Robot vacuum cleaners have been around for a decade now, and they still suck.
Suck, you see? Get it? They're vacuum cleaners! They suck stuff up! Eh, I can't work with this audience.
Actually, the cynical might say that is not just a crap joke. Robot vacuum cleaners still aren't the finished article, and can be, in fact, one of most frustrating tech categories. They promise freedom from drudgery; a great leap forward to match the washing machine, dishwasher and, er, can opener.
What they generally deliver is at-best adequate cleaning, a lot of irritation, and an overall feeling that while a bit of your time and labour is being saved, another part of it is being taken up with rescuing your robot from under the wardrobe, and cleaning up the bits it's missed.
That's why robot vacuum cleaners, 10 years on from their birth, are still the preserve of early adopters – people who actively enjoy being annoyed by tech, and having to fiddle with it endlessly and come up with strategies to make it work.
But that's okay, readers, because I have come up with the answer to all your robot vacuum cleaner needs, in the form of a list and some wise advice.
So which is the best robot vacuum cleaner? This is a hard question. In terms of cost to benefit, the answer to that question is the Neato Botvac Connected.
Overall, ignoring cost, the best you can get are three of the other vacs on this list, from Dyson, Vorwerk and iRobot.
However, the Neato's more expensive rivals just don't outperform it by enough of a margin to justify the extra outlay.
How to buy the best robot vacuum cleaner for you
All the robots here come with docking/charging stations and do the following: clean, return to their docking stations when their batteries are dying, clean again, return home once finished.
They can all be taken off their charging stations, put in a room and made to clean that, although then they often won't return to base, because they don't know where it is.
Navigation is via a mix of sensors, lasers and, in some cases, cameras. The latter technology is the most cutting-edge but also the one that causes the most problems.
They all have drop sensors to prevent them falling down the stairs.
Now, the first rule of robot vac buyers' club is this: do NOT try to use a robot vac like a normal one. Don't use it once a week, or to clean up spills. You will go mad.
Robot vacs, by definition, do not suck up as much dust as proper vacs. And even if they did, they could only hold a little bit of it in their tiny, frisbee-like bodies.
But guess what? They're robots! You can make them clean every single day and they won't complain. Even more than once a day, if you like. So long as you remember to empty their tiny dust bins every couple of days.
Do you live in a flat with only hard floors, and no furniture? Perhaps you're Japanese, or a fundamentalist minimalist.
Yes? Then buy any robot you like and it'll work great.
No? Well, then no robot vac is going to clean your place without getting stuck.
Do you have absolutely loads of furniture, fireplaces, and/or kids who leave stuff lying around all over the place? You'll have to spend so long moving it all or blocking off obstacles so your robot doesn't get stuck on them, that I just couldn't recommend getting one at all.
However, if you are somewhere between the two, as most people able to afford a £600+ robot vac probably are, you should find that these 'bots will safely navigate over and around many of your household obstacles, and you will just have to move the ones that it turns out they can't handle.
As well as forcing these metal and plastic slaves to work every day, I also strongly recommend you let them work while you're out.
Why? Because, if you watch a robot working, it will drive you literally mad. You can see the debris it should be picking up. You're willing it to move there. But it has its own, intelligent but preset way of cleaning. It'll get there when it damn well gets there. And even then, maybe it'll miss it.
Also, robots hate moving obstacles. Like you. So GTFO and stay out. Do you like being watched while you work? Exactly.
The other thing you should never do is use these things to clear up spills. Even the ones with 'spot cleaning' modes for doing small areas will miss a good proportion of any major spillage. Just use them for day-to-day, maintenance cleaning.
There are other things to bear in mind. You'll need to empty the bin regularly – they're always tiny. You can also usually clean or change the filters on these things but if I'm being honest, I have NEVER EVER done that. But if you suffer from allergies, you may need to.
If you have hairy pets, again, I just wouldn't bother getting any of these, or if you do, keep a proper vac handy. It's more than robots can handle.
In fact, regardless of whether you have pets or not, keep a proper vac handy.
And now, here are the best robot vacuum cleaners you can buy, in order.
The best robot vacuum cleaners, in order
1. Neato Botvac Connected
Best robot vacuum cleaner, pound for pound
This D-shaped cleaner, if used very day or every few days, is about as effective as its even pricer, admittedly better-looking rivals.
The Neato Botvac moves methodically and fairly rapidly to clear hard floors and carpets.
Cleaning performance overall is good, and it can deal with hair and tricky floor surfaces. It doesn't have caterpillar tracks, and its drive doesn't appear particularly powerful, but this Neato can get over most household bumps.
Because of its low profile, the Neato Botvac Connected can get under practically anything, and because it navigates with lasers and sensors rather than a camera, being underneath furniture doesn't 'blind' it.
