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Amber Michael - September 10 2020 at 10:32

Oral-B has been in the electric toothbrush market since the early 1960s, back when power brushes were a novelty. The intervening decades brought some major tech advancements—two-minute timers, pressure sensors, and a Bluetooth-connected app—but the Procter & Gamble brand went back to the drawing board when developing its newest line of smart brushes, the iO.

“The only thing we’ve kept is the round head,” says Christian Mandl, senior director of oral care R&D. Based in Germany, Mandl was part of the team that developed iO, and the process included six years of research. The iO, which is available at major retailers this month, has other familiar features, too, but they’ve all been redesigned for maximum effect. I’ve been using an electric toothbrush since 2018, and the iO Series 8 for the past three months. The only time my pearly whites have felt cleaner is just after I’ve left the dentist.

Robust Brushing Power

The first smart toothbrushes hit the market seven or eight years ago, and now all the major players in the oral health world have joined the fray. The smart features on the iO are certainly flashy, but it’s the new drive system that left a lasting impression. (This is Popular Mechanics, after all.) Oral-B created a pint-size linear magnetic motor, which generates power as a magnetic axis moves from side to side between two poles. An added counterweight and some springs even out the motion for less vibration compared to a brush with a traditional geared or sonic motor.

Practically speaking, the iO felt less fatiguing in-hand than other electric brushes, though it’s still louder in most of its six modes than those with sonic motors. But it’s not just an improvement on user-experience. This tech is actually more effective at translating power directly to the bristles instead of the entire brush head, Mandl says, which is the major pitfall of other types of motors.

That extra power was evident from my first use, when I experienced some minor gum bleeding. I switched from Daily Clean mode to Sensitive for the next few uses while my mouth adjusted and haven’t had an issue since. (The redesigned pressure sensor, which now alerts you when you’re brushing too softly and not just when you’re brushing too hard, has been helpful for finding the right pressure.) But the biggest indication was that my teeth felt more polished for longer compared to the Phillips Sonicare HealthyWhite+ brush I had been using.

The motor isn’t the only reason for that. Although Oral-B sticks with a round shape that oscillates and rotates like its predecessors, the new Ultimate Clean brush head created for the iO has more bristles and new tuft designs. Some are twisted, and others are composed of shorter and longer bristles. Together they are designed to cover more surface area, even the hard-to-reach places.

There’s An App For That

To echo the Apple commercial from the late aughts, the only devices that don’t come with compatible apps these days are computers, tablets, and phones. You know, the tech that those apps run on. Which is to say, the iO syncs via Bluetooth to your phone, unlocking a surprising amount of information within the Oral-B app. It shows your average brushing score (calculated from the coverage, pressure, and length of your cleanings); invites you on “journeys” to develop better brushing habits; and lets you track how often you’re flossing, rinsing with mouthwash, and cleaning your tongue. But the app’s main draw is to display real-time position detection so you don’t neglect any areas while brushing. On screen, I watched six different zones of a virtual mouth light up as the brush moved around my actual mouth. Progressively, the teeth on screen got brighter until they were all sparkling.

Position detection is standard among smart brushes, but it’s a tough thing to nail. The iO relies on AI and a gyro sensor and accelerometer in the handle. Oral-B spent part of the six-year research period collecting data to feed the AI algorithms. The company filmed people brushing their teeth, and a team analyzed the recordings frame by frame to code the positions.

Although I haven’t used competitors’ apps, other reviewers mention accuracy issues, which I occasionally noticed with the iO, too. In those instances, the animation seemed to lag behind my physical movement. Perhaps, it’s better on the iO Series 9 that comes with enhanced position detection across 16 zones and costs $50 more. (You also get an additional brushing mode, four brush heads, and a charging travel case, and a magnetic charger for home use.) The tracking might not be perfect, but it was still a helpful tool that reminded me to spend more time on my molars than I might otherwise. And that gets to the heart of the app. It’s meant to be a coaching guide that improves your habits, whether that’s making it to the recommended two-minute cleaning time mark or increasing how much you floss each week.

The Final Word

You don’t have to use the app while brushing, and sometimes I didn’t (my phone spends enough time in bathrooms as it is). You choose which cleaning mode you want from the handle anyway, and the 30-second pulse alerts and stopwatch on the handle’s color display let me track my time. Those unguided sessions still appeared the next time I opened the app but only logged the total time as well as how much of that, if any, was spent brushing too hard. Although the novelty of the app wore off eventually, the desire to improve my brushing score has kept me using it more often than not.

Mostly, I stuck to recommended Daily Clean mode, but the Series 8 also has five other settings, including the slower Sensitive and Super Sensitive options. When I wanted a deeper clean, I switched to Intense, which has a different oscillation angle for a broader sweeping motion, or Whitening, which has a variable speed to gently remove stains (though I didn’t notice the changes in intensity). Lastly, Gum Care also operates with a variable speed but is designed to stimulate your gums to encourage regeneration. Mandl described it as a massage experience, but I couldn’t feel a difference from the standard. (The cheaper Series 7 doesn’t have Super Sensitive, whereas the Series 9 also comes with a Tongue Clean setting.)

The iO is as fully featured as I can imagine any brush being—with a price tag to match—and it’s possible that you won’t take advantage of all of them. Still, if you’re set on a smart toothbrush, the iO won’t disappoint. The Series 8 includes three brush heads, a travel case, and a magnetic charger. I averaged about a 10-day battery life and appreciated the quick three-hour charging time. Most importantly, it excels at the one thing you don’t want to comprise on: top-notch cleaning power.

  • Powerful cleaning action
  • Compatible app to improve brushing habits
  • Charges quickly
  • Expensive
  • Position detection isn’t always accurate