Like a fancy touchscreen watch that reminds you to buy milk, a robot vacuum is a luxury few of us actually need — but many of us would love to have.
For years iRobot’s Roombas have been the go-to choice for autonomous floor cleaning, but Samsung is making a strong case to upgrade to its new POWERbot VR9000. At £700 the VR9000 is even more expensive than the top-of-the-line £600 Roomba 880, but Samsung has managed to justify the extra cost by designing an incredibly intelligent and capable robot vacuum that requires very little human intervention once it’s been set up.
What Is It?
The Samsung POWERbot VR9000 is a robot vacuum that does most—but not all—of your floor cleaning chores for you. Unlike iRobot’s offerings, which often seem like robots first and vacuums second, the VR9000 feels like Samsung has taken a modern cyclonic bag-less vacuum and upgraded it with advanced autonomous functionality. Cleaning definitely seems like its first priority, followed closely by making your life a little easier.
It’s also important to point out that whereas Roomba’s line of robot vacuums use intelligent algorithms to bounce around a room in a criss-cross pattern so that they eventually clean every last spot (most of the time), the VR9000 uses a tiny top-mounted digital camera with a fish-eye lens to actually visually map out the shape and size of a room. And that includes any obstacles that might be in its way, allowing it to plot out the most efficient cleaning route to both maximie its battery life and minimise the amount of time you have to hear it running.
Who’s It For?
Any home can benefit from an appliance that promises to alleviate a weekly chore, but the POWERbot VR9000 is especially useful for those who spend a lot of time at work and don’t want to have to get home to nothing but housework until bedtime. The VR9000 can easily be scheduled with a daily cleaning routine so that while a house is empty, its carpets and floors can be automatically and constantly cleaned.
An advanced robot vacuum like the VR9000 can also be a big timesaver for homes with lots of messy kids that require repeated cleanings on a daily basis, and whose floors are littered with toys. In my testing, the combination of the VR9000’s digital camera, IR sensor, and touch sensors allowed the robovac to carefully tip-toe through endless obstacles. Which means you don’t have to clean your home before your robot cleans your floors.
It wasn’t until James Dyson introduced his cleaning products to the world that vacuum cleaners every looked even remotely cool. But companies have realised that even if a vacuum doesn’t do anything particularly innovative, consumers will assume it does as long as it looks futuristic.
But the VR9000 does do wonderful things, and it definitely looks the part. The copper tube that presumably houses the vacuum’s impeller and motor makes the dirt container on top look like a giant Duracell battery (which I happen to think looks cool) and its black and white colour scheme (of the model we were testing) definitely has a stark, futuristic appeal.
If you like visitors asking you about all your gadgets and toys at home, the VR9000 will certainly elicit some questions while parked against the wall charging.
As far as form versus functionality, the robovac also sits low enough to the ground that it was able to easily squeeze under all the beds in our home. And it has a relatively small footprint so — when docked against a wall, charging — it doesn’t feel like it’s wasting a lot of space in a room.
One design element we particularly appreciated was that the VR9000’s dirt canister was located on top of the vacuum, not underneath or on the side. It made it easy to tell when it was getting full, and it can be easily removed just by lifting a large plastic quick release lever. Once released, the canister still remains closed and sealed until you get to a garbage can and remove the top, which means you’re not going to spill any dust or dirt en route.
With the POWERbot VR9000’s user interface, Samsung has done a good job at keeping it very simple to use if all you want is the robot to go and clean until its battery is nearly dead. But there are also a handful of slightly more advanced options for when you want to maximize the effectiveness of the vacuum’s cleaning routine, or its battery life.
The ‘Auto Clean’ mode is the robovac’s standard and most basic option that simply sends the VR9000 into your home to clean until it decides it’s covered every last inch of floor space, at which point it will automatically return to its charging base. The ‘Spot Clean’ mode works in a similar fashion, except that the VR9000 will attempt to remain in one room or area without wandering off into other parts of your home. Finally, there’s a ‘Max Clean’ mode which works just like ‘Auto Clean’ except the VR9000 will keep cleaning, even re-doing areas it’s already covered, until its battery is nearly depleted and needs to recharge.
All of these modes are accessible from a simple touch panel on the top of the VR9000, but for the first little while you’ll definitely want to keep the manual on hand to help decipher exactly what the various light-up icons representing each mode mean. They’re not impossible to figure out, but they could have probably been made a little more clear with simple text labels underneath each image.
