Who should get this
The most compelling reason to buy a good handheld vacuum is because it can reach places that bigger vacuums can't, like the interior of a car or surfaces around your house that aren't the floor. Handheld vacuums are also convenient for quick cleanups around the house because they're battery-powered and compact enough to sit on a shelf or countertop between uses.
How we picked and tested
We've researched about 50 models since we started covering this category, searching for a handheld vacuum that made tidying small messes—or messes where a regular vacuum couldn't easily reach—as easy as possible. We looked for the following criteria:
- An 18-volt battery or greater. More voltage does not necessarily mean more cleaning power, but 18 volts is a good baseline for decent suction.
- A lithium or lithium-ion battery.
- Attachments or at least extensions for easy cleaning of tricky materials and hard-to-reach areas.
- Strong user ratings of at least four out of five stars on average.
- Battery life and recharge time, though most vacuums have enough juice that this is a nonissue.
I tested the contenders around the house for a few weeks, mainly for everyday tasks like picking up random tufts of cat hair, cleaning crumbs off countertops or the kitchen floor, and tidying my car after moving sports equipment—most of the typical uses for handheld vacuums, in other words—to get a feel for the real-world pros and cons. Sometimes I used two contenders side by side for these cleanups to see a more direct comparison.
I also set up an informal test to gauge suction. I poured out six lines of coffee grounds on a countertop, used each finalist to suck up one line each, and then made notes on how easily each model accomplished that task.
The Black+Decker Max Lithium Flex Vacuum BDH2020FL is our favorite handheld vacuum because the flexible 4-foot hose and clip-on attachments help it reach and clean awkward spots around your home and car where other handhelds struggle. The suction is strong enough to handle most common types of debris. It has a 16-minute, no-fade run time, which should be enough to give most cars a thorough tidy-up, and its 20-volt battery offers plenty of suction for most household jobs.
The Max Flex Vac's hose accepts attachments and comes with three tools: A combo tool, a crevice tool, and a pet-hair brush. The combo tool has bristles that can help grab clingy particles. The crevice tool is helpful as a wand extender, but it also makes it easier to get in tight nooks and crannies. If you're a pet owner, the pet-hair brush is also a big help. It's nothing fancy, just a rubbery surface with nubs, but it does help corral fuzz in a way that most handhelds struggle with. Once you're done cleaning, the Max Flex Vac's dirt canister is easy to empty: Pull a latch on the side of the vacuum's body, tip it toward the garbage can, give it a whack, and you're done.
Of course, the Max Flex Vac has flaws. There's the price: It often costs $120, which is a lot for a handheld vacuum, but we think that the Flex Vac's versatility and solid suction make it worth the price for people who will use it a few times per week. We also noticed the filter gets dirty very quickly, which can cause drop-offs in suction as quickly as two battery cycles. This is a common problem with most handheld vacuums, so you'll need to be diligent about knocking the dust loose.
An almost-identical runner-up
The Black+Decker Max Flex Vac BDH2020FLFH is the same vacuum as our main pick, with the same useful clip-on attachments, plus an extension wand and floor tool to turn it into an ersatz stick vacuum. Though the floor-cleaning kit sounds like a good value, it's actually totally worthless, because the suction becomes too weak by the time it reaches the end of the extension wand to be useful at all. We recommend buying whichever version of the Max Flex Vac costs less when you're shopping.
A budget pick for quick cleanups
If you need a regular DustBuster-style handheld for quick cleanups, buy the Black+Decker CHV1410L. It's a perennial best-seller, and one of the most affordable vacuums with a strong lithium battery. In our testing, the CHV1410L had no trouble sucking up crumbs and dirt off of bare surfaces like countertops, tile floors, and windowsills. Though the 16-volt battery is smaller than our top pick's battery, we found the CHV1410L was about as effective for small cleanups. We clocked a 12-minute run time, but have heard reports of shorter life spans.
The main downside is that the CHV1410L can't clean carpet or upholstery effectively. Debris clings to fabric, and the CHV1410L has neither the suction to offset the clinging, nor any tool that can agitate debris out from the fibers. Also, because the CHV1410L has no hose, cleaning the kinds of odd angles that our main pick excels at is a hassle.
The most cleaning power
If you're willing to pay for the strongest handheld vacuum possible, get the Dyson V6 Car + Boat. It has much more suction by a wide margin than any other handheld vacuum we've tested, including our main pick. It also has more battery life than its competitors, with a run time of 20 minutes. Several V6 variants are available, but we think that the Car + Boat has the best set of attachments. The V6 Car + Boat is very expensive, and probably overkill for most people, but no other handheld vacuums comes close to its power and versatility.
The Car + Boat comes with a flexible extension hose (like the one built into our main pick), crevice tool, combo brush, stiff-bristle brush, soft-dusting brush, and a mini motorized brush roll. The mini brush roll is especially useful because it lets the V6 pick up the kind of clingy debris that every other handheld we tested left behind. If you don't think you'll need all the attachments included with the V6 Car + Boat, consider the V6 Top Dog instead. It costs a little less most of the time, but still comes with the mini motorized brush roll.
This guide may have been updated by The Sweethome. To see the current recommendation, please go here.
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