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Which Vacuum Should I Get?

If you’re trying to buy a vacuum, you can choose from more than 450 different models. How do you even begin to narrow down the field? We’ve done hundreds of hours of research and testing on vacuum cleaners over the past five years, searching for the best ones to fit all kinds of living situations and lifestyles. This guide will help you figure out the right kind of vacuum to suit your home, whether it’s a small apartment or a big Victorian, covered with shag carpets or left with bare wood floors, or filled with kids and pets.

Last Updated: November 22, 2016
We’ve rearranged this piece in response to changes in several of our vacuum guides.

Table of contents:

I want a good vacuum cleaner—nothing fancy—and I don’t mind replacing it in five years.

Shark Navigator Lift-Away NV352
This affordable, bagless upright has the flexibility and cleaning chops to make most people in most homes totally happy. It should last about five years, which is solid for the price.

Get a bagless upright vacuum. You’re like most people. A bagless upright vacuum that costs between $150 and $200 is a great fit for most American (and Canadian) homes, with any number of floors, any number of pets, and almost any kind of wood, tile, or carpeting.

 The Shark Navigator Lift-Away NV352 is an affordable bagless vacuum that’ll be a solid fit in most homes, and should last about five years. Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

The Shark Navigator Lift-Away NV352 is an affordable bagless vacuum that’ll be a solid fit in most homes, and should last about five years. Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

The best affordable vacs pull about 80 percent of the workload of a high-end vacuum for about 40 percent of the cost.

Here’s why we think a cheap bagless upright is the best choice for most people:

  • One of these can be nearly as reliable and effective as a high-end vacuum, for much less money. The best affordable vacs pull about 80 percent of the workload of a high-end vacuum for about 40 percent of the cost. Good models come with washable filters and durable moving parts, so that you won’t have to put much time, effort, or money into keeping yours at full strength.
  • Compared with cordless vacuums, they’re a much better price value, and can clean much larger homes. A $150 plug-in vacuum cleans carpets about as well as a $300 cordless vacuum, and will last longer, too. And unless you live in an apartment or small house, cordless vacuums may not have enough battery life to clean your entire home on one charge.
  • A good bagless upright in this price range will clean better and last much longer than an ultra-cheapo vacuum. Yeah, you can walk into Walmart and find about a dozen vacuums that cost less than $100. But they’ll generally stop working well after about a year, so we think it’s wiser to spend a little more on a vacuum that’ll last much longer, without needing much maintenance.
  • At this price, uprights tend to be better designed than canister vacuums. At the high end, upright and canister vacuums are both great. But among the less expensive vacuums, at least in the US and Canada, uprights are usually the way to go.
  • At this price, bagless vacuums make more sense than bagged vacuums. Vacuum repair technicians pretty much universally agree that bagged vacuums work more reliably and ultimately last longer than bagless vacuums. But we think that’s only true among high-end machines. Cheaper vacuums, whether they’re bagged or bagless, are built to last only about five years anyway. You might as well go bagless so that you never have to remember to buy new bags or filters.

Check out our full guide to the best vacuums for our up-to-date recommendations.

Here’s why you might consider buying something other than an affordable bagless upright:

  • You can’t expect one of these to last as long as some high-end vacuums. This kind is built to work well for five years or so. High-end vacuums can last for 20 years or longer.
  • If you live in a small home or apartment with a tight floor plan, you’ll probably be happier with a cordless vacuum.
  • There are better choices for vacuuming delicate stone tiles, like limestone or slate. If you’re nervous enough to ask whether your vacuum might scratch your fancy flooring, you owe it to yourself to spend extra on a model with a specialized floor tool.

I like my floors to stay very clean, and I’ll pay big bucks for a vacuum that will last a decade or more.

Miele Compact C2 Electro+
One option out of many excellent models in the lineup, this nimble, near-invincible canister vac is just about the best you can get in cleaning, filtration, and quiet operation.

Get a high-end vacuum. You, my friend, are very wise. If you have the cash, you’ll be happy that you’ve made the investment in a high-end vacuum. That’s because:

  • They clean better. This is for a few reasons. They have powerful motors and tightly sealed ductwork to create very strong airflow. Some models have cleaning heads that can rise or fall (sometimes automatically!) depending on the length and softness of carpet fibers. Little details, like better-engineered brush rolls and side-suction channels, give them an even greater edge.
  • You can expect it to last for ages and require little maintenance. Higher-end vacs have durable belts and bearings and don’t clog easily, so they should truck right along with only a few minutes of maintenance each year. They’re also made to be repairable (unlike most cheap vacs) and backed up by years-long, comprehensive warranties and wide, reliable service networks, too. You can expect at least a decade of service, often two, out of the best models.
  • At this price, a bagged vacuum is a better value than a bagless. Even with proper care, top-of-the-line bagless vacuums don’t last as long as great bagged vacuums, on average. Bagged models can actually last much, much longer.
carpet cleanliness comparison from different vacuums

Image: Elizabeth Brown

Here’s why you might want to consider buying something besides a high-end vacuum:

  • It’s expensive. A high-end vacuum can often pay for itself, because it can last for so long. But if cash is tight, or you’re skeptical that you’ll get your money’s worth out of a pricey machine, there’s nothing wrong with getting a good mid-range vacuum instead.
  • If you have lots of hairy pets, fur will fill up the bags very quickly. Go bagless if you’re worried about the cost of bags getting away from you.

