Handheld Vacuum Buying Guide


What the best handheld vacuum has

  • Light weight. A few pounds doesn't seem like much for a quick vacuuming task, but owners say hand vacs that weigh more than 5 pounds feel heavy after a few minutes of continuous use.
  • Lengthy cord. If you opt for a corded handheld vacuum for its unlimited run time, choose a model with a longer power cord so you can clean a bigger area without having to switch wall outlets.
  • Ample filtration. Hand vacuums with filtration prevent dust and debris from re-entering the air after cleaning. Some portable vacuums have three-stage filtration, and a few even have HEPA filters.
  • Washable filter. Reusable filters tend to become clogged with hair and dust over time, and those that aren't washable will eventually need to be replaced -- usually once every few months. Washable filters last longer and don't contribute to the cost of ownership.
  • Bagless dirt cup. Most handheld vacuums are bagless, using dirt cups that can be dumped out and cleaned between uses.
  • Clear waste container. This allows you to determine at a glance if the vacuum needs to be emptied.
  • Large capacity. The bigger the dirt cup, the less emptying is necessary.
  • High voltage rating. If you opt for a cordless hand vac, look for a model with higher voltage rating, which indicates more power. The best portable vacuums have a rating of at least 15.6 volts, while some go as high as 20 volts.
  • Motorized brush. This function helps vacuums dig up ground-in dirt from carpet fibers, or pet hair from fabric, for a more thorough clean.
  • Extendable hose. This feature allows you to reach tighter spaces without squeezing a bulky handheld unit into corners and crannies.
  • Included attachments. Many handheld vacuums come with tools like upholstery brushes, crevice tools, dusting brushes and even special pet-hair attachments.

Know before you go

Will you be using it indoors or out? If you need a portable vacuum to clean items on your porch or deck, a corded model may require an extension cord. A cordless hand vac isn't restricted by cord length or proximity to an electrical outlet, but its runtime is limited, so it won't clean for more than 10 to 20 minutes, at best.

How long is your typical cleaning task? If your main cleaning needs take longer than a few minutes, a cordless hand vac could run out of power before you're finished. Either opt for a corded handheld vacuum or choose a model with a lithium-ion battery, which will run at full power until the battery is depleted -- up to 20 minutes, typically.

Do you have pets? Pet hair is difficult to remove from upholstery and carpets. Portable vacuums with extendable hoses, motorized brushrolls and rubberized pet hair attachments make pet-hair pickup easier.

How frequently will you use your hand vac? Some cordless handheld vacuums take up to 24 hours to recharge, though a portable vacuum with a lithium-ion battery will charge more quickly, in as few as 2 to 4 hours for some models.

What are your storage options? Most cordless hand vacs are accompanied by charging docks, which must be located near an electrical outlet for recharging, though others have removable batteries that can be powered up using a smaller charger. If your storage area lacks outlets and/or you don't want a handheld vacuum hanging on your kitchen wall, opt for a corded model which can easily be stored out of sight.

Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it

Handheld vacuum aren't expensive gadgets, unless you opt for a $200 Dyson. There are some ongoing costs to consider, however. Some hand vacs have non-washable filters that must be replaced every few months. In most cases, filters cost around $10 each, but this can add up for an appliance that only costs $40 to begin with. In addition, the batteries will eventually reach the end of their usable life and many portable vacuums either have non-replaceable batteries or the battery costs more than the unit itself. That may not be a concern if you're buying a $30 vacuum, just toss it and buy a new one every year or so, but it's something to consider on a more expensive model.