The Best Handheld Vacuum

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We’ve looked at 50 different hand vacuums over nearly 100 collective hours of research and testing in the past five years, and think that the Black+Decker Max Lithium Flex Vacuum BDH2020FL is a great pick for most people. The flexible 4-foot hose and clip-on attachments help it comfortably reach spots around your home and car that other hand vacs at this price struggle with, or can’t touch at all.

Last Updated: January 9, 2017
After new research in late 2016, we now recommend a lower-priced variant of our longtime pick that comes without the floor tool. Our previous pick is our new runner up. Our budget pick is unchanged. We’ve added a new upgrade pick. And we’ve also removed our old plug-in pick, because almost none of you seemed to care about it.
Expand Most Recent Updates
December 16, 2016: We’re writing an update to this guide now, but we wanted to let you know that we’ll be adding the Dyson V6 Car + Boat as an upgrade pick. Also, prices keep shifting for the two variants of our main pick, the Black+Decker MAX Lithium Flex Vac BDH2020FL and BDH2020FLFH. We recommend buying whichever one costs less whenever you happen to be shopping.
November 25, 2016: Now that the Black+Decker MAX Lithium Flex Vacuum BDH2020FL version of our top pick is widely available, we’ve linked to it throughout this piece. This version is less expensive than the BDH2020FLFH model we originally tested, and it lacks only the floor extension tube, which we don’t think works well anyway. We’ll be updating this guide soon with a more detailed comparison of the two models, along with dismissals of a few other handheld vacuums we looked at. But none of our picks will be changing.
December 3, 2015: The Black+Decker MAX Lithium Flex Vacuum BDH2020FLFH is still our top pick, but we made a few changes to our other recommendations. We no longer recommend an upgrade pick, since the MAX Flex Vac is already relatively expensive. Also, our new budget pick is the Black+Decker CHV1410L 16V Lithium Cordless DustBuster, replacing the old NiCD-powered 18V Pivot Vac from the same company.
April 20, 2015: We looked around for new 2015 models of portable vacuums that could compete with our current pick, and came up empty. However, one big thing did change since we originally wrote this guide: Dyson renamed the Dyson DC58 Handheld to the Dyson V6 Trigger. We updated the guide to reflect the new name, but nothing has changed about the pick itself—it's the same vacuum.
January 27, 2015: After an additional eight months of using our main pick, we've updated this guide with our long-term testing notes.
August 6, 2014: Over 75 hours of research and testing led us to the Black+Decker MAX Flex Vac as best for most people. It has powerful suction and the battery can last longer than the competition. Plus, its 4-foot flexible hose can access hard-to-reach places where others (like our previous pick) cannot.
Our pick
Black+Decker Max Lithium Flex Vacuum BDH2020FL
Solid suction and helpful attachments—including a 4-foot flexible hose to reach spots other handhelds can’t—make this longtime pick the strongest cleaner and the best value in its class.

The Max Flex Vac also has enough suction to pick up Cheerios, road grit, and other common debris pretty quickly. And the 16 minutes of no-fade run time should be enough to tidy up the interior of a spacious minivan or SUV. Nothing else at this price has that combination of versatility and cleaning strength. The Max Flex Vac has been our top pick for several years running, and we’ve watched its user ratings stay high, the price drop at times, and our test units hold up well under long-term use by multiple Sweethome and Wirecutter staff members.

Runner-up
Black+Decker Max Lithium Flex Vacuum BDH2020FLFH
This is essentially the same vacuum as our main pick, plus a (pointless) floor-cleaning attachment. Buy whichever one costs less.

If our main pick is out of stock or the price is inflated, consider the Max Flex Vac BDH2020FLFH variant instead. It’s exactly the same vacuum with the same clip-on attachments as our main pick, plus an extension wand with a floor-cleaning head. We and dozens of owners have found the floor-extension kit to be totally worthless and ineffective, but the good news is that you can just ignore it. Buy whichever version of the Max Flex Vac happens to be cheaper the day you’re shopping for it.

Budget pick
Black+Decker CHV1410L
If you need something simple for quick cleanups, this is a small, affordable handheld that’ll get the job done.

