Neato Botvac robotic vacuum cleaners: What the critics think

neato-botvac

It’s uncanny how a manufacturer of vacuum cleaners either wittingly or unwittingly gave a new verb to the English speaking world to describe the chore of vacuuming. “Hoover up” became the chosen verb, rather than “Dyson up” or “Numatic the carpets”. Could it be that a brand new verb lies just beyond the horizon to replace our now rather antiquated associations of using a vacuum?

Thanks to the arrival of a family of Neato Botvac Robotic Vacuum Cleaners, the arduous chore of doing the vacuuming is made easier. But exactly how much easier?

It’s true; the Botvac range can swiftly clean your floors whilst you are out at work or play. The family of robotic vacuum cleaners include the Botvac 70e, the Botvac 75 and the Botvac 85. You can programme the robotic cleaners to set themselves to work at whatever time you want. The most sophisticated of the range is the Botvac 85, which has laser vision that maps out the furniture and the most logical way, in order to clean the floor as quickly as possible. The mechanical aspect of the Botvac 85 is impressive as well, with a large brush that has already received the top vote from the likes of CNET for its ability to pick up pet hairs.

In a hands-on review CNET’s editor rated the Botvac 85 an impressive four out of five stars.

“The $600 Botvac 85 outperformed the other Neato models we’ve tested and offers more robust accessories and features,” writes CNET.

CNET’s only quip of the Botvac 85 is its price tag, which it deems as definitely verging on the high-end and that’s without a remote control.

A closer look
A closer look

In the ‘Battle of the Robot Vacuums’ the Wall Street Journal tested the limitations of the Roomba 880, the Botvac 85 and the Rydis H68 Pro. It has to be said that despite citing the Botvac’s strong suction power and the fact it has the largest bin out of the three bots tested, WSJ weren’t too impressed.

“Even medium-pile carpet caused it to slip” grumbled WSJ, which also claims the Neoto Botvac 85 has difficulty docking on the charger.

Though it seems the Wall Street Journal is a tad pessimistic of bot vacuums in general, concluding:

“No robot is good enough to replace a manual vacuum.”

Lauren Goode of the review site ReCode also recently had the pleasure of comparing the new Botvac 85 with her tried and tested Roomba Robotic Vacuum Cleaner. The ReCode reviewer was impressed by the Neato Botvac 85’s laser sensors, which by surveying its surroundings the smart way, doesn’t “bump into things like a drunken sailor the way the Roomba does”. Despite its advanced surveying capabilities and large dustbin, Goode concludes her report by saying she would personally still go with a Roomba.

The Neato Botvac range of vacuum cleaners varies from price, beginning at £380 and rising to £450. Despite fairly mixed reviews we cannot help but feel that the Neato Botvac 85 with its combo brush that removes pet hairs with gallant and vigour and patented laser guided technology, may prove to be a winner.

 

Review round-up: iRobot Scooba 450

scooba-450

We live in a world with robots. And we make them scrub our floors. Whilst you let that absurdity settle, consider the new Scooba 450 Floor Scrubbing Robot from the creators of the home robot category iRobot. Like its carpet cleaning cousin the Roomba, the Scooba is a pizza-shaped robot that only exists to make your tiled and hardwood floors clean. The Scooba 450 has Three-Cycle Cleaning Process which automatically sweeps and pre-soaks, scrubs, then finishes with a final squeegee.

But how is it to use?

Seth Stevenson at Slate.com described operating the Scooba as “remarkable”, to the point where he actually engaged with the spectacle.

The whole operation takes about 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the size of the room. It is remarkable to watch. I popped a beer, hopped up onto my kitchen counter with my feet dangling, and enjoyed the show. You keep thinking the Scooba might miss a big section, but—like its carpet-vacuuming cousin, the iRobot Roomba—it never does. It has sensors and programmed strategies to ensure it coats the whole room. You see it spiral out to gauge the size of the floor, then bump into a wall and redirect itself, and then finally crisscross the open expanses until no patches have been left unscrubbed.

