It’s not practical to bust out a bulky, full-size vacuum for everyday small messes. Compact, cordless handheld vacuums are perfectly suited for light-duty cleaning tasks. Although their relatively small capacity and limited runtimes mean they’re unlikely to serve as your primary vacuum, they are extremely convenient for keeping up with everything from kitchen spills to car clutter to pet hair and dander.
We ran 16 of the top-rated options through our comprehensive testing process, evaluating their ability to tackle a range of debris sizes and types, from small spills to car floor mats and upholstery to pet hair. In the end, we found three great models that should help you keep things tidy around the house and garage.
Best cordless handheld vacuum overall
The Black + Decker Dustbuster is the easiest to use, charge and empty of all the handheld vacuums we tested, with a large capacity canister and convenient built-in attachments that make it convenient and versatile enough for any small cleanup.
Best handheld vacuum for pet hair
The Bissell Pet Hair Eraser has a motorized brush that picks up more pet hair than any other option we tested, plus an upholstery brush and long crevice tool that let you take care of pet messes anywhere.
Best handheld vacuum for the car
The compact Black + Decker Max Flex features a 4-foot hose and an abundance of attachments — including a soft brush for delicate surfaces like your radio — making it perfect for detailing your car or truck.
Best cordless handheld vacuum overall: Black + Decker Dustbuster Unsurprisingly, since “Dustbuster” is synonymous with “handheld vacuum” for many people, this handy machine beat out the competition with a balanced combination of size, function and convenience. It was the easiest to use, charge and empty of all the models we tested. Right out of the box, it had a comfortable, well-balanced feel, making it easy to orient it whichever way we wanted. The controls are extremely simple to figure out — just a slider to power it on and a single button to dislodge the canister when it’s ready to be emptied.
Our favorite feature of the Black + Decker Dustbuster is that all of its accessories and tools are built into the machine itself. The long crevice tool is integrated into the main nozzle, and easily extends out when you’re ready to use it. Similarly, the brush element flips up to cover the nozzle when you need to brush it over cushions or really get into those corners and stairs. Without any loose pieces to keep track of, you’ll never have to search for the tool you need. The Dustbuster’s only drawback was that it lacked a flat upholstery attachment, although that certainly wasn’t a dealbreaker.
Since it doesn’t have any loose tools to organize, the Dustbuster is also able to use an extremely small charging station. Measuring a little over 5 inches in diameter, this charging base takes up minimal room, and since the corresponding connector on the unit itself is a ring, it can be set onto the base in any orientation—other vacuums we tested were a lot more fiddly, sometimes requiring some time to line up their connections just right.
The Dustbuster’s motor provided the necessary power to successfully retrieve all of our test debris, and had no trouble sucking up all Cheerios without clogging issues. The dust canister was the easiest of all the tested vacuums to remove and dump out without a mess, and the filter was simple to remove and clean as well.
Its bulbous body is large enough to house a 20.6-ounce dust canister (only one other vacuum we tested had a larger one), and since the air vent is located on the rear of the unit, it never had the chance to inadvertently blow air into our work area. (The location of the air vent was a common issue we found with some of the vacuums we tested, with some units ending up blowing air into the exact spot we were trying to clean, which just added more time to our process.) When you take the affordable price into account, the Dustbuster is a no-brainer.
Best handheld vacuum for pet hair: Bissell Pet Hair Eraser Thanks to a motorized brush head and extra-large canister, the Bissell Pet Hair Eraser is the best option we tested when it comes to wrangling pet hair from a variety of materials. It’s a hefty machine, weighing 3 pounds and measuring 17 inches long, but still has a balanced feel to it, and doesn’t feel unwieldy or uncomfortable to use at all.
The unit itself felt nice and sturdy, and neither the canister nor filter felt like they were flimsy or unstable in any way. The motorized pet hair brush slides securely into the nozzle and tested extremely well in our pet hair test — especially getting at dog hair embedded deep in our test Jeep Wrangler’s carpeting. It easily pulled dog hair from home carpeting, rugs and couches as well, and the extra-large 23.6-ounce canister — the largest among all the options we tested — could hold an impressive amount of hair before needing to be emptied. The long crevice tool and flat upholstery brush make it even more versatile when it comes to pet-hair cleanup.
It’s worth noting that the high number of attachments could easily allow the Bissell Pet Hair Eraser to easily function as your primary handheld vacuum as well. It was also convenient to use in the car, although its bulky size might be less convenient to maneuver within a smaller vehicle. The only possible downside we found in our testing was the fact that the nozzle was too narrow to suck up Cheerios, which makes it a little less versatile and perhaps not the best option for those with small children (or who just tend to get messy themselves). Other than that, it handled the other small debris — flour and kitty litter — just fine.
The 17-minute battery life was on the higher end among our test group — the longest-running options topped out at 20 minutes — and should be sufficient for most quick tasks. It doesn’t have a charging base, however, which we found less convenient. You’ll have to just plug in its wall-wart style power adapter when you want to charge it, so you’ll have to find your own solution to keeping accessories organized and dedicate some floor or shelf space to storing the unit itself.
