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3 robot vacuum shopping tips I wish I knew before buying one

LiDAR navigation leads the way. Replacement parts save the day. Keep these tips in mind as you embark on your robot vacuum quest.
Written by Chris Bayer, Editor
Multiple robot vacuums sitting together.
Beth Mauder/ZDNET

I won't say I love my current robot vacuum, but I'm grateful for what it does to keep my home tidy -- and my sense of general cleanliness intact. 

There are many upsides to owning a robot vacuum, although certain factors should be considered before making a purchase. This article will explore the biggest pointers to be aware of as you look through digital catalogs and store shelves. 

Also: The best robot vacuum mops of 2024: Expert tested and reviewed

Knowing how to sift through all the marketing buzzwords and find the specs that truly matter is what ultimately determines whether a robot vacuum is worth buying or not. See below for the top three things to remember.

1) Look for robot vacuums with LiDAR scanners

Compared to imaging-based detectors on lower-end vacuums, LiDAR has a significant advantage in cleaning accuracy. LiDAR (or Light Detection and Ranging) technology enhances the navigation capacity of robot vacuums, enabling them to create a detailed, 360-degree map of your floor plan and stationary obstacles. 

The advanced sensors provide highly precise distance measurements, enabling accurate 3D mapping of the environment and localization of the robot's position. This allows the robot to efficiently navigate through spaces, avoid furniture, and plan optimized cleaning paths. LiDAR also enables the vacuum to identify areas that have already been cleaned, preventing it from repeatedly going over the same spots.

Roborock S8 MaxV Ultra robot vacuum and mop
Maria Diaz/ZDNET

Some LIDAR-equipped robot vacuums can store multi-floor mapping data (up to five maps), making them suitable for homes with multiple levels or large living spaces. You can set virtual boundaries, or "no-go zones," keeping the vacuum away from, for example, the nest of cables and wires on the floor beneath your home office desk.

Also: I found the most powerful robot vacuum on the market, and it's cheaper than you'd think

And it's dark beneath your desk, right? And maybe in the walk-in closet? Unlike camera-based navigation, LiDAR is less affected by variations in lighting conditions, ensuring reliable performance even in dimly lit areas. The comprehensive scanning mechanism of LiDAR-equipped vacuums gives them impressive adaptability to complex cleaning patterns, plus the ability to dynamically respond to and avoid dropped items (like toys or, God forbid, pet waste).

2) Always check if the brand you're buying sells replacement parts

Before buying my OKP Life K2, I wanted to be sure it was easy to maintain. It is, and fortunately, it only has one part (a HEPA filter) to replace every so many months. OKP even granted its buyers the convenience of scanning a QR code on the filter's chassis to order replacements right through their smartphones.

Many popular robot vacuums on the market offer replacement parts for purchase. By "parts," I'm referring to filters, main brushes, side brushes, mop heads, specialized batteries, and the like. Some notable brands that provide replacement parts include iRobot Roomba, Eufy RoboVac, the Shark IQ Robot, and Ecovac's Deebot.

Ecovacs Deebot T30S Combo robot vacuum and mop
Maria Diaz/ZDNET

Replacing filters is especially important in robot vacuums for a number of reasons. For starters, it helps maintain optimal suction power. A new (or clean) filter restores the vacuum's ability to take in "deep breaths" and maintain strong suction throughout its run. It also helps prevent motor strain; when a filter is clogged, the vacuum's motor has to work twice as hard to generate suction, increasing wear and tear and reducing its lifespan.

Also: Dreame X30 Ultra review: ZDNET's new top pick for best 2-in-1 robot vacuum

Replacement filters also improve the air quality in your home. HEPA filters capture 99.97% of particles as small as 0.3 microns, removing allergens, pollutants, and bacteria from the air. A filthy filter in a robot vacuum can release trapped particles back into your living space. Along those lines, have you ever noticed when your vacuum cleaner starts to stink? If so, it's begging for a new filter.

In the long run, the habit of regularly replacing parts will result in cost savings. Replacing your filter is far more cost-effective than having to repair or replace the entire vacuum. Some robot vacuum subscriptions like iRobot Select provide replacement filters, brushes, and bags, saving money over time.

3) Go into the buying process with the expectation that a robot vacuum won't deep-clean your house

The primary reason for owning a robot vacuum, like any tool, is to reduce labor on your part. Elbow grease is for deep, hands-on cleaning, while a robo vac is meant to do the light work. Naturally, some models do it better than others. I turn mine on and let it roam (after putting the dog outside). Because it lacks LiDAR, it bumbles around my apartment, wandering over its own tracks and going in circles. But, eventually, it does relieve my floors of the detritus dragged in from the great outdoors!

SwitchBot Mini Robot Vacuum K10+ and others
Maria Diaz/ZDNET

Still, no robot vacuum can scour your baseboards or take care of a nasty liquid spill. I have discovered models like the Neato Botvac D7 Connected that have a D-shaped design that allows it to clean corners and edges more effectively than many models. And the Roborock S8 MaxV Ultra offers an advanced mopping system. However, for week-old smudges or muddy paw tracks, you'll likely need to get down on your knees and do some scrubbing.

So, to recap… LiDAR offers the most reliable navigation and cleaning, and preventive maintenance can extend the life of your robot vacuum (and will avoid frustration). Be sure to check for the availability of replacement parts before buying. But, ultimately, don't expect any robot vacuum to replace the power of a four-person cleaning crew.

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