Handheld vacuums are ideal for quick cleanup jobs
Everyone needs a good, full-sized upright or canister vacuum cleaner for big jobs, like weekly whole-house cleaning or for giving your carpet a thorough, deep vacuuming. However, when you have a smaller mess, like a dry spill of flour or rice in the kitchen, or a coating of cat hair on the cushions, it's nice to be able to reach for something small and light -- which is why handheld vacuums are so popular.
There are two basic types of handheld vacuums: cordless, which run on rechargeable batteries, and corded, which plug into a wall outlet. These small gadgets are good not just for spot-cleaning, but also for accessing places that can be a challenging reach for the larger accessories on full-sized vacuums, or for dealing with areas where hauling a large vacuum is cumbersome, like vacuuming stairs. Portable vacuums are also great for cleaning cars, boats and for using in RV's. The best handheld vacuums will have either a nozzle that acts as a crevice tool for getting into small spaces, or onboard accessories that include a crevice tool. Many have hoses and specialized brushes for dusting. The best also can rotate or angle to clean hard-to-reach items like ceiling fans.
Cordless versus corded portable vacuums
Cordless handheld vacuum cleaners are more versatile because they're not restricted by cord length or access to a wall socket. That means you can move from room to room to pick up small messes or pet hair without having to unplug the vacuum and plug it back in each time. Portable cordless vacuums typically run between 10 and 30 minutes on a single charge. Recharging can take 4 hours or more for a full charge. Some cordless hand vacs don't have replaceable batteries; when its battery finally loses the ability to hold a charge, you just have to toss the vacuum away and buy a new one. However that's not as big a negative as it might seem; even if the battery is replaceable, a new one can cost more than a new handheld vacuum itself.
One more thing to know about cordless handheld vacuums is that they use one of two types of batteries. Nickel-cadmium (NiCd) batteries, which are the older technology, are heavier and should be fully discharged before recharging to avoid "memory effect," which can prevent the batteries from being charged to their full capacity. If you see user comments regarding a hand vac no longer holding a charge, this is a likely culprit.
Lithium-ion batteries (Li-ion) batteries are the other, newer technology. They aren't susceptible to memory effect, can hold a charge longer between uses, and are more environmentally friendly. The other key difference is that with NiCd technology, the power level drops as the battery drains, which means that you may have very strong vacuum performance for the first 5 to 10 minutes, but then less and less until the battery finally runs down and needs to be recharged. With a Li-ion battery, full power is maintained until the battery runs out of juice. While Li-ion-powered hand vacs look to have some significant advantages, the trade-off is that portable vacuums with lithium-ion batteries are more expensive, sometimes significantly more.
Corded hand vacuums typically have power cords between 12 and 25 feet long, and those with longer cords tend to receive better feedback from both professional reviewers and owners. Corded models aren't limited on run time, they vacuum for as long as you need them to. For some cleaning tasks like stairs or an automobile, you may need an extension cord. We saw more complaints about a corded vacuum seeming heavy, even if it weighs less than comparable cordless vacuums, which leads us to conclude that there is a fatigue factor in using even a relatively lightweight handheld vacuum for a longer period of time.
Car vacuums are 12-volt vacuums that plug into your car's cigarette lighter or 12-volt accessory socket to provide a steady stream of juice while you clean up your car. A good car vacuum will also have a long, narrow crevice tool for slipping between the seats -- a popular hiding place for dropped foods -- and a dusting brush for pulling dust and hair out of the vents.
Of course, a handheld vacuum won't be suitable for all cleaning jobs. Most people need a good upright vacuum, which we cover in our separate report on vacuum cleaners, for whole-house cleaning and digging deep to pull dirt and debris out of pile carpet. Canister vacuums use slender wands that can reach farther into tight spaces, like under beds, while stick vacuums are great to have around for maintaining a hardwood or tile floor on a day-to-day basis, or for cleaning up spot messes without having to stoop. If you need something a bit more heavy-duty, see our shop vac report for a top portable option.
How we chose the best handheld vacuums
Portable vacuum cleaners get somewhat less coverage than other types of vacuums, but we found a few reviews that include testing at sites like ConsumerReports.org and TheSweetHome.com. Even more helpful were the thousands of owner reviews we analyzed at retail sites, such as Amazon.com, Walmart.com and Kohls.com, to name just a few. These user reviews give the best overview for how each handheld vacuum operates in real-world, long-term use. In evaluating these reviews, we consider performance on different flooring surfaces, pet-hair removal, features and attachments, and ease of use and durability to help you find the best portable vacuum for your cleaning needs.