Narwal T10 review: An awesome hybrid robot hobbled by a terrible app

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Narwal Robotics is a relative newcomer to the household robot market, having been founded in 2016. But you’d never know this was a rookie effort based on the company’s hardware. Its first product, the Narwal T10, is a phenomenal robot vac/mop hybrid that delivers several features you won’t find anywhere else.

But you need to use Narwal’s app to control the device, and that experience can be tear-your-hair-out frustrating. As good as the hardware is, no manufacturer should expect its customer to pay $1,199 for its product and then have to wrestle with a half-baked app to use it.

Narwal Robotics

This profile shot of the Narwal T10 shows one of its mopping pads in close contact with the floor underneath it.

The T10 is the result of a crowd-funding campaign that Narwal started in April, 2019. The company provided us with a reviewable prototype around that time, promising retail availability for September of that year. Lesson learned. The bot that’s available now from Amazon doesn’t look appreciably different from that prototype, so we’re not entirely sure why it took so long to arrive at retail.

This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best robot vacuums, where you’ll find reviews of the competition’s offerings, plus a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping for this type of product.

The app certainly hasn’t improved much, either; it remains very rough around the edges. This review will take the approach that the Narwal T10 is an entirely new product—and this is my first experience with it—but we have preserved our original review for the record.

What makes the Narwal T10 special?

The Narwal T10’s most attractive feature is its mopping capability. Most competing robot vac/mop hybrids carry a small tank of water around and dampen a rag that gets dragged across the floor as they navigate the room. On the Narwal T10, you detach the brush module that sweeps dirt into the path of its vacuum nozzle and mount a pair of six-inch triangular mop pads to its motorized spindles. Each of these pads has several hundred twisted fibers, each of which are about 3/8 of an inch long.

Michael Brown / IDG

These triangular pads spin to scrub your floors clean.

The vacuum recognizes the difference between the vacuum module and the mop pads and automatically switches modes depending on which one is installed. It uses a copy of the map you created during the first vacuuming operation, so you can mark a distinct set of no-go zones for area rugs or rooms with carpeted floors that you don’t want to get wet. If you have rooms separated by areas with carpeting—a tiled master bathroom adjacent to a carpeted master bedroom, for example—you’ll need to use the bot’s spot-cleaning mode to mop that room.

Before you start a mopping run, you drop a detergent/antibacterial sheet into the Narwal T10 base station’s 5-liter (1.3-gallon) clean water tank (there’s an equal-sized waste-water tank). The detergent sheet instantly dissolves and disperses throughout the clean water. Wands inside the base station spray this water on the Narwal’s pads, and then the robot travels to the farthest point on its map and commences scrubbing the floor. “Scrubbing” is not an overstatement. The Narwal applies 10N (Newtons) of pressure to these pads as they spin.

Michael Brown / IDG

The Narwal T10 has a 5-liter freshwater tank (right) and an equaly-sized tank for the dirty water that results from its mopping pads being cleaned while docked to its base.

Why start mopping at the farthest point on the map and then work back to the dock? Narwal says this is to avoid cross-contamination when the robot returns to its dock to rinse its pads. When it does, fresh soapy water is sprayed on the pads as they spin against a knobby plastic tray inside the base. The knobs and the spray knock off any loose dirt, while a nozzle at the bottom of the dock sucks the dirty water into the waste-water tank. Once the pads are clean, the cycle repeats, with the robot returning to the spot where it left off until the entire map has been mopped.

When a mopping job is complete and the robot has returned to its base for the last time, fans inside the dock blow-dry the pads after they’re rinsed, so they won’t mildew or harbor bacteria.

Michael Brown / IDG

This tray’s knobby surface helps knock loose dirt of the Narwal T10’s spinning mopping pads as the dock sprays them with water.

The Narwal T10’s vacuuming performance

The Narwal T10 is only a little less exciting as a vacuum. Having spinning brushes on both the left and right sides of the vacuum means it does a better job of edge cleaning than vacs that have just one brush. On the downside, Narwal claims maximum suction power of 1,800Pa; compare that to the $700 Roborock S6 MaxV vac/mop hybrid, which claims 2,500Pa of suction.

Narwal does pack a big battery inside this device: 5,800mAh. During my several weeks of testing, the robot never needed to return to its base to recharge its battery while vacuuming my 2,800-square-foot home, which has a mix of bamboo floors, porcelain tile, wall-to-wall carpeting, and several area rugs. The vacuum has only two power settings—Normal and Power—but both are remarkably quiet.

Michael Brown / IDG

The wands on the left and right spray water on the Narwal T10’s mopping pads. The nozzle in the middle sucks dirty water out of the tray and pumps it into the waste-water tank.

The T10 uses a LIDAR-based SLAM navigation system. The former acronym stands for “Light Detection and Ranging,” which means the robot uses a pulsed laser to measure the distance between it and nearby obstacles. The latter acronym stands for “Simultaneous Localization and Mapping,” which means the robot creates—and updates—a map of its surroundings while keeping track of where it’s located on that map.

The robot did an excellent job of mapping my home. It quickly learned which obstacles it needed to avoid, and it was physically low enough to fit underneath all but the lowest furniture in my house (it did get stuck under a china hutch on the far edge of a thick area rug, but I solved that problem by drawing a no-go line at that location).

Michael Brown / IDG

The brush module detaches from the bottom of the vacuum so you can attach the mop pads to its motorized spindles.

Greatness nearly undone by a mess of an app

The Narwal T10 is a great mop and a very good vacuum; unfortunately, it’s nearly undone by an app that’s a bit of a mess. You can’t use the robot without the app, so don’t buy this robot vac/mop hybrid unless you’re willing to tolerate a steep learning curve—and a few bugs. I’ve concluded that the labor-saving benefits here are worth the pain, but my job has me learning and mastering new things almost every day. If you’re more of the “I just want it to work” mindset, steer clear of this product.

Michael Brown / IDG

This cryptic error message popped up repeatedly as I was trying to partition rooms on the app’s map of my home.

Here’s what I’m talking about. Once the robot has drawn a map of your home, you’ll want to partition it into rooms, so that you can spot clean instead of cleaning the entire house every time. You do this by opening the map, clicking on the partition button, and then drawing a line with your fingertip to divide two adjacent rooms.

But when I tried to save my partitions, I was repeatedly presented with an error message that read “Kind reminder: Setting save failed. Please check the network and try again.” I was ultimately able to create about a dozen partitions, but only by tapping a deep well of patience.

Here’s a related irritation: You’ll want to give each room a familiar name. When you do this in the app, you’ll discover that there are just 12 names to choose from—you can’t create custom names or change any of the presets.

And some of the available names are just…strange. You can’t label the room where you eat your meals “dining room,” but you can call it “restaurant.” There is a “kitchen” label, fortunately. You can name your master bedroom as such, but you can have only one other bedroom, and it will be labeled “secondary bedroom” or “children room.” You can have a “study,” but not a home office; and you can have a “living room” but not a home theater, great room, or rumpus room. You can have only one bathroom. Your remaining choices are “cloak room,” “corridor,” “balcony,” and “other.”

Michael Brown / IDG

You can choose from 12 names to assign to the rooms in your home. You don’t get more than 12, and you can’t change any of the existing names—even if you don’t have a cloak room or a restaurant or you don’t care to map your corridor.

Once your rooms are defined, the robot can vacuum or mop them individually, but you’ll need to use the app for that—there is currently no support for Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant. On the bright side, the map tracks the robot’s progress and its current location in real time.

Should you still lose track of it, you can press a “Locate” button in the app and a recorded voice emanating from the robot will say “Hello, I’m always at your service.” You can tap this button repeatedly until you find the robot.

You can of course program the robot to clean on a schedule—with separate programs for vacuuming and mopping. But you’ll need to gain an understanding of Narwal’s idiosyncratic menu language before you can do that.

On your home’s map, you’ll tap a “Devices” button and then click “Time Plan” on the menu that appears. Click a plus symbol to add a schedule and then set your local time zone according to city and country. No matter how many schedules I created, setting my time zone as Los Angeles, United States, the app always defaulted to the Hong Kong, China time zone.

Michael Brown / IDG

I suppose you don’t need to know what these Chinese characters say, just click the button—unless you want to be awakened at midnight when the vacuum comes to life to clean your floors.

Next, you’ll spin a dial to set the time (hour and minutes, based on a 24-hour clock), choose a “Repeat” setting (your choices are a radio button labeled “Once” and radio buttons for each day of the week—you can choose more than one of the latter), select your cleaning plan, and finally—and most importantly—click on the Chinese letters in the middle of the page. I have no idea what that button says, but I learned the hard way that if you skip that last step, the vacuum will still operate according to your schedule, but it will start at the zero hour (midnight).

Still worthy of a ‘buy’ recommendation

If it wasn’t for that problematic app, the Narwal T10 would be an easy editors’ choice pick. Its vacuum module is strong, quiet, and fast; its mopping module is more effective than any hybrid device we’ve tested; it’s equipped with a big, long-lasting battery; and its self-cleaning feature is like nothing else in the industry. But as I said at the outset, you can’t use it without the app, and the app is something of a mess.

In the end, you’ll need to decide if all of the Narwal T10’s great features are worth putting up with a crappy app. I suppose your irritation will moderate once you overcome that frustrating learning curve. Just don’t forget that patience is not the only the price of admission here. This robot costs $1,199.

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