Review: Neato Robotics XV-11

The Neato Robotics XV-11 robot vacuum made its first appearance in December of last year, and we got a brief hands-on with it the following January at CES. Like the iRobot Roomba, the XV-11 is an autonomous robotic vacuum. Unlike the Roomba, the XV-11 maps the room it’s cleaning and follows an efficient pattern to minimize cleaning time. Neato says that the XV-11 is smart, fast, and powerful, and they lent us a unit for a day to test out… How’d it fare? We’ll show you, with lots of pics and a video, after the jump.

-Design

The first thing you’ll notice about the Neato XV-11 is that it has a square front, which sort of makes it look like it’s going backwards most of the time until you get used to it. The square front helps the robot clean more effectively along walls and in corners. The front also has a wrap-around bumper that actuates if it encounters an obstacle, and small sensors on the sides of the bumper help it avoid obstacles while turning. Around the back (which is the round bit, remember) is the exhaust vent for the vacuum, the charging contacts, a plug-in charging port, and a potentially exciting little USB port.

Underneath, the XV-11 is pretty straightforward. It has one single spinning brush with rubber flaps, and that’s it. There’s a little squeegee blade behind the brush, and the vacuum itself is back inside the brush compartment. Edge sensors around the front edge keep the robot from falling down stairs.

On top is a recessed latch for the dust bin, the other side of which is a recessed handle that you can use to pick the robot up. The giant orange button wakes the robot up and starts it cleaning, while you can set the rest of the options on the little LCD screen (more on that later).

The last interesting bit is, of course, the dome on top of the robot that houses the laser scanner (or distance sensor, if you prefer). There’s a laser emitter and a receiver, and they spin around inside to make a map of the room that the XV-11 is cleaning in. The laser itself has a power of 2.1mW at at a wavelength of 785nm, which is in the near-infrared, so you won’t see it. Also, it’s designated as Class 1, which means that it is safe under all conditions of normal use (for humans and pets).

The design of the charging dock is pretty clever. It’s a little bulky, but it’s flatish, so it’s minimally intrusive to set against a wall. Since the XV-11 doesn’t have to drive up on anything, it just presses against the contacts, it’s harder for it to accidentally shove the dock around. Also, part of the reason that it’s bulky is that it opens up to reveal hiding places for the power adapter and extra cord. Need more cord length? Pull some out. Need less? Stuff it back in. Very handy.

-Features

It’s a little bit difficult to discuss a list of features on a robot with a selling point of “push one button and it does everything you need it to do on its own.” But if that’s not enough for you, there are ways to avoid having to actually bend down and push that button.

The XV-11 features on-board scheduling, which lets you set different times on different days for the robot to wake itself up, clean your floor, and then go back to its dock. I set it up without reading the manual, which is the ease with which all interfaces should work. The LCD also provides status and support information, and lets you pause and resume cleaning and direct the robot to go back to its dock.

-Cleaning Technique

Cleaning technique is what makes the XV-11 so interesting. When the robot starts to clean a room, it’ll move out into the room a bit and then spin up its laser rangefinder and start to map. It looks for walls, doors, obstacles, and tries to identify areas where it needs more information. When it has some idea of how your room is laid out, it decides what route to take and begins to vacuum, continuing to map as it goes, which allows it to adapt to changes that happen while it’s cleaning (new objects on the floor, moving furniture, stuff like that).

While cleaning my living room, the XV-11 began by going around the outside of the room to where my sofas and coffee table are. It spent a bunch of time getting into all the nooks and crannies around the sofas and under the table legs, and then finished cleaning around the perimeter of the room. Finally, it covered the open space in a series of straight back and forth lines, shut off its vacuum, and made a beeline back for its dock, job done. Total time elapsed: just over 12 minutes.

While cleaning, the XV-11 appears remarkably intelligent. It moves with purpose and with a recognizable pattern. Despite its shape (which prevents it from making zero-radius turns in tight spots), the amount of information that it gets from its laser sensor, bumper, and side sensors gives it very good spatial awareness, and it didn’t get stuck once. In some cases, it took the XV-11 a little bit longer to move around complex areas like forests of chair and table legs because of its square front, but it knows what shape it is and has no trouble getting around things. It’s also low enough to fit under most furniture, and it’s pretty determined… If it thinks it can squeeze underneath something, it’ll try as hard as it can to do so.

The XV-11 has no trouble moving from room to room. When the laser sensor maps an area, it pays special attention to anything that looks like a doorway, and remembers that it needs to go through there later after cleaning the room that it’s currently in. If the robot is cleaning multiple rooms and gets low on battery, it will remember its location and the progress it made, go back to its dock and charge, and then return to where it was before and finish up.

If there are areas that you don’t want the XV-11 going into, you can keep it out by laying out a magnetic strip that the robot will vacuum up to, but not across. 15 feet is included along with the robot, and you can cut it up to suit your needs.

-Cleaning Effectiveness

We’d seen the XV-11 in operation before, but only on square pieces of carpet that don’t accurately reflect what most people’s homes look like. My living room, on the other hand, features hardwood, deep carpet, shallow carpet, tables, chairs, cords on the floor, and the occasional cat. In other words, it’s a pretty typical living room, full of complications and potential hazards.

