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Litter Robot 4 review: A great, but imperfect, self-cleaning litter box

Would you pay $699 to avoid scooping litter?

Photo by Devindra Hardawar / Engadget

I'm just so tired of all the poop. Now that I'm dealing with three cats, an 11-month old's diapers and potty time with my four-year old, I just needed some relief from mountains of excrement. Enter the Litter Robot 4, the latest iteration of Whisker's automated litter box (a product we initially covered in 2005!). It's a small, spaceship-looking device that automatically rotates after your cat does its business, separating waste into a storage bin and leaving the remaining clean litter behind. Instead of scooping a box daily (or several times a day for multi-cat households), you only need to yank out the Litter Robot's bin bag and replace it with a new liner once a week. Sounds like a dream, right?

Well, mostly. For one, it's an eye-watering $699, putting it out of reach for most cat owners. And like practically every "smart" device, I ran into issues while setting up the Litter Robot 4. After a few months of testing, I've encountered many quirks – sometimes it didn't sift properly, occasionally its cat detecting sensors went haywire, and it didn't really prevent litter from reaching my floors. Despite all of that, though, it still made my life easier. Thanks to the Litter Robot 4, I had to deal with animal poop just a bit less every day. I'll chalk that up as a win.

As a cat owner since 2009, I've always eyed self-cleaning litter boxes with envy. But almost every option seemed like a headache back then: Some required specialized litter, others were prone to jamming and failure. And even though the Litter Robot has been around for a while, I've always considered it too expensive to be practical. But now that my household has grown, thanks to that aforementioned poopy infant and a pair of adopted kittens, I was eager for some relief. (One of those kittens also grew into an enormous 18-pound beast – you can imagine what his litter box looks like.)

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I know several people who loved the Litter Robot 3, and it was generally well-reviewed, despite being simultaneously bulky on the outside and a bit too small for cats on the inside. The Litter Robot 4 improves on its predecessor with a sleeker design (it's a bit less wide, so it should fit better in small rooms), as well as a larger opening for big cats. It's also Wi-Fi connected, which makes it easy for you to check on litter and waste levels with Whisker's app. Thanks to new weight sensors, you can track how often your cats are using the Robot, and the company is also planning to launch more individualized tracking later this year. In theory, that should let you know if one of your cats is using the litter box too often, or not enough.

Litter Robot 4
Litter Robot 4 (Devindra Hardawar/Engadget)

Setting up the Litter Robot 4 was fairly easy – until I ran into some software issues. You just have to yank the 24-pound egg-like bot out of its box, dump some clumping litter into the main compartment, and throw an included bag in the waste bin. The device itself is made entirely out of plastic, making it fairly light and easier to maneuver. The inner portion where the litter sits is covered in a rubber-like material, which should make it fairly durable and easier to clean than hard plastic.

After plugging in and turning on the Litter Robot, though, I was faced with my worst fear with any new smart gadget: Pairing issues. Without being paired to the app, the Robot wouldn't self-clean at all. A few hours of frustration later, I learned that Whisker was having a system-wide issue and I had to wait a few days for the company to deliver a fix.

So it goes with smart devices, you might say. But it definitely felt silly (and a bit enraging) to be manually cleaning this $699 litter box. Without that initial connectivity, it was no better than the $20 litter tray my cats use upstairs. Once the app was set, the Robot ran through a cleaning cycle and evenly sifted the remaining litter. Upon seeing this new litter box move and make sounds (it's surprisingly quiet!), my three cats wouldn't go near it. At that point, it was just a $699 monument to pet excess.

A few days later, the bravest of the bunch — my 18-pound tuxedo cat named "Jiji" — finally jumped into the Litter Robot to explore. After several hops in and out, he deemed it safe and left his first offering, which was promptly cycled into the waste bin. The Litter Robot seemed pleased. Within a week, all of my cats were onboard. And around then, I noticed something strange: I couldn't smell any poop or pee! Sure, the Whisker app told me the waste bin was full, but you wouldn't know that while standing right in front of it. That's a good sign for anyone who wants to place the Litter Robot in a cramped living room.

Litter Robot 4
Litter Robot 4 (Devindra Hardawar/Engadget)

My honeymoon period ended when one of my cats left a streak of feces inside the Robot. No amount of sifting and cycling got rid of that. Eventually, I started to notice some strange behavior from the device (perhaps in protest to what that cat did). Sometimes its indicator lights would flash red — a sensor fault, according to the Whisker app. The only way to fix that was by turning the unit on and off. Occasionally, the Robot wouldn't fully clean itself after one of my cats used it. So I had to hit the cycle button up top to get it going.

Over the course of a week, I typically have to deal with three of four issues like this from the Litter Robot. Few of those involve touching actual poop, and it's far less than I'd be cleaning a normal litter box. Still, for $699, I wish it were more reliable. I wouldn't trust it to work for an entire week if my family went on vacation. Just don't lose your cat sitter's number.

Cleaning out the Litter Robot's waste bin is a cinch — just yank out the liner bag and replace it with another. While you could stick with Whisker's products, I haven't had any trouble using Glad's 13-gallon ForceFlex bags. The company also recommends wiping down the Litter Robot's internals once a month, as well as refreshing the litter with an entirely new batch. That process isn't tough, but I found it easiest to accomplish by dragging the device outside. And yes, it also means you'll need to get your hands dirty a bit. There's just no escaping the poop.

Whisker's mobile app does a great job of alerting me when the waste bin is full, or when litter is running low. And it may sound strange, but I genuinely appreciate seeing how often my cats use the box. It's particularly helpful if one cat is feeling sick – going to the Robot frequently could be a sign of illness. The app also keeps track of your cat's weight, which could help you avoid over or under-feeding. (And of course, a big weight drop could be another health concern.)

Litter Robot 4
Litter Robot 4 (Devindra Hardawar/Engadget)

After a few months of testing, only two of my cats continue to use the Litter Robot 4. Still, they use it frequently enough to fill up its waste bin every week. (We also have two normal litter boxes around the house for the lone renegade.) My one major annoyance, aside from all of those random errors, is the Litter Robot's open design. I'm aware it's something cats prefer, but it also leads to litter being strewn around the floor. Unfortunately, Whisker's bundled gate and front step for the Litter Robot don't really help much. If you do end up getting this thing, I'd suggest adding a litter mat up front, and be prepared to vacuum or sweep every few days.

The Litter Robot 4 is an extravagance, but it's one that tired cat owners may find useful. Just don't expect any miracles. You'll still need to watch out for errors, do some manual scrubbing and sweep up stray litter. The perfect self-cleaning litter box isn't here yet, but the Litter Robot 4 is as close as you'll get.

Litter Robot
The Litter Robot 4 is an extravagance, but it's one that tired cat owners may find useful. Just don't expect any miracles.
$699 at Litter Robot