The best handheld vacuums | CNN Underscored

It’s not practical to bust out a bulky, full-size vacuum for everyday small messes. Compact, cordless handheld vacuums are perfectly suited for light-duty cleaning tasks. Although their relatively small capacity and limited runtimes mean they’re unlikely to serve as your primary vacuum, they are extremely convenient for keeping up with everything from kitchen spills to car clutter to pet hair and dander.

We ran 16 of the top-rated options through our comprehensive testing process, evaluating their ability to tackle a range of debris sizes and types, from small spills to car floor mats and upholstery to pet hair. In the end, we found three great models that should help you keep things tidy around the house and garage.

Best cordless handheld vacuum overall

The Black + Decker Dustbuster is the easiest to use, charge and empty of all the handheld vacuums we tested, with a large capacity canister and convenient built-in attachments that make it convenient and versatile enough for any small cleanup.

Best handheld vacuum for pet hair

The Bissell Pet Hair Eraser has a motorized brush that picks up more pet hair than any other option we tested, plus an upholstery brush and long crevice tool that let you take care of pet messes anywhere.

Best handheld vacuum for the car

The compact Black + Decker Max Flex features a 4 foot hose and an abundance of attachments—including a soft brush for delicate surfaces like your radio—making it perfect for detailing your car or truck.

Unsurprisingly since “Dustbuster” is synonymous with “handheld vacuum” for many people, this handy machine beat out the competition with a balanced combination of size, function, and convenience. It was the easiest to use, charge, and empty of all the models we tested. Right out of the box, it had a comfortable, well-balanced feel, making it easy to orient it whichever way we wanted. The controls are extremely simple to figure out—just a slider to power it on and a single button to dislodge the canister when it’s ready to be emptied.

Our favorite feature of the Black + Decker Dustbuster is that all of its accessories and tools are built into the machine itself. The long crevice tool is integrated into the main nozzle, and easily extends out when you’re ready to use it. Similarly, the brush element flips up to cover the nozzle when you need to brush it over cushions or really get into those corners and stairs. Without any loose pieces to keep track of, you’ll never have to search for the tool you need. The Dustbuster’s only drawback was that it lacked a flat upholstery attachment, although that certainly wasn’t a dealbreaker.

Since it doesn’t have any loose tools to organize, the Dustbuster is also able to use an extremely small charging station. Measuring a little over 5 inches in diameter, this charging base takes up minimal room, and since the corresponding connector on the unit itself is a ring, it can be set onto the base in any orientation—other vacuums we tested were a lot more fiddly, sometimes requiring some time to line up their connections just right.

The Dustbuster’s motor provided the necessary power to successfully retrieve all of our test debris,, and had no trouble sucking up all cheerios without clogging issues. The dust canister was the easiest of all the tested vacuums to remove and dump out without a mess, and the filter was simple to remove and clean as well.

Its bulbous body is large enough to house a 20.6-ounce dust canister (only one other vacuum we tested had a larger one), and since the air vent is located on the rear of the unit, it never has the chance to inadvertently blow air into our work area. (The location of the air vent was a common issue we found with some of the vacuums we tested, with some units ending up blowing air into the exact spot we were trying to clean, which just added more time to our process.) When you take the affordable price into account, the Dustbuster is a no-brainer.

Thanks to a motorized brush head and extra-large canister, the Bissell Pet Hair Eraser is the best option we tested when it comes to wrangling pet hair from a variety of materials. It’s a hefty machine, weighing 3 pounds and measuring 17 inches long, but still has a balanced feel to it, and doesn’t feel unwieldy or uncomfortable to use at all.

The unit itself felt nice and sturdy, and neither the canister, or filter felt like they were flimsy or unstable in any way. The motorized pet hair brush slides securely into the nozzle and tested extremely well in our pet hair test—especially getting at dog hair embedded deep in our test Jeep Wrangler’s carpeting. It easily pulled dog hair home carpeting, rugs, and couches as well, and the extra large 23.6 ounce canister—the largest among all the options we tested—could hold an impressive amount of hair before needing to be emptied. The long crevice tool and flat upholstery brush make it even more versatile when it comes to pet hair cleanup.

It’s worth noting that the high number of attachments could easily allow the Bissell Pet Hair Eraser to easily function as your primary handheld vacuum as well. It was also convenient to use in the car, although its bulky size might be less convenient to maneuver within a smaller vehicle. The only possible downside we found in our testing was the fact that the nozzle was too narrow to suck up Cheerios, which makes it a little less versatile, and perhaps not the best option for those with small children (or who just tend to get messy themselves). Other than that, it handles the other small debris —flour and kitty litter—just fine.

