The Best Portable Vacuum
For small spills and tight spots that a regular vacuum can’t reach, we recommend using the Black & Decker BDH2020FLFH 20 V MAX Flex Vac ($130). Its powerful 20-volt lithium-ion battery delivers about 16 minutes of strong, steady suction, which means better cleaning for longer than the competition can muster. Its 4-foot flexible hose reaches where other hand vacuums (including our previous pick) can’t, like under car seats, and it even accepts clip-on attachments like a regular vacuum would. It may not look like a Dustbuster, but it’s the most versatile portable vacuum out there.
Table of contents
- Who needs a portable vacuum?
- How we picked
- How we tested
- Our pick
- Flaws not dealbreakers
- Long-term test notes
- Step up
- Step down
- For pet hair
- Wrapping it up
Who needs a portable vacuum?
When we talk about portable vacuums, we mean small and lightweight hand vacuums, almost always battery-powered and bagless. Many of you know this type of vacuum as 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.
However, if you think you can replace a floor vacuum with one of these, you will be sorely disappointed. They’re simply not designed for that kind of heavy lifting. Some, like our pick, do come with a limited selection of floor cleaning accessories, but they are more of an afterthought than a feature and should not be relied upon for most floor cleaning jobs. For that, you need a vacuum with more power, or at least a brush roller if you’re planning on cleaning carpet. The good news is that these days, there are plenty of battery-powered vacuums that can clean your whole home. We cover them in our guide to the best cordless stick vacuums.
How we picked
This is our fourth year covering portable, handheld vacuums, and in 65 collective hours of research and testing, we’ve learned that the best models usually have high-voltage lithium-ion batteries paired with cleaning heads and attachments that give them access to the most awkward hard-to-reach nooks.
More voltage means more suction, and more suction picks up more stuff (alright, obviously it’s not always that simple, but that’s basically how it works with handheld vacs). The cheapest crap-vacs come with batteries as weak as 6 volts, while the $160 Dyson V6 Trigger uses a 21.6-volt monster. A reasonable sweet spot is 18 or 20 volts, where you get plenty of suction without paying much extra.
Battery chemistry also plays an important role. The best models use lithium-ion batteries. This tech has a steady discharge curve—that is, suction doesn’t taper off until the battery is nearly drained. It also recharges pretty quickly. Most portable vacuums still use old-tech NiCd (or NiCad) batteries, which only work really well when the battery is mostly charged. NiCd is cheaper, but Li-ion will make most people happier more of the time.
Since we were building on a few years’ worth of knowledge and testing experience, our search for a new best portable vacuum was basically a game of king of the hill—that is, finding something with a more compelling set of specs than our previous pick (the Black & Decker BDH2000FL), weighed against the price.
This category doesn’t change very quickly, and honestly there hasn’t been a compelling reason to look for a better option since Black & Decker refreshed its lineup of 20-volt models in spring 2014, which is also when we made the latest MAX Flex Vac our main pick. But Dyson recently shuffled around its lineup of battery-powered vacs, changing names and prices on a few models. So we decided to give this guide another quick look.1
We only seriously considered two handheld vacuums for our pick: the $110 Black & Decker 20 V MAX Flex Vac BDH2020FLFH, which is our reigning champ, and the “new” $160 Dyson V6 Trigger, which is a renamed version of the Dyson DC58 with a huge price cut since we last saw it.
How we tested
We used to test handheld vacuums in the style of Consumer Reports’s lab tests—controlled amounts of flour and cat litter spread across a standardized patch of carpet, for example.2
But the results were always predictable, so we decided instead to do real-world, around-the-house tests with the Black & Decker MAX Flex Vac BDH2020FLFH and Dyson V6 Trigger (we actually tested the DC58, which is identical in all but name). Over the course of several months, we used both vacs to clean up small spills, and to get at areas where bigger vacuums couldn’t reach. That meant cleaning up cat hair and stray grains of kitty litter, tidying up the car, and sucking up bits of food and coffee grounds. We made sure to try out all the attachments, and even tried to use the handhelds for jobs better suited to bigger, more powerful vacuums.
The BDH2020FLFH looks more like a miniature canister vacuum than an old-school Dustbuster, but that makes it a more versatile cleaner. The 4-foot stretchable hose can unwrap from around the body, making it more adept at cleaning at weird angles, in tight spaces, or above your head—i.e. the exact types of tasks you’d want a hand vac for. Since the hose unwraps from the body, it’s lighter and easier to wrangle than a regular all-in-one portable vac (and it’s actually smaller than it looks in pictures, too).
The design advantages really stand out when the BDH2020FLFH goes to work where other hand vacs struggle—in a car, for instance. The flexible hose is great for cleaning the floor, because it’s easy to wield at otherwise-awkward angles. When we used it to clean a station wagon after a weekend camping, it had no trouble picking up pebbles, dirt, and even some pine needles (it worked great on the tent, too). It was also easier to clean stairs with the Flex Vac than with a Dustbuster-type body. By holding the body of the vacuum in one hand, and the cleaning head in the other, sucking up the dirt and cat litter off of the carpeted stairs went a lot faster and took less effort than using other portable vacuums.
Of course, you can also swing it around all in one piece like any other handheld vacuum. It cleans countertops, work benches, and other flat surfaces like a Dustbuster-style model would. At a shade under 4 pounds, it’s a little bit heavier than most hand vacs, but only by a few ounces.
