The Best Handheld Vacuum
If you’re looking for a handheld vacuum that does the best job at quickly picking up small spills, hitting hard-to-reach spots, and keeping your car tidy, get the Black+Decker MAX Lithium Flex Vacuum BDH2020FLFH. It’s the most versatile hand vac out there thanks to its flexible 4-foot hose and a set of clip-on attachments that help it reach areas and clean surfaces others can’t. It’s one of the most powerful, too, with a 20-volt battery pulling plenty of suction for about 16 minutes of no-fade use per charge.
We spent a total of 65 hours researching and 22 hours testing hand vacuums over the past few years. Of the roughly 40 models we’ve found, this MAX Flex Vac has proven to be the best bet for small tasks around your home and your car, like cleaning up spills, tidying up the spaces around your car seats, dispatching cobwebs, grabbing pet hair off upholstery, or touching up the curtains. And if you live in a very small apartment with no carpeting, it could even be your only vacuum, period. It’s more powerful than most hand vacs and lets you reach areas that others can’t come close to touching.
If you think you’ll only use a handheld for very occasional tidy-ups, the Black+Decker CHV1410L is a simpler, more affordable alternative. Unlike our main pick, it has no hose so its reach is limited, it can’t really clean pet hair off your couch, and its suction is a smidge weaker than the top handhelds. But its lithium battery gives it an advantage over other hand vacs at this price, because it can sit for months on the shelf without losing its charge and its power won’t fade partway through a cleanup. It’s also the best-selling handheld vacuum at Amazon most days, where it has an excellent average rating based on thousands of user reviews. This replaces the Black+Decker PHV1810 18V Pivot Vac, which became more expensive that it used to be over the last few months, yet uses an older NiCD battery.
This isn’t quite like the other handhelds we’ve covered here, but so many people love it that we felt like we had to mention it: If you want a hand vacuum specifically for cleaning pet hair off of carpeted stairs, cloth upholstery, or even small area rugs, the Eureka EasyClean 71B might make sense. It’s a plug-in model, so it’s not as portable as the other models here, which are all battery-powered. It’s also bigger and heavier than almost any other handheld. The upside? It has a motor-driven brush roll, which is something a battery-powered model would have trouble driving for more than a couple of minutes.
Table of contents
Who needs a handheld vacuum
A handheld vacuum excels as a smaller, lighter, nimbler sidekick to a “regular” vacuum. It cleans spots that a big vac can’t always conveniently reach: countertops, windowsills, or a car, for example. And since there’s (usually) no cord to unravel, it’s super easy to grab a handheld vac off the charging dock for 10 seconds whenever you need to suck up a few dust bunnies or grains of spilled cereal.
If you live in a very small apartment with no rugs, and you aren’t super picky about cleanliness, you can probably get away with a good handheld as your only vacuum, too.
You might call this kind of vacuum a DustBuster, after the original cordless vacuum released by Black+Decker in 1979. Like Kleenex or Xerox, the trade name is synonymous with the entire category of hand vacuums. But the category has diversified in the past 36 years, and hand vacs come in many shapes and sizes from a few different brands.
How we picked
This is our fourth year covering handheld vacuums, and in roughly 87 collective hours of research and testing, we’ve learned what makes owners of battery-powered models happiest. The best models in the category tend to have:
- No-fade batteries so that suction doesn’t drop off partway through a cleaning cycle. This has to do with battery chemistry—you want lithium batteries, not the old-school NiCD (or NiCad) type.
- Strong suction, determined largely by battery voltage. We’ve found that 18 volts is a reasonable sweet spot for power compared to price, give or take a couple volts.
- As a bonus, the ability to clean both hard-to-reach areas and upholstery, which makes it much easier to clean a car. A flexible, pivoting, or otherwise adjustable cleaning head helps, as do clip-on attachments like crevice tools or hair brushes.
We like to factor in other editorial sources’ test results, but there just aren’t many available for this category. Consumer Reports has tested a few models, but not most of the models that we’re interested in. Also, their ratings seem to heavily favor hand vacuums that can clean carpets, a capability that we do not think is important in a vacuum like this. Good Housekeeping has some hand-vac reviews, but the most recent one was published in 2011—way, way out of date. So we ignored those results.