The 17-minute battery life was on the higher end among our test group—the longest running options topped out at 20 mins—and should be sufficient for most quick tasks. It doesn’t have a charging base, however, which we found less convenient. You’ll have to just plug in its wall-wart style power adapter when you want to charge it, so you’ll have to find your own solution to keeping accessories organized, and dedicate some floor or shelf space to store the unit itself.

If cleaning the dust, crumbs, dirt and pet hair that build up in the seats, dashboard crevices, and floor mats of your car is a priority, look no further than the Black + Decker Max Flex. This compact vacuum was a breeze to use during the car cleaning portion of our testing, thanks to its small size and wide variety of attachments and tools that made it easy to reach anywhere in our test vehicles.

The 4 foot hose is what really separated this vacuum from the rest of the pack, and when combined with the long crevice tool, brush head nozzle, and pet hair attachment, we were able to easily clean tiny nooks as well as upholstery. We were most impressed with the pet hair attachment, which utilizes a round, rubber head to grab and pull hair even from challenging surfaces like the thick, nearly velcro-like carpeting in the Jeep Wrangler. The long brush head was also convenient when cleaning areas that required a gentle touch, like across the dashboard and radio controls, that could otherwise get scratched from a standard plastic nozzle. The 17 oz. canister was large enough to capture a decent amount of debris and hair, and was simple to dump out when it became full.

We absolutely recommend this vacuum for use inside the home as well. The long hose makes it easy to carry the vacuum in one hand and an attachment in the other, allowing you to reach elevated shelves and surfaces, like kitchen cabinets. It’s almost like a miniature canister vacuum.

The Black + Decker Max Flex even includes the pieces necessary to create a long-handled stick vacuum, making it useful as a full-length floor vac—the only option to do so. This versatility could conceivably make this a primary vacuum for a very small space, or studio apartment. All of these attachments and accessories will require you to get creative with storage and organization, but if you have the need for the them, this hassle could be worth the effort.

How to choose a handheld vacuum

Alex Rennie/CNN Underscored

If you’ve ever let dust and dirt build up because it was too much of a hassle to pull out a bulky vacuum, or just find it overkill to turn to a full-size machine to take care of a relatively small spill, you’ll probably benefit from a handheld vacuum.

Handheld vacuums are the smaller, cordless siblings to larger upright vacuums and cordless stick vacuums. Handhelds are more portable and maneuverable than their bigger cousins—they can easily get inside kitchen drawers and cabinets, up on shelving, or underneath car seats—and since they’re small and cordless, they are much more convenient to use in a pinch.

It’s important to keep in mind that a handheld vacuum is going to be less powerful than a canister or stick vac though, and their compact canisters mean you’ll need to empty them much more frequently. Along with limited runtimes—usually only 10-20 minutes—that means they are impractical for use in large spaces or long cleaning jobs.

A handheld vacuum is part of an overall vacuuming strategy, not a be-all and end-all solution. Rather, when it comes to keeping your house clean it’s a great complement to a full-size model, in the same way a toaster oven complements a full-size convection oven. This way you’ll have your handheld unit handy for small spills, car cleaning, and quick upholstery jobs, a robot vacuum or cordless stick vacuum for daily maintenance, and the full-size upright vacuum or canister vacuum for bigger jobs and weekly house cleaning.

If you live in a small space and don’t have room for multiple units, you might want to consider a cordless stick vacuum instead of a handheld vacuum altogether. Many models will allow you to detach the stick and use the vacuum unit similarly to a handheld vacuum, although you do lose some of the convenience of not having to worry about a bunch of extra parts to keep track of.

Alex Rennie/CNN Underscored

After researching and sourcing the most popular handheld vacuums on the market—making sure to include a wide range of  sizes, types, and specialties— we landed on a group of 16 options. We then ran each model through a range of tests, evaluating their ability to effectively vacuum and contain a variety of debris types, as well as the overall build and quality of their construction, how easy they were to use, and ease of cleanup. Once completed, we compared and contrasted our results, and used this information to confidently declare our top 3 options.

Design, build quality, and features

Handheld vacuums should be simple and easy to use, and we paid close attention to how straightforward the controls were, or if they utilized any confusing or frustrating components. The action of disconnecting and emptying the dust canister and filter varied on nearly all the vacuums, so we made sure to carefully review and evaluate how easy or difficult this process was, and whether doing so was likely to make a mess or not.  A larger canister will reduce the amount of times you’ll need to empty it out. We noted each vacuum’s canister capacity, and used that data to compare them against similar models, which tended to help tie-breakers.

