The Best Cheap Vacuum
If clean enough is good enough for you, the vacuum to get is the $160 Shark Navigator Lift-Away NV352. Easy to use in several modes, this bagless upright outperforms other cheap vacuums because it cleans most kinds of debris from most common surfaces. The NV352 also needs little maintenance and should last at least five years. That’s a combination of benefits we can’t find on any other product in this price range. It won’t last as long or clean as deeply as the best high-end vacuums, but if you’re not ready to commit to a $450 vac for a couple of decades, the Shark NV352 represents an effective, affordable, simple-to-use compromise—and it beats the pants off its competition.
We came to this conclusion after spending almost 250 hours researching, testing, and writing about all kinds of vacuums in the past two years. For this guide alone, we scoped out 160 cheap vacs over 30 hours of research, and put in 12 hours of testing with the best few models. We tried clogging them with shredded paper and cat hair (and then unclogging them), we steered them under low couches and into tight corners, and we watched them suck up baby powder, cat litter, cat hair, and food crumbs off bare floors and carpets.
The Shark NV352 will be a comfortable fit for most homes—any place larger than 800 square feet, with most kinds of flooring, with or without stairs, and with or without pets. It sucks up more kinds of debris from more kinds of flooring than most other cheap vacuums (and plenty of pricier models). That performance comes largely on the strength of its cleaning head, which sits at a height that creates strong brush action on short- and medium-pile carpets and also allows vigorous airflow on bare floors. It’ll pick up pet hair, dust, and loads of other debris that your old vacuum probably left behind. A handful of attachments come with the NV352, including a motorized hand brush that makes cleaning stairs and cloth furniture much easier. Handling is as light and fluid as you’ll find in a corded vacuum at this price, thanks to a 12-pound frame and swiveling joint. The main assembly even lifts away from the rest of the vacuum to help you roll under furniture or reach the ceiling. The cost of ownership should be close to zero, because it’s bagless and equipped with washable filters and a belt that won’t stretch out over time. And if something does go wrong, it has a five-year warranty that Shark seems to honor readily.
After first gaining attention as an infomercial product, the NV352 has been around for more than five years now, and it’s been our favorite cheap vacuum for more than a year and a half. The thousands of user reviews are overwhelmingly positive, producing a weighted score of 4.5 out of five at Amazon and an average score of 4.6 out of five at Google Shopping (aggregated from several major retailers). Other vacuum manufacturers have caught on and are trying to clone the NV352 and other Shark models. But for our money, the NV352 is still the best value by a long shot.
Who shouldn’t get this vacuum? People in small apartments are probably better off buying a cordless vacuum. If you live in a very large home or if you have special-care flooring such as shag carpet or scratch-prone stone tile, a high-end vacuum is a wiser purchase.
If the NV352 is sold out, keep in mind that Shark makes a ton of models that are essentially identical. The NV350 and NV351 are carbon copies with different tools (though they’re much harder to find these days), while the NV355, NV356E, NV360, and NV370 typically cost a bit more and have a few extras such as larger dust cups, different button placements, or additional tools. All of them are built around most (if not all) of the same parts. If you have to get another model instead of our first choice, we suggest the NV356E, which has a slightly larger dust cup and usually a higher price but is otherwise very similar. We chose the NV352 over the other Shark models because we think it most effectively balances a low price and plentiful tools, but you can feel free to poke around and decide differently—the Shark models should perform and hold up equally well.
If your home has high-pile carpets (or if you simply prefer canister-style vacuums), check out the Panasonic MC-CG902. Its adjustable-height cleaning head can handle shag, saxony, and other long-fiber rugs without choking or tangling like many other vacuums at this price will. Some other canister models hit the same marks, but the MC-CG902 has a strong reputation after years of availability, and it tends to cost less, too. (We’ll cover the differences between canisters and uprights later, but neither design has any strict advantages or disadvantages over the other. The decision is just a matter of what you’re more comfortable with.)
Table of contents
- Flaws but not dealbreakers
- Long-term test notes
- A canister, if that’s your thing, or if you have shag carpet
- The competition
- Wrapping it up
Why you should trust me
I’ve covered vacuums for The Sweethome for close to two years, logging about 250 hours of vacuum research and testing in that time. That work has involved reading hundreds of reviews (if not more than a thousand), mostly from vacuum owners but also from Consumer Reports, CNET, and other testing outlets. I’ve interviewed more than a dozen experts, including repair technicians, shop owners, engineers, air-quality specialists, enthusiasts, and editors from the big testing houses. With all that knowledge, I’ve put together The Sweethome’s guides to high-end vacuums, cordless vacuums, robot vacuums, and handheld vacuums.