If you think you’ll use a handheld only for occasional tidy-ups, the Black+Decker CHV1410L is a simpler, more affordable alternative. It can’t reach as many awkward spots as our main pick, or clean up pet hair from furniture, either. But for the price, it’s a great buy. The real-world suction is about as strong as that of our main pick, we found, and it has a 12-minute, no-fade run time. It recharges faster than some similar models, too. It’s also been the best-selling handheld vacuum for quite a while on Amazon, where it has an excellent average rating based on thousands of user reviews.

Upgrade pick
Dyson V6 Car + Boat
The strongest handheld vacuum you can buy—at a higher price than most—with attachments to blast through trickier jobs like upholstery and pet-hair pickup.

If you don’t want to leave anything to chance, you can upgrade to a handheld variant of the Dyson V6. It’s a stronger cleaner than any other handheld vacuum, and has enough tools available to make any job easy, including properly cleaning the interior of a large vehicle. We think the V6 Car + Boat comes with all the tools you’ll ever need, though the V6 Top Dog costs a bit less if you don’t need all the extras. These are all wicked expensive, but if it’s important to you to be able to thoroughly clean with a handheld and not just tidy up, this is the best handheld available. And yes, all the V6 handheld models are essentially the same vacuum as the Dyson V6 stick models that we cover in our cordless vacuum guide, just without the extension tube or floor-cleaning heads.

Table of contents

Why you should trust us

I’ve covered vacuums for The Sweethome for more than three years, logging hundreds of hours of research and testing in that time. I’ve personally tested at least 50 vacuums (that I can remember) of all types (cordless, robots, handhelds, and the traditional plug-ins we cover) in several homes with varied floor plans. And I have at least passing knowledge of hundreds more vacuums.

I’ve personally tested at least 50 vacuums (that I can remember).

This update covers handheld vacuums released since December 2015, the last time we fully updated this guide. We’ve covered this category for five years now, totaling about 95 collective hours of research and testing. I’ve personally put in dozens of hours of testing our main pick since 2014, and a half-dozen other Sweethome and Wirecutter staff members have also bought it, and used it for dozens more hours in their own homes, too.

Although we do our own testing for handheld vacuums, we also think it’s important to keep our ears to the ground for what other people have to say about a category. I’ve made a point to listen to as many of our readers as possible, through comments on our guides, emails, Twitter exchanges, and message-board posts. I also try to keep up with reviews from other outlets that test handheld vacuums, like Consumer Reports and Good Housekeeping, though their coverage is not very comprehensive.

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The most compelling reason to buy a good handheld vacuum is because it can reach places that bigger vacuums can’t (at least not conveniently), like the interior of a car, or (if your main vac doesn’t have a hose) flat surfaces around your house that aren’t the floor, like countertops, windowsills, shelves, and the like.

Handheld vacuums are also convenient for quick cleanups around the house because they’re battery powered and compact enough to sit out on a shelf or countertop between uses. In other words, a handheld can clean up a pile of spilled coffee grounds before you even dig your main vacuum out of the closet, let alone unwrap its cord.

If you’re shopping for a cordless floor vacuum and a handheld, it might make sense to just get our cordless stick pick—one vacuum that can handle two roles.

You might call this kind of vacuum a DustBuster, the name of the first commercially successful cordless handheld 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 they’re now available in several different designs to suit different needs.

Other options to consider: A few of the best cordless stick vacuums (meant for floor cleaning) pull double-duty as handheld vacuums, too. So if you’re shopping for a cordless floor vacuum and a handheld, it might make sense to just get our cordless stick pick—one vacuum that can handle two roles. Also, the best plug-in vacuums have hoses and attachments that let them clean all the same spots as the best handheld vacuums—shelves, countertops, windowsills, upholstery and most other surfaces in your home. If you’re not sure that you’d use a handheld vacuum very often, and have a full-size machine that can handle above-floor cleaning anyway, you can probably skip the handheld and use your regular vacuum to cover the gaps.

How we picked

top pick handheld vacuums on floor

Photo: Liam McCabe

We started by making a spreadsheet of every handheld vacuum that we could find listed on manufacturers’ websites and at popular retailers. We’ve tallied up about 50 models since we started covering this category, though a few are now discontinued.

