iRobot Roomba 981 Vacuum Review

Tested using Methodology v0.8
Reviewed Jan 11, 2021 at 07:11 am
iRobot Roomba 981 Picture
8.4
Bare Floor
6.6
Low-Pile Carpet
6.5
High-Pile Carpet
8.3
Pets
6.4
Stairs
6.2
Cars
Vacuum Type
Robot
Bagless
Yes
Cordless
Yes
Anti-Allergy Filter (HEPA)
Yes

The iRobot Roomba 981 is a well-built robot vacuum with outstanding performance on bare floors. It's also effective at cleaning pet hair from most surface types. It has excellent battery performance, good automation features, and cleans rooms in an organized, back-and-forth pattern. Unfortunately, it struggles with clearing debris from carpets, especially high-pile carpets. Also, like many other robot vacuums, it incurs high recurring costs and requires a lot of routine maintenance.

Our Verdict

8.4 Bare Floor

The iRobot Roomba 981 is impressive on bare floors. It easily clears pet hair as well as debris like sand and cereal from bare surfaces, without losing suction as its dirt compartment fills up. Its maintenance needs are fairly demanding, but it feels sturdily-built and each part is easily accessible.

Pros
  • Cleans pet hair from all surface types.
  • Excellent battery performance.
Cons
  • Difficult to maintain and incurs high recurring costs.
6.6 Low-Pile Carpet

The iRobot Roomba 981 is alright on low-pile carpets. It's well-built, excellent at maneuvering itself, and easily picks up pet hair and most large debris like sand. However, it struggles to clear smaller debris like baking soda. It also has fairly high recurring costs and several parts that require routine maintenance.

Pros
  • Cleans pet hair from all surface types.
  • Excellent battery performance.
Cons
  • Difficult to maintain and incurs high recurring costs.
  • Struggles with small debris like baking soda.
6.5 High-Pile Carpet

The iRobot Roomba 981 is okay on high-pile carpets. It clears a good amount of pet hair, but has more of an issue with debris like sand, and really struggles with fine material like baking soda. It feels very well-built but is a bit difficult to maintain, and has several parts that need to be replaced regularly.

Pros
  • Cleans pet hair from all surface types.
  • Excellent battery performance.
Cons
  • Difficult to maintain and incurs high recurring costs.
  • Struggles with large and small debris.
8.3 Pets

The iRobot Roomba 981 is a great option for cleaning up pet hair. It has no issue clearing pet hair from bare floors and low-pile carpets and picks up a good amount from high-pile carpets as well. Unfortunately, it has several parts that require routine maintenance, but it's very well-built and has removable brushrolls, which makes it easier to remove any hair wraps.

Pros
  • Cleans pet hair from all surface types.
  • Equipped with allergen-trapping HEPA filter.
Cons
  • Difficult to maintain and incurs high recurring costs.
6.4 Stairs

The iRobot Roomba 981 is a robot vacuum and isn't designed to be used on stairs.

6.2 Cars

The iRobot Roomba 981 is a robot vacuum and isn't designed to clean the inside of your car.

  • 8.4 Bare Floor
  • 6.6 Low-Pile Carpet
  • 6.5 High-Pile Carpet
  • 8.3 Pets
  • 6.4 Stairs
  • 6.2 Cars
  1. Updated Jan 11, 2021: Review published.
  2. Updated Jan 05, 2021: Early access published.

Test Results

perceptual testing image
Design
8.0
Design
Build Quality

The iRobot 981 has a great build quality. Its body is made of hard plastic, with a glossy top and rubber wheels. The two brushrolls are also made of rubber and rotate in opposite directions. The dirt compartment feels fairly sturdy and is partly made of see-through red plastic. There's a sensor inside that detects when it's full, which is indicated with a light on top of the vacuum. There are also indicator lights for the battery, Wi-Fi, dirt detection feature, and if there are any errors. The three buttons on top of the vacuum allow you to start and stop a cleaning cycle, have it spot clean a specific area, and send it back to its dock. The vacuum comes pre-assembled, so you only need to set up the charging dock.