Alex Colon from Gigaom.com was impressed with the Scooba’s range and the improvements in the new model.

I saw the Scooba tackle cereal, hot sauce, and an unidentified orange liquid on a tile floor with aplomb, but what I really like are the new information button and spoken cues. I’ve used older models of the Scooba in the past, and without this information available, it could be difficult to know exactly where it was in the cleaning process.

A closer look at the Scooba 450
A closer look: the Scooba 450

Katherine Byne from Expert Reviews spoke to one of the designers to find out what’s going on under the hood of the Scooba. And how it literally involves the Bomb Squad.

The cleaning algorithm that the robot uses is very dynamic… It does not assume anything about your room because often every time we vacuum the room it’s different. Chairs get moved perhaps in the middle of vacuuming, and we have created an AI system to allow full coverage without assuming furniture being in any particular place, and it gives the best coverage performance, especially for complicated areas. The origin of this cleaning algorithm was actually developed for the US Department of Defence for mine hunting, so we take coverage very seriously.

However, Sal Cangeloso from Geek.com notes a few drawbacks with the design.

Unlike a Roomba which will understand the size of a space and simply turn itself off or return to a dock when it’s done cleaning, the Scooba is designed to clean for the entire time cycle. Because its dirty water must be removed from the bot after a cycle, the it isn’t designed to return to a dock and it doesn’t work on a schedule. This means the amount of human interaction is much greater with scrubbing compared to vacuuming.

As Sal goes on to explain, it’s not quite the hands-off experience you might want from your robot cleaner.

The only bad part here is that some of the hair and assorted debris doesn’t make it into the reservoir and instead gets stuck between the reservoir component in the bot’s spring-loaded door. This final cleaning task is sort of like clearing out the shower drain — it’s kind of gross but in the scheme of things not too bad.

All the reviewers were impressed with the device, but Alex Colon from Gigaom.com gives a fair assessment of the choice faced by consumers.

At $599.99, the Scooba 450 is not for the casual neat freak. If you’re deciding between this and the $499.99 Scooba 390, I think the new features here are enough to justify the extra $100. But compared to the $279.99 Scooba 230 it’s a tougher call.

The iRobot Scooba 450 Floor Scrubbing Robot will be available for £599.99 SRP at iRobot.com and in selected retailers this Spring. You can find out more by going to www.irobot.com

Top 5 gardening gadgets for Spring 2014

As the icy fingers of winter begin to relax their grip and the daffodils poke their heads up only to get battered down by the gales, it’s inevitable that we begin to turn our thoughts towards the garden. Depending on your attitude to gardening this might be an occasion for joy or for dread. Fortunately whether you’re a green fingered wizard or a do-as-little-as-possible-to-keep-it-tidy type, there are a whole host of new gadgets around to help make things easier and encourage you to release your inner Titchmarsh.

Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor

koubachi

If you’re a gardening novice, or you’ve moved to a new house and are not sure what kind of plants you’ll be able to grow, it’s all too easy to make the wrong choices or not give plants the attention they need to thrive. Fortunately technology has the answer in the form of the Koubachi Wi-Fi Plant Sensor.

Simply place the unit outside next to your plants and it will collect information on sunlight, temperature and moisture levels. After it’s had some time to do its job you can analyse the data on your PC or with a smartphone app to determine the exact needs of your plant. It can even send an alert to your phone when your plants need attention.

It will work equally well in the garden or a window box and there’s an indoor version if you’re struggling to keep your houseplants healthy. Your data is stored securely in the cloud so you can move the sensor around and build up a profile of different locations in your garden. Sold through Amazon, the Apple Store and elsewhere, the Koubachi isn’t cheap at £99.95 for the outdoor version, but it could save you a fortune in replacement plants.

Flymo 1200R

flymo-1200r

Mowing the lawn is one of the chores that many gardeners least look forward to. That’s probably the reason why robot mowing technology is already well established and there are a variety of options on the market.

