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Roomba SchedulerRoomba Scheduler Ups the Home Robot Ante

By Jim Bray

You’ve probably seen those little manhole cover-like robot vacuum cleaners advertised. They promise to end the drudgery of pushing or pulling a vacuum around your home by zipping around Chez Vous and doing it for you.

Regular readers (those who eat sufficient bran) of this column may remember that I tried one of them, the Roomba Red, about a year ago and thought it was a neat idea that had some potential as long as you don’t have a lot of furniture or wires and cables in your room and you live on a single storey. It did a pretty good job of vacuuming, but the main drawback was that you still had to turn it on and off which mean that, even though you didn’t actually have to vacuum, you still had to supervise.

Well now, iRobot has come up with a new model that really ups the ante on that earlier model, and it addresses most of my concerns. It is far from perfect, but it’s a big step forward – and it's pretty nifty.

It's the Roomba Scheduler, a more self sufficient robot than the Red, and it'll operate any time of day or any day of the week without you having to give it a conscious thought. You don’t even need to be home any more for it to get your vacuuming done, because the Scheduler also comes with a remote control/timer and a base station that serves as a battery charger and home for the little cyber-critter to park in - kind of like an open air dog house for droids.


...continued Roomba Scheduler

You also get two virtual walls that use infrared light to warn the robot away from areas like staircases or open doors – or sections of the room that may have an abundance of wires or breakables at floor level – in short, places through which you don’t want it poking its flat little dome.

And be darned if it doesn’t work! Most of the time, anyway.

I set it up in a big and relatively clear room in our basement where it would have a fairly free rein to roam around and work its magic. Then I programmed it – and the virtual walls – to come on twice a week whether I was around to watch or not. Of course, I stuck around to see if it would work, but I didn’t have to. Call it due diligence….

Like clockwork, the Roomba woke up at the appointed hour and went scurrying around the room, sniffing out and sucking up animal hair and the rest of the stuff that mysteriously appears in our otherwise wonderfully immaculate home. It’s fascinating to watch the little critter zipping around, bouncing off walls and obstacles as it works. You could almost swear that its movements are random, and that it changes direction only based on when it runs into something, but then all of a sudden it stops in the center of the room as if it suddenly remembered an area that it hadn’t covered yet, spins around, and heads off in search of new crud to capture.

When the robot has done its dirty duty, it goes back to its docking station, parks itself there and goes to sleep, its battery being re-charged, until the next appointed hour.

We even got some unexpected comedy relief thanks to the reaction from our cats as the droid started heading for them. They didn’t know whether to run or attack! If only I’d been testing a camcorder at the time, I’d have sent it to America’s Funniest Home Videos and been a shoo-in for the ten grand, at least. After a while they became very blasé about the Roomba, but it was entertaining while it lasted.

The Scheduler does a pretty good job of getting on with its business, too. I set up a virtual wall to keep it from heading off into our workshop (where it would be sucked into a black hole of junk and never be seen again), and one time when I was watching it work it got high centered on the edge of the carpet. I figured I’d have to bail it out, but darned if the little droid didn’t shift around, hike itself up, spin around, and generally gyrate as if it were alive until it finally freed itself and headed back onto its appointed rounds as if nothing had happened. It was impressive.

It isn’t perfect, of course. Another time, at the same location (after I had moved the virtual wall to see what would happen) it seemed to get confused and started acting like a Star Trek android about to blow up after Captain Kirk had argued it into a logical conundrum. I picked it up, placed it back on the carpet, patted it on its virtual bum to make it feel better, and off it went again, happy as a robot vacuum can be, on the prowl for more dirt.

And another time it appeared to have decided to go on strike. I don’t know how far into its cleaning cycle it was, but when I went down to check on it (if it didn’t do its job I wasn’t going to reward it with any recharging!) it was just sitting there like a sullen and spoiled child. I restarted it and all appeared normal, except that the incident was repeated twice more before I gave up and took it to its base station for a time out. Hey, don’t mess with humans, robot!

That’s when I pulled out the manual to see if it had any advice. Well, the manual sucks just about as much as the vacuum does, though in a less satisfactory way, but it did inform me that you’re supposed to clean the brushes and the like after each use (which makes the machine a little less attractive), and I hadn’t cleaned it at all – except for emptying the dirt canister – since first activating it.

As it turns out, the brush and other assorted works were wound around with hair and stuff, and this appeared to be giving the Roomba fits. It took about ten minutes to get all the gunk off the workings, though it would probably only have taken five if I’d used a pair of scissors to cut at the stuff rather than tuggin' and cussin'.

Roomba SchedulerAnother time it started up and appeared to be drunk, moving around in a couple of circles before chirping plaintively and passing out. Repeated prods didn't help, so I contacted Roomba customer service. They "tut-tutted" nicely and told me they'd send out a repair thingy with instructions.

A couple of weeks later a package arrived with a little device that let me zap the Roomba's digital thalamus – and after that it worked fine again. As of this writing I'm still using it, though I now need to replace the remote's batteries which, in my never humble opinion ran down too quickly.

I've had a couple of times when the Scheduler seems to ignore one of the virtual walls (or perhaps I hadn't set it properly) and get tangled up in the wires under my desk. Fortunately, rather than tearing the wires apart it shuts down and waits patiently to be rescued, like a kitten stuck on an ice floe. Untangling the Roomba is a lot easier than untangling the power bar of our big built in vacuum, too, which is nice.

Even though the Roomba doesn’t have a very big dirt receptacle I was surprised how much stuff it actually pulled out of our carpet. I’m not sure I’d want this droid if I lived in a real pig sty such as my bachelor pad was before my wife saved me, but for a condo or a place where you just want something that can do maintenance cleaning it’s a pretty nifty solution.

Roomba recommends you keep the dirt receptacle empty, and I've been dumping it after every second session, which works out to once a week. It's an easy process that only takes a few seconds.

The Scheduler is a big improvement over the Red, at least so far as its automation and extra virtual wall are concerned. It is far from perfect, but it does work as advertised and can do a nice job under the right circumstances.

And now that you don’t need to even think about it for the most part, it qualifies as a real, practical home robot.

The Roomba Scheduler sells for about $330.

Who’d have thunk you could have your own R2D2 for a price like that?

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.

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January 26, 2006