iRobot's Roomba Just Took a Massive Leap Forward


On Tuesday, iRobot Corporation unveiled the latest and greatest version of its robotic vacuum line, the Roomba 880.

iRobot's new Roomba 880. Source: iRobot.

But wait, you say, doesn't that look pretty much the same as every other Roomba the company has pumped out over the past 11 years?

Sure does. And I'll even admit I was tad disappointed when I first read the official announcement Tuesday morning. After all, even though iRobot management gave investors a heads-up more than two weeks ago that a "major new Roomba product" would be launched in Q4, my mind still went wild with anticipation Monday when the company took to the web to post teasers of Tuesday's release.

I couldn't help but wonder: Would the next Roomba sport video navigation? Would it be able to vacuum stairs? What could be so significant as to call it a "major" step forward?

At the same time, I reluctantly kept in mind iRobot CEO Colin Angle's long-standing propensity for taking baby steps forward with iRobot's products. Or, as he stated in an interview with The Verge in January, "We need to pick applications that have real concrete value to customers, deliver or exceed their expectations, and move on."

Here's why the Roomba 880 is a huge deal
iRobot unsurprisingly decked out the new Roomba with the usual improvements over its predecessors, including a bin that holds 60% more debris and a new "XLife" battery, which apparently delivers double the number of cleaning cycles over the life of the robot.

But as the proud owner of a year-old Roomba 650 myself, I've never had any particular beef with the old battery and certainly don't mind the gratifying task of dumping a full bin of dirt after every cycle.

So what else makes the Roomba 880 so special?

Two words: brushless cleaning.

Bottom of iRobot's new Roomba 880. Source: iRobot.

Now, rather than the slick brush-centric system that popularized earlier versions, the Roomba 880 sports what iRobot is calling its "AeroForce Extractors," which "amplify suction for superior performance over traditional bristle brushes, all while being virtually maintenance free."

What's more, the new AeroForce system apparently results in a vacuum that is five times more powerful and removes up to 50% more debris than previous Roomba models.

Don't get me wrong; I love my Roomba and haven't missed manually vacuuming my floors over the past year. But if I had one complaint, it's that massive amounts of hair regularly wrap around the brushes, impeding the Roomba's ability to really clean until I pull those brushes out and cut the hair away.

Sure, iRobot made the brushes fairly easy to remove, and even included a little orange cutting tool to simplify the task. However, I'd have no problem wagering iRobot knew all too well that frequent brush cleaning was the single largest problem consumers had with its flagship product.

In addition, though I loved the fact that my Roomba 650 would fill up its bin with every cleaning cycle, I had no delusions it was anywhere close to as powerful as my old push vacuum. Of course, older Roombas made up for their lack of power with multiple passes over each area, but it's hard to argue with iRobot's decision to narrow the power gap between traditional competitors even further.

Curiously enough, looking back at the aforementioned January interview, it appears Angle himself was already hinting at iRobot's intentions when he said,

Ultimately you'll want the robot to do stairs, so that's a problem to go solve. But in the home ultimately, what we'll see is the robots like Roomba slowly disappearing -- they'll still be there, but you'll have to do less and less to maintain them.

I should have known.

In any case, putting aside the fact that statement allows me to hold onto hope for a stair-cleaning bot down the road, as of today iRobot has taken a giant step toward minimizing that regular maintenance required of Roomba owners.

Foolish takeaway
For now, as expected, the Roomba 880 is only available in North America and is being sold exclusively through iRobot's website. However, beginning in the first quarter of 2014, iRobot will gradually broaden its distribution through a number of domestic and international retailers.

When that happens, and while it may not be as drastic a change as some had hoped, I think the Roomba 880's new brushless cleaning system should still go a long way toward pushing undecided adopters off the fence. This, in turn, should further accelerate iRobot's already fast-growing global floorcare robot business, quarterly shipments for which recently increased 27% over last year.

In the end, though the stock may look expensive trading around 28 times next year's estimated earnings, that's why I'm still convinced patient investors stand to be handsomely rewarded by holding shares of iRobot over the long term.

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