Mower specialist Flymo is the new kid in the automated garden with its first robotic mower the 1200R. It can handle a lawn area of up to 400 square metres and work on inclines of up to 25%. Programming is quick and simple, you just set cutting days and times on the machine’s display panel and set it off, it automatically returns to its charging station when its batteries get low. Quiet operation means you can set it to mow at night without any fear of disturbing the neighbourhood.

It avoids obstacles using a combination of a boundary wire and collision sensors, it also automatically shuts down when lifted to ensure safe operation. Shop around online and you can pick up a 1200R for £849.99, a small price to pay for a lawn that’s always neat and the opportunity to spend your gardening time lounging in a deckchair.

Black & Decker 3-in-1 Strimmer

blackdecker-3in1

It’s usually the case with gardening that one tool is never enough for the job. You cut the lawn with your mower but then you need to switch to a strimmer to finish off the edges. Black & Decker has come up with a clever solution in the form of a strimmer that not only trims and edges but clips into a base to turn it into a lawnmower.

Ideally suited to smaller gardens, the 3-in-1 doesn’t take up much storage space either as you can simply hang it on a wall when not in use. The machine is available in corded and rechargeable versions, the latter being powered by an 18V lithium battery. The mower deck allows you to adjust the cutting height and in edging mode there’s a guide wheel to keep you on track.

The cordless version costs £189 but if you already have a Black & Decker strimmer you can buy the wheeled mower deck separately – check the website for compatibility.

Hozelock Wonderweeder

wonderweeder

Dealing with weeds is a constant battle for any gardener. Either you pull or dig them out by hand, which risks leaving behind a part of the root to regrow, or you use weedkiller. But conventional sprays risk drift onto other plants and buying pre-mixed sprays is also an expensive option.

The Wonderweeder offers a better way of delivering a lethal dose of herbicide. It’s refillable so you can mix your own deadly cocktail from a concentrated solution, using the dosing cap built into the handle to get it suitably poisonous, and it has a translucent tank so you can see when you’re running out. There’s a protective shield over the spray nozzle allowing you to spot weed without harming surrounding plants and the spray is adjustable too. A big advantage of the Wonderweeder is you can use it standing up so you can tackle your weed problem without putting any strain on your back.

Available at Homebase and other stores the Wonderweeder costs just £17.99.

Garden Plan Pro

garden-plan-pro

If you’re the type of gardener that likes to grow your own produce rather than simply putting on a display of blooms or having a tidy lawn, then you’ll love Garden Plan Pro. It’s an iPod app that not only lets you create a plan for your perfect garden, but by using data from thousands of weather stations around the world it can also recommend the best plants for your location. In addition it can tell you the best times to sow and harvest your fruit and veg to get the best crop.

The app can alert you by email when it’s time to get your wellies out and start planting and it will advise on spacing and crop rotation to help you make the most of your plot. You can also access bonus content on topics like controlling pests.

The app costs £6.99 and it’s compatible with the GrowVeg.com desktop garden planning program so you can transfer plans to and from your iPad.

Smart locks – threatening keys into extinction?

Goji_Smart_Lock

It’s true, keys are so last year. ITProPortal says it and so do we. The savvy way to lock your home and remain secure is with a smart lock. With a couple of taps on your smartphone or the click of a fob you can enter your home without they worry of losing your keys. This sophisticated locking device caused quite a stir at this year’s CES in the form of the Goji Smart Lock.

In fact CNET couldn’t wait until January to unpick the Goji Smart Lock and wrote a review about it in October last year. Referring to the lock as “a bit of a hybrid”, CNET seemed fairly impressed by a lock which enables you to see someone knocking at your door on your smartphone via a built-in camera, proximity sensor and a digital key fob. You can even send someone a digital key that works via the app but only at certain dates and times. This means you can program someone to gain access into your home on a certain date and time – Clever stuff that’s for sure.

But apart from the Goji Smart Locks what other super-intelligent locks are there available, which are threatening keys into extinction?