The XV-11 had no trouble with any of these things… In fact, it managed not to get stuck at all, which bodes well for its overall autonomous intelligence and robustness. The robot took just over twelve minutes to clean my living room, and it clocked nearly exactly the same time each time it cleaned. This is interesting, because it implies that the robot is calculating an efficient way to clean the room, and then recalculating a similar efficient pattern each time it cleans. Here’s what the pattern looks like:

It’s pretty easy to see what Neato is talking about here when they say that their robot cleans efficiently and in straight lines, because that’s what it does. Most of the floor, the robot covers exactly once. In more complex areas, it spends more time, but that’s less about inefficiency and more about just moving around. I mean, the robot shuts itself off before it returns to its charging base, because it knows that the floor has been entirely covered and it doesn’t need to waste energy keeping the vacuum turned on while it goes back home.

Since the XV-11 covers most area of the floor only once, it’s important that it cleans effectively. And for the most part, it very much does. Compared to an upright vacuum, the robot did just as well or better on hardwood, and comparably on carpet. There were only two circumstances in which the XV-11 didn’t clean especially well, both illustrated in this picture:

Issue one is the dirt around the coffee table leg. While cleaning, the robot was able to consistently get pretty close to the leg itself, but its square front didn’t help it clean more effectively there. The problem might be that no matter how close the robot can get itself to the table leg, there’s a limit to how effective it can clean there since the brush and vacuum don’t extend the full width of the robot. The same is true (in general) for cleaning along walls and in corners… Due to the design of the robot, there are some areas where the vacuum just can’t reach no matter how close the robot gets. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that this is the same for upright vacuums as well, which is why they come with hose attachments and stuff.

The other issue is that the XV-11 isn’t that great at getting cat hair out of carpet. It gets most of it, but for particularly tenacious hair, the rubber brush isn’t as effective as a bristle brush might be.

As far as cleaning along walls and getting into corners, while the XV-11 is shaped better for these tasks, it doesn’t always make it into a corner in its most effective orientation. For example, if the robot is following a wall on its right side and encounters a recessed doorway, it will turn into the doorway and follow closely along the door but misses the corner to its right where it first turns in. I’m being pretty picky about this, but it’s worth mentioning.

-Maintenance

While the XV-11 might have some minor issues picking up pet hair, the upside is that after three runs around my living room (shared by three cats), here’s what the XV-11’s brush looked like:

And it’s not like it wasn’t picking stuff up, either:

To clean out the dust bin, you just lift it out of the top of the robot. To actually get the dust out, you have to remove the air filter (it snaps in and out), but this is actually kinda nice, since the dust bin stays closed until you get it to a place where you can dump it. Since brush maintenance seems to be minimal, emptying the dust bin is basically all you need to worry about on a regular basis.

If you do need to clean out the brush area, it’s easy. The bottom panel releases with two clips, and you can pull the brush right out. It’s belt driven, which is kinda cool, and reinstalling it is as simple as sliding it back under the belt again.

And that’s pretty much it. Conceivably, you’ll need to replace the air filter and possibly the brush or squeegee, and eventually, the batteries will wear out. All of these bits are available on Neato’s website for prices that are sort of reasonable, as long as you don’t need to do it too often.

-Conclusion

Overall, the Neato XV-11 cleans fast and efficiently. It has some minor issues with a few specific aspects of how it cleans, but I feel like there is a great deal of potential with this robot. This is not to say that the XV-11 isn’t already impressive… It’s more like, there are lots of way that the robot could potentially be tweaked to make it even better at what it’s already good at, especially considering the amount of information (and level of detail) that its sensors collect.

For example, if the XV-11 can recognize a closed door, maybe its algorithm could be slightly modified to make an extra pass across the door from the opposite direction to be sure to get both corners. What I’m really hoping is that at some point, Neato will allow the users of its robots to plug into that USB port to take advantage of the XV-11’s impressive suite of sensors and modify its behavior themselves. Have some issue with the way your robot cleans? No problem, tweak it yourself, or download another user’s software over the internet.

On the hardware side, putting some bristles on the brush might make the XV-11 better at getting pet hair out of carpet, but might also make the brush more of a chore to clean out. Still, if Neato offered it as an option, then pet owners could decide whether or not they’d like to have less pet hair on their carpet and more tangles in their robot’s brush.

I wouldn’t worry too much about these quibbles, however… I believe that just as iRobot has, Neato will listen to their users and make upgrades and improvements based on real world feedback, and there’s no reason not to get one of the first generation XV-11s if you feel that its cleaning technique is right for you.

The Neato XV-11 is on pre-order for $399, to be available “this summer.” This makes it $50 more expensive than the Roomba 560 that we looked at yesterday, and $50 cheaper than the Roomba 570, which is (for all practical purposes) the highest end Roomba model. Tomorrow, we’ll compare them more directly, but the point is that XV-11 is quite comparable to Roombas with similar capabilities in terms of price, meaning that if you’re considering a robot vacuum, the XV-11 should definitely be on your list.

[ Neato Robotics XV-11 ]

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