRobot believe this mix gets you “Roomba,” what they’re calling the first intelligent ‘floor vac’.

InsertArt(1664631)AS THE COMPANY name suggests, what we’re dealing with here is, well, a robot. A robot that vacuums your floors. It reminds most people of those automatic swimming pool cleaners that automatically sweep your pool clean.

Roomba is shaped like a flying saucer, 12 inches in diameter and only 3.5-inches high. The height is the important measurement, as we’ll see later when Roomba is in action. It weighs only 7.5 pounds and has an easy-carry handle that pops out of the top. Also, the Roomba is made to clean dry dirt and debris; it won’t pick up liquids.

Roomba comes with a rechargeable battery, a battery charger and something called a “Virtual Wall”. The battery lasts for up to 60 minutes on carpeted floors and up to 90 minutes on hard surfaces such as wood, tile and linoleum. In terms of actual work completed, figure that a full charge should allow Roomba to clean three medium-size rooms. The supplied charger takes a whopping 12 hours to fully recharge the battery; an optional quick charger can do it in less than two.

The Virtual Wall (which needs you to supply two D-cell batteries) acts as an electronic boundary for the Roomba to keep it out of a specific room or area. You can purchase additional Virtual Walls to block multiple doorways. Each one an block an area up to 20-feet wide. Roomba also has an internal “cliff detector” to keep it from falling down stairs or other drop-offs.

Operating Roomba is very easy. There are three buttons on top labeled ‘S’, ‘M’ and “L’. Each setting corresponds to a specific room size: S is for rooms measuring 10’ by 12’, M for 14’ by 16’ and L for 15’ by 20’. You put the robot in the center of the room, press the button for the area you want cleaned and Roomba starts the proper cleaning program and begins its dance.

Roomba begins rotating clockwise — first in a small circle, then in an ever-widening arc, sweeping up the dirt it finds in its path. The vacuum section picks up the fine debris and the counter-rotating agitator and paddle brushes pick up the larger stuff. There’s even a side brush to clean the areas near the walls and other hard-to-reach places. When Roomba’s cleaning program is done, it turns itself off (if the battery hasn’t given out before that).

ADMIRABLE JOB As soon as Roomba was received here at MSNBC TV headquarters and charged up, it was put to work on a large area of carpeted flooring with many desks, trash bins and filing cabinets to get in its way. To help things along, I spread some shredded stuffing from a padded envelope on the floor. It’s the kind of stuff that is impossible to pick up by hand.

I pressed the M button and away it went: spinning and sweeping and cleaning, all at a very low noise level.

(One warning: When you activate a vacuuming robot in a busy newsroom everyone takes notice. So, within a minute or two there was a crowd of a dozen or more people standing around and watching this thing clean a carpet. It’s an exciting life here in the news business!)

Roomba did an admirable job at cleaning the floor. It may not pick up every shred of dirt on its first pass, but as it keeps spinning around it gets to nearly everything in its way.

It is actually a pretty efficient cleaning device. Carpeting here in the newsroom is in the form of carpet tiles. Roomba never balked at traveling over any of the bumps and grooves that sometimes makes walking here such a dangerous experience.

As for obstacles, Roomba was a champ at bumping into walls, trash cans and chair legs and bouncing right off, continuing on its quest for dirt. Roomba took every problem in stride — including finding its way out of a newsman-made obstacle course. Instead of being trapped inside the obstacle course, it just bumped around, looked for and found a way out — then merrily went on its vacuum cleaning way.

SMALL LINT BIN A PAIN I also took Roomba home with me to see how it would do in a somewhat more sedate setting. Once again, Roomba did its thing with a minimum of noise or fuss. I was able to set it and forget it. With its low height, Roomba was unfazed by coffee tables, stereo speakers or couches and large pieces of furniture in an-oddly shaped room. Even Elwood the dog, who normally hates the sound of full-sized vacuums, was unfazed by Roomba doing its thing.

The only problem I ran into was the size of the Roomba’s internal lint bin. It’s small. If your floor is very, very dirty you might have to clean it out once or twice before Roomba is finished vacuuming your room. That ruins the illusion, somewhat, of relaxing in a lounge chair while Roomba does the heavy lifting. In five or six test runs only once did I have to stop Roomba to clean it before its cleaning program had finished.

Roomba retails for just under $200 at Hammacher Schlemmer, Brookstone and The Sharper Image. The Rapid Charger, which sells for $69.95 might be a good idea if Roomba is your only floor cleaning device. Extra batteries are also $69.95, and additional Virtual Walls sell for $29.95. Overall, it’s a nice package for those who hate their vacuuming chores and would rather have a robot do it for them.