When you’re trying to clean up pesky pet hair or snack crumbs on the couch, sometimes it doesn’t make sense to break out your larger vacuum. Although larger and more robust models certainly have their place in your arsenal of house cleaning supplies, when it comes to quick spot cleaning or harder-to-reach places, a powerful handheld vacuum can be a much easier option.
“Remember dust busters? That’s a great example of a cordless handheld vacuum [that is] designed to be grab and go,” said Kathy Turley, director of marketing at Home Clean Heroes. “It’s similar to a stick model, but you’ll have to bend over to get the crumbs off the floor after meal time.”
The portability of this style of vacuum can also be great when it comes to cleaning your car. However, Turley explained that “handheld vacuums are meant to complement your heavier duty models like a canister or upright, but not be used instead of.”
Below, we spoke to cleaning experts about the features to look for in a handheld vacuum and the best times to use one. Using their shopping guidance, we also compiled some highly rated handheld vacuum options from brands like Shark, Bissell and more.
SKIP AHEAD The best handheld vacuums
What exactly is a handheld vacuum?
Vacuum cleaners are available in various shapes and sizes because each is designed for a specific purpose, explained Rachel Decker, co-owner of Queen Vacuum and Homecare. “A handheld vacuum cleaner is a smaller version of the normal household vacuum,” she said. “It’s generally so small and light that it can comfortably be held in one hand, making it ‘handy’ for use in awkward places like stairs, small spaces like the car, or dusty-crummy corners.” They also typically take up little space and are faster and more convenient for quick tidying between your weekly deep-cleaning vacuuming routine.
When shopping, you might notice that handheld vacuums come in two options: corded or cordless, meaning they either have to be plugged into an outlet during use or rely on a battery for power. “I prefer cordless because it offers more flexibility in the sense that you don't have to unwind a cord and plug it in before using,” said Turley. “However, corded handhelds have unlimited run time — as opposed to cordless [versions] that need to be charged.”
Since handheld vacuums are only designed to handle smaller messes, Turley said that most people would benefit from owning both a handheld vacuum and a full-sized one. “A ‘real,’ ‘big’ vacuum is a must – a requirement – for every home, regardless of size, in order to clean fully, properly and regularly,” she explained.
How to shop for a new handheld vacuum
When you’re in the market for a new handheld vacuum, there are several major factors that Decker recommends shoppers think about. She suggests asking yourself these questions as you compare models:
- What is the primary surface I need to clean and the primary substance I’m trying to remove? For example, are you buying this to help deal with sand in the trunk of your car, food crumbs on the bare dining room floor, dog fur on the couch or mixed debris on carpeted stairs?
- What tools/attachments does it come with? Is there a turbo rotary pet hair brush, a crevice tool, an extension hose wand or an electric power nozzle for floors and rugs?
- What is the size, weight and shape? Think about if it will be able to fit into the areas you need it to and how long you’ll be able to hold it before getting tired.
- How much run time do I need with each typical use? Are you looking for quick crumb pickups, 10-minute tidying sessions of the household floors or 30 minutes of deep cleaning for the car? This will impact the run time you look for.
- How is the power triggered or engaged? Does the trigger need to be held the entire time or is there a stay-on power switch for longer uses?
- How much potential suction power does it have? “More power generally equals more suction,” Decker explained, so look to see the amperage if corded or volts if battery-operated.
- How is the dirt filtered? Is it a disposable bag or bagless dirt cup? And can the filter be washed?
- What kind of life expectancy do I expect? For example, do you need it mainly for one job or do you hope to have it for the next five years? “If you don’t care when a vacuum breaks and prefer to throw it out and buy new each time, then you can skip this part,” Decker said. “But if you’re concerned about minimizing wasted expense and negative impact on the landfill/environment, then buying a better quality, properly ‘supported’ brand can make a huge difference.”
- How long is the warranty and where or how would I get that fulfilled it needed? Is there any online tech support, and would you need to ship it out to a remote facility or could you bring it to a local repair shop?
After answering those questions, she also keep these features in mind:
- The brand. If you can, stick to an established and well-supported brand. This will make it easier to buy basic replacement parts for the unit. “Also, make sure that the brand has an easy and/or local means of getting it fixed under warranty — these products have a high failure-rate [and] you’ll likely need it,” Decker said. “Many brands are popular and/or featured on TV, but are not supported on the ‘back end’ in real-life.”
