Robo-Vacuum Smack Down

Remember the Roomba? No, not the dance. We're talking about the autonomous robotic vacuum cleaner that was supposed to end the drudgery of housework as we know it (or at least one household chore that some folks find onerous).

Launched in 2002, the round Roomba was one of those house-of-the-future gizmos you'd see at a World's Fair. Just hit the button, relax and watch Oprah while the Roomba does all the work, zooming around the room busily sucking up dustballs on the shag rug.

More than 5 million Roombas are now out there - including newer models that clean your pool, store and gutters (no more falling off ladders). Other companies, like Electrolux, have jumped in with robots too, all with various on-board navigational systems and sensors to map the robot's course and avoid denting your designer furniture.

But now there's a new robot on the block. Has Roomba met its match with Mint?This new gadget (pictured), will be available later this year from Evolution Robotics for around $250. it's designed exclusively for cleaning hard surfaces -- you know, those wide plank oak floors in your loft -- and uses standard products like Swiffer pads to dust and wet mop. The Mint also has "serious smarts inside," according to its maker.

And it looks different than a Roomba: Mint is square -- better to access those hard to reach places, the company says. (Although a Roomba rep begs to disagree, noting that a round shape is best for attacking dirt in edges and corners). Mint comes from Yves Behar's super cool San Francisco design shop fuseproject. Why square? It's a departure from the "existing masculine and techno looking products in the market," according to promotional materials.

Whatever shape, we don't know if a less macho robot will sway consumers. The prospect of more leisure time thanks to a robotic maid hasn't convinced many consumers to give up the old Hoover. Despite inroads by robo-cleaners, uprights still command about 69 percent of the market, according to researchers NPD Group.

As Consumer Reports puts it, "think of these automatic housecleaners more as expensive novelties than practical appliances."

Of course, they'll do the grunge work, CR notes in a pre-Mint test of all types of vacuum cleaners. But in general, the reviewers found that robot cleaners tend to miss edges and corners. And, in a sign that the 'bots may have indeed reached the intelligence level of humans, or at least a moody teenager, CR warned that "some also tended to close doors behind them, locking themselves in a room."

Maybe I'm weird, but I don't mind a good round of energetic vacuuming while blasting loud music. At least I don't have to worry about an antisocial robot locked in a room.
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