Kwikset Kevo

kwikset-kevo

Engadget gave the Kwikset Kevo a not brilliant score of 77 on the ‘Engadget Global Score’. To look at, “the Kwikset Kevo doesn’t look much different to a normal deadbolt,” writes Engagdet. Although don’t be fooled as when you touch this device, the lock will light up and give you visual feedback as to whether the door has been unlocked or not.

Mashable seems a tad more enthusiastic about the Kwikset Kevo referring to the device as an “exciting look at the latest in smartphone-powered home security devices.” Similar to the Goji Smart Lock you can lock and unlock the Kwikset Kevo by a couple of taps on your smartphone. Also similar to the Goji you can send someone ‘eKeys’ via the Kevo to whomever you want to give access into your home.

Lockitron

lockitron-smartlock

The Lockitron is another smart lock that has enjoyed a fair bit of attention in the tech press in recent months. Gizmodo was quick to give these 21st century keys a run for their money and paid a fair slice of the attention to Lockitron. Compared to Kevo, writes Gizmodo, “Lockitron connects to both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Connecting to both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, with Lockitron you can remotely lock and unlock your door over Wi-Fi or send a notification when the knock sensor has been triggered. “That extra layer of connectivity” writes Gizmodo, “comes with a smidge of added security.”

August Smart Lock

august-lock

Engadget certainly seems impressed by the era of smart locks we’re moving into, so much so that they wrote a feature in October 2013 about how purchasing of the August Smart Lock would be delayed until the first quarter of 2014. In an earlier feature about the August, Engadget referred to as the “beautiful, Yves Behar-designed $199 smart lock” as having standard features as similar smart lock systems. Being able to lock and unlock your door with your phone, is the stand-out feature that runs through all of the smart locks. Similar to the others, the August Smart Lock enables you to grant access to other remotely, using “relatively fine-grained controls.”

We have to admit, these rapidly gaining prominence security devices would come in super handy on those occasions when you need to be in two places at once – to let the dog walker in for example, or to give the electrician access to your house when you’re at work.

Google acquires Nest, but what is it and how does it work?

nest_thermostat

If may have come as a surprise to some when news broke announcing that Google had spent $3.2 billion (it’s not a surprise yet) on a company called Nest Labs, whose focus is on the eco-friendly future home and whose portfolio currently consists of a smart thermostat and smoke alarm (there it is). It’s the tech-giant’s second largest acquisition yet (following the $12.5b paid to Motorola Mobility) and when you start delving deeper into the reasons why, it starts to make sense.

Google’s expansion into less mainstream areas oriented around connected devices, such Google Glass and Chromecast, has already signalled its intent to rivals like Apple, who has also shown a desire to widen its portfolio. In fact the founders of Nest previously worked with Apple hardware and software, so this could almost be seen as a kind of pre-emptive strike. What makes Nest so special, and whether its value will be realised is yet to be seen, but a closer look at its products does suggest there might be something interesting going on.

The “lead” device appears to be the Nest Learning Thermostat. This fancy wall-mounted unit (which can be fitted yourself, if you’re comfortable installing a light switch) essentially adjusts the temperature of your home by learning your schedule, and can also be controlled from a mobile phone. Simply personalise for different types of heating (dual fuel, conventional forced air etc.) and then start using it – by this we mean increasing or reducing the temperature as you would a normal thermostat. Nest then attempts to learn your schedule and will begin to adjust itself according to your habits.

Why not take a look at the Apple-esque video (complete with plinky plonky pianos, and a “we call it…” segment):

It also features activity sensors for an “auto-away” mode, which will switch the heating off if it thinks you’ve left the house, a humidity sensor, weather conditions and savings and other information that can be transmitted to your account via Wi-Fi.

PC Review warms things up with a 4.5/5 review and an Editor’s Choice award. Praised is the funky styling, ease of setup and use and well designed range of apps. The ability to control the device remotely is one of the biggest plus points, which is important because there is some doubt as to whether it’ll help save you money. As pointed out, this is entirely dependent on lifestyle, and largely whether you’re the kind of person who always leaves the heating on, or often forgets to turn it off. Despite this and the high up-front cost of the device, it still gets called a “must have for high-tech homeowners”,

However, Apple Insider, who awarded Nest 4/5, does claim that the Nest does has potential for energy savings, even going so far as to suggest it may have already paid for itself. Again the design and smooth setup and operation were praised, though it wasn’t as keen on the app, claiming that there’s been too much chopping and changing going on and it becomes difficult to use for certain functions.