Who should buy a “cheap” vacuum
The “cheap” vacuums (they’re more midrange, really, but “cheap” makes for a better headline) we recommend in this guide will work well in most homes in the United States and Canada. When people personally ask me which vacuum they should buy, I usually tell them to choose one of the models we recommend here. If you’re leaning toward a high-end vacuum, go for it! You won’t regret the purchase, and that vacuum will last for most of your adult life.
If your home meets any of the following conditions, however, a cheap plug-in vacuum might not be the best bet for you.
- If your home is very small, as in less than 800 square feet, a cordless vacuum will be more convenient.
- If your home is very large, as in more than 3,000 square feet, you might want to consider a high-end vacuum, but it isn’t a must-have.
- If any rooms in your home have stone tiles that are prone to scratching (limestone, slate, and other rocks that are low on the Mohs hardness scale), you should probably get a canister vacuum with a parquet-floor tool.1
How we picked
This is the fourth edition of our cheap vacuum guide, the second one that I’ve written, and the second time we’ve picked the Shark NV352 as the top dog.
The NV352 became our top pick in spring 2014. We chose this model because in comparison with most other cheap vacuums, it cleans better in most homes, needs less maintenance, and comes with a longer and more comprehensive warranty. In our testing, this model was the best affordable vacuum by a long shot. The only other vacs that came close were more expensive Shark models like the NV500.
It’s been close to a year and half since we made that recommendation, and dozens of new, affordable vacuums have debuted since then—a handful of which are obvious attempts at cloning the Shark NV352. The time is right to give the category another look.
We started dismissing challengers for any of the following reasons.
- Average user ratings of fewer than four out of five stars: Such scores tend to indicate performance or quality-control problems.
- No brush roller, or a brush roller that won’t shut off: These models won’t work well in homes with a mix of carpets and floors.
- A canister design: The vast majority of people prefer uprights.
- A bag: While bags help high-end vacuums last longer, that isn’t the case with cheap vacs—and it’s a hassle to buy more accessories.
- A stretchy, non-lifetime belt: You’ll have to swap the belt every few months to keep the vac running well, and some people might be intimidated by the idea of doing such a swap. Plus, why bother with this type if you can find better belt designs anyway?
- A price tag above $200: Experience tells us that going past that price puts you in a no-man’s-land between good cheap vacuums and worthwhile high-end models.
- A price tag under $100: In our experience, vacuums that cheap are more trouble than they’re worth to keep up with the maintenance.
Among models that survived those cuts, we favored higher user ratings, a strong editorial review from a major testing house (including Consumer Reports, CNET, and to a lesser degree Reviewed.com), the length of the warranty and the ease of making a claim, and a lift-away feature, which allows the vacuum to clean above-floor surfaces as well as to get under short furniture.
We decided to test two vacuums for our main pick this time around: the Shark NV352, our reigning champ, and the new-for-2015 Samsung VU3000, a Shark clone that seemed capable of competing for the crown based on its specs and user reviews.
How we tested
We have a set of ever-evolving in-house tests that measure cleaning performance, handling, and ease of maintenance.
Consumer Reports and CNET publish useful data, and we usually view our tests as a complement to their ratings rather than as a replacement for them, even if we disagree with some of their evaluations. That said, the only professional review of either one of our finalists is a review of the Shark NV352 at Consumer Reports, so for this year’s guide we had to lean on our in-house findings more than we usually do.
Cleaning performance came first. We vacuumed baby powder, cat litter, and pet hair off a wood floor and a medium-pile carpet, and we vacuumed lentils and Cheerios off a tile floor.
For the pet-hair testing, we purposely let a short-knit area rug collect medium-length cat hair for a couple of weeks at the beginning of the summer. By the time we tested, the rug hadn’t been cleaned in about two and a half weeks. We vacuumed in stripes, compared the haul, and then used each vacuum on a stripe that it hadn’t yet vacuumed, to see if it picked up anything the competitor left behind.
We also performed a side-suction test, where we threw a bunch of lentils into a corner and tried sucking the mess up with each vacuum.
Our airflow test was up next. We poured a 2-inch line of cat litter onto a wood floor, put the cleaning head of each vacuum up to one end, and turned each vacuum on. The idea was to measure the strength of the airflow from the front of the cleaning head.
