The Best Cheap Vacuum
If “clean enough” is good enough, the vacuum to get is the $160 Shark Navigator Lift-Away NV352 (also at Best Buy). This bagless upright vacuum is a capable cleaner on carpets, bare floors, furniture, stairs, and ceilings alike, and should run well for a few years without too much maintenance. While this Shark won’t clean as deeply or last as long as a high-end vacuum, you get about 85% of the performance for 40% of the price.
Building on the extensive research in our high-end home vacuum guide, which involved interviews with a half-dozen vacuum experts, we spent an additional 12 hours researching cheap vacuums. We trawled manufacturer lineups and scoured reviews at Consumer Reports, Good Housekeeping, CNET, Reviewed.com, and other small vacuum sites, as well as various user reviews. All told, we found more than 100 models to consider and whittled it down from there.
Why a “cheap” vacuum?
The absolute best vacuums will suck up most particles from most surfaces, don’t need much regular upkeep, and will last for years and years. They also cost $450.
If those trade-offs aren’t an issue for you, the right cheap vac can be an excellent deal.
How we picked
We learned a hell of a lot about how vacuums worked when we updated our high-end home vacuum pick a couple of months ago. We interviewed vacuum salesmen, vacuum repair experts, air quality experts, editors of websites that test and review vacuums, and a vacuum engineer. We also tested a handful of top models, which gave us a feel for the best that the category has to offer.
Armed with that knowledge, it seemed like a good time to re-examine the world of cheap vacuums.
Our previous pick was the Eureka Boss Smart-Vac 4870MZ because it earned excellent cleaning scores at Consumer Reports, Good Housekeeping, and Reviewed.com. It’s a powerful vacuum for cheap, and it effectively cleans most things on bare floors and carpets alike. But it’s a hefty vacuum with clunky handling and the belt breaks easily. So we looked for alternatives.
We set our pricing criteria at a maximum of $250, but really wanted to find a vacuum for less than $200. According to this Energy Star report, most people shy away from spending more than that on a vacuum. (That could be because people expect to buy a new vacuum every four years, also according to the report.)
As we dug around for contenders, we realized that there are literally hundreds of models of cheap vacuums available. We documented every current model on sale in the U.S. based on the lineups on each manufacturer’s website.
Out of that huge pool, a dozen or so models popped up as the favorites at top review sources: Good Housekeeping, CNET, Reviewed.com, and especially Consumer Reports. We cross-checked those vacuums against Amazon.com user reviews and bestseller lists.
We narrowed down further based on seemingly minor specs and small components that can make a huge difference, as we discovered in our research for the high-end vacuum guide. A good example is a geared or grooved belt. It adds almost nothing to the cost of the vacuum, but makes it much more reliable. A handful of cheap vacuums make those smart compromises, and a few models even found room to add some useful extra features.
We settled on testing three vacuums. First, the Eureka Boss Smart-Vac 4870MZ, paying it respect as our standing pick and quite possibly the most powerful cheap vacuum on the market at least in terms of sheer suction. Second and third were the Shark Navigator Lift-Away NV352 and Shark Rotator Lift-Away Pro NV501.
We’d had our eyes on the NV501 for a while, but it was brand new when we last updated this guide so there were hardly any expert or user reviews to stand on. Positive feedback has poured in since then. The NV352 was dismissed in our previous guide, but it’s a very similar vacuum to the NV501 in many ways, and based on what we learned in the research for our high-end vacuum guide, it deserved a second chance.
Of course, all the good design in the world can’t save a weak vacuum, so it’s good that the NV352 performs exceptionally well for its price.
In our own side-suction tests (in which we made the vacuums pick up particles from corners and up against walls—something other outlets don’t seem to test for), we found that the NV352 did a great job picking up larger particles in corners and against walls on both floors and carpets. It actually performed better than some high-end vacuums that we’d previously tested, including the Dyson DC41 and Sebo Felix, both of which left plenty of stragglers on the bare-floor test.
As for the design choices that make it such an effective cleaner, let’s start from the bottom: The Shark uses a geared belt to drive its brush roller. Most cheap vacuums use stretchy rubber belts, which lose tension over a few weeks or months. A loose belt can’t drive the brush roller fast enough to agitate the dirt out of a carpet and will need to be replaced—usually a couple times per year. But a geared belt, like the one found in the NV352, will usually last the life of the vacuum without losing tension. Less maintenance, less money to spend on replacement parts, and more consistent cleaning.
Then there’s the clean emissions system. Shark did an admirable job sealing the NV352. It doesn’t have any HEPA filters, but we know from our previous research that HEPA often amounts to nothing more than an acronym for marketing purposes.
