Hands-on with the iRobot Roomba 780Yes, I admit it: I’m way behind the times when it comes to the Roomba, the little floor-vacuuming robot that’s been cleaning floors and carpets for nearly a decade now.

What took me so long to give the Roomba a try? Good question.

Maybe I’ve simply never lived in an apartment that seemed big enough to warrant a floor-sweeping robot. Maybe the price seemed a bit steep. Or maybe the whole idea of a self-guided discus flying around my living room was a tad too intimidating.

Indeed, I only decided to give the Roomba a chance after the PR representatives at iRobot persuaded me to test-drive their latest model: the top-of-the-line, $599 Roomba 780. But hey—I’ll try anything once.

The Roomba arrived in my two-bedroom, 800-square-foot Brooklyn apartment about two weeks ago, and I’ll tell you, this thing comes armed to the teeth with impressive sounding features.

Hands-on with the iRobot Roomba 780

Resting in the charging dock.

We’re talking optical and acoustic sensors that literally look and listen for dirt and debris; ultra-fine filters that catch particles of dust less than a micron across; redesigned motors and cleaning heads that are less likely to get snarled with pet or human hair; and a roomier bin that collects more dirt, debris, and gunk than any previous Roomba.

All very nice—and were I more of an expert on all things Roomba, I could tell you how the Series 700 stacks up against the older, cheaper models, and whether the new Dirt Detect Series 2 system out-sniffs the old Dirt Detect sensors.

Unfortunately, I’m a complete and utter Roomba newbie; quite honestly, I’d never heard of a Dirt Detect anything until a few weeks ago.

Related: Mint (and new Mint Plus) floor-cleaning robot: a cheaper, Swiffer-using alternative to the Roomba

So instead of comparing one Roomba series to another, I’ve been asking myself a much broader question: Do I really need a $600, floor-cleaning robot scooting around my apartment?

The answer? Well, allow me to explain first.

My test Roomba arrived in a large, flat box, complete with plenty of spare parts and brushes, a few extra filters, a docking station, a basic remote control, and a DVD that explains all the basics.

I was also expecting a somewhat involved set of assembly instructions, an Allen wrench, and a baggie full of nuts and bolts. To my relief, however, setup was a snap; I just ripped a small plastic strip off the Roomba’s battery contacts, removed a piece of protective cardboard out of the dust bin, plugged the base station into a wall outlet, and docked the robot into its new home, where it charged overnight.

The next day, I was ready to see the Roomba in action—but before I could press the big green “Clean” button, I had to do a little Roomba-proofing. First, you need to make sure there are no little puddles of water on the floor. I also had to scan for any loose wires that might get wrapped around the Roomba’s cleaning head—no small thing, given all the speaker wires, HDMI cables, and power cords strewn about my apartment.

Finally, I was ready. I pressed the “Clean” button.

Hands-on with the iRobot Roomba 780

Go, Roomba, go!

“Beep, beep, beep!” went the Roomba, sounding an awful lot like a truck thrown into reverse as it backed out of its charging dock. Then it spun around, thought for a second, and made a beeline for the dining-room table, where it spent the better part of 10 minutes bumping, circling, and otherwise feeling its way around the chairs and the foot of the table.

It can be frustrating to watch, but all the spinning and to-and-fro in just a single corner of the room seems to be the way of the Roomba, as it gets a sense for the shape and size of a room and works out its cleaning routine accordingly.

Given enough time—and assuming it’s reasonably free of obstacles, of course—the Roomba will eventually cover plenty of ground, zipping under beds and couches, dusting in corners (a three-headed, spider-like brush sees to that), and avoiding tumbles down staircases (quite successfully, I might add).

That’s not to say the Roomba didn’t get tripped up. On its first two attempts to clean my apartment, it got stuck under one of my leather sofas and eventually gave up with a whimper—but not before a good half-hour of twisting, grinding, and thrashing.

On another occasion, I turned the Roomba on before heading out to dinner with my wife, only to find the robot motionless in a corner when we returned. I bent down and immediately saw what happened; the Roomba had tried to eat a loose piece of speaker wire. Bad Roomba! Luckily, neither Roomba nor wire were worse for the wear.

Hands-on with the iRobot Roomba 780

Up close and personal.

So yes, Roomba-proofing your home is essential to the whole Roomba experience—and after a few tries, I got it more or less right. For example, moving a single chair kept the Roomba from getting trapped under the dining room table, while pulling our coffee table an extra foot away from the sofa saved the robot from another life-or-death struggle under the couch. I also pulled a few loose wires tight to keep Roomba from chewing on them.

Once Roomba got the hang of our apartment—or rather, once I got the hang of the Roomba—the whole cleaning process became much more smooth, with a full sweep of our apartment taking between an hour and 90 minutes.

How clean was the floor? Well, while I did manage to find a few bits of junk that the Roomba missed, the overall floor was about as clean and dust-free as I’d ever seen it—particularly beneath our beds, where dust bunnies love to hide.

And one look in the Roomba’s dust bin was proof enough for me—yuck! All that dust and hair, after just 24 hours between cleanings? Have we been living in filth all this time?

As far as care and feeding are concerned, iRobot recommends you let the little guy take a nice long rest in its charging dock between cleanings, while the debris bin needs to be purged once every couple of cycles. You’ll also need to give Roomba’s cleaning heads a regular once-over; iRobot thoughtfully provides a plastic tool with a safety blade for cutting through any hair wrapped around the spinning brushes.

You can also schedule the Roomba to do its thing while you’re at work or on vacation—nice, although the Roomba’s digital clock is about as clumsy to program as an old-school clock radio.

Also in the box: a remote control, along with twin, battery-powered “lighthouses” that can either help the Roomba navigate or create a virtual “wall” that the robot won’t cross.

Hands-on with the iRobot Roomba 780

The Roomba’s dust bin after a few minutes of cleaning; you should see it after an hour.

So, is the Roomba 780 worth it? Will it replace a standard vacuum cleaner?

Well, even execs at iRobot admit that the Roomba isn’t intended to be a Hoover replacement—particularly if you have deep-pile carpets with which to content. The Roomba is more of a companion to a stand-up vacuum than a replacement, there to give your floors a daily sweep and to reach under places where you and your vacuum can’t.

Alright, then, so $600 for a companion to your vacuum cleaner. Worth the cash?

Well, if we had a bigger apartment, yes, I’d definitely consider the thing. It didn’t take long for my wife and I to get spoiled by our clean-as-a-whistle floors—and remember, dealing with dust is no small thing in New York City. Getting rid of the dust bunnies under our beds and sofas was another rewarding Roomba benefit.

But the 13-inch-diameter robot doesn’t exactly have a low profile, with the Roomba 780 taking up a good-sized footprint in our bedroom. The only other option for the Roomba and its charging stations—our living room—turned out to be a non-starter.

In a larger living space with a discrete hideaway for the Roomba, well … that might be another story. I could definitely get used to a Roomba in a carpeted 2,000 foot bungalow.

And if $600 sounds pricey, keep in mind that iRobot sells cheaper Roombas stripped of the 780’s bells and whistles. The $299 Roomba 530 will still do a number on your floors, but lacks the touch-sensitive buttons, timer settings, and optical dirt sensors in the Roomba 780.

So, any Roomba owners out there have some thoughts? Any iRobot holdouts thinking of springing for a Roomba? Let us know what you think!

Note: iRobot supplied me with a loaner Roomba 780 for review purposes—and yes, I’ll be sending it back once I’m through testing it.