A great vacuum takes the work out of housework
It's probably safe to say that very few dwellings, no matter how small, lack a vacuum cleaner. Bigger homes with multiple levels and a variety of floor types may even have more than one, while smaller homes and apartments will probably do just fine with one good all-purpose model.
In this report we cover upright vacuums and robotic vacuums. Upright vacuum cleaners tend to be very simple and straightforward to operate -- just push a button and move it over the carpet. Though the technology behind them is more complex, robotic vacuums are even easier to use once they are set up as they move under their own power. The best vacuums will clean both carpet and bare floors efficiently, filter the air to keep particles from flying about, and include attachments for cleaning upholstery, stairs, baseboards, and for reaching into nooks and crannies.
In addition to, or instead of, an upright vacuum, some people need a smaller vacuum for a smaller space, or a secondary vacuum for other living areas or for picking up spot messes in between cleaning days. If that's the case, take a look at our other vacuum reports: canister vacuums use slender wands that can reach farther into tight spaces, like under beds or up stairways, than the attachments on most uprights. Stick vacuums and hand vacuums are often used for quicker, spot-cleaning tasks, like sweeping up small, dry spills and messes without having to haul out the bigger upright.
Bagging versus bagless vacuum cleaners
Bagless vacuums cleaners operate on a two-step process -- larger particles are deposited into a removable canister, smaller particles go into the filter. When the canister is full, you just remove it, dump the debris, and replace. The filters also have to be cleaned occasionally and, eventually, replaced as they wear out. The most obvious advantage of a bagless vacuum cleaner is that you don't have to buy replacement bags, but some bagless vacuums are messy and awkward to dump. And, eventually, dirt and pet hair will accumulate in the nooks and crannies of the container so it will have to be cleaned -- a task most owners find unappealing. However, not having to dispose of the bag is more environmentally friendly as it eliminates an added layer of trash. One other advantage to bagless: If you accidentally vacuum up a small item, you don't have to tear open the bag and dig through the contents to find it; the canisters are mostly see-through.
Bagged vacuum cleaners have a removable bag that you discard and replace when full. Most bagging vacuums have bags that are constructed of filter media, adding an extra filtration step to the overall system. Many owners prefer this no-muss, no-fuss approach to getting rid of their vacuuming debris, although some bags are trickier to put in place than others. Some bagging upright vacuum cleaners use self-sealing bags, which prevent any particles from escaping back into the air during the bag-disposal process. Bagged vacuum cleaners tend to get better scores in professional tests for performance on both carpet and hardwood, although bagless models are closing in fast. The major downside to bagging upright vacuum cleaners is that bags must be purchased throughout the life of the vacuum cleaner. Bags typically range in price from $2 to $7 per bag, although generic bags are an option in some cases and bags can often be ordered in bulk for a lower per-bag cost. As with bagless vacuums, the air filters will have to occasionally be replaced as well.
Robotic vacuum cleaners do the work for you. They can be programmed to vacuum your floor when you're at work, sleeping, or busy doing other tasks. Robotic vacuums can't replace a full-sized upright vacuum; they can't do stairs, for instance, and they don't deep clean as well as the best vacuum cleaners, but they're much beloved for touchup cleaning on a day-to-day basis, especially by people who have multiple pets. Like bagless vacuums, they use a container debris-system that has to be emptied, and there may be a bit of a learning curve to figure out where to set up the guides, also called virtual walls or lighthouses (depending upon if you use them as stops or guides). Some robotic vacuums damp mop as well.
How we found the best vacuums
There are a lot of vacuum cleaner reviews out there. Some are roundups that include testing and score rankings, like those we found at ConsumerReports.org and Good Housekeeping. Others are hands on reviews by experienced reviewers at sites like CNET and TheSweethome.com.
Just as helpful, if not more so, were the thousands of owner reviews we analyzed at retail sites, such as Amazon.com, BestBuy.com and Target.com, to name just a few. These user reviews give the best overview for how each 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, ease of use and lifestyle features to help you find the perfect vacuum cleaner for your cleaning needs.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Bagless Vacuums | Best Bagged Vacuums | Best Robotic Vacuum Cleaners | Buying Guide | Our Sources