It does have three good filters, plus gaskets at every transfer point, and their combined efforts do a lot to prevent allergens from sneaking through the exhaust and back into the air. Nothing in this price range is totally air-tight, but this very thorough air purifier reviewer 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).
The reviewer also found that the Shark didn’t elevate airborne levels of those particles in a closed room—a sign that it does a very good job of sucking up the particles that it agitates out of a carpet. As we covered in our high-end vac guide, there’s some disagreement about what constitutes a “good” vacuum for asthma and allergy sufferers, and we don’t feel that we have enough data yet to make a decision with that specific angle in mind. We encourage you to read the debate in the “air quality” section of our home vacuum guide for more information.
While bags do make for a superior vacuum overall, they aren’t a prerequisite in a cheap vacuum. If a vacuum’s filters are tight and transfer points have gaskets, then a bagged vacuum will almost always have cleaner emissions than a bagless vacuum. But it’s uncommon to see perfectly sealed systems in cheaper models, whether they’re bagged or bagless. Since there’s no real emissions benefit, the convenience and cost savings of a bagless vacuum win out on the “budget” end of the spectrum.
The NV352 is also much easier to steer than most cheap vacuums. More than a third of Amazon reviewers praised its maneuverability and easy-to-lift body. The swiveling joint on the cleaning head makes for smooth handling, and at just under 14 pounds, it’s quite light for a full-size vacuum.
The motor/dust-cup assembly can separate from the NV352, essentially converting the vacuum from an upright into a canister vac. The cleaning head can also be completely removed, which is super helpful for cleaning stairs.
Then there’s the lift-away feature, which as far as we’re aware is unique in this price range to Shark vacs. With one button press, the cleaning head pops off and the main body can be carried around like a (large, corded) portable vacuum with an extension hose. With the turbo brush attached (included with the vacuum, another generous feature), it’s an excellent way to clean stairs—a few pounds lighter without the cleaning head and easier to rest on each step. It just makes sense and doesn’t really seem that hard to design. The hose can also re-attach to the cleaning head without the dust cup attached, which basically turns the whole setup into a canister vacuum of sorts—it’s really great for getting under furniture.
Reliability is usually a weak point with affordable vacuums, but we didn’t dig up any widespread, unexpected issues. On Amazon, where reliability problems usually crop up, 84 percent of user reviews are four or five stars, which is about as good as it gets in the category (even if there’s some five-star spamming going on). Here again, a smart design pays dividends, setting the NV352 apart from other cheap vacs.
This design makes it easy to find and clear clogs, as well as to replace broken components on the cheap.
Like any bagless vacuum, debris will build up in the system and form clogs over time—that’s unavoidable—but it’s also easy to clear, once again because the NV352 has so many hose connections, trap doors, and other openings. No tools required. For what it’s worth, we couldn’t jam the Shark with our clogging mixture, and the brush roller was smart enough to shut itself off when it picked up our test sock.
The NV352 in particular comes with an ample set of accessories, more than a lot of other vacuums. There’s a mini turbo brush, helpful for cleaning stairs and furniture. It also comes with an additional floor tool, which is basically a cleaning head with no brush roller—it’s very uncommon to see that at this price point, though it works really well for getting under furniture when the dust cup is detached from the vacuum.
Also included are a long crevice tool, a short crevice tool, and a utility brush tool for cleaning window sills, ceilings, or anything else where the open-ended hose wouldn’t quite work. Other configurations of the NV35x series come with different tool bundles, but they all include the most important ones—the mini turbo brush, one crevice tool, and the utility brush tool.
Topping it all off, experts, reviewers, and owners alike are fans of the NV352. Justin Haver, vice-president of GoVacuum.com and 17-year veteran of the vacuum industry, told us that he’s pleasantly surprised by how well Shark vacs perform and hold up—at least for the price. It earned “recommended” status from Consumer Reports, with an overall score of 63 points (the best bagless upright earns a 70). While CNET hasn’t reviewed the NV352, they awarded the NV500 an “excellent” score; the NV35x and NV50x series are very similar, so it’s fair to consider the review. The NV352 also has strong Amazon user reviews, earning 4.4 out of five stars with 672 reviews.
Flaws, but not dealbreakers
There’s only so much you can do to make a cheap vacuum better before it’s not so cheap anymore. Sacrifices need to be made. Measured against other sub-$200 vacuums, though, the NV352 has the least-bad combination of shortcomings.
This vacuum also suffers from the “snowplow effect” as one YouTube reviewer called it. Big particles like food chunks don’t always fit under the cleaning head and instead just get pushed around. The workaround is to just use the hose. Unless you regularly suck up Froot Loops, it’s only a minor issue. Even with this design flaw, the NV352 still works well on most surfaces.