App showing Nest recorded history
App showing Nest recorded history

High scores seem to be a theme here, even if conclusions as to the Nest’s effectiveness aren’t. TechSpot gives it 90% but says that after two months it’s unclear whether it has saved a significant amount of money. The remote adjustment gets a big tick though, as does the learning functionality and viewable energy reports. Finally, Engadget shows a global score of 94% for the Nest, with biggest props going to design and operation.

Rivals to Nest come in many shapes and sizes. First of all you have more informational energy saving units from companies like Owl and  Efergy. These simply retrofit to your mains supply and provide you with an account on daily energy usage, so you can work out what’s costing you the most money. Most similar to Nest is a product from British Gas called Hive Active Heating, which lets you control heating and hot water remotely from a mobile. This is interesting because it’s about the same price as the Nest but doesn’t have any of the active learning functions.

We think this will be the biggest draw of the Nest Learning Thermostat by far. Most people have become used to scheduling heating/cooling or manual controls for “emergencies” for some time now, leaving problems that could be caused by a thermostat set too high to occasional concerns. Additionally, the temptation to switch the heating on an hour or so before you get home from work, or get out of bed, could actually lead to it costing money. However, this isn’t just about cost savings, it’s about the connected home, and there’s little doubt that this market will get bigger and bigger over the coming years.

iGrill2: the Bluetooth ‘smart meat thermometer’

iGrill2

CES is upon us and device manufacturers are falling over themselves, eager to present the latest greatest in tech. But whilst we like to look at larger and larger television screens and faster computers, we really get excited when companies jam electronics in places no one had thought to put them before. Last year on of our favourite finds was the HAPIfork and this year we’re already excited by the prospect of precision grilling with the iGrill2 Bluetooth Smart Meat Thermometer and iLP Bluetooth Smart Liquid Propane Monitor.

If you caught our Top 5 BBQ gadgets article you’ll know we love a high-tech cook out (especially if you have a Grillbot to do all the cleaning at the end). The iGrill 2 is a new and improved product – at the forefront of connected grilling.

With a new design is so rugged it practically has stubble, the iGrill2 hooks up via Smart Bluetooth to the iDevices Connected App and allows you to monitor the temperature of your food from up to 150 feet away. Powered by just 2 AA batteries you can get up to 150 hours of battery life as well so that’s probably a key metric over at iDevices. You can track the temperature of up to four different probes at the same time so if you’re cooking up cornucopia of carcasses you can easily keep track of everything. The magnetic backing allows for easy mounting on your grill with an optional magnetic disc if you went the non-ferrous route on your outdoor cooking options.

Here’s a quick video of the new iGrill, by Mike Flaminio

Furthermore, if like Hank from King of the Hill you cook with “propane and propane accessories”, the iLP should ensure you never get caught short at the grill. Deploying ultra-sonic sensors, which is only one step down from laser beams in futuristic sounding technology, the iLP monitors the level of propane left in your tank and the app will let you know the nearest place to get a refill – hopefully Strickland Propane.

Currently the iDevices app is our for iOS but an Android app should be on its way by the time BBQ weather hits us.

Priced at $99.99, the iGrill2 will be available through iDevices. iLP pricing is currently a closely guarded secret, to be made know some time in later this year.

Dyson Hard – a treat for hard surfaces?

dyson-hard-vacuum

Having previously developed a range of attachments and accessories to tackle the unique cleaning challenges posed by hard surfaces, vacuum specialist Dyson has today launched a new product specifically designed to help people with hard floors in their homes. Rather suggestively titled the Dyson Hard (DC56), this is the latest addition to the Wiltshire company’s ever-expanding product range, and it shares plenty of DNA with its siblings.