Those criteria leave us with two top-tier contenders, the Black+Decker BDH2020 MAX Flex Vac and the Dyson V6 Trigger—just like the last time we updated this guide. This category doesn’t move too fast.
How we tested
We’ve used the top two contenders1 around the house over the course of several months for tasks like picking up random tufts of cat hair (sometimes off of upholstery), cleaning bits of food and coffee grounds off of countertops or the kitchen floor, and tidying up the car after moving sports equipment and camping gear. In other words, typical uses for handheld vacuums, so we could get a feel for the real-world pros and cons.2
As for our budget picks, we relied mostly on user reviews for real-world testimonials, but we also tested each one out for a couple of hours.
We had a group of Sweethome staffers check out all of our finalists, including the budget picks, so we could get some varied opinions on how they handle and how valuable certain features and designs seem for people in different living situations.
The Black+Decker MAX Lithium Flex Vacuum BDH2020FLFH is the best handheld vacuum because its flexible hose and attachments help it get at more hard-to-reach spots and clean more kinds of surfaces than the competition, without sacrificing raw power. If you need a handheld to reach where your main machine can’t, or you live in a very, very small apartment and only need a small vac anyway, the MAX Flex Vac is the most capable model out there.
The flexible hose is unique among handhelds and makes it easy to clean in tight, awkward-angle areas. Thanks to a 20-volt lithium-ion battery, it has strong, consistent suction throughout its 16-minute runtime—all improvements on the lower-voltage NiCd batteries used in most cheaper competitors. And its attachments, including a crevice tool, a combo brush, and a pet hair brush, give it an extra little performance edge over other handhelds, which rarely come with any tools at all. Yep, it costs more than most handheld vacs (and we do have a pick for a cheaper, DustBuster-style model below), but given its versatility, we think it’s the handheld to get if you’ll use it in your car and around your house regularly.
The MAX Flex Vac looks more like a miniature canister vacuum than the DustBusters most of us think of when we picture a handheld. But that design makes it a much more versatile cleaner. You’re meant to use it with two hands, as we show in the photo below: One hand on the main assembly, the other holding the hose. This makes it easier to reach tight spaces and weird angles, like underneath car seats or up to shelves above your head—exactly the kinds of areas that a full-size vacuum can’t get at, even with a wand. We also found that it was easier to clean stairs with the Flex Vac than with a DustBuster-type handheld.
Better yet, the MAX Flex Vac’s hose accepts attachments, which is uncommon for a handheld vac and another big reason why it cleans so well.
The combo brush has bristles that help knock loose the particles that tend to static-cling to surfaces like windowsills or even some cloth upholstery like you’d find in a car interior. That’s a task where many other hand vacs can struggle.
The crevice tool is helpful as a wand extender, but it also makes it easier to get in nooks like the storage compartments built into car doors, the tight areas around car seats, and between the columns of old-school radiators, where decades of dust can build up.
And if you’re a pet owner, the pet-hair brush is a big help. It’s nothing fancy, just a rubbery surface, but this simple design does the job just fine. Snap it onto the end of the hose, brush it across the hairy surface, and it the offending fur gets sucked up, mostly. It’s not perfect, but it works better and faster than trying to pick hair up with an open hose or a lint roller. (A mini turbo brush would be even better, but few handhelds can power something like that for more than a few minutes.)
All of the tools all lock into place, too, so there’s no need to worry about the crevice tool quietly falling off in your driveway after you’ve cleaned your car, for instance.
The MAX Flex Vac has plenty of suction for tidy-up jobs, even with some larger particles. Voltage is a reliable way to gauge the suction of a battery-powered vacuum, and the MAX Flex Vac peaks at 20 volts of power.3 That makes it one of the stronger handhelds out there, which typically use less than 18 volts. When we used it to clean a station wagon after a weekend of camping, it did a fine job picking up pebbles, dirt, and even some short pine needles. It did a solid job cleaning up the inside of a tent, too. And yes, it picks up cat litter, no problem (but only use it to clean up a couple of stray grains or clean cat litter—used litter will make the vac stink).