The NV352 has no adjustable power setting, which can make it difficult to push across thick or tightly knit rugs. We ran into some resistance on a soft, medium-length rug. However, there’s a release valve on the hose—twist it open, and it reduces airflow through the system, accomplishing the same thing as turning down the power. It’s a clever, elegant solution and helped the NV352 glide over the tough spots more easily.
Even with the workaround, though, user reviews mention the difficulty that the NV352 has on deep-pile rugs. If you’ve got shag carpet, this may not be the vacuum for you, but you’re going to have trouble finding a cheap vacuum for that purpose, period.
Another common complaint among owners is that the hose is short and very stiff compared to most uprights. We disagree—you can do a lot worse than this. The $400 Miele Capri, for example, has a tight, stubby hose. The NV352 does tip over when you tug it too hard, but that’s the tradeoff for a light body with easy steering.
It’s also worth noting that the intake system uses just one cyclone. It doesn’t hurt the cleaning performance, but the belief is that one cyclone pulls less dirt out of the air stream than multiple cyclones would, so more dust ends up in the filters. Some bagless vacs have dozens of cyclones and use the quantity as a selling point, though it’s not uncommon to see just one or two. To compensate, Shark equips the NV352 with a good set of washable filters, including one super-thick foam filter. The care instructions suggest cleanings once every three months, which is less often than other brands.
All cheap vacuums will malfunction eventually, usually within a few years. But aside from a handful of vitriolic user reviews (par for the course), we can’t find any evidence that the NV352 is worse than other sub-$200 vacs. If anything, it seems to hold up better, and most replacement parts are easy to install and free under warranty. We’d venture to guess that this machine will last three to five years if cared for properly. Your mileage may vary, especially if you have long-haired pets.
Some Amazon reviewers complained that their NV352 started to lose suction after a year or so due to cracks in the hose, but it doesn’t seem to be a huge issue—less than 10 percent of Amazon reviews are one or two-star reamings. In a Reddit AMA from 2013, a vacuum repairman called out the Shark brand as repair-prone, though it’s the only place we’ve heard that criticism. It’s a hugely popular brand, so we’re assuming he sees a higher volume in his shop.
We called Shark’s hotline a few times under an alias to get a feel for the service. Each of the three representatives we spoke with were pleasant and happy to help. We pretended that we had a crack in the hose, and in all three cases, the reps told us that they’d ship a replacement handle/hose unit for free because the vacuum was under warranty. Pretty easy.
The angriest complaints we read about Shark customer service (at least within the past two years) always involved the owner having to pay to ship the entire vacuum both ways for service. (Parts and labor were covered by warranty.) It seems to happen in cases where there’s a serious problem with the motor—something that can’t just be replaced with a screwdriver. A few complaints indicated that Shark required two-way shipping payments even for brand-new vacuums with manufacturing defects. You shouldn’t have to pay $60 for their goof. Our advice is to buy from a third party with a hassle-free return policy, like Best Buy or Amazon.
One last note on replacements: The brush roller can’t pop out of the cleaning head, at least not very easily. This makes it a bit harder to clear tangles—a razor blade is a good way to do it. If the brush roller does wear out, you’ll need to buy an entire new cleaning head, which is $60. It’s the one aspect of this machine that feels like price gouging. But it shouldn’t be a problem if you’re diligent about cleaning tangles.
A big part of the Shark’s success formula is that it doesn’t try to half-ass anything it can’t do right. If the above things sound like features you can’t live without, you’ll have to pony up the extra money to get something like our pick for best overall vacuum.
Long-term test notes
We’ve kept the Shark around for the last six-plus months and use it every now and then, and we have no complaints. The only sign of wear we noticed is that the dirt cup gets perma-dirty after a couple months, similar to a foggy wine glass that hasn’t been cleaned properly in a while. But that’s mostly cosmetic, and any bagless vac with a clear cup will run into that problem.
A canister, if you prefer that
It’s a perennial favorite at Consumer Reports, consistently sitting near the top of their canister vacuum rankings with a score of 68 (tops in the category is 72). That’s mainly because the powered cleaning head has a five-step manual height adjustment, so it works well on just about any kind of carpet. Reviewed.com gave it high marks as well. For our high-end vacuum guide, we tested the step-up 21714, and many of our conclusions apply to the 21514 as well.
Also, and this is really just a cultural bias, people in the U.S. don’t like canisters as much as they like uprights. It has a lot to do with the history of flooring types in this country and the way that vacuums used to be designed. Today, there’s no inherent advantage to either design and the choice is really down to personal preference. But tradition counts for a lot (uprights outsell canisters 10 to one in America), so we favored uprights.
