Even the best robot vacuum cleaner is not going to mean you'll never need to get a non-sentient vac out ever again, but used daily the best ones can be an effective way to stay on top of dust and maintain your floors and carpets.
Be warned: buy one made by anyone other than Neato (who seems to have pretty much cracked it) and you're likely to face irritation. Most robot vacuum cleaners –even our favourite, Neato's, latest ones, though they are better – are not the finished article by any means, and they can be one of most frustrating tech categories. On the other hand, when they're working well, they are a little glimpse of the future we were promised as children.
But, question is, which robot vac is the best?
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. The fact that the robots have a certain 'intelligence' means you tend to up treating them almost like pets, finding their quirks and foibles endearing rather than wondering why you blew £500+ on something so inconsistent.
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.
You might also be able find that some of the best Black Friday deals are on robot vacs. That has certainly been the case in previous years.
So which is the best robot vacuum cleaner? This is an easy question. In terms of cost to benefit, the answer to that question is the Neato Botvac D7 Connected, especially now it's started turning up in sales at very significant discounts.
Neato has led the robo vac field for a while, and the D7 is comfortably the best combination of skilled navigation, solid cleaning performance and reasonably useful connected features, most notably being able to set 'no-go areas' for your robot, to prevent it getting trapped on obstacles.
Of course, if robot cleaners were really good, you wouldn't need to set no-go areas for them, but let's not go into that too deeply right now.
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 of the best robot vacuum cleaners listed here and it'll work somewhere between adequately and very well. My place is like this and all the bots except Neato's D7 still regularly got stuck, but it's always easy enough to rescue them and set them off again.
Is your house more a mess of knick-knacks, furnishings, deep carpet, kids and pets? Well, then no robot vac is going to clean your place without getting stuck on a regular basis.
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 many of these robots 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 small. 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. Loads of hair is 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 D7 Connected
The best robot vacuum cleaner by a mile
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
The current pinnacle of robot cleaning technology, the D7 Connected from Neato Robotics does just about everything right. After years of being driven crazy with frustration by other robots, it was quite the relief when it arrived (and quite the wrench when it had to go back after review).
Here's my day-to-day experience of using a robot vac (the Dyson 360 Eye): it goes around, cleans the carpets every day, and quite often gets stuck. It's slow (or 'methodical' if I'm being diplomatic).
Here's my first experience of the Botvac D7 Connected: it burst out of its starting blocks (okay, dock), raced around my entire flat without stopping once, and when it got back the bin was practically full. That's despite the Dyson having cleaned that day.
This wasn't just beginner's luck, either, as the D7 consistently cleaned more quickly, efficiently and deeply than the Dyson.
Although I didn't really need them, due to the Botvac's navigation being so sure-footed, you can also use the Neato app to set 'no-go' lines on a map of your house, so it doesn't enter the minefield that is your kids room, or get stuck in the feet of that artfully designed dining room table. Amazingly, this actually works, although setting it up does reveal some minor limitations of the system.
That's because to do this, it has to go around your place, mapping as it goes. That does mean that if you ever move the position of its dock, you'll have to reset and start again. More problematic, it means you have to do battle with Neato's app and Wi-Fi system, which require a fair amount of perseverance to setup and pair.
However, for overall performance, nothing else comes close to the Botvac D7 Connected. The only thing that seems to stop it is it will very occasionally get 'lost' under sofas. Compared to all the other robots here, it is a regular Ranulph Fiennes, however.
2. Neato Botvac Connected
Best cheap robot vacuum cleaner
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
This D-shaped cleaner preceded the very similarly-named, and similar-looking D7 Connected, above, and it's still a decent option if you find it going cheap, which you should because in gadget terms it is well old.
If used very day or every few days, it's at least as effective as its even pricer, admittedly better-looking rivals further down the chart: less prone to getting stuck than the Dyson, less of a tendency to plough through breakable objects than the cheaper of the iRobots.
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. Although by the time it made the D7 Connected it had worked out a number of the issues around making a network-connected vac, this one feels more like a beta product. 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. What, is it 1998 in here or something?
The good news is, you can just ignore all the connected functionality and use the "start" button. 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. I don't think that's very useful anyway.
3. Dyson 360 Eye
A rather different take on the robot vacuum cleaner
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
I have already written about a billion words when reviewing 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.
Unlike Obama, I never actually replaced the 360 Eye and I still use it to this day. Rather like in a marriage, I have come to accept its flaws and try to concentrate on our good times together, although sometimes I feel bitterly resentful.
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, the Dyson 360 Eye is a solid vac.
Oh yes, you'll also have to 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 sucker up of stuff.
A low power mode was added a while back 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. Its extra height still means its less good at getting under furniture – but then given its tendency to get stuck when under things, maybe that's a plus point.
In terms of actual cleaning power, and its connected functions and app, the Dyson was way out in front at launch. However since then the D7 Connected has come along and matched or bettered its suction, while adding more useful connected features (admittedly on a less stable platform with a worse app) and vastly better navigation and speed.
However, if you see the 360 Eye at a discount here, I would still say it is worth considering, even though I have been close to chucking it off the balcony at times in the past.
4. iRobot Roomba 980
Best iRobot vacuum cleaner and a nifty navigator
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
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.
5. iRobot Roomba E5
A more affordable, less sophisticated iRobot option
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
At time of writing this is the newest iRobot Roomba, but it really took me back to the 'good' old days of cleaning robots. First, setting it up took a while because the Wi-Fi connection refused to 'take', and the instructions were a little baffling.
Then, once set in motion, the E5 blundered about as if drunk, bouncing off of walls diagonally, rammed into a row of records leaning on the wall by my record player, knocking some of them over, and mangling a paper inner sleeve that I'd left out. Then it seized a DVD and dragged it around the room like a cat with its prey, before dumping it under the sofa.
So the lessons learned there are, be sure to clear away obstacles before you fire the E5 up, and don't stand watching it, because you'll just find it distressing.
There is a method to the seemingly mad way that this Roomba moves around, though. I found it actually did a solid job of covering the whole floor, if left to get on with it. Clearly, some bits must get multiple goings-over, and other parts just one sweep if they're lucky, but used daily, the law of averages starts to kick in, and everywhere ends up pretty clean.
That's also because the iRobot has a surprisingly good cleaning action, with two brush bars working in conjunction with the usual round sweeper arm found on all robot vacs except the Dyson.
The iRobot's low profile and brutish nature also mean it can get over certain obstacles that trap other droids, and reach under more furniture. Unfortunately the way my wardrobe is designed means the Roomba can get under it alright, but it never returns. That's because the sides are slightly lower than the front, so it gets wedged every time, where a smarter robot might be able to detect that the gap is too small. Ah well.
Overall, I was fairly pleased with this one despite its foibles and lack of sophistication. It's also among the cheaper robot vacs at around £500. Oh, and for some reason, it is also sold under the less snappy name of Roomba E5818.
5. Vorwerk Kobold VR200
Excellent alternative robot vacuum cleaner option
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
This is a bit of an outlier, being a German model that's only available direct from its manufacturer. It's actually a previous generation Neato robot, but built to German spec, ie: better and more expensive.
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.