I live in an apartment (or very small house).

Dyson V6
Strong enough to replace a good plug-in vacuum for most carpet cleaning, with enough battery life for most apartments and some small houses.
Hoover Linx
A “good enough” cordless cleaner for bare floors and short rugs, if you’re not looking to spend much.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $96.

Get a cordless vacuum. If your floor plan is relatively small (less than 1,200 square feet) and somewhat cramped, cleaning without a cord can make vacuuming much less of a hassle. That’s because:

  • They get around furniture and other fixtures more easily than any plug-in vacuum. Small homes tend to have cramped floor plans, with less space between large items like couches, tables, chairs, appliances, and so on. Plug-in vacs get their cords hung up on the corners or edges of those big objects, and can’t turn as quickly. Cordless vacuums make it much easier to steer under, around, or between the obstacles in your apartment because they’re light, nimble, and free-roaming.
  • Your home is small enough that a cordless vac will clean it on one charge. A few cordless vacuums do have enough battery life to clean a larger home, but they are either wicked expensive, or just not that great at cleaning carpet. For now, we think that most people in bigger homes are better off with plug-in vacuums.
Cordless vacuums, like the Dyson V6 (left) or Hoover Linx (center), work great in smaller apartments with bare floors and short carpets.

Cordless vacuums, like the Dyson V6 (left) or Hoover Linx (center), work great in smaller apartments with bare floors and short carpets. Photo: Liam McCabe

Check out our guide to cordless vacuums for our current recommendations.

Here’s why you might want a different kind of vacuum:

  • It’ll last for only a few years. Batteries burn out, plastic parts can break, and the warranties are pretty short for vacuums like these. If you’re a buy-it-for-life kind of person, a high-end canister vacuum could be a great pick for a cozy home.
  • If you’re just renting a room, without permanent carpeting, a handheld vacuum will probably get the job done just as well as a cordless upright, but will take up less space.

I have pets.

Shark Navigator Lift-Away NV352
Any decent vacuum can clean up pet hair, so don’t fret about this. Our favorite vacuum is good whether you have pets or don’t.

Any vacuum can clean up pet hair, and pet owners don’t need to buy a special model to do the job well. Any time you see “animal” or “pet” in the name of a vacuum, it only means that it comes with a tool that makes it easier to clean pet hair off of upholstery.

One exception to consider: If you have a lot of hairy pets, like four golden retrievers, or a half-dozen furry cats, you might want to avoid bagged vacuums entirely. Pet hair fills bags quickly, and the cost of replacing them so frequently can add up.

I’m worried I’ll have a hard time pushing a heavy vacuum and carrying it up stairs.

Sebo Felix 1 Premium
This top-performing upright weighs about 6 pounds less than similar models, making it easier to maneuver and carry up stairs.
Miele Complete C3 Kona
Equipped with a larger bag and more versatile cleaning head than our favorite compact canister, it’s better suited for bigger homes, but still easy to tote between floors.

You can find plenty of great light- and moderate-weight vacuums out there. Almost all of today’s best vacuums weigh less than the tanklike uprights of yesteryear, and are easier to steer, too. Handling will not be a problem for most people.

However, some uprights still weigh 20 pounds or more, and that’s just too heavy for some people to carry up a flight of stairs. If you need a lighter vacuum, here are your options:

  • Get a lightweight upright. Our favorite vacuum weighs just 12 pounds, cleans well, and has lots of cool and useful features. Cordless models also usually weigh less than 10 pounds, although they’re only really good in apartments because of their short run times. Plenty of other lightweight uprights are available, too.
  • Get a canister vacuum. Canister vacs can weigh nearly as much as uprights, but the heft is split between two parts. That makes a canister easier to maneuver and to haul up a flight of stairs than a clunky upright. Apart from the weight distribution, some people just prefer the feel of cleaning with a canister vacuum—pulling the weight, instead of pushing it. Each design has a few relative advantages and disadvantages, but our take is that one is not inherently better than the other. It’s really a matter of personal preference. There are some decent cheap canister vacs and some amazing high-end canisters.

I have long, thick carpets.

Panasonic MC-CG902
The manually height-adjustable cleaning head lets this reasonably priced canister clean bare floors, shag carpets, and everything in between.

Get a vacuum with manual height-adjustment feature. High-pile carpets (like shag, frieze, saxony, cable, or long plush) pose a problem for some vacuums. The long fibers can tangle around the brush roller and/or block the intake, essentially choking the vacuum.

