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 5 pounds or more still feel heavy after a few minutes of continuous use.
  • Lengthy cord. If you opt for a corded hand vac for the unlimited run time, choose a model with a longer power cord. This way you'll be able to reach a larger area without relocating the plug.
  • Ample filtration. Hand vacuums with filtration prevent dust and debris from re-entering the air after cleaning. Some hand vacs 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 hand vacs are bagless, using dirt cups that can be dumped out and cleaned between uses. Making for a hassle-free quick cleanup job.
  • Clear waste container. Clear waste containers help determine why loss of suction is occurring. If it's because the dirt canister is full, it's an easy problem to identify.
  • Large capacity. The bigger the dirt cup, the less emptying is necessary.
  • Energy Star-efficiency. A few cordless hand vacs have Energy Star-qualified charging systems, meaning they use less energy during the recharging process.
  • High voltage. If you opt for a cordless hand vac, look for a model with higher voltage, which indicates more power. The best hand vacs have a voltage of at least 15.6, while some go as high as 20 volts.
  • Motorized brush. This function helps vacuums dig up ground-in dirt from carpet fibers 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 hand vacs 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 hand vac to clean your car, a corded model may require an extension cord. A cordless hand vac isn't restricted by cord length or proximity to an electrical outlet.

How long is your typical cleaning task? If cleaning tasks generally take longer than a few minutes, a cordless hand vac could run out of power before you're finished.

Do you have pets? Pet hair is difficult to remove from upholstery and carpets. Hand vacs with extendable hoses, brushrolls and rubber extensions make pet hair pickup easier.

How frequently will you use your hand vac? Some cordless hand vacs take up to 24 hours to recharge. Removing a hand vac from its charger and using it mid-charge can damage the battery and reduce run times.

What are your storage options? Most cordless hand vacs are accompanied by charging docks, which must be located near an electrical outlet for recharging. If your storage area lacks outlets and 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

Hand vacs aren't expensive gadgets, unless you opt for a $200 Dyson. There are some ongoing costs to consider, however. Some hand vacs have nonwashable filters that must be replaced every few months. In most cases, filters cost around $10 each, but this adds up for an appliance that only costs $40 to begin with. Warranties are another consideration, with most hand vacs offering only a one- to three-year warranty for manufacturer's defects. Batteries worn out due to inappropriate charging aren't usually covered under warranties, so follow the recharging instructions carefully.

What's to come

Hand vacs are taking all different shapes and sizes these days, and mini-canister-style portable vacuums are gaining popularity among consumers. These portable vacuums are more useful for longer cleaning jobs, as the main unit can be placed on the floor to reduce hand strain associated with holding a 5- to 7-pound vacuum for 20 minutes. These portable vacs feature extendable hoses, allowing users to reach into even tighter spaces than possible with a standard hand vac.

Another trend is cordless hand vacuums relying on Li-ion batteries, which don't suffer from memory effects and can hold a charge even when not plugged in. The typical Ni-Cd batteries used by most handheld vacs tend to fade as the battery drains, creating a loss of suction. Li-ion batteries, on the other hand, maintain full strength until completely drained.

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