We then ran each model through our timed slalom course to get a feel for steering and maneuverability. We drove both vacuums through a few rooms, around and under a bunch of furniture, and over a mix of bare floors and area rugs. The point was to gauge how well these vacuums handled in a real-world home with a tight floor layout. Racing a vacuum through an obstacle course isn’t exactly how you would use one of these, naturally, but it clued us in on a few frustrations and flaws that might annoy owners, such as sucking up area rugs. It’s also a test that you don’t see at Consumer Reports or CNET.
In addition, we made sure to use each vac for “above-floor” cleaning—upholstery, countertops, windowsills and curtains, stairs, and even the ceiling. We used the tools that came with the vacuum when doing so would improve performance.
And as with every vacuum category, we ran some stress tests. It’s our favorite kind of test to run, because it gives us the best idea of how each vacuum stands up to the dumbest operator errors (we’ve all made them). Basically, we tried to clog and tangle each machine with tough debris like shredded copy paper, cat hair, sawdust, and socks—and if we succeeded, we then tried to figure out how to unclog them.
The Shark Navigator Lift-Away NV352 bagless upright is the best affordable plug-in vacuum right now. It isn’t the best because it has one particular ability, but because it combines several key aspects better than the other 160 vacuums priced under $200 that we considered.
As with any affordable version of any product, Shark had to make some compromises in the design of the NV352 to keep the price in check. This model won’t last as long or clean as deeply as a high-end vacuum. For the price, however, the NV352 stands head and shoulders above other cheap plug-in vacuums right now.
Cleaning performance is one of the NV352’s chief strengths. In our testing, its side-suction performance stood out—it picked up almost all of the lentils we scattered into a corner and up against baseboards, outperforming even some high-end vacuums we’ve tested. We were impressed by how quickly and completely it picked up cat litter from a bare floor (in a single back-and-forth pass) and from plush carpet (two and a half passes). It picked up more pet hair than we expected to find in our short-knit area rug. Relative to other cheap vacuums we’ve tested (including cordless models), it did a great job. We’re not saying that it would beat every cheap vacuum in each of our tests every time, but it is consistent—it performed well above its price tag by picking up the most common shapes and sizes of debris in just a few passes, from the variety of flooring types that you’d find in most homes.
Cat litter on a rug. The Shark NV352 is on the left, and the Hoover Air Cordless 2-in-1 (our favorite cordless vacuum) is on the right. Quite a difference! If you have lots of rugs, using a plug-in vacuum pays dividends.
Consumer Reports is the only top-tier testing house that has reviewed the NV352. CR gave it a Very Good rating for carpet cleaning and an Excellent rating for floor cleaning. The review scores also say that this vacuum is merely Fair in pet-hair pickup, though our experience (and that of many users) doesn’t reflect that evaluation. In the end, the NV352 earned an overall score of 63 (CR’s top-ranked bagless vac earned a 69, and this ranked fifth out of 42 models), and Recommended status. That’s a great result for a $160 vacuum going up against models that cost $400 or more.
Owners tend to be very happy with the NV352’s cleaning prowess, too. We looked at a cross-section of user reviews from Amazon and Google Shopping to get an accurate picture of the strengths and weaknesses (about 150 of roughly 3,000, filtered a few different ways2).
Tons of user reviews, even a bunch of the negative ones, mention that the NV352 is an excellent cleaner. (Reviewers often write that it has “great suction,” which doesn’t technically translate to great cleaning power, but based on the context we understand the wording to mean that the reviewers are happy with how much debris the vacuum picks up from their floors.) Pet-hair pickup in particular earns wide praise. Amazon reviewer Cambria says, “I cannot believe how much dog hair it picked up.” One review is titled “Crazy cat lady approved,” and reviewer Cosmo says that it does a “fine job” picking up after three dogs.
Several reviewers mention that when they first bought the NV352, they were surprised by how much debris it picked up compared with their previous vacuums. Amazon reviewer Gary A. Blomquist is one of them, writing that “the Lift-Away again sucked up tons of dirt/sand/dust/hair that the Kirby couldn’t.” (Kirby makes absurdly expensive upright vacuums that should outperform anything in the Shark’s price range.) M. Anderson writes that an old vacuum had left behind so much debris over the years that picking all of it up took three months’ worth of weekend vacuuming with the Shark. Since then, M. Anderson says, the Shark’s dust bin no longer gets so full, and less dust is settling on furniture around the house—proof that the Shark is working very well, in M. Anderson’s opinion.
