Review: iRobot Scooba 230


The iRobot Scooba 230 fits an entire floor washing robot inside an adorable little cylindrical package.

We're totally stoked about iRobot's new Scooba 230 floor cleaning robot, largely because it's something entirely new from iRobot, a company that we've gently chided in the past for making only incremental and cosmetic improvements to their consumer products over the last few years.

The Scooba 230, which becomes available for purchase this week, manages to fit an entire floor washing robot inside an adorable little cylindrical package. But is a robot this small able to clean bathrooms and kitchens well enough to give you a break from your chores? We got ourselves a review unit, and we'll tell you, right now.

In the box, or at least the box we got, you'll find the robot itself, two virtual walls (the kind with on/off switches that take those gigantic D batteries that nobody ever uses except for oversized flashlights), a set of three spare bottom plates, a base plate, some packets of cleaning solution, the battery, a charger (two prong), and a handy quick-start guide.

If you have a Roomba, or a regular Scooba, the first thing you'll notice about the Scooba 230 is that it's small. Incredibly small. I have relatively big hands, I'm told, but this robot fits comfortably in one of them. The controls, all of two buttons, are mounted on the top: there's one button that says "power" and one button that says "clean." There's even an adorable carrying handle.

The top of the Scooba 230 is at about the same height as a Roomba or Scooba, and I assume that the infrared virtual wall sensors are spaced around the top rim somewhere underneath that black strip. The front of the robot, all 180 degrees worth, is a bump sensor, and there's a wall-following sensor looking forwards too.

Around the back, you'll find the battery slot, which is kinda neat: the battery itself is long and flat and extends essentially the entire length of the body of the robot. If you're curious, it's a 7.2 V, 1300 mAh, nickel metal hydride. It's press-fit, without any catches or clips or anything, and there's an o-ring on the outside end to keep it dry. Right next to the battery is a little rubber flap that keeps the charging port covered.

The Scooba 230 fills up with clean water from the front and empties dirty water out the back (more on that later). Little plastic doors (handily labeled "FILL" and "EMPTY") flip out to allow water to be added or removed. The doors are designed so that you have to press them tightly into the robot to make sure they seal properly, but there's no clicking noise or anything to let you know you've got it tight enough. It's a little too easy to not quite press the door hard enough, which will end up letting little dribbles of water leak out.

Poking around the Scooba 230 as much as I can without going at it with a hacksaw reveals some neat design features. Part of how iRobot was able to make the robot so small was to use an active reservoir system, which you can see when you look in the fill ports:

Inside, there's a large water compartment containing one big flexible plastic bladder that's attached to the "FILL"port. When you fill the robot with clean water, the bladder expands until you've got about 1.65 cups of water in it, and it entirely fills the interior of the robot. As the robot does its thing, it sprays clean water out and sucks dirty water in, and the dirty water starts filling up the inside of the robot's sealed water compartment, but outside the clean water bladder itself, which is busy getting smaller as the water gets used up.

So eventually, you end up with lots of dirty water inside the water compartment, and an empty clean water bladder that's squished flat and not taking up any room. The clever bit is that the volume of water inside the robot never really changes; clean water in one place just gets turned into dirty water in another place, and utilization of the limited amount of space inside the bot is always close to 100 percent.

The bottom plate itself is detachable in five seconds with no tools, making it easy to take it off to clean it or to put a new one on if the little scrubby bristles wear out, which happens in about six months of normal use. Near the back is the squeegee, which has a bunch of tiny (millimeter-sized) holes punched into it that lead to two ports up inside the body of the robot. This, I assume, is the system used to suck up dirty water back into the Scooba, and as far as I can tell, these holes set the limit of what the robot can physically remove from the floor. Let me reiterate that: anything larger than these teeny tiny little holes will not be "cleaned up" by the robot, it'll just get shoved around.

