By Liam McCabe
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After putting in hundreds of hours of research on 330 different vacuums, and testing dozens of them over the past three years, we've found that the Shark Navigator Lift-Away NV352 is by far the most effective, reliable vacuum for its price, and will be a great fit for most people and in most homes.
Who should get this
The focus of this guide is limited to plug-in vacuums. Compared with cordless vacuums, plug-in vacuums cost less and last longer, aren't hampered by a limited battery life, and are always stronger cleaners with tighter filtration (for now, anyway).
If your place is small enough and cords get hung up on every corner, however, a cordless vacuum can be a life-changer. Because the prices and owner expectations are so different, we maintain a separate guide to the best cordless vacuums.
How we picked and tested
We started by making a list of every plug-in upright or canister vacuum we could find. Over the years we've assembled a spreadsheet with 330 different vacuum models.
For our main pick, we aimed to find a plug-in vacuum that could work well on almost any kind of bare floor and carpet. We wanted a model that could pick up pet hair or just about any other kind of noticeable debris in a couple of passes, and that could maintain that performance over a long life span, without much maintenance or ongoing costs of ownership. Most vacuums work fine when they're brand-new, but loads of them lose their cleaning ability after a year unless their owners maintain them (and most people do not). For more on our criteria, see our full guide.
We used a set of ever-evolving in-house tests to measure cleaning performance, handling, and ease of maintenance. These included cleaning trials using cat litter, baby powder, cat hair, steel-cut oatmeal, and lentils, testing the machines' performance on wood floors, laminate floors, tile floors, low-pile area rugs, low-pile knit carpets, and medium-pile rugs.
For handling, we ran each model through a timed slalom course to get a feel for steering and maneuverability. The point is to gauge how each vacuum handles in a real-world apartment with a tight floor layout.
Our favorite tests are the stress tests, which give us the best idea of how each vacuum stands up to the dumbest operator errors (we've all made them). Basically, we tried to clog and tangle each machine with tough debris like shredded copy paper, balls of cat hair, sawdust, and socks. And if we succeeded in jamming them up, we figured out how to unclog them.
The Shark Navigator Lift-Away NV352 bagless upright is an effective, reliable vacuum at a great price. Of the 300-plus vacuums available today, this is the one that we think will make the most people the happiest.
The Navigator Lift-Away is a strong all-around vacuum, but the reliability and durability are what put this model above its competitors (and some pricier options). It needs less maintenance than other vacuums at this price, and it has essentially no ongoing costs of ownership thanks in part to a nearly comprehensive five-year warranty that's easy to make a claim on. It's a very capable cleaner, too, able to pick up any debris (including pet hair) from almost all kinds of flooring. Handling is smooth and light, emptying it is easy, and its owners tend to love it, often comparing it favorably with their old vacuums—even models that were much more expensive.
High-pile carpets, such as shag or cable cuts, pose a problem for the Navigator Lift-Away. Long fibers can sometimes plug up the intake or tangle in the brush roller, and the vacuum won't work. But most homes don't have any high-pile rugs, so this is a nonissue for most people.
The Navigator Lift-Away's longevity and low maintenance come from a belt and filters designed to last the life of the vacuum. Most other vacuums at this price use flat rubber belts, which stretch out and need to be replaced at least once a year. Many use disposable filters, which have to be swapped out a few times per year. Most people don't replace those worn-out parts, so cleaning performance takes a nosedive after about a year. The Navigator Lift-Away is different: It uses a geared belt, which doesn't lose tension and should last about 10 years (before it gets brittle and cracks). It also comes with reusable filters.
Same Shark, different setup
All of the Shark Navigator Lift-Away models in the NV350, NV360, or NV370 series are essentially the same vacuum, just with minor differences in their tool sets, colors, and button placements. We tend to recommend the NV352 because it's typically the best value at our favorite retailers. But any of the other models are good choices, as well. We've found that the Navigator Lift-Away Deluxe NV360 is the easiest to nab for a good deal these days, and it's the same as the NV352 except for the shape of the handle and the placement of the power button. The NV350 and NV351 are the same as the NV352, with different accessories. The NV355 and NV356 are the "pro" models, with slightly larger dust cups, and the NV370 is the "pro" model with the different handle and placement of the power button. Go wild—pick whichever one you can get for the best deal with all the tools you need.
An excellent cleaner with superior dust control
If you want a vacuum that will run reliably for decades and keep your home as clean as any vacuum can hope to, your best bet is a model from the Miele C2 or C3 series.
Miele canister models have a phenomenal reputation throughout vacuumland. Technicians, salespeople, enthusiasts, testing houses, people who bought and own them—there's a lot of love for these cleaners. Some of the experts we talked to said that if they could recommend just one vacuum, they'd recommend a Miele canister. A Miele model is special because it's easy to maintain and built to last for decades—honestly, 20 years is not uncommon—making it a great value in spite of the high price. Several models, including our pick, are easy to use and as quiet as a vacuum can be. They're fantastic cleaners, too, with excellent pickup, dust collection, and air filtration.
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