In general, handheld and portable steam cleaners get lower reviews overall for performance than full-sized canister-style vapor cleaners. However, a close read of some of those negative reviews explains why: People expect a small steam cleaner to do the work of a large one. In fact, 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.
Handheld steamers cost less than larger canister-type machines, and their compact size comes in handy if you have limited storage or working space. Some resemble a water pitcher, with an opening for adding water to the internal boiler and a steam trigger near the handle.
When it comes to handheld steamers, the Reliable EnviroMate Pronto P7 (Est. $100) 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.
Our runner-up in this category is the Shark Portable Steam Pocket SC630 (Est. $80). This steam cleaner has 1,500 watts of power -- the same as many canister models -- and one of the largest reservoirs you'll find in a handheld steam cleaner at 15 ounces. The microfiber covers that slip over the cleaning wands are the "pockets" that give this cleaner its name.
While there are too many durability complaints with this Shark Portable Steam Pocket for it to make it to our top spot, owners who have had no issues say it can clean even tough stains -- and plenty have posted videos and before and after photos to prove it. Others are disappointed by the Shark's performance, but many also seem to expect this small steam cleaner to perform like a large unit. The Shark needs a bit of time to heat up, but once it does users find that the Shark SC630 produces plenty of steam. It includes a nice variety of accessories for different tasks. One problem that owners warn about: the Shark Steam Pocket is prone to tipping over, and since you have to hold down the trigger constantly with one hand and maneuver the microfiber-covered cleaning wand with the other, you don't have a free hand for scrubbing or manipulating whatever you're cleaning. A couple of reviewers say they solved that with a piece of Velcro wrapped around the trigger.
The Bissell Steam Shot 39N71 (Est. $40) suffers from many of the same issues as all handheld vapor cleaners, including uneven performance; even when it works, you'll probably have to do some scrubbing to get the best results. Still, if you're on a tight budget and need to steam clean only small spaces, it might be a viable option. 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.
If you don't have the space -- or the need -- for a full-sized canister steam cleaner, but a handheld isn't quite enough power, you may want to consider the Steamfast SF-320 (Est. $700). This portable steam cleaner is small, but mighty, say reviewers, making it ideal for use outside on grills, to clean cars, or to keep in an RV. The SF-320 is very lightweight at just 4.8 pounds, yet, like a canister-style vapor cleaner, it has wheels so you can pull it around. Its small footprint makes it easy to store, too. The hose is 4.5 feet and the power cord is 13.1 feet, giving it plenty of reach. The SF-320 comes with a full array of cleaning accessories, as well as a shoulder strap, which reviewers say make it even easier to use.
We did read some reports of leaking with the Steamfast SF-320, but that seems to be more of an issue when trying to use it as a fabric steamer, or when tipping it to steam upholstery. It gets raves for cleaning other items, such as microwaves, baseboards, stoves and tile walls. The 32-ounce reservoir allows for about 30 minutes of continuous steam.
Elsewhere in this report: