Ah, September of 2013. I remember it like it was only five months ago. There was a pleasant autumnal crispness to the air, the leaves were just starting to turn... and the nascent CNET Appliances team was hard at work testing robot vacuums by repeatedly dirtying and cleaning the floors at the boss' house (our testing facility was still under construction back then).
But the best of times can also be the worst of times -- and I'm not talking about the fact that our boss still can't sweep his floors without kicking up five-month-old, sawdust-coated black rice. No, I'm talking about the Infinuvo CleanMate QQ5, the robot vacuum with the dubious distinction of being the first product to truly bomb in our tests. As a relatively low-cost alternative to marquee cleaners from brands like Roomba, Neato, and LG, we had high hopes for Infinuvo's robo-vac, but as my colleague Katie Pilkington quickly found out, the QQ5 suffered from major design flaws and performance shortcomings that rendered it borderline unusable, and certainly not recommendable to anyone, at any price. To this date, it's still the lowest scoring product that the CNET Appliances team has ever reviewed in any category.
2014 is a new year, though, and Infinuvo is back with the Hovo 510, a new robot vacuum that promises better results than anything they've done before. I can't say that we weren't skeptical, but we were happy to give it a fair shot.
I'm pleasantly surprised to say that Hovo 510 earned the Infinuvo brand some robo-redemption. Although the QQ5 wasn't a terribly difficult act to follow, the Hovo is a significantly better robot vacuum in every single way, and at a budget-friendly price point around $200, it's good enough to merit consideration alongside the likes of recent, pricier favorites like the Roomba 880 and the Neato XV Essential. It isn't nearly as smart as those two, and like its predecessor, it can't handle pet hair, but for basic cleaning, it does the job -- sometimes as well as or even better than machines that cost hundreds of dollars more.
Design and features
As appearances go, the Hovo isn't terribly interesting to look at. With a boring, all-black, hockey-puck-like design, it lacks the aesthetic touch of other robot vacuums -- even the QQ5 is a nicer looking machine. The sparse build might suggest that Infinuvo diverted all design energy toward function and spared none of it for form -- and perhaps that was necessary in order to fix what wasn't working. Still, given the obvious existing comparisons to Roomba, whose latest model, the 880, is black, it would have been nice to have seen Infinuvo do more to try and set itself apart.
Aside from the Roomba comparisons, it's difficult to talk about the Hovo's design and features without comparing them to those of the QQ5, as most of the things that the Hovo gets right are really just former flaws that Infinuvo has corrected. Brushrolls that were a pain to remove from the QQ5 now come out of the Hovo fairly easily. The QQ5's shaky cliff detection kept us nervous whenever we tested it, but the Hovo's works perfectly. There's a common refrain here: unlike the QQ5, the Hovo gets all of the basics right.
One of the QQ5's biggest dealbreakers for us was its almost absurdly impractical bin, which featured a bizarre design that spilled more than it held. With the Hovo, Infinuvo ditched that bin in favor of a more traditional design, one that you can actually use without creating more of a mess than you were trying to clean up in the first place. The old bin was essentially enough to disqualify the QQ5 altogether, so getting rid of it is a big step in the right direction for Infinuvo.
Turn the Hovo over, and you'll find a new brushroll design, as well -- one that looks a heck of a lot like the Roomba's. While it doesn't help Infinuvo fight the idea that it's merely a Roomba knock-off, the Roomba-esque brushroll does help the Hovo clean better than the Infinuvos that came before it, which is all that some consumers will care about.
The copycat approach carries some caveats, though. Take a look at the spinning brush on the Roomba up there. As it spins, the brush heads slap against the back wheel, which can cause them to wear down faster than they would otherwise. The Hovo shares this exact same design flaw, and might have benefited from a slightly more original spin on what the underside of a robot vacuum should look like.
The Hovo gets high marks for its features, which include a virtual wall generator and a remote control. The virtual walls work fine in their basic function, although they aren't quite as smart as the Roomba's virtual walls, which can double as range extenders and can also be set to turn off and allow passage only once the Roomba has finished a certain room or area. They also aren't quite as simple as the Neato's blocking solution: magnetic strips you unroll on the floor and which the vacuum won't pass over. Those don't have a tricky pairing process to worry about, and they never need their batteries changed.
As for the remote, it's a bit on the bulky side and doesn't nest conveniently on top of the machine the way that the QQ5's remote did. Still, it's fairly easy to use, whether you need to start, stop, steer, or schedule your Hovo. You'll also be able to switch between two speeds. One minor gripe: there's no battery indicator to tell you how much juice the Hovo has left.
With a push of the Auto button, the Hovo will set out to clean, then return when it needs a charge -- if you want to send it home early, just hit the Charge button. There's also a spot-cleaning mode, as well as a "Full Charge & Go" function, where the Hovo will automatically begin to clean when its battery is full, return to the base when it needs to recharge, then repeat. All of these are departures from the QQ5's timer-based design, where you'd specify exactly how long you wanted it to clean for, and as you'll see, it's a departure that impacts how well the Hovo cleans.