For our main pick, we wanted to find a handheld vacuum that made it as easy as possible to tidy up small messes, or messes where a regular vacuum couldn’t easily reach. We looked for the following criteria:

  • An 18-volt battery or greater. More voltage does not necessarily mean more cleaning power, but 18 volts is a good baseline for decent suction. Weaker batteries struggle with larger debris, like road salt or chunks of food. We considered the advertised, maximum voltage here, not the actual running voltage—vacuums all run at slightly less than their maximum voltage because of circuit inefficiencies.
  • A lithium or lithium-ion battery. Most cordless vacuums now use these types of battery, but some old stragglers are still available. NiCD and NiMH batteries take much longer to recharge than lithium-based cells. NiCD is particularly awful because it starts to lose suction about halfway through its run time.
  • Attachments or at least extensions. These can make it much easier to clean hard-to-reach areas or clingy surfaces like upholstery. The more attachments, the better.
  • Strong user ratings. We’ve found that user ratings averaging four out of five stars can be a pretty accurate cutoff for user satisfaction. Any lower than this, and it’s usually a sign of a design flaw or quality-control problem.

We also took battery life and recharge times into consideration, although most vacuums have plenty of juice for the kinds of small cleanups they’re meant for and tend to live on their recharging docks between uses anyway, so those are not usually an issue.

Based on those specs, we narrowed in on a handful of finalists: The Black+Decker Max Flex Vac BDH2020FL, the Dyson V6 Car + Boat, and the Bissell Multi Cordless 1985. The price range is wide, but on paper they look like the most versatile, powerful hand vacs available. We called all three in for testing.

Not everyone needs such a full-featured hand vacuum, so we also narrowed in on some more affordable DustBuster-style hand vacs to test: the Black+Decker Max Lithium DustBuster CHV1410L (not to be confused with the regular CHV1410, which does not have a lithium battery), the Black+Decker Lithium DustBuster HHVI325JR, and the Dirt Devil Flipout BD10315.

How we tested

I tested the contenders around the house for a few weeks, mainly for everyday tasks like picking up random tufts of cat hair (sometimes off of upholstery), cleaning crumbs off of countertops or the kitchen floor, and tidying up my car after moving sports equipment—most of the typical uses for handheld vacuums, in other words—to get a feel for the real-world pros and cons.

Sometimes I used two contenders side by side for these cleanups to see a more direct comparison. For example, I cleaned the driver’s side of my car with the Dyson V6 Car + Boat and the passenger side with the Bissell Multi Cordless 1985, so that I could get a clear visual of how much debris the Bissell left behind relative to the Dyson.

I also set up an informal test to gauge suction. I poured out six lines of coffee grounds on a countertop, used each finalist to suck up one line each, and then made notes on how easily each model accomplished that task. Weaker models needed more time to suck up the same amount of debris.

Our pick

top pick handheld vacuum on table

Photo: Liam McCabe

Our pick
Black+Decker Max Lithium Flex Vacuum BDH2020FL
Solid suction and helpful attachments—including a 4-foot flexible hose to reach spots other handhelds can’t—make this longtime pick the strongest cleaner and the best value in its class.

The Black+Decker Max Lithium Flex Vacuum BDH2020FL is our favorite handheld vacuum because the flexible 4-foot hose and clip-on attachments help it reach and clean awkward spots around your home and car where other handhelds struggle. The suction is strong enough to handle most common types of debris. It has a 16-minute, no-fade run time, which should be enough to give most cars a thorough tidy-up.

The Max Flex Vac’s average price at or below $100 is a good value, and it often goes on sale, but at other times it can be expensive (check out the item’s price history for the full context). The suction strength is good but not amazing, and it may struggle with large debris like leaves. But given its versatility and relative cleaning strength, we think it’s the most well-rounded handheld vacuum you can get, if you’ll use it regularly around your car and your home.

person using top pick to suck up pencil shavings

The Max Flex Vac is meant to be used with two hands: one holding the main assembly, the other guiding the hose. Photo: Tim Heffernan

The Max Flex Vac looks more like a miniature canister vacuum than a traditional DustBuster-style handheld, but the design makes it a much more versatile vacuum. You’re meant to use it with two hands: One holding the main assembly, the other guiding the 4-foot hose. Because the intake is separate from the bulky motor assembly, you can better reach tight spaces at weird angles, like under car seats or anything above your head. We also think that the two-handed design makes it more comfortable to use than a typical handheld for jobs that take a few minutes, like cleaning your car. We asked a few Sweethome staff members to compare the feel and handling of a few of our top contenders, and most said they preferred the Max Flex Vac’s versatility over the feel of a regular DustBuster-style handheld. (You can operate it with one hand if you can’t use both, too—just set the canister on a surface, push the on button, and aim the hose at what you want to pick up.)

