It’s usually me making the case for new smart home gadgets, but when it came to a robot vacuum cleaner, it was my partner, Steph, who suggested it. Unusually hot weather in London causing our cats to moult more than usual may have been the triggering event!
I’d looked at them when they first came out, and wasn’t that impressed by what I saw and read. Early models tended to wander randomly about the home, didn’t cope well with obstacles, and their battery-powered vacuum motors weren’t very powerful.
But it had been quite a few years since then, so it seemed a good time to check out whether today’s robot vacuum cleaners are gimmick or genuinely useful home appliance …
But one lesson I’ve learned well over the years is that it pays to buy the right thing once. In most things, you get what you pay for, so you’re better off buying the model that will do the job well and last for many years than opting for something cheaper that will break or frustrate you within a short time.
In particular, checking out a few buying guides led to one thing that would be obvious as soon as you got one, but hadn’t immediately occured to me. Most robocleaners are round – which means they can’t get into corners. When you eliminate those, your choice is much more limited.
Several friends recommended the Neato Botvac D7 Connected (D7 from now on), so that was top of my list. Of course, being a tech writer has its benefits, namely the ability to get hold of review kit to try before you buy. My original idea was to compare this against a low-end competitor, to see whether it justified the spend, but none of the competitor companies I approached seemed interested – which perhaps tells its own story …
Look & feel
The D7 measures 12.5 inches long by 13.2 inches wide by 3.9 inches high.
The casing is a mix of silver and dark grey plastic. A Neato logo sits on top of a round protrusion containing the scanning infrared laser system which I’ll talk about later.
The silver panel toward the front of the D7 has a manual start button, and four LED icons that shine through the plastic:
- House clean mode
- Spot clean mode (for an additional clean of a small area)
- Wi-Fi status
- Battery status
When not in use, the D7 sits snuggled up to its charge base, a dark grey plastic unit with two long metal strips and a mains plug.
It doesn’t look too much like a hi-tech gadget. Part of me expects a gadget of this sophistication and price to have higher-tech styling – some anodised aluminum and perhaps some LED striplighting to illuminate its path. On the other hand, it is an appliance, and it’s one that has to sit somewhere visible in your home the whole time, so perhaps an understated look is for the best.
As with many gadgets that need to connect to your home Wi-Fi, set up is a little fiddly and you can expect to go through the process more than once before it takes.
The D7 uses an approach I’ve found to be particularly annoying with other devices, where it initially creates its own Wi-Fi network, you connect to that and then enter the details of your own Wi-Fi network into the app. In my case, this took three attempts, but it got there in the end.
The hardware set up is straightforward – find an open wall with at least three feet clear either side, position the charging base there and plug it in. Position the D7 against the charging base and wait for an initial full charge.
Once charged, the process of learning the layout of your home is completely automatic. Just tell the D7 to do a clean, and it creates a digital map of your home as it does. You can see below the map it created of our apartment.
The dotted lines are the walls and any other obstacles, the blue-green areas are where it cleaned, the dark areas where it didn’t. More on this in a moment.
In use – overview
Using the D7 couldn’t be simpler. There are three ways to start a full home clean:
- Press the start button on the unit
- Press the start button in the companion app
- Schedule a regular clean
In my case, once it had completed the first couple of cleans, I scheduled a weekday clean at 8.40am – this is a time when my partner has left for work and I’m in the office, so it gives the D7 a pretty clear run at the place. It also means we’ve had an opportunity to check for cat accidents, having heard horrendous stories of what happens when a robot vacuum … redistributes same!
There are two cleaning modes, economy and turbo. Economy uses a less powerful motor setting, which is quieter and more energy-efficient. We tried an eco clean first, emptied the bin and then did a turbo one immediately afterwards to see how much more it picked up.
Although the floors looked clean after the eco clean, the bin was full of cat hair after the follow-up turbo one. We didn’t find that the noise was that much louder, so we specified turbo mode for the daily clean.
The D7 cleaned 384 square feet in 44 minutes. Since the battery is good for 120 minutes, it could clearly clean a much larger home without breaking sweat. Neato says it can clean up to 5000 feet on a single charge (on economy mode).