Handling and maneuverability are another bright spot for the NV352. It weighs about 12 pounds, which is much lighter than most full-size upright vacuums (17 pounds is pretty typical). Combined with a swiveling joint at the cleaning head, that relatively light weight makes the NV352 easy to steer around corners or to haul up the stairs. The lift-away feature helps it get under furniture that many other uprights will just bash into, and although the cleaning head is narrower than that of your typical upright (more on that topic later), that design proves to be helpful for getting the vac in between chairs. It ran our slalom course in about 1 minute, 30 seconds, which is on the quick side of typical for a plug-in upright. Hundreds of Amazon and Google Shopping reviewers praise it for its lightweight frame and easy handling.
The lift-away feature on the NV352 lets it get under low-clearance furniture like this futon.
Reliability is usually a weak point with cheaper vacuums, but the NV352 has two big advantages that help it hold up better than most of its peers.
First, the belt and filters are designed to last the lifetime of the vacuum. In cheaper vacs, those parts are meant to be replaced periodically. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it ends up costing more over time. More important, most people simply don’t bother to replace the used-up parts, so the performance drops off a cliff after about a year. With the Shark NV352, that isn’t a problem. Even if you’re okay with doing some vacuum maintenance now and then, you don’t have to do much of it at all with the NV352.
For example, the NV352 uses a geared belt in the brush roller. The belt maintains tension throughout the life of the vacuum, so the brush roller will spin as fast as it did in year five as it did on day one, and a fast brush roller means better carpet cleaning. (Read more about belts here.) Most cheap vacuums, on the other hand, use flat rubber belts, which stretch out and lose tension after a few months. The more the belt stretches, the slower the brush roller spins, and the less effective it is at cleaning carpet. A rubber belt needs replacing at least once a year. It isn’t an expensive part, and it isn’t difficult to replace. But why would you even bother with that system when you can get a vacuum like the NV352, with a belt that will outlast the motor?
Another example: The primary filter on the NV352 is washable. All you have to do is run it under cold water for a few minutes once every three months, and let it dry for 24 hours. The other filters, including the post-motor HEPA filter, should not require replacing during the lifetime of the vacuum, though you will need to knock the dust loose from time to time. This design keeps the operating cost lower than it would be if your vac had replaceable filters that you’d have to remind yourself to buy. Clean filters are a big part of what keeps a vacuum’s airflow strong, and since washable filters are easy to keep clean, the NV352 should run well consistently.
The second big advantage that the NV352 has in terms of reliability and longevity compared with many other cheap vacuums is its five-year warranty. For the price of the vacuum, that’s an incredible warranty period. And Shark makes cashing in on the coverage easy (most of the time). In a May 2015 review update, Amazon reviewer NikNak says that after four and a half years of regular use, several important components of the NV352 gave up the ghost—but Shark had no problem with the warranty claim and shipped all the necessary replacement parts.
We had a good experience with Shark customer service, too. When we first reviewed the NV352 in early 2014, we cold-called the company’s hotline a few times to make a claim on a cracked hose. Each time, the representative readily offered a replacement hose and handle for free, including shipping.
Keep in mind a few warranty-related caveats. The warranty doesn’t cover filters, and for motor-related failures you’ll need to pay for shipping on claims. Buying your Shark vacuum from a recognized retailer sounds like the best course; as with most appliances, the manufacturer might make you jump through a few hoops to make a claim if you buy your vacuum from a third-party reseller. We’ve taken pains to make sure that the links in this guide point only to authorized retailers, but be sure to double-check before you hit the checkout button. Also, note that accessories such as the mini motor brush (for stairs and furniture) are not covered under the warranty. And if you use the NV352 in a commercial setting, the warranty is void.
If something breaks and you can’t take advantage of the warranty (again, that last part seems pretty unlikely), Shark sells replacements for every part and accessory on the NV352. You won’t even need tools to swap the new parts in. For what it’s worth, Consumer Reports ranks Shark as one of the least repair-prone brands of uprights.
If the NV352 clogs, clearing the jams is easier than doing so on most vacuums. The body comes apart in more places than its competitors allow—dirt cup, cleaning head, handle, hose—and getting at obstructions is quick and painless, and usually involves no tools. And for what it’s worth, we couldn’t even clog the NV352 with our clogging mixture in the first place. The brush roller also automatically shuts off when it senses a hazardous obstruction wrapped around the bar, such as the edge of an area rug or a sock.
As for air quality, the NV352 does a reasonably good job of filtering out dust and other allergens. Not only does it have three filters (four if you count the mesh cone in the dust cup), including a post-motor HEPA filter, but the transfer points are also sealed with rubber gaskets. This very thorough review (on an air-purifier-enthusiast website) found a similar Shark to be sealed pretty well, releasing less than 2,000 particles sized 0.5 microns or larger per cubic foot (0.5 microns is about the size of a single grain of talcum powder). For most people, the NV352’s filtration is good enough that they’ll never even think about air quality. But if you’re sensitive to dust and other allergens, and if clean indoor air is crucial to your quality of life, well, there are no easy answers. You should ask somebody who knows better than we do, but you’ll probably have to get a high-end bagged vacuum like the one we recommend.
On that note, the NV352 is bagless. We’ve written at length about why bagged vacuums usually last longer, and longevity is particularly important if you’re spending $450 on a high-end vac. But for cheaper models like the NV352 that are meant to last for only about five to seven years anyway, bagless is a hell of a lot more convenient. You’ll never have to spend money on bags, and you’ll never leave yourself unable to vacuum because you forgot to buy bags. And if you’re unfamiliar with bagless vacs, you’ll be happy to know that the NV352 makes emptying the dust cup very easy: You just hold it over the garbage and press a button, and the debris falls out of the bottom of the bin. Sometimes pet hair can get a bit wedged around the edges, but usually you have no need to get your hands dirty, and the risk of spilling is minimal.
The NV352 comes with an ample set of accessories, all of which attach to the pull-out wand. The most important one is the mini turbo brush, which is helpful for cleaning stairs and upholstery, especially if you have pets. Also included are a long crevice tool, a short crevice tool, and a utility-brush tool for cleaning windowsills, ceilings, or anywhere else the open-ended hose won’t quite work. Some versions of the NV352 come with a dusting tool, but the unit we received for testing did not. Other configurations of the NV350 series come with different tool bundles, but they all include the most practical ones—a mini turbo brush, a crevice tool, and a utility-brush tool.
Owners also note that the NV352 is relatively quiet compared with other vacuums. With the brush roller turned on, we measured it at about 79 decibels—not exactly library-soft, but better than other cheap vacs we’ve tested, which regularly break 80 decibels. Judging by our frequency chart, most people won’t find it to be particularly grating in terms of high-pitched whines.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Any cheap vacuum has to make some compromises—otherwise it won’t be cheap at all. We think that among all the sub-$200 vacuums out there, the NV352 makes the wisest set of compromises that anyone could hope for. Here’s what you should know.
High-pile carpets, like shag or cable cuts, pose a big problem for the NV352. Long fibers can plug up the intake or tangle in the brush roller. Such jams make pushing the vacuum tough, and in this situation it won’t be sucking up much debris anyway.
The thing is, most homes don’t have high-pile rugs, so this is a nonissue for most people. The NV352 might have some difficulty rolling across softer medium-length carpets, such as a long plush cut, but the hose has a release valve. Twist it open, and the suction drops off enough so that the vacuum can roll smoothly without choking on the carpet fibers. (Higher-end vacs often have adjustable power settings to accomplish the same thing—Shark’s method is a clever, low-budget solution.) If you do have long carpets in your home and you need an affordable vacuum, check out our recommendation for a canister vac below.
Another side effect of the fixed-height cleaning head: The NV352 sometimes suffers from the “snowplow effect.” That is, sometimes large particles (pieces of Froot Loops cereal, for example) don’t easily fit under the cleaning head, so they end up getting pushed around instead of sucked up.
Large particles are probably the least common type of debris, so this problem should be only an occasional annoyance for most folks. If you have a toddler who likes to toss Cheerios off the high chair, however, you have two easy workarounds. You can lift the cleaning head a skosh and place it on top of the debris, or you can bust out the wand and suck the particles up that way. Snowplowing is a common issue with vacuums of all styles and prices—even the top-of-the-line, $650 Dyson upright does this kind of thing—and it’s an irritation that most people can learn to live with. Worst comes to worst, you can use a broom to pick up the big pieces. If this is a major problem for you, check out our canister vacuum recommendation instead.