5.0
Design
User Maintenance

The iRobot 981 has demanding maintenance needs, with several parts that should be serviced regularly. They're all fairly easy to access, however.

  • Brushrolls: These are easily removed by unclipping and taking off the brushroll guard. The manufacturer recommends cleaning away and hair tangles or debris every four months, or every three months if you have pets. Markings show the correct placement of the brushrolls to help you put them back in.
  • Dirt compartment: There's a button to release the dirt compartment. You should empty it after each use, and clean the dirt sensor on the dirt compartment door with a dry cloth every one to two weeks.
  • Filter: The filter is located inside the dirt compartment. It can't be washed with water, so to clean it you can simply tap it on the side of your garbage bin to remove any debris. iRobot suggests doing this once a week, or twice a week if you have pets.
  • Sidebrush: The sidebrush has to be removed with a screwdriver. You should clean off any debris or tangled hair once a month.
  • Wheel: You can remove the swivel wheel by pulling it firmly, or you may need to use a tool. The manufacturer recommends cleaning it by removing any tangled hair every two weeks.
  • Sensors: The sensors and charging contacts on the vacuum and dock should be wiped once a month with a dry cloth to remove dust and debris.

5.0
Design
Recurring Cost
Bag Part Number
No bag
Filter Part Number
4636433
HEPA Filter Part Number
4636433

The iRobot Roomba 981 has quite a few parts that need to be replaced regularly.

  • HEPA filter: The HEPA filter should be replaced every two months.
  • Rubber brushrolls: The rubber brushrolls can be replaced every six to 12 months.
  • Front caster wheel: The wheel should be replaced every 12 months.

You can buy each part separately, or purchase a "Replenishment Kit" from the manufacturer that includes brushrolls, three filters and two side brushes. While iRobot doesn't indicate how often the side brushes should be replaced, you should do so when they are visibly worn.

8.9
Design
Storing
Height
3.94" (10.0 cm)
Width
13.58" (34.5 cm)
Depth
15.75" (40.0 cm)
Cord Storing/Management
Not Needed
On-Board Tool Storage
Not needed
Vacuum Rack/Station
Yes

The iRobot 981 has excellent storage capabilities. It's slightly wider than the iRobot Roomba 960, but still doesn't take up much space and mounts to the compact charging dock by itself.

6.8
Design
Dirt Compartment
Dirt Compartment Volume
0.12 gal (0.45 L)
Full Dirt Compartment Indicator
Yes
Bag Included
No Bag Needed

The iRobot Roomba 981 has a good-sized dirt compartment for a robot vacuum. Sensors detect when it's full and notify you with an indicator light on top of the vacuum or through the companion app. The dirt compartment cover won't close unless a HEPA filter is inserted.

Design
In The Box

  • iRobot Roomba 981 robot vacuum
  • Charging dock
  • Charging cable
  • HEPA filter
  • 2x counter-rotating multi-surface brushrolls
  • 1x side brush (already on the vacuum)
  • User guide

The vacuum comes assembled, so you only need to set up the charging dock.

10
Design
Range
Cord Length
N/A
Hose Length
N/A

The iRobot Roomba 981 has an unlimited range as long as its battery is charged, but it can't go up or down stairs.

8.8
Design
Portability
Total Weight
8.64 lbs (3.92 kg)
Weight In Hand
0.00 lbs (0.00 kg)
Carrying handle
Yes

This vacuum has very good portability. It's slightly heavier than other robot vacuums such as the Shark AI Robot but it comes with a carrying handle for when you're carrying it from room to room or up a flight of stairs.