- The feel. Try out different handheld vacuums to make sure the one you choose feels comfortable in your hands, Decker said. “These can be awkward and heavy if you have injured hands and wrists,” she said. “Make sure it feels sturdy – not flimsy and likely to break when you use it in tight spaces, when emptying it out or changing accessories.”
- Easy dirt removal. The smaller the dust bin capacity, the more frequently you will need to empty the dirt you cleaned up. Make sure you can easily empty the dirt cup and clean its filters “as some can be extremely difficult and messy,” she warned. This also may mean potential contact with contaminants that you’d ideally like to limit.
- The electricity supply. Depending on your intended use, whether the model is cordless or battery-operated will matter. If you’re trying to clean your car or boat, you may not want to be limited to having an outlet nearby, but if you are looking for more power indoors, you may prefer a cord.
- An external battery. A removable battery pack enables you to buy and keep a spare battery on hand to extend your run time. “It also makes for an easy fix if the battery fails,” she said. This way, the whole vacuum doesn’t need to be replaced.
- Rotary brush attachment. If you need to remove lots of pet fur or clean rugs and upholstery (either on stairs or in your car), make sure it has a powered rotary brush attachment. “You’ll need this to assist the otherwise weak-ish suction and to lift out the hair,” she said.
- Dusting tools. If you have primarily bare surfaces and wood floors to clean with your handheld vacuum, make sure it comes with dusting tools that are rimmed with bristles that are soft. “Many units have only hard crevice nozzles or wheels touching the floor that are hard plastic and can scratch your household surfaces,” she said.
- Other accessories. Look for handheld vacuums that come with, or can accept, an extension wand and floor-cleaning nozzle. “You think you will just want to pick up little crumbs and don’t mind bending down occasionally but … you will get a lot of use out of those attachments,” she said. Plus, you can always pop them off and go back to the base form for smaller, up-close tasks.
Top-rated handheld vacuum cleaners to buy
Many handheld vacuums on the market today are not the traditional "dustbuster" version from years ago, explained Turley, which means there’s a greater range in options available. This can make the search feel daunting, but with the help of our expert guidance, we compiled some of the most effective and highly rated handheld vacuums for cleaning homes and cars.
Top overall handheld vacuum: Black + Decker
With a 16-volt lithium ion battery that the brand says can hold a charge for up to 18 months, this powerful cordless handheld vacuum holds up between cleans and is ready to grab and go when you need it. In addition to a removable slim nozzle that can rotate 180 degrees, it also comes with an extendable crevice tool, flip out brush and washable filter.
Top-rated compact handheld vacuum: Shark
Weighing 1.4 pounds, this relatively lightweight handheld vacuum is ideal for spot cleaning messes on the go and is sleekly designed to suck up dirt in hard-to-reach places. This powerful cordless model has a charging dock and LED display for clear battery life status and a one-touch empty detachable .2-gallon dust cup. It also has a removable filter that’s washable and comes with two accessories to help tackle pet hair.
Top-rated budget-friendly handheld vacuum: Black and Decker
This 2.11-pound handheld vacuum cleaner has a dust bin capacity of .25 gallons, a 10.8-volt lithium ion battery and a wall mount for charging. It also comes with a brush attachment, crevice tool and two-year limited warranty. The dirt bowl is clear so you can easily see when you need to slide it out for a quick empty. It’s also washable, as is the filter.
Top-rated corded handheld vacuum for pet hair: Bissell
As a dog mom to two fur babies, Turley is a fan of this .2-gallon-capacity handheld vacuum for its two nozzles that are specifically designed to attract stray hairs. “It has a rubber nozzle, which can be removed when needed, which is great for picking up dog hair,” she explained. “The rubber nozzle bends and contours around chairs, stairs and more to ensure that no stray hairs are left behind. However, she noted that it is corded with a 16-foot range, which can be a drawback.
Top-rated cordless handheld vacuum for pet hair: Black + Decker
For pet owners who prefer a cordless option, Black + Decker’s AdvancedClean+ is a great option, according to Turley. Not only does it have the anti-tangle rubber bristles that easily pick up pet hairs in her experience, but it also has two speeds with a powerboost mode, a long and narrow attachment to get into tight crevices, a washable filter and a 20-volt lithium ion battery. It weighs 2.6 pounds and the .2-gallon dust bin also has a one-touch empty feature.