Since the NV352 is predominantly plastic, some of its parts are prone to breaking. The chief complaint seems to be the accordion hose. That component is a little stiff to begin with, so you can imagine that the constant flexing puts serious strain on the material, especially as it ages and gets more brittle. Other reviewers point out that the clips attaching the dust cup to the rest of the main assembly can wear out over time—particularly if you carry the assembly by the handle in lift-away mode. And in a now-famous Reddit AMA from 2013, vac-shop manager and repair technician Brian Driscoll (aka /u/touchmyfuckingcoffee) called out the Shark brand as repair-prone, though that’s the only place we’ve heard that criticism.
Your experiences may vary, but all the evidence we’ve seen leads us to believe that the NV352 is more reliable than most affordable vacuums. As we mentioned earlier, it has a lifetime belt and washable pre-motor filters, so you don’t have to worry about forgetting to buy spare parts. If parts do break, Shark honors the hell out of its warranty these days, from most accounts we’ve heard. Most of the bad feedback about customer service comes from reviews posted prior to 2013, while most of the reviews referencing premature breakdowns are by owners who seem unaware that they can just call Shark and get most parts replaced for free. The warranty lasts for five years, and there’s no reason that this thing shouldn’t last that long for everyone who buys it.
Among owners, one of the most common design complaints (that is, gripes about a feature that’s present on purpose and not a problem that results from a part breaking) is that the NV352 has a tendency to tip over if you yank the hose too hard. It isn’t completely unbalanced, but yes, it does fall over more easily than some other vacuums do. If you find tipping to be a constant problem, you can use the lift-away feature to detach the assembly and rest that part on the floor—it’ll provide a sturdier base.
Related to that problem, many owners write that the cleaning head is too narrow—or at least narrower than what they’re used to. The shape makes the vacuum more likely to tip, and also means you’ll have to make more passes to cover the same area.
The narrow cleaning head offers one particular benefit, though: It can get into corners and between chair legs more easily. So it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
Another legitimate gripe is that the cleaning head does not easily disassemble. So if long hair or string tangles around the brush roller, you’ll have to remove it while the roller is still installed in the cleaning head—the easiest way around that is to use a razor blade.
Some owners mention other sources of dissatisfaction.
- The cord length: It’s 25 feet, which is respectable. But many owners say that they had difficulty adjusting from the longer cables that they were used to on their old vacs.
- The curved shape of the handle: Some owners find it uncomfortable to wield when using attachments.
- The capacity of the dust cup: The recommended maximum capacity is about 1.2 cubic feet, though it has room for much more—the suction simply drops off gradually. Folks with several hairy pets might have to empty the cup mid-clean, which is inconvenient (though less inconvenient than replacing a bag).
- The tool holders: They’re really just plastic nubs, and they don’t always do a great job of securing the attachments.
- The button placement: The three-way switch (off, suction, brush roller) is on the main assembly, so pressing it to adjust the vacuuming action isn’t as effortless as if the button were located on the handle.
Your mileage may vary. Most reviewers don’t mention any of these issues, but we wanted to tell you everything we know. And of course, for everything that we (and many owners) say is great about the vacuum, you’ll find at least one review from somebody who thinks the opposite—vacuum makers can’t please everyone all the time. We’ve tried to present the prevailing opinion.
A big part of Shark’s success is that it doesn’t try to half-ass anything it can’t do right. If your vacuum wish list includes several features you can’t live without, you’ll have to pony up the extra money to get something like our pick for the best overall vacuum.
Long-term test notes
I’ve used the Shark NV352 from time to time over the past year and a half. I haven’t put much strain on it, but it has held up well. (I switch between three or four different vacuums regularly, and because I live in a 650-square-foot apartment, I tend to favor cordless models.) The only sign of wear I noticed is that the dirt cup gets perma-dirty after a couple of months, similar to a foggy wine glass that no one has cleaned properly in a while. But that’s mostly cosmetic, and any bagless vac with a clear cup will have that problem.
Sweethome editor Michael Zhao bought the Shark NV500 based on the previous version of this guide (he got it for less than the NV352’s price at the time) and had this to say after using it for more than a year: “In the way where if you hold an iPod and an ‘MP3 player,’ the iPod feels like the right product even though they do the same thing.” The Shark is the iPod in this scenario.
If you’re looking for a more long-term perspective, some Amazon reviewers have been wonderfully diligent about updating their reviews every year—sometimes into the fourth or fifth year of ownership! Bless these folks.