Thankfully the POWERbot VR9000 also comes with a wireless remote that’s a lot easier to understand and gives access to all of the vacuum’s options and cleaning modes. Although it looks a little dated (I’m sure a TV I had 15 years ago had the exact same remote) the buttons are all clearly labeled with text, and it means you can activate the vacuum from the comfort of your couch.
The remote also allows you to use the VR9000 in its ‘Manual Mode’ like a very slow remote control car that happens to also suck up everything in its path. Steering is a little jerky using the remote’s left and right buttons, and there’s actually no reverse button to get you out of trouble. However, since the robot can just rotate in one spot, we were never actually able to get it trapped anywhere while driving it around using the wireless remote.
The one feature that really makes the VR9000 standout is how well it actually cleans. On the underside you’ll find its spinning bristled brush that cuts a wide swath across your floors, reducing the number of back-and-forth passes the robot has to make while cleaning. The brush doesn’t go quite all the way to the edges of the actual vacuum, which means its edge-cleaning capabilities aren’t immaculate. But in our testing we found there was still enough suction power to pull in smaller dust and dirt particles on the sides where the spinning brushes didn’t reach.
After trying the vacuum for hours on end our test floor was pretty much free of dust and dirt. So half a box of table salt had to stand in for this cleaning test. As you can see in this before and after shot, the VR9000 was able to suck up the vast majority of the salt in its path as it rolled through this mess I created.
It still left some salt behind, but it’s important to note that the VR9000 also has a built-in dust sensor that’s able to detect when there’s still dirt on the floor that needs to be cleaned. So while I had manually steered the vacuum straight through this mess in a single pass using the wireless remote, in its autonomous mode it would have instead done multiple passes until its dust sensor decided that all the debris was completely cleaned up.
If the POWERbot VR9000 does happen to miss a spot, or if you spilled something and want it to come over and vacuum just a specific area, the included remote is also able to blast out a small illuminated target that the robot can easily follow. Just point it at the spot you want cleaned (or re-cleaned) and the VR9000 will automatically drive over and thoroughly clean the area where it last saw the red target. It’s like teasing a puppy or kitten with a laser pointer—just not as fun
The Best Part
The POWERbot VR9000 has an uncanny ability to find its way back to its charging base when it’s done cleaning. If you needed specific proof of the robovac’s ability to intelligently navigate a space with ever-changing obstacles (chairs moving, clothing on the ground, toys scattered about) watching the robovac find its way back home after it’s done cleaning is just fascinating.
In our brief time testing, we were never able to prevent the vac from autonomously returning to the charger—short of actually trapping it in a room. On one occasion we watched it carefully squeeze through a set of chair legs that were less than half-an-inch wider than the VR9000 itself to get back home. And on another it attempted to find its way back to its charging base through our living room, only to discover it was no longer an accessible route. Once it realised it was stuck, it back-tracked about 5 metres and then decided to take an alternate route through our pass-through kitchen instead.
If there was a TV channel that just showed intelligent robot vacuums autonomously finding their way back to their charging bases, I would already be a subscriber.
When the VR9000 finally gets close to its charging base, it slows down to the point where it’s barely moving to ensure its charging contacts are perfectly lined up. It’s like watching a lion slowly creep up on an unsuspecting gazelle, and we have yet to see the robovac not make perfect contact with its base. And since the manual specifically says the charging dock needs to be pushed right up against a wall, there’s little risk of the vacuum accidentally pushing it away during the docking procedure.
Given the limited size of the apartment where we put the robovac through its paces, I wasn’tt able to test the VR9000’s ability to always ensure it has enough power to autonomously get back to its charging dock before it dies. But given how adept it was at always finding its way back home, even after navigating a long twisting hallway, it’s clear the vacuum is able to roughly keep track of how far it’s traveled from its home base, which certainly helps it estimate how much power it’ll need to return before it’s too late.
The Tragic Flaw
You’ll still need to keep a traditional vacuum on hand because the POWERbot VR9000 simply can’t handle all of your floor cleaning for you. Given its size it just can’t squeeze into every nook and cranny in your home, and while it does a pretty good job at edge cleaning, every once in a while you’ll want to come along and do a more thorough job with another vacuum as dust builds up along your walls.