Underneath the bottom plate, you can see a peristaltic pump that's used to squirt the clean water out of the robot. This makes a lot of sense, largely because pumps like this have basically one single moving part and no valves or seals or anything else to wear out, which definitely bodes well for the reliability of the robot itself.

The slots at the front of the robot appear to be the edge sensors, not the water jets. In fact, I had a heckuva time trying to figure out where the robot spits out the clean water, until I realized that a lot of it actually comes out the back, not the front. You can see minuscule nozzles here, that align with slightly less minuscule holes in the bottom plate:

Why does it work this way? Well, you have to remember that the Scooba (and every other home robot that iRobot makes, pretty much) is designed to work most effectively in multiple passes. So in this case, my guess is that since the water comes out the back (or mostly out the back, at least), pass one is with dry bristles, which are probably more effective at loosening up dirt. Then, water is left on the dirt as the robot passes over it to let it soak a bit. Finally, after a few passes, the robot stops squiring water out the back and transitions to just squeegeeing it up, and you're left with a clean, dry(ish) floor.

Now, on to what you really care about, which is how it works in practice. My bathroom supports a total of three people. And three cats. And, four three rats. And also one rather large snake. Admittedly, not all of us are generally trying to use the bathroom at the same time (or, at all), but I mention them anyway to attempt to give you a flavor of the variety (and quantity) of, uh, maintenance that our bathroom generally requires.

The first thing to do when using the Scooba 230 is to fill it with warm, but not hot, water. I tried to be careful, but it's hard to avoid slopping water all over the robot as you do this. Fortunately, iRobot figured that this would happen, and the bot can get wet (to a reasonable extent) without harming it. It's important to leave the back ("EMPTY") port open even as you fill the bot with clean water; this lets the bladder expand fully. After putting the water in, you can optionally add cleaning solution before sealing it up.

Starting the cleaning cycle involves all of two buttons, and since the robot only has two buttons, you're not likely to have trouble figuring out which ones to push. The only decision you have to make is whether you want the robot to clean for 20 minutes for smallish areas (60 square feet or so), or 40 minutes for largeish areas up to 150 square feet. It defaults to a 40 minute clean, but if you hold the "CLEAN" button for a couple extra seconds, it makes a sound and switches over to 20 minutes. And then, you just let the Scooba 230 do its job, simple as that.

I have to say, it's a pretty cute little robot to watch at work. It's brisk. Determined. Feisty, even. It clearly wants to do a bang-up job, and it's going put in as much effort as its round little body is capable of to get your floors clean. While operating, the 230 is certainly not silent, but it's not what I'd call loud, either. You can have a conversation while it's running, and if you lock it in your bathroom, you'll probably only here the occasional "thunk" as it runs into a wall.

It's possible to pick the robot up mid-cycle, and it will stop cleaning. However, it gets unhappy when you do this and complains loudly, flashes a red light, and drips all over the place. This brings up an unfortunate reality of a wet-surface cleaning robot, which is that unlike a Roomba, you can't really just decide that it's done and shut it off. I mean, you can, but if you interrupt the Scooba in the middle of its cleaning cycle, it's going to leave a wet and sloppy mess all over your floor.

After a full cleaning cycle, the Scooba 230 will sing at you and light up a little green check mark to let you know that it's done. You can then lift it up, carry it over to the sink, and dump the dirty water out of the "EMPTY" door. It's much less drippy when you pick it up at the end of its cycle, probably because it's had its water jets turned off for a little bit before it actually stops cleaning.

A cursory inspection revealed some gunk caught up in the bristles on the bottom plate, which I rinsed off. A more careful inspection revealed that a few of the tiny little vacuum holes that the robot uses to suck up dirty water were clogged by more gunk. This is a little bit troubling, since it implies that after maybe five or ten runs, all of the vacuum holes would be clogged up and the Scooba would cease to clean. Luckily, iRobot has anticipated such an event, and the rubber squeegee bit can be partially removed to get at the holes from both sides and clean them out. You can also remove and clean the wheels, and iRobot recommends that you rinse out both water reservoirs.