Black+Decker claims that the BDH2020FLFH takes 4 hours to recharge and has a 16-minute runtime. In our testing, that was pretty accurate. That’s enough time to clean a car interior reasonably well, with a few minutes to spare. One of the big upsides of having a lithium-ion battery (as opposed to NiCd) is that it maintains steady power throughout the charge cycle—the suction only starts to drop off in the last minute or so of battery life.
Once you’re done cleaning up whatever mess you’ve made, the MAX Flex Vac’s dirt canister is easy to clean out: Pull a latch on the side of the vacuum’s body, tip it towards the garbage can, give it a thwack, and you’re done. When it’s super dirty—say, if you accidentally vacuum something moist, and debris starts to clump—you can pop out the whole bowl and wash it in the sink. The filter is washable, too.
The BDH2020FLFH has an average Amazon user rating of 4.2 stars (out of five) based on 218 ratings, an average that’s held steady for the past year and a half. That includes 172 ratings of four or five stars and only 13 one-star reviews.
User T. Anderson wrote that the MAX Flex Vac is “very easy to clean out,” something that several other user reviewers noted as well. User Bocaboy summed it up: “I think this is an excellent little handheld vacuum cleaner. It seems to have enough power to clean crumbs and other minor debris off our tile floor and area carpets using the floor attachment. I wouldn’t recommend this as a replacement for a large, powerful vacuum cleaner, but for small jobs and quick cleanups, it does the job.”
The older, nearly identical BDH2000FL MAX Flex Vac has had a similar user rating for years as well. We recommended this model as a runner-up pick, but as Black+Decker has phased it out, it’s getting harder to find. Still, we think its reviews largely apply to the new model, too. Its average rating is 4.2 stars based on 508 ratings. One Amazon user named ED said, “It is perfect for small quick jobs. Just grab and clean. We like that it can be used with either one hand for quick jobs, or two hands for more detail. And has enough power to be useful.” Another reviewer named C. MacPhail updated his review after nine months of ownership, increasing the rating because the hose came in handy so many times.
Aside from this guide, we haven’t been able to find any hands-on expert reviews of the BDH2020FLFH. However, there’s a good review of the older MAX Flex Vac at Tools in Action, and most of those findings apply here too.
Finally, we passed around our contenders at the Sweethome office in New York. A majority of staff members who checked them out said that they would buy the MAX Flex Vac over the others, mostly because of how versatile it is and even though it’s relatively expensive.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Of course, there are flaws. There’s the price: The BDH2020FLFH usually sells for around $130. That’s a lot to spend on a handheld vacuum. But great batteries aren’t cheap, and it’s the most powerful handheld with a flexible hose. If you’re a handheld power user, it’s worth the money.
Some handhelds have more suction than the MAX Flex Vac, based on air watts. The Dyson V6 Trigger is one of them, though some cheaper DustBuster-style models are part of that club, too. Sure, more suction does work faster. But the Flex Vac had no trouble sucking up anything we put in front of it and costs a lot less than the Dyson. Plus, its hose and tools help it clean more completely that those stronger vacs anyway.
The MAX Flex Vac is noisier than some owners expect. We measured it with a decibel meter, and yes, it is pretty loud. It topped out at 79 decibels, which is likely to be in the annoying range if you consider yourself sensitive to sound. The Dyson V6 Trigger runs at about 77 db, somewhat quieter though still grating over time—and it blasts up to 85 db with the boost mode turned on. Most upright vacuums come in around 70 db.
In keeping with current trends, the BDH2020FLFH comes with a floor cleaner extension tube, turning the Flex Vac into an ersatz stick vacuum. It’s … fine, but don’t expect it to replace a vacuum that’s actually meant to clean floors. Yes, it has the same voltage as some of our favorite cordless stick vacuums. But the tube and cleaning head do not allow for strong airflow or create sufficient agitation to compensate for that weak flow. Consider it a bonus tube, not an important feature. If you want to vacuum your bare floors and especially your carpets, get a vacuum that’s built for the job—we have recommendations for all kinds of homes and living situations and personal preferences.