Best handheld vacuum for the car: Black + Decker Max Flex If cleaning the dust, crumbs, dirt and pet hair that build up in the seats, dashboard crevices and floor mats of your car is your priority, look no further than the Black + Decker Max Flex. This compact vacuum was a breeze to use during the car cleaning portion of our testing, thanks to its small size and wide variety of attachments and tools that made it easy to reach anywhere in our test vehicles.
The 4-foot hose is what really separated this vacuum from the rest of the pack, and when combined with the long crevice tool, brush head nozzle and pet hair attachment, we were able to easily clean tiny nooks as well as upholstery. We were most impressed with the pet hair attachment, which utilizes a round, rubber head to grab and pull hair even from challenging surfaces like the thick, nearly velcro-like carpeting in the Jeep Wrangler. The long brush head was also convenient when cleaning areas that required a gentle touch, like across the dashboard and radio controls, that could otherwise get scratched from a standard plastic nozzle. The 17-ounce canister was large enough to capture a decent amount of debris and hair, and was simple to dump out when it became full.
We absolutely recommend this vacuum for use inside the home as well. The long hose makes it easy to carry the vacuum in one hand and an attachment in the other, allowing you to reach elevated shelves and surfaces, like kitchen cabinets. It’s almost like a miniature canister vacuum.
The Black + Decker Max Flex even includes the pieces necessary to create a long-handled stick vacuum, making it useful as a full-length floor vac — the only option to do so. This versatility could conceivably make this a primary vacuum for a very small space or studio apartment. All of these attachments and accessories will require you to get creative with storage and organization, but if you have the need for them, this hassle could be worth the effort.
How to choose a handheld vacuum Alex Rennie/CNN Underscored
If you’ve ever let dust and dirt build up because it was too much of a hassle to pull out a bulky vacuum, or just find it overkill to turn to a full-size machine to take care of a relatively small spill, you’ll probably benefit from a handheld vacuum.
Handheld vacuums are the smaller, cordless siblings of larger upright vacuums and cordless stick vacuums. Handhelds are more portable and maneuverable than their bigger cousins — they can easily get inside kitchen drawers and cabinets, up on shelving or underneath car seats — and since they’re small and cordless, they are much more convenient to use in a pinch.
It’s important to keep in mind that a handheld vacuum is going to be less powerful than a canister or stick vac though, and their compact canisters mean you’ll need to empty them much more frequently. Along with limited run times — usually only 10-20 minutes — that means they are impractical for use in large spaces or long cleaning jobs.
A handheld vacuum is part of an overall vacuuming strategy, not a be-all end-all solution. Rather, when it comes to keeping your house clean, it’s a great complement to a full-size model, in the same way a toaster oven complements a full-size convection oven. This way you’ll have your handheld unit handy for small spills, car cleaning and quick upholstery jobs, a robot vacuum or cordless stick vacuum for daily maintenance and the full-size upright vacuum or canister vacuum for bigger jobs and weekly house cleaning.
If you live in a small space and don’t have room for multiple units, you might want to consider a cordless stick vacuum instead of a handheld vacuum altogether. Many models will allow you to detach the stick and use the vacuum unit similarly to a handheld vacuum, although you do lose some of the convenience of not having to worry about a bunch of extra parts to keep track of.
Alex Rennie/CNN Underscored
After researching and sourcing the most popular handheld vacuums on the market — making sure to include a wide range of sizes, types and specialties — we landed on a group of 16 options. We then ran each model through a range of tests, evaluating their ability to effectively vacuum and contain a variety of debris types, as well as the overall build and quality of their construction, how easy they were to use and ease of cleanup. Once completed, we compared and contrasted our results, and used this information to confidently declare our top three options.
Design, build quality and features Handheld vacuums should be simple and easy to use, and we paid close attention to how straightforward the controls were and whether they utilized any confusing or frustrating components. The action of disconnecting and emptying the dust canister and filter varied on nearly all the vacuums, so we made sure to carefully review and evaluate how easy or difficult this process was, and whether doing so was likely to make a mess or not. A larger canister will reduce the amount of times you’ll need to empty it out. We noted each vacuum’s canister capacity and used that data to compare them against similar models, which tended to help tie-breakers.
We used and evaluated any and all attachments, tools and accessories that came with each unit, judging them not just on quantity, but on how well they actually worked. We also paid close attention to whether or not the size and shape of the vacuum affected its ability to handle a wide range of tasks, and carefully assessed the usefulness of any specialized attachments like pet hair brushes and wet/dry tools.
Noise, power and suction were all taken into account, as well as the location of the air exhaust vent. The location and orientation of this vent can play a big part in the overall operation of a handheld vacuum, and when it blows downwards to towards the floor, it can blow dust and debris around as you work.
Alex Rennie/CNN Underscored
To assess each vacuum’s ability to pick up small debris, we dropped a tablespoon of three different types of debris (flour, kitty litter and Cheerios) on the kitchen floor and set a 10-second timer as we attempted to clean up as much as we could. We then weighed each vacuum’s canister after each debris type to see how much it actually picked up. This process gave us a good evaluation of power, suction and storage capacit
We tested 16 handheld vacuums to find the very best ones
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