A canister, if that’s your thing, or if you have shag carpet
If you prefer canister-style vacuums (some people just like them), or if your home has lots of thick carpet that a Shark would choke on, check out the Panasonic MC-CG902.
It’s a perennial favorite at Consumer Reports, consistently sitting near the top of the canister vacuum rankings and earning Best Buy status (a step up from Recommended).
Effectively, the MC-CG902 is an all-surface cleaner. The powered cleaning head has a four-step manual height adjustment, so it works well on bare floors and pretty much any kind of carpet—even high-pile cuts like shag or cable.
We previously recommended the Kenmore 21514 in this slot as our affordable canister pick. As it turns out, Panasonic actually manufactures vacuums for Kenmore/Sears (we’d heard that this was true for years, and we confirmed it with a Panasonic sales rep this spring). The MC-CG902 is almost identical to the 21514. The Panasonic version generally costs less and crops up at more retailers, and its replacement parts are more widely available.
So why wouldn’t we recommend this cheap, easy-to-find vacuum as our main pick, all other things equal? We can list a handful of reasons. For starters, its build-quality problems are well documented. Many owners cite a shoddy electrical connection between the vacuum and the cleaning head—it craps out after a couple of years, leaving the device with no juice to power the brush roller. Parts of the plastic body have a tendency to fall off, as well, and the tools don’t always fit snugly onto the hose.
The MC-CG902 should be reasonably reliable thanks to a lifetime belt in the cleaning head. But it’s a bagged vacuum with replaceable filters, so you’ll need to remember to keep those in stock and replace them as necessary.
Also (and this is really just a cultural bias), most people in the United States and Canada don’t like canisters as much as they like uprights. That preference has a lot to do with the history of flooring types in North America and the way that vacuums used to be designed.
The difference, in a nutshell, is that canisters are “split,” meaning that the motor and cleaning head are separated by a hose measuring a few feet long, whereas uprights house all of their components in one slender body. Way back in the day (as in pre–World War II), canister vacuums lacked motorized brush rollers, so you could use them only in homes with bare floors. Wall-to-wall carpet was pretty common in American homes back then (at least among households that bought vacuums), so upright vacs became the default style.
Today (and for the past several decades, really), either type of vacuum can work well in any kind of home. From a practical standpoint, neither design is better or worse than the other—they’re just different. Some people like that the weight of a canister vac is split between two components, while others can’t stand the feeling of pulling the canister behind them. Most people in the US have only ever used an upright, and such models still outsell canisters 10 to 1. It’s really just a matter of personal preference. We’ve heard some experts try to argue that canister vacuums are superior from a technical design aspect, but we’d counter by saying that because uprights are so much more popular here, manufacturers put more effort into their affordable uprights. If you’re going cheap, you get a better value in an upright than in a canister.
Stepping up to a high-end vacuum is a wise investment for almost anyone. A well-built upright or canister vacuum will clean better than a cheaper model will, and it will last for at least a decade, probably longer, if you take decent care of it. If you can spend $450 on a vacuum, do it. If you can’t, don’t feel bad—we stand behind the picks we make in this guide. You’ll just have to go vacuum shopping again in five years.
What about the middle ground between the good affordable vacuums and the best vacuums overall? Well, between $200 and $400 or thereabouts, it’s a no-man’s-land. Such models are usually just cheap vacuums loaded with features that might make them a bit more fun to use but typically do little to improve performance or increase longevity.
If you step down too far (under $130, give or take), you give up reliability, ease of use, and cleaning ability. The main drawback at this tier is that super-cheap vacs need even more maintenance than the cheap vacs we recommend. If you’re not diligent about maintenance—replacing belts, clearing clogs, replacing filters—the vacuum’s performance will drop off sharply after a few months, and the machine will barely pick up anything after about a year and a half.3
Even if you like to tinker and don’t mind putting in the work, low-grade vacs usually don’t clean carpets (or even bare floors) as effectively as the midrange models we recommend—or if they do, they weigh quite a bit and suffer from stiff handling.
Why does anyone bother with this kind of vacuum? Well, any vacuum seems great when it’s replacing something with clogged filters and a floppy belt. You buy one $80 vacuum to replace your last $80 vacuum, it works great for a couple of months, it slowly stops pulling its weight until it’s completely ineffective, and the cycle repeats.