Attachments for top pick.

The Max Flex Vac comes with three attachments that clip onto the end of the hose (top to bottom): A combo brush, a crevice tool, and a pet-hair brush. Photo: Liam McCabe

The Max Flex Vac’s hose accepts attachments, another feature that adds to its versatility. It comes with three tools: A combo tool, a crevice tool, and a pet-hair brush. The combo tool has bristles that can help grab clingy particles. 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. We also found that the crevice tool focuses the Max Flex Vac’s air flow, allowing it to suck up heavier debris that the combo brush or open hose might struggle with. If you’re a pet owner, the pet-hair brush is a big help. It’s nothing fancy, just a rubbery surface with nubs, but it does help corral fuzz in a way that most handhelds struggle with. The brush isn’t as quick as the motorized turbo tools that some handhelds use (or that possibly came with your full-size vacuum), but it gets the job done, and won’t require maintenance like a motorized tool.

All of the tools lock into place, too, so you won’t have to worry about the crevice tool quietly falling off in your driveway after you’ve cleaned your car.

dust bin for top pick

The Max Flex Vac’s dust bin can pop out from the main assembly for easy cleaning, and its filter is washable. Photo: Liam McCabe

The Max Flex Vac has plenty of suction for tidy-up jobs. The battery peaks at 20 volts, among the higher voltages of any handheld vacuum. More voltage doesn’t always mean better cleaning power, but it helps. We’ve tested the Max Flex Vac in all sorts of ways over the past few years—cleaning cat hair off a couch, tidying up dirt and pebbles and some plant matter from a car after a weekend of camping, dealing with stray crumbs and cat litter—and found that it reliably picks up most types of visible debris. Other user reviews mention using it to clean dog hair, sand, lint, cobwebs, and small leaves. The raw suction isn’t quite as strong as that of some other models, including our upgrade pick’s, and we found that it struggled with larger leaves and heavier pebbles. But it’s strong enough for most jobs, and the hose’s versatility helps offset that suction disadvantage.

Black+Decker claims that the Max Flex Vac takes four hours to recharge and has a 16-minute run time. In our testing, that was pretty accurate.

Black+Decker claims that the Max Flex Vac takes four hours to recharge and has a 16-minute run time. 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 starts to drop off only in the last minute or so of battery life.

Person stretching out hose of top pick

Thanks to its accordion hose and attachments, the Max Flex Vac has a reach of nearly 5 feet, much longer than that of a typical DustBuster-style handheld. Photo: Tim Heffernan

Once you’re done cleaning, the Max Flex Vac’s dirt canister is easy to empty: Pull a latch on the side of the vacuum’s body, tip it toward the garbage can, give it a whack, and you’re done. When the bin gets really grimy, like 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 reusable, too. Black+Decker says that it’s washable, and we’ve washed ours without incident a few times, but it’s a paper filter so it’s best to shake or knock debris loose most of the time.

The Max Flex Vac has an average Amazon user rating of 4.2 stars (out of five) across more than 600 reviews, a score that’s held steady for the past two and a half years.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

Of course, the Max Flex Vac has flaws. There’s the price: It often costs $120, which is about as expensive as it will get. That’s a lot to spend on a handheld vacuum, and we’re disappointed the price has not stayed down even though the vacuum’s been out for a few years. For most of the second half of 2016, the price held steady around $90, and dropped as low as $70. We hoped the price would stay there, but it jumped back up while we worked on this update. Overall, we still think that the versatility afforded by the hose and attachments, plus the solid suction, make this a great choice for people who will use it a few times per week. We’d just like to see a few bucks shaved off the asking price permanently.

Several Amazon customer reviewers wrote that the Max Flex Vac does not have as much suction as they expected. In our testing, we found that with the open hose (no attachments), the Max Flex Vac felt weaker than one of the cheaper DustBusters we tested. That said, with the combo brush or especially the crevice tool attached, we found that the Max Flex Vac works as well as its competitors to pick up most types of debris you’d usually clean from your home and car with a handheld vacuum. Most people who own the Max Flex Vac agree. If you prioritize very strong suction over anything else, look into a Dyson V6, our upgrade pick.

