It used to be that if you were looking for a decent vacuum robot, you only had one choice: a Roomba from iRobot. But now there are plenty of other options from upstarts like Neato and established tech companies like LG and Samsung. The novelty around having a robot vacuum is wearing off, and the category is beginning to resemble the broader cleaner market, with all sorts of whiz-bang features and nebulous marketing terms designed to tempt consumers. That seemed like Samsung's motivation with its Powerbot VR9000 vacuum last year -- but at around $1,000, it was far more expensive than the competition. Now with the $450 Powerbot Essential, Samsung is trying to deliver a quality robot vacuum that's also affordable. And for the most part, it succeeds.
Perhaps the first thing you'll notice about the Powerbot Essential: It's freaking big. It's an inch taller than anything from Roomba or Neato, with large wheels and round components up top, including its dust tray, "CycloneForce" suction mechanism and camera. It looks more like a rejected prop from Tron or RoboCop than a typical robot vacuum. On the bottom, there's a wide "Combo Brush," which packs in hard, soft and rubber bristles to clean a variety of surfaces, and a lithium-ion battery for around an hour of cleaning time.
The Powerbot Essential's imposing looks might be a turnoff if you're looking for a vacuum bot that blends seamlessly into your home decor. That being said, it's ideal if you want something that looks like it was designed by a hardware geek drunk on power (and I know there are plenty of you out there who'd enjoy that).
If you've used a robot vacuum before, you'd be right at home with the Powerbot Essential's basic functions. You can command it to clean a single spot or your entire house or go back to its charging base using the three buttons on its top. You can also control the Powerbot using the remote included in the box (which also lets you manually move it about using directional arrows). Unfortunately, the remote doesn't include the useful "Point Cleaning" mode from the VR9000, which sends the vacuum chasing after a red light projected from the remote. Also, there's no app for controlling the Powerbot remotely or scheduling cleanings.
Setting up the vacuum was as simple as unboxing it and charging it for a few hours. (Samsung says it fully charges in around two and a half hours.) After I hit the house-cleaning button, it went to work. Like the Roomba 980 and Neato's vacuums, the Powerbot uses a camera to map your home, so it was able to avoid bumping into furniture and other obstacles. Its cleaning routine was fairly methodical: It went up and down every room in my apartment in mostly straight lines. The Powerbot's large wheels also helped it get over cables and cat toys. It didn't get tangled up in wires either like the Neato Botvac Connected tends to do.
All told, the Powerbot Essential cleaned about as well as the Roomba 980 on carpets and floors. In particular, it shined when cleaning up cat hair and litter fragments that inevitably get into carpets. Unfortunately, it wasn't nearly as effective near walls, since it doesn't have a side brush for kicking up dirt. It seems like a particularly egregious omission when Roomba's vacuums have had them from the start. The Powerbot was also unable to get underneath some furniture due to its extra-large proportions.
The vacuum's 0.7-liter dust tray allowed it to clean most of my two-bedroom apartment without needing to be emptied. I also appreciated that I could see the tray from the top of the vacuum, as well as remove it fairly easily without causing a mess. It was certainly more convenient than Neato's Botvac Connected dust tray, which often spilled dirt whenever I emptied it.
For the most part, I was impressed with the Powerbot Essential's ability to navigate my apartment without getting trapped in corners or tangled in wires. It didn't need much babysitting, which is my biggest criteria for judging robot vacuums. I was surprised it got the hang of my space even faster than the Roomba 980, which has the benefit of using iRobot's military-grade computer vision technology but costs twice as much.
At $450, the Powerbot Essential is a decent choice for an entry-level robot vacuum. Still, you can find plenty of alternatives in that price range, like iRobot's Roomba 770 ($480) and Neato's Botvac 85 ($500) and Botvac 70e ($400). Samsung's vacuum is notable for including camera guidance at that price range, but Neato's vacuums have similar technology and also tend to clean better.