Handheld steamers cost less than larger canister-type machines, and their compact size comes in handy if you have limited storage or working space. They're also highly portable. Some resemble a water pitcher, with an opening for adding water to the internal boiler and a steam trigger near the handle.
We don't see a lot of love for handheld steam cleaners from owners. Some of that is due to design flaws that are inherent in all handheld steam cleaners: they have short run times, performance is inconsistent, they don't have much power (which means you'll still have to do some scrubbing), and they tend to leak.
Still, some of those reviews are simply unfair because many of those low ratings are due to unrealistic expectations. In other words, people buy a handheld steam cleaner and expect it to perform like a canister-style cleaner. It's like giving a Kia a poor review for not accelerating from zero to 60 as quickly as a Porsche. Handheld steam cleaners are intended only for small jobs, like removing stickers, cleaning around small areas like faucets, or cleaning toys -- not for detailing an entire bathroom or getting a large grill spotlessly clean. If you need a big job done, see our discussion of the best steam cleaners elsewhere in this report, otherwise, keep your expectations realistic and you won't be disappointed with a handheld steam cleaner.
One last caveat when it comes to reviews for handheld steam cleaners, we did some with exceptionally high ratings, but a close read revealed that they had been given in exchange for a free product. We can't accept those at face value and we suggest that you don't either.
However, when all that is taken into account, the Reliable EnviroMate Pronto P7 (Est. $100) turns up as a solid choice. It gets good feedback from owners for producing 15 minutes of continuous, consistent steam. Its 10-ounce reservoir can be refilled while it's still hot and a flip-up cap makes those refills easy.
Knowledgeable experts strongly recommend the Reliable EnviroMate, and say it's an excellent performer and a really great value. Users agree that the Reliable EnviroMate Pronto P7 handheld steam cleaner does a great job, although you may still have to scrub the toughest grime. We found a few scattered durability complaints, but the Pronto is still praised for its performance, and it has a one-year warranty plus lifetime coverage on the boiler.
Other notable features on the Pronto P7 include a "steam ready" indicator light and a 32-inch steam hose to help you get into tight places. It also comes with a good assortment of attachments: brass and nylon scrub brushes, angle and taper nozzles, a window-cleaning squeegee, a fabric accessory and the aforementioned 32-inch steam hose. A carry bag helps you keep it all together.
For half the price of the Pronto, the Bissell Steam Shot (Est. $50) is a good choice if you just need to steam clean small spaces. It suffers from many of the same issues as we see with all handheld vapor cleaners, which means that it will mostly loosen gunk, but you'll probably have to do some scrubbing to get the best results. The 6-ounce reservoir provides anywhere from five to 15 minutes of continuous steam, and the few accessories included -- an angle concentrator, detail brush, brass cleaning brush and fabric cleaning tool -- seem to do their jobs well. We did find some concerns about this bargain steam cleaner's durability, but it's covered by a one-year warranty.
The Steamfast SF-210 (Est. $36) costs even less than the Bissell, but earns ratings that are similar. It takes about 3 minutes to heat up, then provides 10 minutes of continuous steam. The Steamfast includes several accessories, including a jet nozzle and several different-sized brushes. Users say it works very well for such a small, inexpensive steamer. Although it's not for heavy jobs, owners say it definitely cuts their cleaning time down on smaller jobs, like cleaning appliances, counters and pet carriers. Steamfast responds to durability complaints from customers, offering to make it right for them.
Elsewhere in this report: