Walter Shillington is an avid collector of mechanical timepieces. While he focuses mainly on watches, Walter also reviews household items.
Several years ago, I picked up an old Koolvac Robotic Vacuum at a flea market. Koolvac was an early competitor to iRobot, and judging from the price I paid, this machine was not greatly loved.
It was fun to watch the big yellow monster strut about the room, roaring loudly as it cleaned, but I soon discovered a major problem. The Koolvac had enough power to climb onto obstacles and over power cords but then would become trapped, whining insistently and flashing a series of green lights. The vacuum was more trouble than it was worth.
This spring, I tried again, tackling the situation from two directions. I bought an elderly 400 series Roomba on eBay and then ordered the cheapest new robotic vacuum I could find.
Because someone interested in purchasing a robotic vacuum without spending a lot of money is likely to choose between these options, I decided to compare the two vacuums head to head.
The body of the unbranded vacuum is composed of white colored plastic and comes with two interchangeable top covers. One is orange, and the other is green. The Roomba's case is manufactured from heavier, sturdier plastic.
Both robots are fitted with a single button which turns the unit on and commences operations. Unlike its smaller and lighter competitor, the Roomba is equipped with a carrying handle.
Because of the extreme weight differential, the Chinese vacuum can get by with a smaller power supply. The Roomba is equipped with a 14.4V, 3.5Ah Ni-MH battery. The smaller robotic vacuum uses a 7.4V 1800MH Lithium battery pack.
The Roomba is fitted with a single caster and two wheels which provide drive. It is equipped with a stationary brush, a flimsy appearing side brush, and two counter-rotating main brushes. One of these seemed to be composed of rubber and is equipped with flaps. The other is similar to a brush you might use to clean the neck of a bottle. These pick up pretty much anything in their path and the debris is vacuumed into a storage bin inside the machine.
The less-expensive vacuum is propelled by a pair of drive wheels spaced closely together and includes two free running wheels. A pair of side-brushes are utilized to sweep debris toward an opening which sucks the dirt into the bowels of the machine and a set of magnets are glued to its underside. I laughed when I read this but the first time I ran this little robot in my living room, I found a finishing nail clinging desperately to one of the magnets. I have no idea where that came from.
Both units came equipped with a replaceable filter and an AC adapter/charger. Neither vacuum shipped with a home base charging station nor a virtual wall. These items, however, are available if you purchase a Roomba.
The new unbranded vacuum was manufactured in China; probably by a factory located within Zhejiang or Guangdong. Trading companies normally purchase large lots of these vacuums and, in turn, sell them to retailers.
The Roomba 401 is a second-generation iRobot vacuum. It was produced by iRobot Corporation, an American company founded in 1990 by three MIT graduates who designed robots for space exploration and military defense. This Delaware based outfit manufactures consumer robots for inside and outside of the home. The robotic vacuum used in this test was produced around 2004.
Specifications of Unbranded Robotic Vacuum
- Brand: Unbranded
- Accessories: Spare top cover and AC adaptor
- Suction Power: 500Pa
- Side Brushes: Two
- Rotating Brush: No
- Dust Pad: Yes
- Magnet: Two
- Battery: 7.4V 1800mAh Lithium
- Operational time: Approximately one hour
- Weight: 1.1 Kilogram (2.43 pounds)
- Height: 75 millimeters (2.95 inches)
- Circumference: 260 X 240 millimeters (10.2 X 9.4 inches)
- Operational Conditions: Hard floors only
Specifications of iRobot Roomba 401
- Brand: iRobot
- Model: 401
- Accessories: AC adaptor
- Suction Power: Unknown
- Side Brushes: One
- Rotating Brush: Bristle brush and beater brush
- Battery: Power Extra 14.4V 3500mAh Ni-MH
- Operational time: Approximately 1.7 hours
- Weight: 2.9 Kilogram (6.4 pounds)
- Height: 88 millimeters (3.5 inches)
- Circumference: 338 millimeters (13.3 inches)
- Operational Conditions: Multi-surface capable
The Chinese vacuum appears to be a large colorful bug as it scurries across the floor. It is so quiet that I am concerned that I might accidentally step on the thing and squash it.
