iRobot announced the Roomba i7+ in September. It’s their newest, fanciest, most spectacular robot vacuum, and will set you back an eyebrow-raising US $950. The i7+ includes both iRobot’s premium i7 vacuum, and a “+” in the form of a docking station that will empty the i7’s dustbin into a larger disposable bag. This means that you can go much, much longer between maintenance sessions, and it’s entirely possible that the i7 can operate in your home autonomously for weeks or even months, keeping your floors clean without you ever having to think about it.
While the dirt disposal dock is the most visible new feature, we’ve also been looking forward to the persistent maps that come with the i7. These are maps that stick around between cleaning sessions, allowing you to give the robot specific instructions like exactly where and where not to clean, and while the dirt dock is cool, persistent maps are even cooler, with an enormous amount of long-term potential.
The i7+ is, without a doubt, extraordinarily capable, but it’s also very, very expensive. Even if you really like robot vacuums, it could be a stretch to justify getting one, especially if you have a newer Roomba or one of Neato’s higher-end vacuums. So is it worth it? Let’s take a look.
Just as a reminder, here are two very quick videos from iRobot highlighting what’s new with the i7+; namely, the Clean Base and the persistent maps.
What’s New: Clean Base
The Clean Base is not small, by any means, but since most of the bulk is above where the i7 docks, it doesn’t actually take up much more floor space than a regular Roomba dock. I placed the Clean Base next to a black bookshelf and it more or less blended in, but you may be less satisfied depending on what sorts of furniture you have and what color it is. Keep in mind, though, that the Clean Base can be placed pretty much anywhere—it doesn’t need to be in, or even near, the room that you expect the vacuum to operate in most of the time. Shove it in a corner, and thanks to its map, the i7 will have no trouble getting to its work zone and then back again.
Most of what you’ll be concerned with is the Clean Base’s disposal system, which consists of a paper bag that lifts out of the top and seals itself with a plastic thingy as it does so. It’s clever and mess-free, a much cleaner experience than directly emptying a Roomba bin, which usually results in a minor dustsplosion. The only downside is that it’s a disposable item that you get to both buy from iRobot, and then feel bad for tossing into the trash, especially since it’s partially made of plastic.
According to iRobot, the Clean Base can hold up to 30 i7 bins worth of dirt, which is likely significantly more than a month of vacuuming, even if you’re vacuuming every day. It’s important to remember, though, that while the Clean Base will empty the dust bin, Roombas can also accumulate dust and especially hair in and around their moving bits. This isn’t as much of a problem as it used to be, since iRobot got rid of bristle brushes, but you’ll likely want to flip your i7 over and give it a good clean out once every few weeks, especially if you have long hair or pets.
What’s New: Localization and Persistent Mapping
What sets the i7 apart from its predecessors is the visual localization that it does to make maps of your home and then track itself within those maps between cleaning sessions. While robots like the Neato use a laser to do this, the i7 uses an upward-looking camera to track visual features up near the tops of your walls and your ceiling. There’s been a lingering privacy concern from some folks about the fact that the robot is running around all the time with a camera on. However, the i7’s camera isn’t being used to take pictures in the sense that we’re familiar with—we’ve asked iRobot for samples of the visual data that the camera collects just to get an idea of what it looks like, but iRobot tells us that it’s not even really possible to translate the data into an image that would make any sense:
“The robot doesn’t store images or ‘see’ and perceive things the way we do. It perceives the environment as a pattern of light and dark points, ones and zeros, in its field of view. This numerical pattern, unique at each location, is associated with a position on the map, enabling the robot to keep track of its location as it cleans. We call these waypoints. This waypoint information is what gets captured and stored, and it’s not possible to reconstruct an image from waypoint information.”
I’m imagining that it would be sort of like looking at a fiducial marker, or a QR code: A pattern of black and white dots that’s meaningless to us but that a robot can quite easily recognize. It’s possible that if you’re standing over the robot when it’s running, your face might be captured in these data, but not in any way that would make sense to a human looking at it, and even a robot looking at it wouldn’t be able to understand that it was seeing a face: It would just be another pattern of ones and zeroes, nothing more. This is all to say that it’s not really worth getting too concerned about the fact that the i7 is taking pictures of your home while it’s running, because it’s not—it’s recording visual data that’s only really useful or meaningful to itself.
Anyway, the really important thing about persistent mapping is that it enables interactive maps that can be used to direct the cleaning behavior of the robot. Rather than just using maps to clean more efficiently, persistent maps can tell a robot exactly where to clean and where to avoid. All of the rooms in your house almost certainly not afflicted by the same amount of dirt at the same time, so it’s not necessary to clean them all: since the robot remembers where specific rooms are, you can tell it “go clean the kitchen,” and it’ll go clean just the kitchen. It’s a feature that sounds simple, but it requires a lot of tech to get it to work, and now that the i7 is capable of doing it, iRobot can build in even more features going forward.
Once you have the i7 and Clean Base put together and charged up and connected to your Wi-Fi, a process that was surprisingly un-painful through the iRobot app, you can either start it cleaning right away, or tell it to first take a couple exploratory non-vacuuming training runs around your floor to build up a map. The training runs aren’t really necessary—the robot will generate a map by itself after a few normal cleaning sessions. But, robot geeks like myself may feel better giving the robot a chance to get used to its surroundings first.
