It is hard not to anthropomorphize robot vacuums. They live in your house. Some work with focused intensity, zipping back and forth; others bounce haphazardly from wall to wall. Some are loud, others quiet. Some will even bombard you with text messages while you’re at work.
As I watched the Neato Botvac D5 Connected climb determinedly into a dog food bowl, the comparison that came most readily to mind was Lenny from John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Like Lenny, the D5 is powerful, dependable and a valuable worker. It's social and talkative, with a friendly-looking app, and lots of push notifications. Also like Lenny, it’s a little dim-witted and doesn't know its own strength, but no less endearing for that.
Setup is simple. Plug in the home base and set the botvac to charge. Meanwhile, download the Neato app and follow the app’s instructions to pair. That's where you'll name your botvac (“Lenny”?) and the clean, minimalist app gives you a few options. You can start, stop or pause cleaning; set a schedule; run spot-cleaning, or select a gentle navigation mode. You can also control the botvac through through Amazon Alexa, Google Home, IFTT, or, weirdly, by messaging the Neato chatbot on Facebook with simple commands.
The app lets you keep tabs on the botvac’s battery life and also displays your cleaning history, with average cleaning times and square feet of area cleaned. There’s an FAQ and a quick link for replacement parts, which are also available on Amazon. The app will also send you reminders to empty the dirt bin, change the filter and clean the brushes. Everything clicks in and out, and the botvac comes with a small comb to clear the carpet brush when hair gets tangled on it.
There are a lot of things to love about the Neato D5. Of the botvacs I’ve tested so far, it is the most intelligent. It susses out the room’s boundaries in tentative passes with a laser sensor on the top of the vacuum. There is also a sensor along the right side of the vacuum to help it follow the wall, drop sensors under the front to prevent it from falling down stairs, and magnetic sensors to help it avoid the included magnetic boundary strips. I found the strips to be useful; instead of unplugging and clearing away cords, I could cordon off areas for the botvac to avoid. They were also more reliable than the drop sensors.
Once the botvac has figured out the room’s boundaries, it cleans in long, methodical, side-by-side strokes, picking up all the dirt and dog hair and leaving aesthetically pleasing, straight marks in its wake. It looks exactly as clean if I had vacuumed the whole house with our powerful push vacuum. It remembers which parts of the room it has cleaned, so you'll rarely see it overlap its own path. When it gets stuck, it sends you a push notification on your phone, and warns you to not place it so it can retain its bearings and continue its carefully-calculated trajectory.
This bot also impressed in the battery department. It took two hours and forty-five minutes for the vacuum to charge fully, and about one hour and forty-five minutes for it to run down to 10% battery life, which is an excellent ratio of charging time to operating time. Before it could get down to 0%, it shut itself off and returned to the base to refuel.
It took the D5 one hour to clean 630 square feet in my home. I also brought it to a friend’s house where it cleaned 250 square feet in a half hour, so cleaning times appear to be pretty consistent. Neato’s claim that it can clean 4500 square feet would probably require several cleaning cycles, but it was adequate for our purposes. And the botvac’s slim profile—less than four inches tall—meant that it could clean under couches and cribs without a problem.
Paying the Piper
But such wonderful results did not come without a cost. We began to notice chips in the walls, couch legs and door frames, as the botvac bashed into them while figuring out the room’s boundaries. One time, the botvac bonked itself into an open door repeatedly, so hard that it closed the door and trapped itself in a bedroom. It does have a gentle navigation cycle, but it’s much slower and you can’t schedule it in advance using the app.
And the vacuum is loud. I measured it at around 65 decibels, which is almost as loud as a normal push vacuum. Between its propensity to whunk into walls and the constant whoooom, this vacuum makes some unnerving noises. The calibration on the sensors is also a little strange. The botvac ran over feet and ate stray doll clothes without flinching, but a pair of dangling shoelaces in a shoe rack left it stymied.
I found the inconsistency regarding Neato's manual controls to be annoying. You can control the botvac’s direction via voice commands, but not through the app. There’s no button to push to tell the botvac to go home if you want it to stop cleaning before a cycle is over. Finally, sometimes the botvac will clean a room halfway, decide that it’s bored with the scenery, and move on to another room before coming back. This is frustrating, especially since the kit only comes with two magnetic divider strips. If I owned one of these, I would probably order several sets of them.
These hiccups might be deal-breakers, especially if you have valuable, delicate furniture. Also, if you're going to spend $500 on a robot vacuum, you might as well drop an extra $200 for Neato’s flagship Botvac Connected, which has all the features of the D5 but is more powerful, has longer battery life and a better command system through the app.
But if you find that $500 is a fine price, but $700 is lunacy and brings you to the brink of financial collapse (and you don’t mind scuffs on your moldings) then I'd say you should try the D5. It was so deeply satisfying to watch it run its meticulous vacuuming route, reminding me to empty its dirt bin two or even three times during a cleaning cycle, knowing that I wouldn’t have to get out the push vacuum anytime soon. Lenny, you will always have a home here, unless you kill someone, and I’m reasonably sure we can prevent you from doing that.