We used and evaluated any and all attachments, tools, and accessories that came with each unit, judging them not just on quantity, but on how well they actually worked. We also paid close attention to whether or not the size and shape of the vacuum affected its ability to handle a wide range of tasks, and carefully assessed the usefulness of any specialized attachments like pet hair brushes and wet/dry tools..

Noise, power, and suction were all taken into account, as well as the location of the air exhaust vent. The location and orientation of this vent can play a big part in the overall operation of a handheld vacuum, and when it blows downwards to towards the floor, can blow dust and debris around as you work.

Alex Rennie/CNN Underscored

To assess each vacuum’s ability to pick up small debris, we dropped a tablespoon of three different types of debris (flour, kitty litter, and Cheerios) on the kitchen floor and set a 10 second timer as we attempted to clean up as much as we could. We then weighed each vacuums canister after each debris type to see how much it actually picked up. This process gave us a good evaluation of power, suction and storage capacity across the board.

We then used each vacuum to clean two vehicles (a compact Jeep Wrangler and more spacious Subaru Forester) and utilized all of their tools and attachments. We paid close attention to charging capabilities—i.e. a USB charger would allow you to keep the vacuum in your car at all times—as well as canister size and each vacuum’s overall ability to maneuver into awkward spaces like underneath seats and into tight crevices.

And to make sure these vacuums could handle pet messes, we used each one to clean up dog hair on a couch and indoor rugs, as well as carpeting inside of the two vehicles. In addition to the ability to pull up and remove hair, we also noted how much hair the canister could contain without needing to be emptied. Although we paid close attention to the models that are specifically designed and advertised for pet hair removal, we performed the same tests on all the other options as well.

Finally, we noted the length and specifics of each vacuums warranty, and the type of coverage it offers.

Other Handheld Vacuums We Tested

Wyze Handheld Vacuum

The compact size of this vacuum makes it ideal for light-duty work, and since it charges over USB it is perfect for keeping in your car full time, or almost anywhere you might need it. For its small size, the vacuum is powerful, and was easily able to suck up Cheerios, a task some of the larger units sometimes struggled with) and contained them in the canister without any falling out. We were impressed with the number of attachments that came with the Wyze Handheld—although the extension hose felt a bit cheap—as well as the handy storage bag that they can be stored in. The main drawback to the Wyze is the fact that you had to press the power button down for a couple seconds to turn it on—and the same to power it off—which was just a bit inconvenient.

Shark Wandvac

The Shark Wandvac has a modern, sleek look, and enough attachments to be useful for a range of jobs.The 16.5-inch inch length also allows you to reach the ground without bending over too much, although the Wandvac is large enough that it does make it difficult to reach into tight or awkward areas. The nozzle head was able to form a nice tight seal on the floor, making it really useful for sucking up flour and other soft debris from between tile cracks. The main drawback to this vacuum was its relatively small 2.56 oz canister, which filled up quickly, and was a bit inconvenient to dump out cleanly.

This sleek, stylish vacuum has solid build quality and well-constructed attachments, and was simple to use right out of the box. Its charging base is nice and sturdy, and the attachments—a long crevice tool with brush and flat upholstery tool—were great at their jobs and made this vacuum very versatile. The vent on the sides of the unit blew air out and up, which reduced the chances of our debris piles blowing around. “Eco” and “Max” power modes let you choose whether to sacrifice a bit of power to extend the battery life. This vacuum handled most of our tests well, except for the Cheerios portion. Unfortunately, the flap that prevents debris from falling back out of the canister was too sturdy to allow the Cheerios inside, and it wasn’t able to suck them up. Removing the canister and filter was a bit of a hassle, and the quantity of plastic and rubber components made us a little concerned that one could snap or wear down with frequent use.

Black & Decker Advanced Clean 

The straightforward controls and convenient storage base of this vacuum make it easy to use, and handy for light-duty cleaning. The retractable extra-wide nozzle was interesting, but the unit itself didn’t seem to have the power for it to be particularly effective, and had trouble picking up the kitty litter during our testing. The crevice tool and brush attachment worked well though, and the removable canister was one of the easiest models to clean out. The 11 minute runtime is pretty short compared to our other options, but fine for the occasional cleanup.

