Canister vacuums are bare-floor champions
Reviewers say canister vacuums are best for those who have a combination of hardwood floors and rugs, as well as those who plan to vacuum stairs, upholstery, drapes and other above-the-floor items. Upright vacuums, on the other hand, are best for homes with lots of carpeting. (See our companion report on upright vacuum cleaners.) Stick vacuums are a good alternative if you mainly need to clean hard floors, but not stairs or upholstery.
The biggest decision to make when buying a canister vacuum is choosing between bagged and bagless models. There are pros and cons to each type: Bagged canister vacuums require replacement bags that are generally affordable. Bagless canister vacuums have dirt canisters that must be emptied, which can be a messy process. Most owners suggest doing it outdoors or holding the dirt cup in a garbage can to avoid dust and debris flying back into the room you just cleaned.
Bagless canister vacuums sometimes have small dirt cups, meaning they'll have to be emptied more frequently. This is a complaint we read for several bagless models among consumers posting to review sites such as Amazon.com, Walmart.com, HomeDepot.com and Viewpoints.com.
Some canister vacuums boast features that make them better for allergy sufferers. HEPA filtration, for instance, removes 99.97 percent of particles in the air down to 0.3 microns in size. While it's not the same as running a whole-house air filter, it does help improve the air quality. Emissions are another concern: If a vacuum is sucking up dust and debris from a carpet or floor and blowing it back into the air via the exhaust, you're not really accomplishing much cleaning. Filters reduce this problem, leading to a cleaner home overall. Finally, accessories and features that promote ease of use -- such as swiveling heads, extension wands, special wheels to tighten the turning radius and long power cords -- vary from model to model, but don't seem to be correlated with price.
There's also no clear correlation between cost and performance among canister vacuums, and prices vary widely. If you only need to vacuum bare floors, it is possible to find a decent, basic model for less than $100, although machines in this price range may not perform well on deep-pile carpets, rugs or upholstery.
At the other end of the scale, the Rainbow E-series E2 (Est. $1,600) is a vacuum, carpet cleaner and air purifier in one. Although most consumers at Viewpoints.com praise this model's cleaning power, some complain that it's not worth the high cost. Tests at a leading consumer magazine seem to confirm this, with the E2 achieving only mediocre ratings for carpet-cleaning performance, noise and maneuverability. It does, however, earn excellent scores for bare-floor cleaning, pet-hair removal and emissions. The best canister vacuums range in price from $80 to $500, and a few models offer decent performance, HEPA filtration and ample features in the middle of that range.
To choose the best canister vacuums for pet-hair removal and bare floors, as well as the best canister vacuums overall and the best compact canister vacuum, we evaluated thousands of owner reviews across retail sites that allow users to post comments on products they own or have purchased. We also looked at professional tests like those at ConsumerReports.org, which evaluates nearly 40 canister vacuums in its latest roundup. This review provides formal ratings and rankings of canister vacuums, scoring each model tested on factors such as noise; emissions; performance on bare floors, carpets and pet hair; maneuverability; and total airflow.
Other professional tests aren't as thorough, such as those at Good Housekeeping and Real Simple magazines, although they do conduct hands-on testing and compare various models. J.D. Power and Associates conducts an annual consumer satisfaction index survey, but this review rates overall brands instead of individual models.