iRobot Roomba 510 Vacuum Cleaning Robot

The Roomba is not for everybody.

There is, I understand, an entire class of obsessive-compulsives who like nothing better than spending a perfectly good weekend on all fours scrubbing their kitchen floors. Unabomber types, who whittle away the hours at home in their woodsy cabins penning anti-technology treatises and presumably sitting in their own filth, might too have a problem with this little robot of a vacuum.

Also, dogs seem to hate it.

But for everyone else, we the great unwashed -- unvacuumed? -- masses, the Roomba is a little bit of the future today, a convenience that after a week of testing I wonder how I ever lived without.

About the size of a serving platter, the Roomba by iRobot is a self-propelled, computer-controlled vacuum cleaner. It is as helpful a household robot as the Jetson's Rosie, with none of the snarky back talk.

After a 2002 product launch, the third-generation models on the market this year not only clean a room on their own but can also be instructed which rooms you don't want cleaned.

When finished cleaning and in need of a charge, the new models find their way home to a docking station where they no doubt dream of electric dust bunnies.

My experience with robots was previously limited to the Rock 'Em Sock 'Em variety, but I know a thing or two about dust and fortunately had enough of it on the floors of my apartment to put the Roomba through its paces.

With the touch of a single button the Roomba begins what the included corporate literature describes as a complicated waltz of computer calculated algorithms, but what looks like a lot of spinning around and bumping into walls.

The bumping into walls is kind of the point and is actually part of that complicated algorithm. The Roomba follows walls, bumps into things, forcing it to change direction, and spins in circles, a method apparently inspired by the way insects respond to their environs.

The Roomba can also be penned into a small area or single room by setting up two infrared beacons that serve as "virtual walls." It runs for 35 minutes before returning to its home base for a charge.

The robot will often go over the same area more than once. In a setting any larger than my small and Spartan studio apartment, that might mean the same area is cleaned multiple times at the expense of another swath of floor. But, in a smaller room (like my crummy flat), any area the robot can get to, including under most furniture, gets cleaned.

A spinning brush at the front of the Roomba is there to knock dirt into the mouth of its vacuum mechanism, but sometimes it produced the opposite effect, flinging dirt away from the device rather than into it.

I tested the Roomba 510, a mid-series model, on hardwood floors, tile and a small area rug. In each case it pulled up a fair amount of dust and a total of 21 cents in change.

The 510 retails through the company's Web site for $279.00.

Because the Roomba is quieter than a standard vacuum cleaner, I could sit back on my couch with the television turned up only slightly louder than normal and watch the robot do my dirty work.

One day when the robots take over the world and we haughty humans are made to pay for our trespasses by our new digital overlords, I might regret that day I crunched up a handful of cornflakes and sent my vacuum slave to clean them up for me.

But for now, I loaf, confident that my floor -- if not my conscience -- is clean.

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