9.0
Design
Battery
Minimum Battery Life
57 min
Maximum Battery Life
123 min
Recharge Time
134 min
Recharge Dock
Yes
Battery Life Indicator
Yes
Removable Batteries
Yes

The iRobot 981's battery performance is excellent. Set to its most powerful suction mode, it provides about one hour of continuous cleaning time. In 'Eco-Mode', which is its most conservative mode, it lasts for roughly two hours. However, in its default 'Automatic' mode, it automatically adjusts its suction power depending on what surface it's cleaning and how dirty it is, so the actual battery life may vary. It takes a little more than two hours to recharge, which is longer than the iRobot Roomba 960. There's a battery indicator light on top of the vacuum that turns red or green depending on the remaining battery life, and you can also see the battery status in the app.

Design
Quality Of Life Features
Rotating Head
No
Power Adjustment
Yes
Self-Propelled
Yes
Headlights
No
Easy On/Off
Yes
Surface Type Adjustment
Automatic

The iRobot Roomba 981 has a few different quality of life features. It automatically adjusts its suction power and brushroll height depending on what surface it's cleaning, and it uses a sensor to detect and focus on dirtier areas. In 'Automatic Mode', the vacuum will adjust its suction power as it cleans, or you can manually choose between two settings, 'Eco-Mode' or the more powerful 'Performance Mode.'

Design
Tools And Brushes
Brushroll
Yes
Brushroll On/Off
No
Removable Brushroll
Yes
Turbo Brush
No
Crevice Tool
No
Upholstery Tool
No
Soft Bristle Brush
No
Hard Bristle Brush
No
Extension Wand
No
Ceiling Fan Tool
No
Pet Grooming Tool
No

The iRobot Roomba 981 is equipped with two rubber brushrolls that rotate in opposite directions, as well as a three-armed side brush that's meant to push debris into the robot's path.

Design
Alternative Configuration

This vacuum doesn't have any alternative configurations.

Performance
9.8
Performance
Bare Floor (Hardwood, Laminate, Tiles)
Pet Hair at 0 gal (0L)
100%
Large Debris at 0 gal (0L)
100%
Large Debris at 0.07 gal (0.25L)
96%
Large Debris at 0.2 gal (0.75L)
N/A
Large Debris at 0.4 gal (1.5L)
N/A
Large Debris at 0.8 gal (3L)
N/A
Large Debris at 1.6 gal (6L)
N/A
Small Debris at 0 gal (0L)
100%
Small Debris at 0.07 gal (0.25L)
100%
Small Debris at 0.2 gal (0.75L)
N/A
Small Debris at 0.4 gal (1.5L)
N/A
Small Debris at 0.8 gal (3L)
N/A
Small Debris at 1.6 gal (6L)
N/A
Setting Used "Performance Mode"

The iRobot 981 has an exceptional performance on bare floors. It easily clears pet hair, small debris like sand, and large debris like cereal, and loses virtually no suction performance as its dirt compartment fills.

6.5
Performance
Low-Pile Carpet
Pet Hair at 0 gal (0L)
96%
Large Debris at 0 gal (0L)
74%
Large Debris at 0.07 gal (0.25L)
73%
Large Debris at 0.2 gal (0.75L)
N/A
Large Debris at 0.4 gal (1.5L)
N/A
Large Debris at 0.8 gal (3L)
N/A
Large Debris at 1.6 gal (6L)
N/A
Small Debris at 0 gal (0L)
31%
Small Debris at 0.07 gal (0.25L)
29%
Small Debris at 0.2 gal (0.75L)
N/A
Small Debris at 0.4 gal (1.5L)
N/A
Small Debris at 0.8 gal (3L)
N/A
Small Debris at 1.6 gal (6L)
N/A
Setting Used "Performance Mode"

The iRobot Roomba 981 has an okay performance on low-pile carpets. It easily clears pet hair and picks up a good amount of large debris like sand, but struggles with finer material like baking soda.