The Roomba is large, brutish, and noisy; you will not willingly share a room. It moves quickly, aggressively and with purpose. When the Roomba is in operation, my cat will leap to the safety of the windowsill, keeping the robot under constant, distrustful observation.
The Chinese vacuum, mostly due to its lack of power, is gentle with furniture. It will bump lightly against a table leg, then back away and scurry off in a different direction. This robot will not climb over power cables nor wedge itself into a tight corner and become stuck. It does, however, sometimes experience difficulties when attempting to maneuver over floor-mounted vents.
My elderly Roomba is not so gentle. It actually has the power to jar my heavy wooden chairs before reversing direction. While this vacuum will sometimes force its way into what appears to be an untenable position, it can usually free itself.
The Chinese vacuum employs a rather primitive navigational pattern. It moves forward a couple of feet, reverses, and then moves forward again. When it reverses, the drive-wheels pivot slightly, which changes the angle of the robot‘s oncoming forward motion. If the robot encounters an obstacle, it will also retreat slightly before forging ahead. This system will work well enough in most instances. Unfortunately, I live in an old house, and my floors are not level. In this case, the little robotic vacuum will slowly make its way lower half of the floor and do most of its work there.
The Roomba’s navigational system is far better. Once activated, it begins to circle in a gradually widening pattern until it encounters an obstacle. Then it follows the edge for a while before becoming bored and heading off into a new direction. As I mentioned before, this is a powerful brute, and a slanted floor is of no concern. And, because battery life of the Roomba is fifty percent greater than that of the Chinese robot, this vacuum can cover a larger area.
The Roomba’s side-brush sweeps debris toward the center of the vacuum where dust is vacuumed through a tiny hole. The unit’s main brush and beater brush work together to grab and pull larger debris into the bowels of the robot. I found that, when used on a hard floor, the Roomba works very well. The edge of light mats or carpets with fringes, however, can sometimes become caught between the main brushes.
I have one unoccupied bedroom. Each time the room is vacuumed, the Roomba picks up additional cat hair from its low-pile carpet. This suggests that, over time, the robot will recover dirt hidden below the surface level of the carpet.
The little Chinese vacuum utilizes two side-brushes. These sweep debris toward the center of the unit where it is sucked up by a low-powered vacuuming system. This system works very well with dust, cat hair and dead flies. I did discover—to my dismay—that the suction was insufficient for heavier items such as spilled kitty litter. I am forced to expend valuable energy, bending over the litter tray with a dustpan and whisk brush.
This robotic vacuum has two magnets which collect metal objects and a platform that can be fitted with a cloth and dragged across the floor. This dusting system works but, to conserve battery power, I soon discarded the cloth and plastic platform.
A used Roomba 401 can be purchased on eBay for about the same cost as a brand new unbranded robotic vacuum cleaner. You will, however, most likely require a new battery and filter for the Roomba.
Unlike the cheaper Chinese product, batteries and brushes are readily available for this elderly Roomba. You can even purchase a home base or virtual wall.
While the little Chinese vacuum’s filter, brushes and battery are technically replaceable, these items do not appear to be available. This is probably because their purchase price would rival the cost of replacing the original robotic vacuum.
The little Chinese vacuum is a good option for those who have pets and are searching for a method of handling pet hair between weekly vacuums. You can set it on a floor, turn it on, and forget about the robot until its battery dies out. Little effort is required to clean and maintain the vacuum. Remember, however, that this machine is not intended for carpeted floors.
The Roomba 401, while elderly, is an extremely capable robotic vacuum. With a good battery, the Roomba can handle more than one room at a time and moves easily between carpeted and hard floors. In operation, this vacuum is incredibly noisy but if you can handle that, represents the best overall value.
© 2018 Walter Shillington