How do we test handheld vacuums? First, we considered the several components that determine a handheld vacuum, and did tons of research, combing through existing reviews, user experiences, and manufacturer's marketing claims to find the portable products that showed the most potential. We purchased those contenders for testing to evaluate and score each product on its cleaning performance, examining everything from easy to clean messes, like dust and dirt, to much harder ones, like pet hair or flour smooshed into the carpet. We also compared how easy each one is to use, looking at how well it can clean in problematic areas, how convenient it is to operate, and its battery life. We divided up our tests into six weighted metrics. We've tested some top-notch vacuums over the years, and we were excited to see how this category fared. We outline our complete testing plans and procedures below.
Dust & Dirt
For our first set of tests, we compared and scored how well each vacuum did at cleaning up some of the most commonly encountered messes around your home, as well as how well the brushes fit into corners and cracks. We used the bristle brush for each of these tests or the upholstery attachment if the vacuum didn't have a bristle brush but did not use any motorized attachments. Altogether, these four tests accounted for 20% of the final score for each product.
We looked at how each handheld vacuum did at dusting. However, we wanted to make a consistent and replicable test for each vacuum, so we used sifted flour as dust to easily control the amount of mess each vacuum was expected to clean up. We took a nylon photo screen, statically charged it by rubbing a pair of wool socks over it, then sprinkled sifted flour over it. We shook off the excess and then timed each vacuum how long it took to clean it satisfactorily.
We moved on to assessing how well the brush for each vacuum cleans along small ledges and in corners. We spread out some coffee grounds on the top of a section of baseboard and a windowsill, then rated how well the bristles fit into the spaces and freed the debris for vacuuming. Additionally, we also awarded points based on how well each one cleaned in the corners of the windowsill.
Finally, we tried out each vacuum with a slightly more problematic mess to clean up: dirt and mud. We made a mixture of dirt and mud, then spread it out across a section of linoleum floor and let it dry. After sufficient time had passed, we tried cleaning an area with each vacuum and ranked the contenders on how long it took to clean. Most of these vacuums aren't designed for wet/dry operation, so make sure you check the manufacturer's instructions before cleaning up anything wet or risk damaging your handheld vacuum.
For our second metric, also responsible for 20% of the total score, we continued to escalate the difficulty of our cleaning challenges. We tested out how well each vacuum cleaned up flour and crushed oats from different surfaces and how effectively each handheld vacuum could pick up larger particles. We also measured the amount of air each product could move using a sealed chamber and an anemometer. For these tests, we picked the most appropriate attachment for the task — whichever one was the perfect balance between cleaning performance and convenience.
We spread out a tablespoon of flour on a section of replacement car carpet, then scored each vacuum on how much it picked up after a single pass and how much it picked up after multiple passes (eight, to be precise).
In our oatmeal test, we mixed up our testing procedure a bit. We spread out two tablespoons of oats on a couch cushion, then allowed each vacuum 20 seconds to clean it and scored them on how well it did. When determining scores, we took into account the amount collected, the amount remaining, and the amount flung aside. We then repeated this test on the car carpet, averaging the results.
Next, we attempted to suck up a handful of Mini-Wheats cereal with each vacuum, noting if it could suck up the squares and if they could make it past the gate into the collection bin.
Finally, we measured the airflow caused by each vacuum using an anemometer mounted in a sealed chamber. We sealed one end of the chamber around each handheld vacuum, then recorded the airspeed on the anemometer and based scores off of that.
Next, we considered how easy it is to clean cramped areas with each handheld vacuum. This testing metric accounts for 20% of the final score. We tested how well each vacuum cleaned in small cracks and how far it could easily reach under furniture.
Our first test focused on cleaning out the tracks for a sliding window. We sprinkled a bit of oatmeal in each one, then scored the products on how much it effectively sucked up.
For our next test, we scored each product on how far under a nightstand or similar piece of furniture it could clean. We used a shelving rack with a 3" gap at the bottom, then attempted to clean as far as possible underneath.
Our last test for this metric built upon the previous and assessed how well these handheld vacuums could do at cleaning under an underneath an appliance, like a fridge or oven. We reduced the gap from the last test to 1.25" high, then repeated the same procedure, again scoring each vacuum on its maximum reach.
All of the products in this review are cordless, so it only made sense to compare and score the battery life of each model. Most of these products only have a single cleaning mode, but a few have a low and high power mode. For those with multiple settings, we calculated total runtime based on 70% usage on the low power mode and 30% usage on the higher power mode, as this seemed reasonably representative of typical use, based on our testing experience. This test accounted for 15% of the final score for each handheld vacuum.
Also worth 15% of the total score, our next metric focused on how easy and convenient to use each of these products are. In particular, we focused on how much each vacuum weighed and how it felt to hold, its bin capacity and ease of emptying, if it had a convenient option for tool storage, and how noisy it was while running.
We weighed the base of each vacuum without a tool, then with the heaviest tool attached as the main component, and we considered how balanced each vacuum felt to hold during frequent use.
To compare the ease of emptying the bin, we scored each product on the mechanism that opens the container and how easily the dirt and debris comes out of it — whether it always falls out on its own or if it needs assistance. We also awarded points based on the size of the collection bin.
Finally, we compared the ease of storing and swapping of each product's different attachments. We gave the most points for integrated tools and the least for vacuums that require another whole box to keep all the tools.
For the last 10% of the total score, we compared how well each vacuum performed at picking up animal hair. We spread out some donated pet hair from a local groomer on the car carpet and a couch cushion, then rated how well each vacuum cleaned both of these areas using the most appropriate attachment.