Although the Max Flex Vac’s battery has plenty of voltage, and it’s rated to be stronger than most other models,1 our best guess is that inefficiencies in the intake path reduce the effective airflow. The hose has ridges that create resistance, as well as some transfer points where air can leak out. So by the time the vacuum has a chance to suck up debris at the end of its hose, the airflow has weakened.

The filter in the Max Flex Vac gets dirty very quickly. After two battery cycles, we noticed a drop-off in suction, because the filter was already caked in dust. This is common with most handheld vacuums, like almost every other model we mention in this guide apart from the higher-end Bissell and Dyson vacs. You’ll need to be diligent about knocking the dust loose. We found that whacking it against the edge of our garbage can a few times was enough to get the air flowing again. When the filter gets really grimy, run it under the faucet and let it dry for 24 hours. In the two years we’ve long-term tested the Max Flex Vac, we’ve replaced the filter twice, after it got so dirty that even rinsing it wouldn’t get the dirt out.

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 84 dBC, which is likely to be in the annoying range if you consider yourself sensitive to sound. The Dyson V6 Trigger runs at about 80 dBC, somewhat quieter though still grating over time—and it also blasts up to 84 dBC with the boost mode turned on. Most upright vacuums come in around 70 dBC.

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 we’ve found that to be a pretty typical problem with handheld vacuums and even full-size bagless vacuums.

Other complaints that came up in some Amazon customer reviews:

  • The dust bin doesn’t separate from the assembly as easily as expected, and kicks up a bunch of dust when you do manage to get it loose.
  • The vacuum doesn’t click into place on the charging dock, and some owners mentioned they had a tough time telling whether it was seated properly for a charge.
  • Short life span. Some reviewers claim that it worked for fewer than 20 uses, others that it lasts just six months. It does have a two-year limited warranty, although we do not know what it’s like to deal with Black+Decker’s customer service. We’ve used our test unit for more than two years with no issues.

Long-term test notes

We’ve used the latest Max Flex Vac for more than two years now. On average, we put it to use a couple times a month, and it’s worked just fine—though that’s a lighter workload than it will get in the real world with most people who buy it.

Like most bagless vacuums with see-through bodies, the dust bin starts to look pretty grody after a few months of use. Even if you wipe the dust bin from time to time, the plastic still gets etched from the debris whipping around inside it, so it’ll never be as clean as it was when it came out of the box.

The most irritating issue is the filtration—you need to dust it off every few uses, or the vacuum will not suck, and it gets tedious. The more dust you clean up (as opposed to hair and big crumbs), the more significant the problem is. But aside from a couple of high-end models, this is a typical problem for all handheld vacuums.

Several Sweethome and Wirecutter staff members have bought the Max Flex Vac since we first recommended it in 2013, and all told me that they’re happy with it. Sweethome executive editor Ganda Suthivarakom said “it’s definitely worth the money and I use it all the time.” Wirecutter lead editor Dan Frakes said “it’s worked well, and I like the versatility,” though he said he wishes the charging dock was sturdier. Wirecutter audio/video writer Chris Heinonen said that it’s worth the money he paid for it (though he got it on sale), and is considering buying one for a family member.

An almost-identical runner-up

Runner-up
Black+Decker Max Lithium Flex Vacuum BDH2020FLFH
This is essentially the same vacuum as our main pick, plus a (pointless) floor-cleaning attachment. Buy whichever one costs less.

The Black+Decker Max Flex Vac BDH2020FLFH is the same vacuum as our main pick, with the same useful clip-on attachments, plus an extension wand and floor tool to turn it into an ersatz stick vacuum. Buy whichever version costs less when you’re doing your shopping; they are the same thing, for all purposes that matter.

Though the floor-cleaning kit sounds like a good value, it’s actually totally worthless. The Max Flex Vac’s suction becomes too weak by the time it reaches the end of the extension wand to be useful at all. We do not consider the Max Flex Vac to be a viable stick vacuum, and suggest that you just ignore those tools and forget about trying to use it as a floor-cleaning stick vac. If you want a stick vacuum that doubles as a handheld, consider our favorite cordless stick vacuum, or even a budget-friendly cordless stick vac.

