We've been waiting since December to get our hands on the Neato XV-11 robot vacuum. In preparation we steadfastedly refused to sweep up a single flake of dust, going on something of a cleaning strike until the thing finally hit retail. Of course, that wait was supposed to be a mere three month affair, and we've certainly gone that long without vacuuming before. The further six months of delays, however, left us questioning our resolve as Engadget HQ became less and less livable. Finally we've been able to unleash this smartypants vac onto our filthy floors, and all we can say is that it was well worth the wait.
The XV-11 is about the same size as a Roomba, with a squared off front dominated by a pressure-sensitive bumper. On a Roomba that bumper gets a lot of use, but here it's something of a last-resort, a feature that won't be used often thanks to a laser scanner perched on top like some sort of command module. Yes, it has a laser on top, used to scan the room and, using its internal smarts, the robot can actually determine the layout of your home and plot out the most efficient way through it. But, more on that later.
Also on top is the cleaning bin, which pops out easily and doesn't dump its contents all over the floor when removed. It's clear, so you can count any small change collected before emptying, and is backed by a paper filter that's easily replaced. The XV-11 comes with a charging stand, which is simply two conductive strips. Plug it into the wall, set it on the floor, then back your new little guy up to it and it'll start charging. Once charged, you can use the XV-11's on-board LCD to schedule cleanings whenever you like. Or, just hit the big orange button it'll get on with its thing immediately.
The only other major thing in the box is a big spool of magnetic strip. Lay this down and the Neato will patently refuse to cross it -- but, it's up to you to find out how to get that strip to stay in place and how to keep your puppy/kitten/nephew from chewing on it. The XV-11 is smart enough to not fall down stairs and does a great job at obstacle avoidance, so you may not need to use this at all, but we still found ourselves preferring Roomba's virtual walls -- despite their annoying reliance on batteries.
Doing its thing
When initially announced, the XV-11 was said to "intelligently map the entire floor space to choose the most effective path to clean the whole room, avoiding most obstacles other robots can only detect by impact." That sounded an awful lot for optimistic PR speak for a dumb robot that would ping-pong around the floor slightly less than the competition. However, it's the truth. Turn on the XV-11 and it backs away from its charging stand, performing a 360-degree scanner sweep before tracking down dust bunnies and Klingons with blowers set to maximum.
And we do mean maximum. After charging ours up we were more than a little amused by the thing spinning up for the first time, getting louder and louder (though still much quieter than your average upright). We thought for sure it was moments away from entering hover mode. Sadly it stays firmly on the ground, which it does an impressively comprehensive job at cleaning. After that initial scan the robot determines the most effective path and goes to it, tracing along the edge of the room before making lines back and forth like you might use when mowing a lawn. When, during the course of its travels, it discovers another room it'll remember that and come back later. And, if it runs out of charge, it'll return home, top-up, and pick up right where it left off.
We were continually impressed at how capable the XV-11 is. Running about roughly 1,500 square-foot worth of living space it detected every piece of furniture, ran around the perimeter, and then covered the middle. When traveling down the hallway it would make direct turns through open doorways and exit through them when done. It didn't miss a single room and, when it had covered every square foot, it immediately shut off its vacuum and took a direct path straight home to its charging stand -- swerving to evade an errant puppy along the way. That said, it did fail to return home twice, once getting stuck between some chairs and another time managing to close the door on itself in a room.
This is a huge change from what we've come to expect from our Roomba, a 560 model we affectionately call "Geeves" who has been faithfully serving us for years. Alas, after watching the XV-11's cold, clinical precision we can't help but pity poor Geeves and his random approach at coverage. We enjoy the lovely patterns that he makes, but by comparison the paths he chooses show too much chaos, too little theory. You can compare for yourself in the video above, which shows one small room being cleaned by both. The XV-11 methodically covers everything in just under five minutes, shuts down its vacuum, and returns to the exact spot where it started. Geeves keeps on banging around for over 16 minutes before getting bored and sitting in a corner. And note that Geeves did bang into the walls and the legs on the telescope tripod in the corner. The XV-11 went around them.
In terms of actual cleaning the suction on the XV-11 is slightly superior, as well, but won't give carpets a deep-clean like a good upright. It also does without the Roomba's little spinny sweeper brush, ostensibly because this square 'bot can fit into corners, but we still found that it occasionally missed debris tucked against the wall. A sweeper would snag that. That said, despite tidying up after two dogs who are better at shedding than at fetching we never once had to clean the XV-11's internals during our week of testing. We just emptied the (generally full) bin each time. Meanwhile, these days poor 'ol Geeves needs a complete teardown just about every day.
We weren't sure what to expect from the XV-11, but just the same our expectations after years of Roomba use have been shattered. It was hard to not stand there dumbfounded as this thing scanned the room and seemed to ponder its course for a moment before heading off to make your world (or at least your floor) a better place. This is the sort of robotic vacuuming we'd hoped for when we first watched a Roomba do its thing, and while the XV-11 is cream of the crop, it actually isn't that much more expensive.
Yes, $400 is a lot for a little vacuum, but it is comparable to the top-tier Roombas, and not completely out of the ballpark compared to something like a Dyson upright. No, the XV-11 will not suck the ever lasting grit out of your deep pile like the Dyson will, but neither will the Dyson push itself across the floor and play a funny little song when it's through. That, we figure, is well worth the premium here.