If you’re okay with the idea of saving $80 now so you can spend $160 later and waste 20 pounds of plastic in the process, you might as well know that the Bissell Cleanview 9595A is the most popular upright at Amazon. It has decent reviews from people who probably haven’t had it long enough for it to start breaking down. If you maintain the 9595A perfectly, you will end up paying more than you would have for the Shark NV352, because you’ll need to spend $20 on a new belt and filter every year. And you’ll have a vacuum that’s heavier, harder to steer, and worse at cleaning. Why would you do that to yourself?
What about all the other vacuums that fall in the sweet spot, between $150 and $200? As we mentioned, Shark makes a handful of other NV350-series vacuums. The NV350 and NV351 are essentially the same vacuum as our top pick but usually sold through different retailers, with slightly different sets of accessories in the box. The NV355 and NV356 are the “Pro” models, with slightly larger dust cups, but are otherwise pretty much the same machine. Shark has released a couple of newer models, too: The NV360 is the NV352 with a different handle and buttons plus an appliance wand for cleaning under your fridge, while the NV370 is the NV356 with those same upgrades. You can pick any one of these models, and you will have made a great decision. Choose the configuration with the tools you like, or the one that’s the cheapest—it’s up to you.
As for the Shark NV500 (and NV501 and NV502—same vacuum, different retailers), it’s ostensibly an upgrade, but even after testing the models head-to-head for the last version of this guide, we couldn’t find a compelling reason to spend the extra cash. The dust bin is a bit bigger and the cleaning head is wider, but those features aren’t necessarily worth an additional $50 for everyone. The NV500 also comes with a rolling base for the lift-away unit—it’s supposed to make the machine feel like a canister vacuum when you want that. Sweethome editor and NV500 owner Michael Zhao told me, “The rolling base is in a closet in our basement. We never touch it.” Your mileage may vary, but we don’t anticipate that most people will care one way or the other. That said, if the price of an NV500 vacuum drops to match the cost of one of the NV350-series models, go ahead and grab it if you wish.
You might be familiar with the new, higher-end Shark models in the NV650 and NV750 lines. They’re each a marginal improvement over the NV350 and NV500 series, but not enough of an upgrade to justify the extra cost. The primary difference is that power runs through the wand so that the brush roller can spin even in lift-away mode. The feature seems smart in theory, and a few people who obsessively vacuum under their couches might love it, but we think most people would rather save the $120 and use regular ol’ suction to clean under the sofa. In addition, the powered wand initially produced some shocking results for NV650 series owners—no, seriously, the wand actually shocked some people, and Shark had to recall the vacuums. The company has fixed the problem, but we still think this design tweak is a silly upgrade, and otherwise the vacuums are basically the same as their cheaper counterparts.
At one point, the Eureka Boss SmartVac 4870MZ was our top pick in this guide. Consumer Reports gives it a great rating, and it’s a powerful cleaner that works well on a variety of surfaces. But people who own it say that it’s difficult to steer because it’s so heavy, and they note that the belt has a tendency to pop or to wear out quickly. Ease of use is incredibly important in a vacuum, and this Eureka doesn’t have that.
Once our top contender, the Panasonic MC-UL81X bagless upright has good reviews from Reviewed.com and Consumer Reports, both of which cite its cleaning performance and its value for the money. User reviews, however, say that it’s hard to maneuver and sometimes frustrating to maintain. Its short warranty is the final nail in its coffin.
We considered testing the Dirt Devil Lift & Go UD70300D, which clearly represents an attempt to undercut the Shark lift-away models. User reviews are pretty positive, too. Unfortunately, this model failed Consumer Reports’s emissions test, and it isn’t great at cleaning carpets. CNET gave it a mark of 2.5 out of five, one of the lowest scores we’ve seen that site bestow on a vacuum. Pass.
We also did a sweep of the low-end models from the upscale brands, including Dyson, Miele, Riccar, Sebo, and Simplicity. But none of those came in below our maximum price of $200.
Aside from everything we just listed, we looked at another 150 vacuums, give or take. Some of those dropped out of the running quickly because of poor reviews, subpar specs, limited availability, or an obviously janky design. Others got a closer evaluation. Below, you can take a look at the long list of vacs we brushed aside 4 if you want. But the TL;DR version is that we couldn’t find anything else that seriously challenged our favorite cheap vacuums.
Wrapping it up
If you’re floored by how badly your current vacuum sucks, get the Shark NV352. It’s a pleasure to use and it cleans well, and with the warranty, there’s no reason you should get any less than five years of reliable service for the purchase price.
Photos by Liam McCabe
Originally published: August 10, 2015