Top-rated corded handheld vacuum: Shark
With a 15-foot power cord, you don’t have to worry about battery life or range with this handheld vacuum and you can easily empty the dust cup with the touch of a button. It weighs under 4 pounds and comes with three accessories, including a motorized brush to remove pet hair and allergens deep in upholstery.
Top-rated basic handheld vacuum: Black + Decker
For small dry spills and other little messes, this Black + Decker handheld, cordless vacuum includes a built-in crevice tool and brush for upholstered furniture. The 1.4-pound vacuum also comes with a wall mount base and charger, which can be useful if you don’t have much space to spare in a closet or kitchen. Its dust bin has a capacity of .08 gallons and it comes with a lithium ion battery as well as a two-year warranty.
Top-rated compact handheld vacuum: Eufy
At 1.2 pounds, this sleek hand vacuum is about the size of a wine bottle, making it both lightweight while it’s in use and easy to store when it’s not. It conveniently charges with a Micro-USB cable and comes with a two-in-one crevice tool for nimble suctioning in tight spaces. It also has a no-slip grip, washable filter and two-year warranty.
Top-rated splurge handheld vacuum: Dyson
This .15-gallon-capacity handheld vacuum is designed to go anywhere, Carl Prouty, tech expert at Abt Electronics, said. “From furniture to your car to your boat, it can clean a variety of areas,” he explained. “It's compact, lightweight and has a powerful motor. Plus it comes with a 12-volt car charger for charging on the go.”
When to use a handheld vacuum
Although other models are better when it comes to deep-cleaning your floors, Decker explained that there are other challenges when it comes to cleaning your home where handhelds, also known as handvacs, win. These include:
- Getting into tight or awkward spaces
- When there are physical size or weight-lifting limitations
- If there are time constraints
- When there is “super-yucky/smelly stuff” that you might not want to put through and keep in your big vacuum
“Thus, for all the ‘in-between’ cleaning to keep your space tidier day to day (or to tackle random difficult tasks), [handheld vacuums] make a fantastic, convenient supplement to your cleaning arsenal,” she said.
Pros and cons of a handheld vacuum
Although handheld vacuums aren’t ideal for deep cleaning every inch of your house, they do have some perks. According to the experts we consulted, these include:
- Lightweight. Handheld vacuums can make cleaning dangerous staircases or high-up places a bit safer, according to Decker.
- Small size. This comes in handy when it comes to getting into crevices and storing the vacuum between uses.
- Portable. “They easily fit inside your car and a well-equipped one can eradicate rogue french fries, beach sand and dog hair,” said Decker.
- Can be handy to clean up fast messes. “In its most basic handheld form, performing any close-up work like stairs, the furry couch or glitter on your craft table becomes a breeze,” Decker said.
- Many come with helpful attachments. “Powerful handvacs that come with an extension wand and floor-cleaning nozzle eliminate the need to bend down,” Decker explained. “With just a dusting brush on the end, you can tackle cobwebs and dust on your ceiling fans and moldings.”
However, Decker noted the importance of recognizing that no handvac on the market today can outperform or replace a “regular” corded, full-size vacuum for true deep cleaning.
“This category serves as a fantastic, convenient supplement to your cleaning routine, making quick work of crumbs and fur before it tracks-trough and gets ground-in to your flooring,” she said. “Handvacs are best for quick pickups of food crumbs after dinner (versus travelling through the long, complicated ‘bowels’ of your big vacuum, where it may also sit and rot after too long a time).”
However, some of these pros are also cons — “99 percent of the time,” these vacuums are bagless as well as cordless and rely on a rechargeable battery, according to Decker. “This means that even the best of them are not super powerful and will still require a lot of maintenance to empty and clean them out (often with every use),” she said.
Also, because of their smaller size, handheld vacuums’ dust bins have a lower capacity and typically don’t hold a ton of dirt. “They’re also generally of poorer quality, are more fragile, prone to catastrophic electrical problems and do not last as long as a corded, bagged or full-sized vacuum,” she said. “Arguably, they are also very expensive for what they are — often rivaling or exceeding the cost of a regular vacuum. But that’s the price for convenience.”