The robot got pretty wet during this cleaning process (which took me maybe 3 minutes), and some water got up underneath its front bumper and stuff, but no electrical shorts or fires seemed to result, so that's good. Personally, it's hard to get used to cleaning a robot under running water, but with the Scooba 230, that seems to be the way to go.

When the bot is all emptied out and cleaned up, you just set it on its little baseplate where it can drip dry without making a mess, plug in the charger, and you're done.

So, great, but how's the floor? The short answer is, it's clean. The long answer is, it's clean but still pretty wet. I was honestly expecting the robot to do a slightly better job of getting the water up. I wouldn't say that it leaves puddles or anything, but you'll need to let the floor air-dry for a few minutes at least. To give you a better sense of how much water it leaves behind, here's a pic of a glass tabletop after the robot has cleaned it:

In general, however, I was quite impressed by how clean the bathroom got. The robot was successful at removing not just surface dirt, but also sticky patches from soap and things that would generally require a bit of scrubbing from a human. It can easily and effectively take over for routine bathroom floor maintenance, and there's nothing stopping it from being equally effective on other hard surfaces in your home, like kitchens. Really, it does a good job.

Now, as impressive as the Scooba 230 is, there are some points that you should be aware of if you're thinking about buying one. First off, one thing that quickly became apparent when using the Scooba 230 is that, as we suspected based on the design of the bottom plate, while the robot is totally happy to clean the surface of your floor, it's really not any good at picking up stuff that couldn't be called "dirt." It does have a vacuum in it, but that vacuum is designed to suck up water, not debris, and is physically incapable of ingesting any particles larger than about a millimeter. You may need to sweep or vacuum your floor before you unleash the Scooba on it.

Another thing to be aware of is that the Scooba 230 can't clean corners. That same roundness that allows it to make zero-radius turns also prevents it from getting itself into square corners. It's great at getting close up along walls, but there are always going to be little triangles inside any right angles in your bathroom where the robot simply can't reach.

I don't feel like this is a huge issue, though, because iRobot has always said, quite correctly, that their robots are maintenance tools. Neither a Roomba nor a full-size Scooba can completely take over for you wielding a vacuum or a mop. What the robots can do is make things significantly cleaner most of the time, and make it so that the cleaning that you have to do is easier and less frequent. Yes, you're still going to have to clean your bathroom floor to get those little corners that your Scooba misses. But when you don't have time to do that, the robot will keep most of your floor much, much cleaner.

The last thing to be aware of about the Scooba is that it's not designed to be completely autonomous, and has somewhat less autonomy than a Roomba does. With a Roomba, you can tell it to clean a room, and then just leave, and the robot will do its thing and then go back home to charge, and it can do this several times completely unsupervised. The Scooba, by contrast, requires you to fill it with clean water, seal it up, tell it to clean, go get it after it's done cleaning, dump out the dirty water, and then plug it into its charger every time you want it to do its job. There's no "fire and forget" capability. This, incidentally, is why the Scooba doesn't have a scheduling function: the assumption is that you're going to need to be there at the beginning and the end of the cycle.

Really, though, it's all relative. The fact is, the Scooba does the cleaning for you, which is otherwise the sucky part. Yes, it requires you to put a minimal amount of effort into setup and cleanup, but while it's scrubbing your floors, you can go do something else. Someday, I'm sure, robots will be able to integrate themselves much better into our homes, and iRobot might even be working on it. But until that happens, the Scooba 230 requires minimal and intuitive maintenance that isn't nearly as bothersome as it sounds, especially relative to its effectiveness.

The Scooba 230 kit (which includes the virtual walls and spare base plates) costs $299.99, or $300 to anyone who's not a marketing executive. It's on sale at iRobot.com as of right now, so if you like the look of it, go get one! And if you've got any questions, this baby is mine for the next week, so ask away.

[ iRobot Scooba 230 ]

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