The filter also gets dirty super fast. After two battery cycles, we noticed a drop-off in suction. It turned out that the filter was already caked in dust. This is really common with any handheld vacuum and is not a huge problem if you’re diligent about cleaning it. We found that knocking it against the edge of the trash bin was enough to get the air flowing again. It’s also washable, so you can run it under the faucet when it gets really grimy. Just make sure to let it dry for 24 hours before you put it back into the vac, because a moist filter is a recipe for mildew and weird smells.
Finally, we found that pet hair had a way of clinging to the inside of the vacuum’s dirt canister as well, forcing us to dig in and clean it out by hand. But you’ll find a similar problem with other handheld vacuums and even full-size bagless vacuums.
Long-term test notes
We’ve been using the latest MAX Flex Vac for more than a year now. On average, we put it to use a couple times a month, and it’s been working just fine.
On two occasions, we’ve used it to clean up a pile of used kitty litter. That’s not a smart move, because any vacuum of any type can end up reeking of cat pee after a stunt like that. We’re here to make mistakes so you don’t have to. After the first incident (which was an accident), we were able to completely get the smell out of the vacuum just by rinsing the filter and washing out the dust bowl with a bit of soap. The second time, we did it on purpose to test our luck. But after sucking up significantly more litter, we were not able to completely get the smell out. So don’t do that.
Just to emphasize this point: The filter gets dirty real fast, and you need to clean it regularly so that the vacuum can work efficiently.
The budget pick
We like this thing because most days, it’s the most affordable hand vac with a reasonably strong lithium-ion battery. Most other models at this price still use NiCD batteries, which is a bummer because the suction starts to fade a few minutes into each cleaning cycle, cutting the effective cleaning time just about in half.
Even though the battery in the CHV1410L is only 16 volts, we found it to be powerful enough for typical hand-vac cleanups (possibly because the path from the motor to the intake is so short and straight). It actually is just about as strong as the MAX Flex Vac, which has a longer, curvier intake path.
The main downside is that the CHV1410L can’t clean as many surfaces as the MAX Flex Vac. Since there’s no hose, it’s harder to clean high and low angles—under car seats or anything above your head, for instance. It’s also not effective at getting pet hair off of upholstery. However, it does have a handy slide-out crevice tool and a swing-out combo brush. Both are useful!
A plug-in model for lots of pet hair
If you’re looking for a hand vacuum specifically for cleaning pet hair off of cloth upholstery and carpeted stairs, take a look at the Eureka EasyClean 71B. It’s a corded hand vacuum—not nearly as convenient as a battery-powered DustBuster, but the constant power supply lets it run a 5.5-amp motor (as big as the one in the DC34) and a powered brush roll, which is the feature that lets it pull hair off of fibers super effectively. There’s also a short hose that you can detach, which is cool, but it felt very cheap, which isn’t.
The major downside, apart from being a plug-in, is that it’s only useful for cleaning upholstery and carpeted stairs. It’s not really convenient for picking up crumbs or dirt or other small messes off of bare floors. It’s also pretty big and heavy for a hand vac at 5 pounds. And most people who own a full-size vacuum can already clean their stairs and upholstery using a mini turbo-brush attachment, so this won’t be necessary. But with so many positive user reviews, there must be plenty of people looking for something exactly like this, so here it is.
The Dyson V6 Trigger (formerly known as the DC58) is the other really great hand vacuum out there. It pulls up to 100 air watts in boost mode, or about four times as many as the MAX Flex Vac. That’s more power than you reasonably need for your home or car, but hey, why not. Owners love it, with an average rating of 4.6 stars from 274 reviews.
On most days, though, the V6 Trigger is about $70 more expensive than the MAX Flex Vac, which is already pretty pricy for a handheld. Since the Trigger is designed more like a traditional DustBuster-style hand vac, it doesn’t have as much reach for getting into tight or off-angle areas. It doesn’t come with a tool for cleaning pet hair, either. We used to recommend the Dyson as our upgrade option, but it doesn’t clean much that cheaper handhelds can’t already. It’s not that something newer or better came along since our last update. But not many of our readers found it to be valuable, and to be honest, we wouldn’t recommend it to our friends or family offline, so away it goes. The same caveat goes for the Dyson V6 Mattress, which costs an extra $50 but comes with some extra tools and a HEPA filter—it’s just so, so much money to pay for a handheld. It could help people with dust mite allergies, but we’re not certain about that.