One reason you might want to do these training runs is that you’ll want to spend a little bit of time preparing your home to help the i7 maximize the utility of its map. Ideally, a training run will present the robot with a perfectly tidy floor with access to every room that you may want it to vacuum at any point in the future. You can leave your furniture where it is, but get everything else off the floor. I even move the chairs from around my dining room table. The idea is that the robot will have no problem avoiding new obstacles that show up or move around from time to time (like chairs), but it’s more difficult for it to discover new areas that aren’t in the map that it’s currently using.
Also, as robot vacuum owners already know, your Roomba (no matter how smart it is) will sincerely appreciate some amount of effort on your part keeping your floors robot-friendly. For the i7 to perform at its best, you’ll need to tuck electrical cords away or run them along walls whenever possible, make sure carpet corners are tacked down, and try to generally keep clutter off of your floors. I view this last thing as a feature of robot vacuums—you need to keep things clean for them to clean, so everything ends up tidier.
I’m delighted to report that the i7 seems to have no trouble navigating across the evil black patches in my carpet, which every other Roomba I’ve ever had can’t handle. Thank you for that, iRobot it means that I don’t have to perform sensor surgery anymore, which also means that the i7 is much less likely to throw itself down my stairs since its cliff sensors can remain functional.
Once your i7 has either made a couple cleaning passes or finished its training runs, it’ll present you (through the iRobot app for your phone) with one of the most valuable things that a robot vacuum can offer: a persistent map of your home. It’s a very clean, very square map that undoubtedly requires a whole bunch of post processing in the iRobot cloud, but it seems quite accurate and is very easy to use. A step-by-step guide takes you through labeling and segmenting rooms, and while the app does a pretty good job of automatically segmenting rooms for you, it’s easy to modify them to suit your own mental picture of how your floors pace should be allocated.
You can still use the old fashioned buttons on the i7 to get it to go clean, but for all of the cool features, you’ll need to use iRobot’s app, which is fine. You can select from multiple robots and multiple floor plans, change settings on the robot, and schedule recurring cleaning. If you’d like the robot to clean a specific area, simply hit the comically ginormous “CLEAN” button in the app, and then tell it to either clean everywhere, or specific rooms. It’ll do your bidding, and once it’s finished, the app presents you with a nice map of how long the cleaning took and where the robot did (and did not) clean. I found the latter to be a little janky at times, showing un-cleaned spots in the middle of my carpet where there were no obstacles and I’m pretty sure the robot actually drove over.
The i7 is significantly quieter while operating, especially on carpet. On hard floors, it’s not so bad, but still not something you want to be in the same room with for more than a few minutes. The Clean Base, however, is just a teensy little bit very extremely loud when it empties out the i7, but again, hypothetically you never ever have to be home when this happens, and since it seems to be an effective and reliable system, it’s hard to ding it for being powerful.
In terms of cleaning performance, the i7 seems to be noticeably better than the other Roombas I’ve reviewed, at least in terms of raw power. On my carpet, which is relatively short and stiff, the i7’s rollers managed to leave tracks in the nap of the carpet, suggesting that it’s really gettin’ in there in a way that other vacuums haven’t.
Is the i7+ for You?
The promise of the Roomba i7+ is one of effortlessly cleaner floors. Once you get it set up, it has the potential to vacuum every single day while you’re not around. The only thing you’ll notice is that your floors never seem to get dirty, and then every month (or every couple months), you’ll get an alert that it’s time to empty out the clean base. Or, that’s the dream, anyway, and based on our experience, that dream is achievable. This is a fundamental shift in what robot vacuums are capable of, because it’s a glimpse of true autonomy, of the idea that robots are getting sophisticated enough now that they can do what we want them to do without requiring supervision.
Fundamentally, what the i7+ offers is ease of use and convenience, and it certainly offers a lot of those things. However, we’re obligated to point out that in most cases, earlier (and far cheaper) generations of Roombas do a perfectly fine job vacuuming most floors. Roombas older than the 900 series don’t localize and just use pseudo-random movement to cover your entire floor several times, which mean that they take longer to vacuum a given area. If you schedule your Roomba to run while you’re not at home, though, this isn’t something you’re likely to notice. You also won’t get the persistent maps and all the features that come along with them, but again, that may help the robot vacuum more efficiently, not necessarily more effectively. If the i7+ is out of your price range, older Roombas that cost way, way, way less will still make your life cleaner.
One compelling feature of the i7+ is simply that it’s not just the most advanced consumer robotic vacuuming system in existence right now, but that it has the potential to get much more advanced, very quickly. I can already imagine all kinds of intelligent and useful features that would be (as far as I’m concerned) trivial for iRobot to add in the near future. For example, over time, the i7 will learn what areas of your home tend to get dirty. It should then be able to predict when certain areas need vacuuming, and generate its own schedule that maximizes both cleanliness and efficiency. It could then execute the schedule autonomously, or prompt you (through the app) when you’re out of the house to get permission to vacuum while you’re away. The former seems cooler, though— basically, you should be able to tell the i7 to "keep my floors clean" and it’ll do so, without any additional input from you.
Whether or not you get the i7+ depends, I think, on how excited you are about the future of home robotics. You’ll likely be paying somewhat more than the convenience of the cleaning system itself is worth in order to experience the cutting edge of useful home robots. And don’t know about you, but I’m perfectly happy to do that.
The iRobot Roomba i7+ is available from iRobot for $950.