That said, it’s an excellent vacuum for the money, so if you’re one of the special snowflakes who prefer a canister vacuum, the Kenmore 21514 offers the best bang for the buck, warts and all.
How we tested
We ran the vacuums through a series of steering, handling, maintenance, and light performance tests—very similar to the tests we ran for our overall best vacuum guide. There’s already great data out there about obvious performance scores, so we tried to fill the gaps left by other testing outlets.
We also ran each vacuum around a maneuverability course to get a feel for steering and handling.
The only performance test we ran was for side-suction—picking up particles from corners and against walls. We sprinkled some lentils on both bare floor and carpeting and observed how the vacuums scooped them up.
Why not a step down?
Stepping up to a serious home vacuum is an excellent idea. It’ll clean just about anything, and you probably won’t have to buy a new one for more than a decade.
But the middle ground between these affordable vacs and those great high-end vacs—we’re talking about anything between $200 and $350—is a no man’s land. Most of the time, they’re just cheap vacuums with lots of extra features. They don’t last any longer than the Shark would, and it’s harder to stomach a short lifespan as the price increases.
If you’re comfortable with a factory-reconditioned vacuum, the Dyson DC28 is an exception worth making here. It used to be Dyson’s top-end $650 upright. But now that it’s two generations out, the refurbs are selling for about $290, which is a great deal. It’s more powerful than the Shark, comes with better tools, and has an excellent service record.
Step down too far and you start to see all sorts of issues. Iffy reliability is the main one. Many vacuums in this range will struggle to clean carpets effectively, and some even have a hard time on bare floors. They aren’t made to last for more than a few years and in that time, you’ll need to do constant maintenance. With few exceptions, they aren’t worth the money.
Shark makes a handful of other NV35x series vacuums, and they’re all safe to buy. Pick the one with the lowest price tag.
The NV350 and NV351 are the exact same vacuums as the NV352, but they’re sold at different retailers and come with different tools—nothing that most users will miss. We picked the NV352 because it’s the model most commonly sold online, but there’s no other inherent advantage. Then there’s the NV356E, which has a larger dust bin. We’ve seen it priced as low as $150, but it’s usually up around $200. We didn’t find the NV352’s dust bin to be a limiting factor, but the NV356E is a safe bet if you want the extra capacity—especially if its price drops again.
As for the Shark NV500 (and NV501 and NV502—same vacuum, different retailers), it’s supposedly a step-up model, but we couldn’t find a compelling reason to spend the extra cash, even after testing them head to head. The dust bin is a bit bigger and the cleaning head is wider, but that’s not worth an extra $50. It also comes with a rolling base for the lift-away unit—it’s supposed to make it feel like a canister vacuum instead of an upright—but, uh, the main cleaning head is also a rolling base. It’s a pointless add-on. Sweethome editor Michael Zhao owns an NV500 and says “the rolling base is in a closet in our basement. We never touch it.” There you go. But, if the price of an NV50x vac drops to match one of the NV35x models, go ahead and grab it.
Showed promise, but not good enough
Eureka Boss SmartVac 4870MZ – This used to be our pick for cheap vacuums. It’s a powerful cleaner on a variety of surfaces and has great ratings from a few outlets. But it has a middling Amazon user rating, with owners complaining about the hefty weight and the belt wearing out. It has a HEPA filter, but as we’ve learned, that’s just an acronym. We found it incredibly difficult to steer and generally unpleasant to use.
Eureka Mighty Mite 36xxx – This $45 canister vac is a top-seller at Amazon, with respectable user reviews. But it’s only meant for bare floors—no carpet cleaning. If you want something super cheap and don’t have any rugs, then it’s a low-risk option. But for most folks, it’s not a whole-house workhouse.
Panasonic UL81X – Once our top contender, this bagless upright got good reviews from Reviewed.com and Consumer Reports, citing its cleaning performance and value proposition. But user reviews made clear that it’s hard to maneuver and can be frustrating to maintain. The short warranty was the final nail in its coffin.
We also did a sweep of the low-end models from the upscale brands—Riccar, Simplicity, Miele, Sebo, Dyson—but no uprights or canisters fit our price constraints.
As for everything else…
Hoover, Kenmore, Oreck, and Panasonic all make some decent vacuums, but nothing top-tier in the cheap vac category. LG had some good models, but isn’t very active in the U.S. vacuum market anymore. Aside from a few models of minor note, like a couple that we covered, Eureka, Bissell, and Dirt Devil all make exclusively low-end vacuums, nothing to get excited over.
If you’re floored by how badly your vacuum sucks, get the Shark NV352. It’s a charm to use, cleans well on most services, and should provide a few years of reliable service without any added costs.
Originally published: March 5, 2014