Sure, it gets stuck now and then, and emits a plaintive bleep to let you know, like a trapped owl. Edge and corner cleaning is not amazing, but it has a go and frankly, it's no worse than the pricier models here.
The only 'problem' with the Botvac Connected is Neato's insistence on making it connected.
Ironically, it loses connection to your router regularly, and the firmware has to be updated via a download transferred to USB key and then plugged into a special cable, like it's 1998 or something.
Thankfully, you can just ignore all the connected functionality and use the "start" button. Ask yourself: why would you even want your vacuum cleaner to be 'connected'?
On the occasions the connected stuff does work, it allows Alexa and Google Home control and the ability to see a map of where it has (and, perhaps, hasn't) cleaned.
2. Dyson 360 Eye
Best robot vacuum cleaner for pure cleaning performance
I have already written about a billion words on the Dyson 360 Eye, because I found it so immensely frustrating.
Rather like Barack Obama, you could sense all the good things it was that close to doing, but then it would just get horribly bogged down, over and over again.
However, objectively speaking, it is the best robot vacuum cleaner you can get, which tells you something about the state of the market.
As long as you are willing to move certain obstacles it will never surmount, and accept it will sometimes just shut off because it's gone under your sofa and its camera eye can no longer see, it's great.
Oh yes, and grit your teeth as it spends anything up to 9 hours cleaning one 3-bed flat. The 360 Eye is so slow, it would make even the elderly impatient, and the battery life is compromised by Dyson's insistence on making it, to be fair, a very effective vacuum cleaner.
Okay, a low power mode was added via a firmware upgrade, so if you prefer to use that, you have a robot that is still very slow, but at least doesn't need to recharge so frequently.
In terms of actual sucking up of stuff, and its connected functions and app, the Dyson is way out in front. Its extra height means its less good at getting under furniture, but given its tendency to get stuck when under things, maybe that's not so bad.
Alas, its slowness and unfailing ability to find new ways to get stuck mean I can't quite recommend it over its cheaper, crappier looking Neato rival.
3. iRobot Roomba 980
Best robot vacuum cleaner for navigation
The Roomba 980 is pretty much on par with the Dyson and Vorwerk cleaners.
At just 91mm tall, it’ll fit under all but the lowest of sofas. Its excellent rubber brush bars actively help to prevent tangles from hair, etc, and are mercifully quick to clean, though the cleaner isn’t as simple to empty as the Dyson.
For some reason, the charging dock can only be plugged in from one side, which may limit your placement options somewhat.
Like the Dyson, the 980 boasts a top camera, but it also draws on Roomba's longstanding expertise with using sensors, giving a hybrid navigation system that is perhaps less 'clever' than the Dyson, but generally works better overall.
The flipside to this is that cleaning is less good.
This is exactly as you'd expect: iRobot is a robotics company moving into cleaning; Dyson is a vacuum cleaner marque, trying its hand at robotics.
Overall, there is very little to tell between the Dyson and Roomba in terms of cost and overall performance, so feel free to consider them equal second.
Vorwerk Kobold VR200
Excellent alternative robot vacuum cleaner option
This is a bit of an outlier, being a German model that's only available direct from its manufacturer.
The Star Wars/2001 styling is pretty cool, and once unleashed, this thing shifts. It whizzes around in a very intelligent fashion and cleaning performance is little short of the Dyson's.
In my case, it became apparent that the Vorwerk could never work in my flat because it got jammed under my wardrobe every single time. Its laser 'eye' on top just couldn't see the clearance was too low for it.
I also had a few other concerns with its ability to dodge obstacles, but in general, if your home doesn't have furnishings that are exactly the right height off the ground to trap it, the VR200 could be a very good option.
5. Samsung PowerBot VR9300
Best robot vacuum cleaner for carpets
While these robots look infinitely better than ‘normal’ vacuum cleaners, cynics might argue that they still resemble oversized ice-hockey pucks. Thankfully, looks aren’t everything and they’re full of clever tricks – from easy-empty dustbins to quick-release brush bars – to make maintenance simple.
The emergency tractor of the robot vac fleet, Samsung's brutish machine boasts a brush bar the width of a full-size vacuum cleaner and a large-capacity dustbin.
It doesn’t hang about either, covering ground far quicker than the Dyson or iRobot
However, despite the fact that Samsung has loaded the VR9300 with an upward-facing camera, a bunch of front, side and rear sensors, plus drop sensors underneath, it just always gets stuck. So it's essentially pointless.
If you want to clean one carpet or rug, while you watch, this could be great. As a true robot that you just leave to get on with cleaning, forget about it.
The fact that Samsung includes a remote control suggests it either realises this thing is not suited to autonomous movement, and doesn't care, or it just hasn't quite grasped what a robot is meant to be for.