The biggest strength of the device is that, in the main, it Just Works. We’ve been using it for a week now, and each morning at 8.40am, it springs to life and gets on with it. Some 40-ish minutes later, you have clean floors.
The D7 is incredibly thorough. Where it can get underneath things like sofas and drawer units with sufficient headroom, it does so. Where it can’t, it gets as far under them as it can.
The square design does allow it to get right into corners. Not 100% perfectly – it misses perhaps a square inch or two – but very nearly so.
The D7 also proved extremely capable at getting itself out of difficulties. It climbed up onto the rounded base of a floor lamp, and climbed down again. To do as thorough a job as possible, it does quite a lot of reversing along the way, and there were a couple of times when the rear of the D7 lifted into the air as it got stuck against a chair or desk leg, and each time it got down again without any help.
It has ‘cliff edge’ detection to avoid stairs and steps. In our case, that worked perfectly most of the time. We have a platform floor in the glazed balcony area, with a drop off the edge by the windows, and it manages that beautifully. It also generally avoided falling off the step into the living-room, though it did get stuck on one occasion by reversing just that little bit too far an in effort to get as close to the edge as possible. You can set up no-go areas to avoid these.
It mostly climbs over cables without fuss. It did once snag a floor lamp cable, unplugging it, but changing the position of the cable resolved that.
If it runs low on battery power, it simply returns to its charging station, recharges and then continues right from where it left off.
The bin is large enough for a two-bed central London apartment – we only empty it every couple of days – and it’s easy to do this without spilling dust.
The app is simple but good, letting you know when it has finished cleaning and showing a map of the area it has cleaned, together with the surface area and time taken. Scheduling is easy – you simply tick the days you want, select the start-time and specify Eco or Turbo mode. You can have multiple scheduled cleans. Doing a manual clean, which we do at the weekend, is as simple as opening the app and tapping the start button.
Oh, and if you want to play, or clear up a spill, you can also use it in fully manual mode, controlling it just like a remote-controlled car!
The D7 has off-road-like capabilities, but it’s not a tank. We have a big step up into a glazed balcony, and it can’t manage that, so we have to wait until it’s finished then do a separate ‘spot clean’ in there. For this, which is an admittedly awkward area, it takes two goes. We have to position it at one end, and it does the left side, then position it at the other end to do the right side. This isn’t ideal, but is still beats doing the hoovering yourself.
I mentioned that it misses a tiny bit of inside corners, but it also does the same with outside corners. It does track round them pretty closely – and even reverses back and comes in tighter – but for some reason it doesn’t manage this perfectly. Again, it misses a square inch or two, as seen above.
The width of the machine means that it can’t get through the legs of the dining room chairs, so can’t clean beneath the table – though it does as much as it can.
One thing that isn’t a D7-specific weakness, but is something worth bearing in mind with any robo-cleaner, is that they aren’t quite set-and-forget. For example, we have a small step unit we use for reaching up into ceiling-height cupboards, and we have to remember to pick that up and put it on a table so that the D7 can clean beneath it. Similarly, you need to pick up anything else on the floor – bags, shoes and so on – to give it a clear run.
We have one area where we have to position the bathroom door very precisely so that the D7 can access both the bathroom and the bedroom:
With the door wedged in that precise position, the D7 can access both rooms – so that’s something I have to remember to do before it starts.
Price and conclusions
I said in the intro that you can buy robot vacuum cleaners at every price level from under $200 to $800, and the D7 sits right at the top end. It is not a cheap appliance.
But, viewed as a labor-saving appliance in the same category as a washing-machine or dishwasher, then the price starts to feel more reasonable. If you want to save money, its predecessor, simply known as the Botvac Connected, has all the same features except the app-based no-go areas – but you can use the supplied cables to set up physical ones. This is now available at a significant discount.
I’d love it if it were HomeKit-compatible, so I could include it in one of our morning scenes, but with the scheduled cleans, that’s really no big deal.
For us, we were sufficiently sold on it that we decided to lay out the cash to buy our own as soon as Neato collects the review unit. It’s great having a clean floor every day for almost zero effort, and the D7 is as close to set-and-forget as these things get. Welcome, Jeeves, the latest addition to our smart home.