The VR9000 is also brilliant at navigating a cluttered room, but it will simply go around obstacles it can’t squeeze under or through, which clearly means parts of your floor will be left uncleaned. If anything has to be moved in order for the robovac to do a completely thorough job, that’s still all up to you. And if your home is full of hardwood floors instead of carpet, mopping will unfortunately still be one of your weekly chores.
This Is Weird…
If turned off and left away from its charging base for about ten minutes, the POWERbot VR9000 will completely power down like a toddler who fell asleep in the living room while playing with toys. But instead of having to pick it up and carry it to bed, you’ll have to walk over and press on its touch panel to wake it back up. No amount of mashing buttons on the wireless remote would wake it back up, which means that occasionally you’ll have to actually get up off your sofa to set it to cleaning once again. It’s not a dealbreaker, but definitely a small annoyance if you’re lazy.
- The VR9000 is a lot stronger than we expected it to be. During the occasional moments where it didn’t properly evade an obstacle, it was actually able to easily push even a heavy chair a few inches before realising the error of its ways. The chair was fine, but if you replace “piece of furniture” with “a human leg,” you’re definitely going to feel the occasional collision.
- The touch-sensitive buttons on the top of the VR9000 can be a little overly sensitive at times, but for the most part you’ll probably just rely on the wireless remote to control and program the vacuum, instead of bending over to use its on-board control panel.
- The one-floor flat where the VR9000 was tested didn’t have any stairs. But the vacuum was left to run on a dining room table (which is now immaculately free of crumbs) and it was able to detect and retreat from the edge of the table whenever it got too close. You’ll still have to carry it up and down stairs to use it in a multi-level home, but you shouldn’t have to worry about it accidentally taking a tumble down a flight while it’s cleaning.
- Although we weren’t able to test its performance on anything thicker than rugs, the VR9000’s main drive wheels are spring-loaded and help to lift the vacuum as it transitions from flat surfaces like hardwood floors to raised areas like thick carpeting. We also weren’t able to test its performance with pet hair, but the spinning brush on the underside features both soft and stiff bristles designed to agitate carpet fibers and dislodge dirt and debris.
- The VR9000’s ‘Silence’ mode cuts the vacuum’s power in half so that it operates more quietly, but at no point will it run completely silent. It still produces enough noise that it’s hard to ignore while the robot while it’s doing its thing.
- For our extreme suction test (and to make our simulated dirt really show up in photos) we dumped half a box of salt on the floor. The VR9000 did a very good job at cleaning up the mess, but in the process its filter and canister got a little oversaturated with salt. At no point was the robovac clogged, but it did require a thorough cleaning once all the salt was emptied from its dirt canister. So if you happen to spill a small mountain of salt in your kitchen, it might be a good idea to reach for a broom and dustpan first.
- Samsung also sells a wireless barrier that can be used to prevent the POWERbot VR9000 from leaving a certain area in your home, but were unable to test it for this review.
Should You Buy It?
Do you already own a vacuum? If the answer is no, then you’re probably better off spending half the POWERbot VR9000’s price tag on a nice Dyson or something because you’ll still need to have an old-school vacuum on hand. But if the answer is yes, and you have an extra £700 lying around to blow on a luxury item, Samsung’s new robovac will definitely make your life a little easier—at least when it comes to your chores.
The VR9000 is definitely a luxury item — there’s no denying that — but so were dishwashers when they were first introduced, and now it’s impossible to find a new home without one installed by default. And while you’ll still need an old-school vacuum in your home to clean areas like under the stove, or between the fridge and kitchen counter, the VR9000 can easily take care of 95 per cent of your other vacuuming needs.
In our testing there were several times when we were sure the vacuum had gotten itself stuck in a tiny space, but every single time it managed to autonomously free itself without any intervention. Using the VR9000 is as easy as directing it to a room and telling it to clean—that’s it. It’s smart enough to know when it’s cleaned every last inch of floor space, and like those three pets in Homeward Bound, it will automatically find its way home using its remarkable intelligence to ensure it’s always charged and ready for the next job.
The use of a digital camera on top to map out a room and actually plan an efficient cleaning routine is what contributes to the VR9000’s expensive £700 price tag. But it’s also what makes this robovac so dependable and good at what it does. As someone who deals with allergies, I’ve only ever trusted myself to thoroughly vacuum my home, and I do it every few days to be completely sure. But I’m now willing to let a robot take over those chores, and trust that it’ll do as good a job as I can—probably even better. [Samsung]