6.4
Performance
High-Pile Carpet
Pet Hair at 0 gal (0L)
78%
Large Debris at 0 gal (0L)
44%
Large Debris at 0.07 gal (0.25L)
47%
Large Debris at 0.2 gal (0.75L)
N/A
Large Debris at 0.4 gal (1.5L)
N/A
Large Debris at 0.8 gal (3L)
N/A
Large Debris at 1.6 gal (6L)
N/A
Small Debris at 0 gal (0L)
30%
Small Debris at 0.07 gal (0.25L)
34%
Small Debris at 0.2 gal (0.75L)
N/A
Small Debris at 0.4 gal (1.5L)
N/A
Small Debris at 0.8 gal (3L)
N/A
Small Debris at 1.6 gal (6L)
N/A
Setting Used "Performance Mode"

The iRobot Roomba 981 has a mediocre performance on high-pile carpets. It picks up a good amount of pet hair but doesn't do as well with debris like sand and baking soda, and may need a few extra passes to clean these surfaces properly. If you're looking for a robot vacuum that does a better job of cleaning high-pile carpets, check out the Shark IQ Robot AV992.

8.5
Performance
Maneuverability
Under The Couch
Excellent
Under Low Table
Excellent
On Furniture
Not Possible
Rug With Tassel
Bad
Electric Cord
Good

The iRobot 981 has amazing maneuverability. It cleans in an organized pattern, moving in horizontal and then vertical rows, finding paths around obstacles, and returning to spots it had trouble cleaning. Its auto adjustment feature helps it adapt to different surfaces as it cleans, and you can also set it to decide automatically if an area needs one, two, or three passes. It's small enough to fit under low couches and tables, and while it pushes electric cords around a bit, it doesn't get stuck on them. However, it has a bit of issue cleaning rugs with tassels, because they can get tangled with the side brush. It's also a very loud vacuum.

Automation
7.7
Automation
Automation (Robot Vacuum)
Remote Controller
Yes (App only)
Automatic Bag Emptying
No
Automatic Recharging
Yes
Schedule Programming
Yes
Boundary Markers
No
Random Pathing
No
Smart Pathing
Yes
App Name
iRobot HOME

The iRobot Roomba 981 has good automation features. It has a camera on top to help it keep track of its location and move around obstacles. You can use its companion app to start a cleaning job, make a cleaning schedule, and pilot it remotely. There's also an edge clean setting, where the vacuum does another pass along walls and furniture at the end of a job. The app can notify you when the dirt compartment is full, and you can choose to have it return to its dock when that happens, or just continue cleaning.

After a cleaning session, you see a map of the area it cleaned in the app, but unlike iRobot vacuums with more advanced navigation systems, like the iRobot Roomba S9, you can't use it to set virtual boundary markers.

The vacuum works with Google Home and Alexa. You can also use the buttons on the top to start and stop cleaning sessions without an internet connection.

Differences Between Sizes And Variants

We tested the iRobot Roomba 981 in Black. You can see its label here. It's also sometimes available in another color, Night Blue, or as a bundle with a replenishment kit, which includes extra brushrolls, side brushes, and HEPA filters. We expect our results to be valid for those variants as well. If you come across a different variant, please let us know so we can update our review.

Compared To Other Vacuums

The iRobot Roomba 981 is a versatile robot vacuum. It performs best on bare floors, where it does an outstanding job. On carpets, it cleans up pet hair effectively but struggles more with debris. It has good automation features, although its navigation system is less advanced than some other iRobot models, such as the iRobot Roomba S9. It has excellent battery life, but unfortunately requires a lot of routine maintenance and incurs high recurring costs, which isn't unusual for robot vacuums. For more options, check out our lists of best robot vacuums, the best robot vacuums for pet hair, and the best robotic vacuums for hardwood floors.

iRobot Roomba i7+

The iRobot Roomba i7+ and the iRobot Roomba 981 have different strengths, but the 981 is better for most uses. The 981 has a much better performance on bare floors, longer battery life, and more automation features. On the other hand, the i7+ delivers better performance on carpets and has the ability to automatically empty its dirt compartment into a larger container built into its charging dock.