The powerful 20V battery and heavy weight of this Dirt Devil vacuum gave it a nice, sturdy feel, and its motorized pet hair brush also made it nearly as good as our top pet hair pick, the Bissell Pet Hair Eraser, but the lack of additional attachments—particularly a soft brush tool—made it noticeably less versatile for other cleaning tasks. That said, We did appreciate that the long crevice tool was permanently attached to the canister, which reduces the chances of it being lost, always a big plus in our book. We did experience some frustration while testing soft debris like flour, which was frequently blown around due to the downward orientation of the air vent. Its nozzle was too small for Cheerios, so keep that in mind if you plan on using it for larger debris. The lack of a dedicated charging base was also a drawback, although depending on your storage situation, that might not be a dealbreaker.

The Hoover ONEPWRs long length was uniquely suited for reaching cobwebs and dust in ceiling corners, though it is inconvenient for storage and fitting into tight areas. Disappointingly, its dust canister was inexplicably small, and filled up almost immediately during our testing. The Hoover’s power-tool-style battery pack needs to be charged on an external charger, which was inconvenient, and since the charger lacked storage for the vacuum itself as well as the accessories, there were a lot of pieces to organize and keep track of. This vacuum—and its battery pack—could be a useful addition, however, if you are already the owner of other Hoover ONEPWR tools (which includes carpet cleaners, upright vacuums, leaf blowers and sprayers).

If a small footprint is what you’re after, the BISSELL Aeroslim could be the perfect fit. It was one of the top ultra-compact models we tested, and was surprisingly powerful compared to the bigger models. We really appreciated the fact that the crevice tool featured an integrated brush attachment, making it versatile enough for lots of jobs, without making you keep track of extra accessories. This single attachment, combined with the compact size and USB charging capability, made the Aeroslim eally convenient for cleaning out the car. Its brush made it possible to quickly run it over the dashboard and instrument panel without worrying about scratches, and the primary nozzle was wide enough to pick up sand, dirt and other debris on our floorboards.This vacuum was also extremely easy to clean, with an easily detachable canister and a filter cover that was simple to wash under the faucet. The main drawback was the fact that Cheerios were unable to fit through the primary nozzle, and the limited, 3.3 ounce canister capacity was just a little too small.

The addition of a unique squeegee attachment makes this option well-suited for anyone who needs to clean up wet spills quickly. Unfortunately, the orientation of the air vent was extremely frustrating, and if you turn the vacuum even a few degrees, your dust and debris will be blown around, creating an even bigger mess. Build-wise, this vacuum was nice and sturdy, and We never felt like it was flimsy or in danger of being damaged if we dropped or accidentally banged it into anything. It also featured a 2-year limited warranty—most others advertised a 1-year warranty—and a large 17-ounce canister was both simple to detach and convenient to clean out after We were finished. In addition to the squeegee, it also features an integrated long crevice tool that you won’t have to worry about misplacing.

Overall, this Hoover vacuum was easy to use and thanks to a 20V battery, was one of the most powerful options we tested. Just like the Hoover ONEPWR Dust Chaser, this model uses an external battery pack—like a power drill—which made it a bit less convenient than vacs that used an internal battery, though if used as part of a larger Hoover ONEPWR tool collection, that extra battery could be a benefit. This powerful battery allowed the Hoover ONEPWR to power through all our debris tests with ease, and since the crevice tool is stored on the unit itself, was always easy to find and install when we needed it. If you’ve got the room to store it and the battery charger easily, and the need for the raw power it provides, this could be a great choice.

We had high hopes for the unique pet brush attachment of this unit, but was ultimately let down by its low productivity. The rubber flaps—as opposed to the brush head used by other pet hair attachments—just wasn’t able to pull up as much hair as any other pet-focused option we tested. The large size of the unit also made it a challenge to use inside the car and took up a lot of room to store, especially since it lacked a charging base. We did appreciate how sturdy and robust the unit felt overall, and the canister and filter were easy to remove and clean when we were finished.

Black & Decker Pivot

We loved the convenience of this unit, particularly the fact that all the attachments were built into the unit itself. With no extra pieces to organize or keep track of, this was a breeze to use and store, and the minimal charging base made it easy to keep out of the way. It did a fine job during flour and kitty litter testing, although the Cheerios did clog up the nozzle and ultimately failed at containing them inside the canister. Other than that, the power and wide nozzle of this vacuum made it really fun to use, especially in the car. The pivoting nozzle is also useful when accessing overhead cabinetry, though it’s durability remains to be seen.

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