A budget pick for quick cleanups

budget pick vacuum on counter

The Black+Decker CHV1410L is a typical DustBuster-style handheld, with a better battery than most others at this price. Photo: Liam McCabe

Budget pick
Black+Decker CHV1410L
If you need something simple for quick cleanups, this is a small, affordable handheld that’ll get the job done.

If you need a regular DustBuster-style handheld for quick cleanups, buy the Black+Decker CHV1410L. It’s a perennial best-seller, and one of the most affordable vacuums with a strong lithium battery.

In our testing, the CHV1410L had no trouble sucking up crumbs (including cereal) and dirt off of bare surfaces like countertops, tile floors, and windowsills. On paper, the 16-volt battery is not as strong as some competitors’. But in the real world, for easy jobs like the ones we listed, it’s perfectly adequate—we found it to be about as effective as our main pick in those situations.

The battery in the CHV1410L is one of the best among budget vacuums. It’s a lithium battery, so it maintains steady suction right up until it’s fully drained. We clocked the run time at about 12 minutes on a few different occasions, though some owners have put it at more like nine or 10 minutes. One of the other budget models we tested runs a couple of minutes longer, but it’s a pretty typical run time for handhelds at this price, and ample for the types of quick cleanups most people use it for. The CHV1410L also recharges faster than the other budget models we tested—it takes about three hours to fill up from a dead battery, and sits on a circular dock that’s about 6 inches in diameter.

We found the CHV1410L to be comfortable to handle, too. It weighs less than 4 pounds, with a curved, closed handle for an easy grip. The slide-out crevice tool and swing-out combo brush, both built into the tip of the vacuum, have limited reach but may come in handy from time to time.

The CHV1410L has an excellent customer rating at Amazon, with an average score of 4.3 stars (out of five) based on more than 9,200 ratings. That’s a very strong score for a vacuum, and the highest volume of ratings that I can personally remember seeing for any product I’ve come across. This vacuum has been out since 2012, and has been consistently popular since then. It was one of the first DustBuster-style hand vacuums with a lithium battery, and though most of the rest of the industry has finally switched away from the old crummy NiCD batteries, the CHV1410L is among the best models in this budget-friendly price range. Black+Decker told us it has no plans to discontinue the model anytime soon, either.

The main downside, as with most DustBuster-style models, is that the CHV1410L can’t clean carpet or upholstery effectively. Particles cling to the fabric, and the CHV1410L has neither the suction to offset the clinging, nor any tool that can agitate debris out from the fibers. Also, because the CHV1410L has no hose, it’s a hassle to clean the kinds of odd angles that our main pick excels at. Like our main pick (and most other handheld vacuums), the filter also needs to be shaken out pretty regularly in order to maintain suction.

The most cleaning power

upgrade pick vacuum on counter

Photo: Liam McCabe

Upgrade pick
Dyson V6 Car + Boat
The strongest handheld vacuum you can buy—at a higher price than most—with attachments to blast through trickier jobs like upholstery and pet-hair pickup.

If you’re willing to pay for the strongest handheld vacuum possible, so that you can clean almost any surface in your vehicle or home quickly and thoroughly, get the Dyson V6 Car + Boat. It has much more suction by a wide margin than any other handheld vacuum we’ve tested, including our main pick. Several V6 variants are available, but we think that the Car + Boat has the best set of attachments of them all, including a mini motorized brush tool for cleaning upholstery (like cloth car seats), and a flexible extension hose for cleaning at odd angles (like under car seats). The V6 Car + Boat is very expensive, and probably overkill for most people. But apart from other, also-expensive variants of the V6, no other handheld vacuums comes close to its power and versatility.

Even without specialized attachments, we found in testing that the V6 can suck up bigger bits of debris than other handhelds, and do it faster. That’s because it has much stronger suction. Dyson claims that the V6 pulls up to 100 air watts in the boosted-power Max mode, which is about four times the advertised suction of our main pick. Even on the standard power setting, Dyson claims that it pulls 26 air watts, which is only slightly more than our main pick on paper, but noticeably stronger in the real world, we found, because the intake path is short, smooth, and straight.

array of attachments for upgrade pick

Photo: Liam McCabe

No other handheld vacuums comes close to its power and versatility.