Should you get a special vacuum to accommodate this kind of flooring? That’s up to you. If you want to be safe, get a vacuum that has a cleaning head with a manual height adjustment. Crank it up to the tallest setting, and it’ll have enough clearance for high-pile carpets. (You can dial it in to the proper height for other surfaces as well.) Plenty of vacuums at plenty of price points have this kind of cleaning head. A cheap canister is usually the most affordable option, while high-end uprights and very high-end canisters can have them, too.

I have asthma or severe allergies, and indoor air quality is crucial to my health.

Miele Complete C3 Calima Canister
It’s a bagged vacuum, which traps dust and dander better than bagless, and is one of the tightest-sealed machines out there. This model comes standard with a HEPA filter.

A high-quality bagged vacuum is a safe bet. Our favorite high-end vacuums do an excellent job of sucking up allergens and irritants—and keeping them contained during disposal.

If you start digging deep on this topic … well, it’s controversial. Experts disagree on the traits a “clean-air” vacuum needs to have. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America thinks that some bagless vacuums are okay, but most boots-on-the-ground salespeople and technicians told us that they would not recommend them for households where air quality is a major concern. HEPA filters are great—but don’t mean anything if the rest of the system isn’t totally sealed with rubber gaskets. As such, HEPA can be part of slippery marketing schemes. And most people without allergies will do fine without HEPA filters. Basically, you’ll get a slightly different answer about air quality depending on who you ask. But they’ll all pretty much agree that a bagged, sealed-system vacuum gets the job done for sure.

I’m worried a vacuum will scratch my floors.

You probably don’t have to worry about this. Most wood and tile floors are very hardy, enough so no vacuum will scratch them. Furthermore, most worthwhile vacuums come with rubber wheels, which is one extra layer of protection against scratches.

However, if your expensive tile floors sit near the soft end of the Mohs hardness scale, or your softwood floors are prone to scratches, your safest bet is to get a canister vacuum with a parquet floor tool. It has no wheels and no brush roller—just a straight suction tool with soft trim around the edges. This kind of tool is usually a toss-in with any high-end canister vacuum, and you can even buy configurations that come with only this tool.

I like to keep my car tidy, and I want a vacuum for that.

Black+Decker Max Lithium Flex Vacuum BDH2020FL
The Black & Decker MAX Flex Vac powers 16 minutes of suction, enough to clean most cars. The 4-foot flexible hose and crevice tool help it reach spots that other handhelds can’t.

Get a handheld vacuum. Today’s best handheld vacs have powerful, long-lasting batteries, and come with attachments for cleaning crevices and upholstery. Plus, this style is convenient for quick clean-up jobs around the house, unlike some car-specific handhelds that need to be plugged in.

If you live in an apartment and want to clean your car, the best new cordless upright vacuums pull double duty as handheld vacuums, too. One machine for everything you own. Boom!

I want a little vacuum for small messes.

Get a handheld vacuum. A cheapish one is fine. They can suck up small spills on floors and countertops easily. Check out our full guide to handheld vacs here.

which vacuum black and decker

The Black & Decker 20V MAX Lithium Flex Vac is the best handheld vacuum you can get if you regularly clean your car interior. It’s great at home, too. Photo: Brendan Nystedt

I’m interested in one of those robot vacuums.

Eufy RoboVac 11
The RoboVac 11 costs less than most other bots, but its nimble, persistent style works well to keep floors tidy in most homes.

If you’re willing to pay for it, then hell yeah, get a robot vacuum. They aren’t perfect, but they help keep your floors tidy with very little effort and oversight on your part.

The people who tend to like bots the most are:

  • People who like gadgets. If tech is one of your hobbies, then you’ll probably find extra value in a bot vac because it’s not only effective, but also cool as hell.
  • People who spend a lot of time at the office. The bot does the work while you’re gone.
  • People who are extra picky about keeping their floors clean. If you run the bot three or four times a week, your floors will always be tidy. All you have to do is remember to empty the dust bin.

You can find our current recommendation in our full guide to robot vacuums.

Here are some other things to consider before you buy a robot vacuum:

  • They can’t climb stairs. But you can just pick them up and move them between floors.
  • They still need maintenance. That means getting your hands dirty. Human and pet hair tends to get wrapped around the bearings of the brush roller of the most popular models. You need to clean it out every couple of months, or the bot will suffer mechanical problems. Replacement parts and batteries are available, and you’ll probably need to buy some after a few years to keep the bot running.
  • The floor must be clear of bot hazards. Charging cables are a hazard for all bots, and you might find that your bot chokes on one of your area rugs. If you buy a bot, you’ll get in the habit of keeping those out of the way in anticipation of cleanings.
  • If you have pets, proceed with caution. If your dog takes a crap on the floor while you’re at work, the robot will smear it everywhere. This is not rare.

(Top photo by Liam McCabe.)

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