The Hard’s signature feature is an integrated wet wipe, which performs the duties of a traditional mop, while a double-edged cleaner head simultaneously vacuums away dirt and debris. A detachable crevice and combination tool facilitates access to awkward corners, and the Hard’s tall, cordless design nods to established Dyson devices such as the well-received DC35 and DC44 ranges. Although Dyson will market their own wet wipes, rival household products can also be used, avoiding expensive proprietary ‘lock-in’ accessories – something owners of computer printers will be particularly relieved about.

The net result of the Hard’s combined functionality is the abolition of a two-stage cleaning process, where vacuuming traditionally precedes the laborious task of going over tiles or wooden floors with a mop and bucket to remove more stubborn or ingrained stains. Conventional hoovers, mops and even steam cleaners all perform a solitary role, whereas the Hard aims to avoid duplication of housework, as well as the relatively inefficient task of wiping floors with a mop that becomes increasingly soiled by the very dirt it is supposed to be removing. Furthermore, the instant-on nature of the cordless Hard makes it suitable for tackling spills or marks as soon as they occur.

Powered by a compact motor that spins at over 100,000rpm, the Hard is capable of operating for 15 minutes on a single charge of its lithium-ion battery, while a high-intensity boost setting provides six minutes of extreme stain removal. That isn’t sufficient to clean a whole house, but it’s certainly enough to shift muddy paw prints from the hallway. The Hard’s family-proof credentials are bolstered by being manufactured from the same rugged ABS polycarbonate used to make riot shields, while test models justified their proposed title by being subjected to almost six thousand different impact tests during a two-year development programme.

With its UK launch taking place on Halloween, critics have yet to experience the treat of a two-in-one cleaner and suction device. However, the Dyson Hard’s best trick may be convincing people that one floor-cleaning product is better than two.

Price: £249.99. Available exclusively at Tesco from October 31st.

Colapz, the UK’s first folding garden watering can

colapz-folding-watering-can

Like shears and lawnmowers, watering cans are an irrefutably necessary gardener’s tool. Despite the somewhat hoary ubiquitous popularity of watering cans, it has to be said that unless you’ve got an ample-sized shed, these big and bulky items take up way too much room. Watering cans are also one of those long-standing items that have seemed to resist the advances of modern technology – after all, how can you make something a basic and uncomplicated as a watering can more sophisticated?

Nottingham-based product design and manufacturing consultants Sorcit claim to have come up with the answer to sophisticate such a ‘down-to-earth’ device in the form of a fold-up watering can.  Ingeniously named Colapz, the UK’s first folding watering can is justifiably poised to become this year’s “must have” outdoor item.

Funky to look at and easy to collapse, the biggest asset of this innovative gardening gadget is that it won’t take up so much room in our grossly over-occupied garden sheds. Being just 24cm in diameter, 10cm in depth and folding to a flat circular shape, this lightweight watering can will store away discreetly, meaning that tripping over it every time we enter the shed or garage is no longer a concern. Despite its compact potentialities, the Colpaz can hold nine litres of water meaning that gardeners can save valuable time and energy by not having to keep refilling an insufficiently-sized watering can.

What’s more, being made from 100% recyclable materials, this durable gardening tool adheres to modern manufacturers’ responsibilities be create products that are favourable to the environment.

Other features of the Colapz that prove that watering cans are at last becoming more sophisticated is its integral splashguard, its moulded feet to protect the base, and a level indicator which will help gardeners when mixing in fertilizers and other additives.

Asides many of us owning a dejectedly small  shed, more and more occupiers of flats, apartments and studios in cities and towns are getting on the gardening trail by having roof or balcony gardens or even allotments. In being able to crush down to a flat circular shape, the Colapz would make a great tool for gardeners with seriously limited space.

Available in several funky colours, including Blood Red, Candy Pink and Lime Green and costing a refreshingly modest £19.99, we have to admit, the Colapz would make a great Christmas present for any discerning gardener.

Check out our hands-on video of the Colapz:

Pre-order a Colapz ahead of the festive rush at http://www.colapz.com/.