With the attachments, the V6’s advantage over its competitors expands even more. The Car + Boat comes with a flexible extension hose (like the one built into our main pick), crevice tool, combo brush, stiff-bristle brush, soft-dusting brush, and a mini motorized brush roll. We can’t think of a hand-vac task that those tools couldn’t handle. The mini brush roll is especially useful because it lets the V6 pick up the kind of clingy debris that every other handheld we tested left behind. For example, in a side-by-side test against the Bissell Multi Cordless 1985 (another handheld with a motorized brush-roll attachment), the V6 left behind far less climbing chalk and hair in the cargo area of my car.

trunk of car with vacuum performance comparison

The Dyson V6 with the mini motorized brush roll attached (left) removed almost all of the dust and other debris from the left half of the cargo area of this car, and the Bissell Multi Cordless 1985 with the brush roll attached (right) left behind visible debris on the right half. Photo: Liam McCabe

With a run time that we clocked at 20 minutes, the V6 also has more battery life than its competitors. If you’re cleaning the interior of a large vehicle, like a 15-seat van, that extra time can come in handy. (It’s a few minutes shorter if you’re using the motorized brush tool, which draws extra power from the battery.)

If you don’t think you’ll need all the attachments included with the V6 Car + Boat, consider the V6 Top Dog instead. It costs a little less most of the time, but still comes with the mini motorized brush roll. We don’t love the basic V6 Trigger or V6 Child + Baby because neither comes with the motorized brush roll. And we don’t think it’s worth paying extra for the V6 Mattress. Its highlight feature is HEPA filtration, but anytime you empty the dustbin, allergens and irritants will go airborne and negate any benefit that a HEPA filter may have provided.

Also, if you’re looking for both a handheld and a floor-cleaning vacuum, check out one of the stick-vac variants of the V6, which capably handle both jobs. The base model is our top overall recommendation in our guide to the best cordless stick vacuums.

The downsides: Every version of the V6 is wildly expensive.2 The Car + Boat costs anywhere from $120 to $175 more than our main pick, depending on daily price fluctuations. And our main pick is already expensive for a handheld.

And with that high price comes high expectations. Some customer reviews at Amazon express disappointment with the V6’s suction (though the average customer ratings for the V6 handheld models are some of the highest we’ve seen for any type of vacuum). But for what it’s worth, according to our testing, the V6 is by far the strongest handheld vacuum out when it’s in Max mode, and among the strongest in the standard-power mode.

We cover some of the other downsides to the V6 in our cordless stick vac guide, if you want to get into the finer details.

Again, most people don’t need to buy such a strong handheld vacuum. It’s overkill for quick cleanups around the house, and tons of plug-in vacuums come with all the same attachments. But the V6 can be a solid buy if you deeply value cleanliness where your main vacuum can’t reach.

The competition

The Bissell Handheld Multi Cordless 1985 was one of our finalists, and it’s a neat little vacuum. It has most of the same features as our main pick, including a flexible extension hose and a bunch of attachments, plus some of the upsides of our upgrade pick, like the mini motorized brush tool and a molded one-hand grip. But in our testing, it didn’t perform any better than the Black+Decker Max Flex Vac, yet it costs anywhere from $30 to $80 more, depending on price fluctuations. We like this vacuum, and we may even reconsider it for our main pick if the price drops down to the level of the Max Flex Vac. For now, it’s not quite effective enough to justify the higher price.

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 the added oomph of the battery helps offset the inefficiency of the long, corrugated hose.

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.

Black+Decker makes a few other 20-volt, lithium-powered, handheld vacuums, including the Max Lithium Pivot BDH2000PL, which has a pivoting head, the Max Lithium BDH2000L, which looks like a traditional DustBuster, and the Max Lithium BDH2000SL, which has a swappable battery so you can keep a backup charged (or use it with other compatible Black+Decker products). None has the reach of our main pick, and though they do have more raw suction than our budget pick, we don’t think they provide enough of a real-world cleaning advantage to justify the extra cost. But your mileage may vary, so if you’re not excited about the hose on our main pick, don’t want to splurge on our upgrade pick, and think you’ll need more suction for heavier debris than our budget pick can provide, check one of these out—the Max Lithium Pivot model is particularly popular and highly rated at Amazon.