A few readers have asked us about handheld wet/dry shop vacs, like these models made by the DeWalt and Milwaukee tool companies. We have not tested them, but we might get around to checking them out for one of our tool guides. That said, user ratings are solid, and they appear to be well-suited for cleaning up workspaces. If you want one, check out the Milwaukee M18 first because it costs the least and seems to make its owners very happy.
What about those hand vacs that plug into the AC port (formerly known as the cigarette lighter) in your car? Well, a car battery only supplies 12 volts, so these vacs are much, much weaker than any of the models we’d recommend, and you can’t use them for other jobs around the house. That’s a tough sell. One of these might make sense to keep in your car for half-assed, mid-shift tidy-ups if you’re an Uber driver or something like that. But we think for most people, these aren’t the best bet—the MAX Flex Vac is, because you can use it for your car and your home.
Black+Decker makes a few other 20-volt hand vacuums, including the BDH2000PL, which has a pivoting head, and the BDH2000L, which looks like a traditional DustBuster. Without the Flex Vac’s hose, though, they lack reach, and (usually) cost much more than our budget DustBuster without much of a payoff.
One interesting model, though, is the BDH2000SL—its battery is removable and can be used in other Black+Decker 20V MAX tools. If you already own a few products in that line, you could consider this hand vac. (There is no Flex Vac model with a swappable battery, unfortunately.)
A few other Flex Vacs are available from Black+Decker, including a 16-volt model and a 12-volt model. We think it’s worth paying extra for the 20-volt version, because with such a long hose, it needs more oomph to pull so much air.
Our budget pick used to be the Black+Decker PHV1810 Pivot Vac, but we decided to swap it out for this update. Its price jumped up above the lithium-powered model we recommend now, yet it uses an older NiCD-style battery. It was a great deal for a while, but we think it’s probably on its way out of production.
We (briefly) considered other Black+Decker hand vacs, including the BDH1800S, CHV1510, and a handful of weaker models, but dismissed them all because they fall short in terms of power and versatility.
Consumer Reports hasn’t reviewed many handheld vacuums—including any of the Black+Decker 20-volt models—but their favorite is the Shark Pet Perfect II Hand Vac SV780. It’s a DustBuster-style model with a brush roller, which makes it particularly good on carpet. CR puts a big emphasis on carpet cleaning in all of their scoring, so it’s no surprise that this does well. We briefly considered this as a budget pick, but the user ratings are mediocre, and we just don’t see carpet cleaning as important for a hand vacuum. You don’t need a brush roller to suck up stuff that’s sitting on top of the carpet, and if you’re worried about debris stuck deep in the carpet, you should use your regular upright or canister vac for those purposes.
The Dirt Devil Gator 18V BD10175 is very similar to the Shark, and we also toyed with making it a budget pick, since its user ratings are solid. But we don’t trust the build quality (we’ve tested it), and the NiCD battery is a big downside.
Beyond those, we found a bunch of low-end or discontinued models:
- Black+Decker Orb Vac ORB4810: It has a 6-volt battery, which picks up approximately nothing, and the bulbous shape doesn’t fit anywhere.
- Bissell Pet Hair Eraser 94V5: At 12 volts, it’s too weak.
- Moneual U60: Pitifully weak suction, but hey! It has a built-in lamp if that makes you feel any better about it.
- About a dozen cheap Dirt Devil models: If we don’t trust the build quality on their higher-end model, we can’t trust the build on the cheap ones either.
- Electrolux Rapido ION EL820A: This model has been discontinued.
- Hoover Platinum Collection LiNX Hand Vac: discontinued
- Porter Cable 18V Bare Hand Vac: discontinued
(Photos by Liam McCabe.)
Black and Decker FLEX BDH2000FL Portable Vacuum – Review, Tools in Action, September 24, 2012,
Eureka Easy Clean 71B vacuum cleaner, Consumer Reports
Shark Pet Perfect II SV780 vacuum cleaner, Consumer Reports
Black & Decker DustBuster, Wikipedia
Originally published: December 3, 2015