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How To Pick The Perfect Handheld Vacuum For Your Home Or Car

By David Wise ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Wednesday February 6, 2019

Wondering why you would ever want a handheld vacuum? Have some negative impressions of the earlier version of these products? We looked at tons and tons of different products, then bought all the best ones to compare head-to-head. Along the way, we compiled this guide to help explain what they are actually good for (and where they fall flat!) and how to pick the best model for your needs. As electric motors and lithium batteries become smaller and more powerful, it's time to throw out everything you thought you knew about those antiquated dust busters and give their modern counterparts a chance!

Why Buy a Handheld Vacuum?

The first thing you might be wondering when you see these products is why you even need one. While these are good at cleaning tons of different messes around your home — or even in your boat, car, or RV — these products are definitely not the best at cleaning compared to upright or stick vacuums.

While these products might not be the best of the best when it comes to cleaning, they are certainly one of the best options when it comes to convenience. These products are exceptionally handy at cleaning up light to medium messes and are the perfect solution to cleaning hard-to-reach places, like under the seats in your car or on top of cabinets. A handheld vacuum is a great way to clean up small messes or light cleanup between less frequent, deeper cleans of your home or for cleaning up messes on things that would be hard to clean with a standard vacuum, such as a dining room table or a kitchen countertop. However, not all handheld vacuums are created equal, with some being much heavier-duty than others. This leads us to the first thing to consider when picking out a new handheld vacuum.

Step 1: Corded or Cordless

The first major difference that you will notice differentiating these products is whether they are corded or cordless. While corded handheld vacuums — running on either 120V outlets from your house or on 12V outlets in your car — will undoubtedly have a much longer maximum runtime than the battery powered model, but we found they were significantly less convenient and much more of a hassle to use.

Handheld vacuums stand out by being extremely convenient to use — they are great at being on hand to quickly clean up a spill or mess right after it happens. It doesn't seem like a significant increase in effort, but spending the time to dig out the cord and plug it in severely cuts down the appeal of these products and we almost always would recommend a cordless model over a corded. True, they may only run for 10-20 minutes, but they aren't designed for cleaning your entire home in one go.

If you really want a corded models, we still wouldn't recommend getting a corded handheld vacuum. Instead, we would recommend getting a small shop vac or a corded stick vacuum that also includes handheld attachments.

The Shark Rocket has superior cleaning power  helped by the fact that it is a corded model.
The Shark Rocket has superior cleaning power, helped by the fact that it is a corded model.

This way, you are at least getting a significant increase in suction and cleaning power to compensate the loss of convenience.

The hose attachment on the Dyson lets you clean even the hardest to reach places.
The hose attachment on the Dyson lets you clean even the hardest to reach places.

Step 2: What Are You Going To Use It For?

First, we wouldn't even consider getting one of these products that lacks some sort of bristle brush attachment or a crevice tool. Both of these attachments are absolutely vital and we found we used both of them on each vacuum almost every single day that we tested these products.

We would also recommend one that does fairly well in our battery life tests and one that has a collection bin that is at least 0.5L in capacity.

To further narrow down your options, it's time to think about where you are actually going to use your new handheld vacuum and what you are hoping to pick up with it. If you are only looking for a quick and easy way to clean up crumbs or other light messes off of smooth surfaces, such as a desk or countertop, then you are in luck. Almost any of these products would work very well for you, so you should save some cash and stick with a mid-range value option.

If you are looking to dust as well, you are also going to want to make sure that the handheld vacuum you pick has a medium to long bristle attachment that is on the softer side.

We also found the longer attachments or even the hose to be particularly useful when it came to cleaning out your car. Additionally, we would also recommend getting a model that has a longer battery life if you are looking at primarily getting this to clean out your car, boat, or RV. However, there is no beating a shop vac or even an industrial vacuum cleaner at a car wash if you really want to do a deep clean of your vehicle.

Finally, if you are mainly looking at a way to pick up small messes off your floor, then we would actually dissuade you from getting a handheld only vacuum. Instead, we would suggest that you consider a stick vacuum that also doubles as a handheld. It is significantly more comfortable and easier to clean your floors with a stick vacuum over a handheld and your back will definitely thank us in the long run!

The motorized brush on the V7 made short work of pet hair
The motorized brush on the V7 made short work of pet hair

Step 3: Have Any Furry Friends At Home?

Finally, you might be wondering which handheld vacuum will serve you the best if you have dogs or cats running around your home. If that is the case, then you will definitely want a model that has a rotating bristle brush attachment.

The motorized brush head on the BISSELL is great for cleaning  but it can drain your battery faster than stationary attachments.
The motorized brush head on the BISSELL is great for cleaning, but it can drain your battery faster than stationary attachments.

None of the other attachments even come close in effectiveness at loosening pet hair from carpet or couch cushions.


Hopefully, this guide has helped you figure out what to look for in a new handheld vacuum and narrowed down your options. Check out our How We Test article for a more thorough explanation of how we ranked and scored these products and why you should trust our results or head on over to our complete Handheld Vacuum Review to see which products we thought are the best of the best.

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