The Black+Decker Lithium DustBuster HHVI325JR was one of our budget-pick finalists, and it’s largely identical to our budget pick, the CHV1410L—same body, same tools, roughly the same price. Black+Decker explained to us that the only real difference is that the HHVI325JR uses high-capacity battery cells, so it runs for a few minutes longer than the CHV1410L (we counted an extra two minutes in our test), and has slightly stronger suction (which we barely noticed in testing). The downside is that the HHVI325JR takes much, much longer to recharge, like eight or nine hours compared with two or three hours for the CHV1410L. It doesn’t have a charging dock either, just a regular plug-in jack charger. Also, the HHVI325JR hasn’t been available as long as the CHV1410L, so we don’t data on how the battery will hold up over time (though we don’t expect much of a difference). We sided with the CHV1410L, but think the HHVI325JR is a perfectly reasonable alternative.

Our other budget-pick finalist was the Dirt Devil Flipout BD10315. The specs are similar to the Black+Decker CHV1410L, but the Dirt Devil comes with a mini motorized brush. In practice, we found the suction to be a bit weaker than the CHV1410L’s, but not substantially so. The Dirt Devil’s open, stick-style handle isn’t as comfortable, it has no charging dock, and the dust bin has electronics inside of it and can’t be washed out. But the motorized brush was effective at removing cat hair from a couch, so if that’s a priority for you, we think that this is the best of the affordable handhelds with that feature.

We considered testing some other budget-range Black+Decker DustBuster-style models. The Smartech HHVJ320BMF and HHVJ315J models have extra features like adjustable suction and a battery-life indicator. The body weight is a little bit lighter than that of the DustBusters we tested, too. However, we don’t think those modest advantages justify the $30 to $50 price premium over our budget pick. The DustBuster HHVI320J is almost identical to the HHVI325JR, but with a slightly lower voltage for a slightly lower price, so we skipped testing it as well.

The Black+Decker CHV1510 and Shark Pet Perfect II Hand Vac SV780 are a couple of other popular models with relatively strong suction for not much money. But they still run on old NiCD batteries, which is an absolute dealbreaker these days. With NiCD batteries, suction starts to fade a few minutes into each cleaning cycle, cutting the effective cleaning time by about half. NiCD batteries also suffer from the memory effect—that is, if you recharge them when they’re not completely dead, the maximum battery life is permanently diminished. And NiCD batteries can’t hold their charge for more than a couple of months. The vacuum industry has largely transitioned to lithium batteries, which are superior in pretty much every way, and there’s no reason to bother with a NiCD-powered vacuum anymore.

Beyond those, we dismissed a couple dozen truly low-end vacuums from Black+Decker, Bissell, Moneual, Dirt Devil, Electrolux, and Hoover because they either had very low-voltage batteries, inexplicably high prices, or poor user reviews.

In a previous version of this guide, we recommended the Eureka Easy Clean 71B, a plug-in handheld vacuum with a permanent brush roll. It’s designed for cleaning upholstery and carpeted stairs. We like this vacuum just fine, and nothing changed in that regard. We just don’t think readers are as interested in corded models. If you like the sound of the Eureka 71B, it might be worth considering the Bissell Pet Hair Eraser 33A1B, a similar model with good user ratings, but one that we haven’t tested.

A few readers have asked us about handheld wet/dry shop vacs, like these models made by DeWalt and Milwaukee. We have not tested them, but the user ratings are solid, and they appear to be well-suited for cleaning up the type of metal debris you’d find near a workbench that could wreck the types of handhelds we recommend in this guide. We may review this category in the future.

What about those hand vacs that plug into the AC port (formerly known as the cigarette lighter) in your car? Well, a car battery supplies only 12 volts, so these vacs are much, much weaker than any of the models we’d recommend. And unless you have AC ports around your house, 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. We may look into these at some point in the future, probably as part of a collective guide to car accessories. But we think for most people, these plug-in models aren’t the best bet.

Footnotes:

1. Black+Decker claims that the Max Flex Vac pulls 24 air watts of suction, compared with 15.2 air watts for our budget pick, and Dyson’s claim of 26 air watts for our upgrade pick. Jump back.

2. In the previous version of this guide, we didn’t even recommend the V6 at all because of the price. This time around, we decided to add it in because it really is the strongest cleaner, and some of our readers have told us that’s what they’re looking for, regardless of the cost. Jump back.

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Originally published: January 9, 2017

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