/ Technology

Robot vacuum cleaners – our new overlords?

Our Which expert holds up a robot vacuum cleaner.

Is it time to hand over our cleaning to robots, or are the old ways still best?


For the first time ever we tested robot vacuum cleaners looking at how well they clean compared to a conventional plug-in model…

Testing robot vacuum cleaners

The best robot vacuum cleaners in our test can suck up 50% of the fine dust that we embed into our carpets, but that’s not much compared to the best corded vacuum (86%), or the best cordless (83%).

But you can schedule a robot vacuum cleaner to come on every day if you want to, and clean much more often than you might do with a normal vacuum cleaner.

Not only did we test how well robot vacuum cleaners suck up debris and pet hair from carpets and hard floors. We also built a specially designed test room to see how well they navigate.

We filled the room with tables and chairs, floor standing lamps, rugs, fold out chairs and low lying curtains. This showed up the stark difference between one model of robot cleaner and another. Some navigated around obstacles effortlessly and cleaned nearly all of the available floor space. Others got stuck and left large uncleansed patches.

We thought we had considered every type of obstacle in our testing – until we read about the poopocalypse. Perhaps it’s something to consider for our next batch of robot vacuum testing.

Would you but a robot vacuum?

Head straight to our robot vacuum cleaner reviews to get the lowdown on the best and worst, and see them in action in our testing room.

So what do you think? Is it time to welcome our mechanical overlords and get yourself a robot vacuum cleaner? Or is the high price – as much as £800 – too much for a product that might not quite meet your high expectations?


They don’t clean as well as manual vacuum cleaning – getting into awkward places for example. As two thirds of us need more exercise (see Convo on obesity currently in progress) perhaps we should think a bit wider than a device that lets us sit on the sofa while it does (some of) the work?


Adding to what Malcolm has said, I don’t see how any of these machines can get into the corners, especially where there is furniture close to the corner. Using a vacuum cleaner with a hosepipe and tubes one can go along the tops of skirting boards, picture rails, and mouldings on furniture, between the bannister rails, behind radiators, into the spaces and crevices around media units, and in all the other gaps and cavities that a robot cleaner cannot get to. This should be the test for comparing these products with the usual alternatives, not what percentage of dust they lift from a floor [where they seem to be unimpressive anyway].


Washing machines can do a better job of cleaning than we can using our hands, dishwashers are genuinely labour-saving, vacuums also work better than humans with brushes and beaters. But, it makes me sad to see so much money and effort wasted in making a robot vacuum which neither covers the ground or picks up dirt efficiently. There seems to be little chance of inventing anything that picks up all the dust and dirt without a human directing it. There may well be useful outlets for the camera technology that directs machines round obstacles, to help a blind person or aid someone with a handicap but who decided that a robot cleaner could use this technology efficiently? What a waste of brain power!


The Which? review system for the robots is flawed. As a simple example they compare the robots in the Conversation with the percentage of dirt picked up from carpets by normal vacuum cleaners – that is 50% compared to the 8O%+ on carpets.

You might be interested, and I am interested in the efficiency on tile or wooden floors. Do we have a comparison figure for that. No. I am willing to bet that the dust extraction is substantially higher but why should I bet surely Which? have that detail. And it is relevant.

Secondly we do not have a maximum swept area before returning to base for a recharge which surely is of interest. Is it 20 square metres, 50 or 100 ? How soon will the dust container need emptying, every two days, every three hours? Can the machine do multiple rooms in a morning for light dust removal?

If this seems picky it is been known for several years that hard surfaces like timber laminates and tile have been taking market share from the carpet sector. I know of a house tiled completely downstairs with a total floor area in excess of 100 square metres.

“Hard floor cleaning
Hard floor
How effective the robot is when cleaning large debris from hard floors. This should be a robot vacuum cleaners bread and butter, but some vastly outperform others.”

Whats with the large debris test? How large is large? How does this compare with normal vacuums? What is the dust uptake like?

What we do know is the Dyson is better than the other robots but apart from one statistic we have no hard figures comparing other aspects of the robots to the standard vacuum cleaner.

Regarding VH’s point. My mother-in-law in her prime vacuumed daily but I suspect that not many people do that now. Now I am curious whether sending your robot cleaning daily results in an overall cleanliness level higher than a human hoovering weekly of bi-weekly. If I limit my activity to light dusting of skirting-boards and higher once a week plus using a robot for daily cleans, will I have a cleaner room than provided by a human?

And what is the time saving over one month …..

The testing does not really seem to answer the quite reasonable expectation that robots are competing with cordless and corded vacuum cleaners and this testing by restricting itself primarily to robot vs robot ignores the bigger picture.

Incidentally I saw nothing about air filtration which in an era of allergies would be something of interest you might think.


I think it all proves that the robot vacuum cleaner is not worth Which? spending much more time and resources on as it’s a solution looking for a problem. Now that Which? have built this test room I hope they have plenty of other uses for it. It could be used to test air conditioners, humidifiers, room deodorisers, useful vacuum cleaners, and so on. In fact, why don’t they just buy a typical house on a new estate and use it as a test lab for all sorts of home products under realistic conditions?


I actually don’t think that the testing of robot cleaners is wasted as I am sure the poor reviews help to prevent consumers buying them.

I can also see that for some people there might be a valid case where genuine infirmities these would be a boon.

My main concern is that Which?’s blind devotion to reducing everything to five little blobs – because it fits into the magazine, [our readers are superficial] – seems to under estimate how much room there is on the Net and that it should be used.

I continue to believe that this charity is doomed if it does not get its act together soon on its reason for being. My belief is that the serious millions spent on commercial ventures and focus that way has meant the research side has been ham-strung.

The idea of a normal house as a test-bed you would think remarkably valid given that they could have been doing serious long term testing on long-term products like doubleglazing, air heat pumps, etc etc. Or perhaps a pair of houses so the before and after effects can be checked.


A supplementary question that entered my head while thinking about the test room is – has anybody assessed how much influence Which? has actually had on product design and performance, and more to the point home design, layout and convenience, through all the decades of testing? Product testing for consumers is essentially a reactive process and no doubt contributes, in a sub-Darwinian way, to a process of natural selection and fitness for purpose through the elimination of weak performers from the market place, but could it go further than this and become a creative force for improvement? In the natural world there is an instinctive determinism that drives evolution; in the commercial world it is the profit motive; is that good enough?


Profit of course means least cost design and parts and maximum price. Which?’s role in design might be that once it stopped testing for durability to advise to subscribers it left a yawning hole for cheap goods to achieve Best Buy status.

Demonstrably true with the Logik’s steamer plus no doubt other products.

I truly believe that the Stiftung Warentest in Germany, despite having a much smaller income, has by its rigorous testing improved the quality of many German products.