Roborock S6

The Roborock S6 is a better vacuum than the iRobot Roomba 981. The Roborock has a better performance on high-pile carpets, more advanced automation features, and longer battery life. On the other hand, the iRobot charges faster and has a slightly bigger dirt compartment.

iRobot Roomba i3+

The iRobot Roomba 981 is better than the iRobot Roomba i3+. The 981 incurs lower recurring costs, maneuvers over obstacles like electrical cords more easily, and delivers superior cleaning performance on bare floors and low-pile carpet, especially in regards to pet hair. Meanwhile, the i3+ has a more advanced set of automation features, most prominently its self-emptying function, which allows it to dump any accumulated debris into an external dustbin mounted to its charging dock.

Roborock S7

The iRobot Roomba 981 and Roborock S7 have their advantages; one may suit you better than the other, depending on your needs. The iRobot has a dustbin with a much larger capacity, maneuvers over obstructions like electrical cords with less difficulty, and delivers superior performance on bare floors and low-pile carpet. It also charges a lot faster than the Roborock, though its maximum runtime is also much shorter. The Roborock also delivers better performance on high-pile carpet, feels better-built, and allows you to set up virtual boundary lines through its companion app. The Roborock also comes with a mopping attachment, though we don't currently test that feature.

Neato Botvac D7

The Neato Botvac D7 is a better vacuum than the iRobot Roomba 981 for most uses. The Neato performs better on carpets, has more automation features, and is much easier to maintain. Nevertheless, the iRobot has a much better performance on bare floors and better maneuverability.

iRobot Roomba 960

The iRobot Roomba 981 is a better vacuum than the iRobot Roomba 960. The 981 delivers better performance across all surface types. On the other hand, the 960 has a longer minimum battery life and recharges more quickly.

iRobot Roomba E5

The iRobot Roomba 981 is a better vacuum than the iRobot Roomba E5. The 981 delivers better performance on all surface types, especially bare floors. It also has fewer recurring costs, a bigger dirt compartment, and better automation features. On the other hand, the E5 is slightly smaller and lighter, making it a bit more portable and easy to store.

iRobot Roomba 694

The iRobot Roomba 981 is a better vacuum than the iRobot Roomba 694. The 981 has a better cleaning performance on bare floors and low-pile carpet, though it performs similarly on high-pile carpet. It also follows a more efficient cleaning route than the 694. That said, the 694 has longer battery life.

Roborock S5

The iRobot Roomba 981 is a better-performing vacuum than the Roborock S5. The 981 clears more pet hair and debris from all surface types, and is better at maneuvering itself. On the other hand, the S5 has a longer battery life and more advanced automation features, including the ability to set virtual boundary markers for the vacuum.

Wyze Robot Vacuum

The iRobot Roomba 981 and the Wyze Robot Vacuum have different strengths, and you may prefer either one depending on your needs. The iRobot can automatically adjust its suction power depending on what surface type it's cleaning, and it delivers better performance on bare floors as well as low-pile carpets. On the other hand, the Wyze delivers much better performance on high-pile carpets and its companion app allows you to set virtual boundaries to keep the vacuum out of certain areas.

Shark IQ Robot AV992

The iRobot Roomba 981 is better than the Shark IQ Robot AV992 for most purposes. The iRobot delivers much better performance on bare surfaces and low-pile carpets. It has a better build quality, incurs fewer recurring costs, and is easier to maintain. It's equipped with a HEPA filter and does a better job of maneuvering itself. On the other hand, the Shark has a significantly better performance on high-pile carpets. It also has much more advanced automation features.

Shark AI Robot

The iRobot Roomba 981 is a better robot vacuum than the Shark AI Robot. The iRobot feels better-built and is easier to maintain. It also performs better on all surface types and has superior maneuverability. However, the Shark has a longer battery life and you can set boundary markers for it via its companion app.

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