A bunch of the Flex Vac’s cleaning prowess comes from its attachments. The combo brush helps knock loose the particles that want to cling to fabric or carpet, a task where other hand vacs can struggle. The crevice tool is helpful even just as a wand extender, but 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 removal tool is a big help. It’s nothing fancy: just a textured, rubberized head with a hole in the middle. Ideally, you’d use a mini turbo brush tool for hair, but not many hand vacs come with one of those, and this simple design does the job just fine.
You connect it to the hose, run it over any surface covered in pet hair a few times, 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 a regular vacuum head, lint roller, or masking tape.
None of this versatility or thoughtful design would matter if the vacuum lacked the power to suck up what you put in front of it. Fortunately, it has plenty of it. As its name suggests, the 20 V Max Lithium Flex Vac peaks at 20 V of power, but it typically runs at around 18 volts (batteries always run at a little bit less than their advertised voltage). It uses this power to produce 25 air watts (a metric used to measure the movement of air through a vacuum cleaner) of suction. On paper, that’s a bit stronger last year’s model, which already had plenty of suction, so anything extra is gravy.
Black & Decker claims that the BDH2020FLFH takes 4 hours to recharge and has a 16-minute runtime. In our testing, that was pretty accurate. We cleaned the interior of a station wagon on one charge, with time to spare. One of the big upsides of having a lithium-ion battery (as opposed to NiCd) is that is maintains steady power throughout the charge cycle—the suction only starts to drop off in the last minute of battery life.
The BDH2020FLFH has an average Amazon user rating of 4.2 stars (out of five), based on 112 ratings. That includes 90 ratings of four stars or five stars. User T. Anderson wrote that “it’s 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.” We haven’t been able to find any expert reviews of the BDH2020FLFH yet.
The older version of the MAX Flex Vac has an average Amazon user rating of 4.3 stars from 420 ratings, including 344 four-star and five-star 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. It also has a 4.4 rating at Best Buy, from 17 reviews.
At Tools in Action, Dan Maxey wrote that the vacuum’s 4-foot long hose was a perfect length, and added that “We got about 16 minutes of constant suction on one charge, which was plenty for the the small tasks at hand. Suction was constant even with an almost filled canister. The suction power is good for a unit of this size.”
Flaws not dealbreakers
Of course, there are flaws. There’s the price: The BDH2020FLFH sells for $130. That’s a lot to spend on a portable vacuum, but great batteries aren’t cheap, and you can’t find the flexible hose on other, equally powerful hand vacs. And as we saw with its predecessor, it’s safe to assume that the price of the BDH2020FLFH will drop as the weeks wear on. The previous model dropped as low as $110 (and its starting price was $150, a full $20 more than the new model), and discounts on small household appliances are very common. We think it’s worth buying as is, but if you’re uncomfortable with the price and can wait a beat, give it some time.
Even some users that like the BDH2020 overall have written that it’s noisier than they’d expect. It might seem a bit louder than a regular upright, but keep in mind that you’ll also be holding the Flex Vac closer to your ears than a normal vac. It didn’t seem particularly loud compared to other vacuums we’ve tested, handheld or otherwise.
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 it doesn’t turn the Flex Vac into a proper upright vacuum cleaner. It’s lacking in suction compared to even a cheap stick vac and there’s no brush roller for carpets. You also can’t attach tools to the end of the extension tube. It’s fine for dust bunnies, not your carpet. Consider it a bonus tube rather than an important feature.
The filter also gets dirty super fast. After two battery cycles, we noticed a drop-off in suction. It was because about two-thirds of the filter was caked in dust. This is really common with portable vacuums, but it’s 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 open up the airflow 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! Using 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 portable vacuums and even full-size bagless vacuums.
Long-term test notes
We’ve been using the latest Flex Vac for about a year now. On average, we put it to use about once a week, and it’s been working just fine.
At one point, somebody (who is not on our staff) used our testing unit to vacuum up a pile of used kitty litter that had been kicked out of the box. That’s not a smart move, because just about any bagless vacuum will permanently reek like cat pee after a stunt like that. Luckily, because the dust bowl is removable and the filter can be cleaned, we got the smell out of the Flex Vac with soap, air, and time. So, if you make the same mistake we did, know that you can fix it!
We’ll also emphasize this again: The filter gets dirty real fast, and you need to clean it regularly.
The step up
If there’s a logical endpoint for how much power you’d need in a hand vac, the V6 Trigger is pretty close to it. The battery lasts for 20 minutes and cranks out 28 air watts of suction, but it can also be put into boost mode for an insane 100 air watts of suction (though the battery life drops to about six minutes). The Black & Decker cleaned all of the messes that we threw at it, but this Dyson cleans them faster.
The V6 Trigger (and DC58) earn an excellent user rating at Amazon, posting a combined average score of 4.5 out of five stars based on 143 reviews, including 109 five-star ratings and only five one-star ratings.
What’s the downside? The V6 Trigger isn’t as versatile as the Flex Vac. Even though it’s only about 3.5 pounds, the one-piece V6 feels a little unwieldy compared with the Flex Vac, which you can use with two hands. It’s harder to wedge the V6 into tight spaces at weird angles, like under or between car seats.
Pet owners, take note: The V6 Trigger does not come with a tool for getting pet hair off of upholstery. You’ll need to buy a mini turbo brush separately (or just use a lint roller).
The older Dyson DC34 ($150) is still available from some stores, and we used to recommend it here as our step up pick. But now that the price difference is just $10, we think that the V6 Trigger is the better choice. The namesake trigger (essentially the on-off switch) is easier to squeeze on the newer V6, so it’s more comfortable to handle if you need to use it for more than a couple of minutes at a time. The V6’s extra oomph in boost mode also helps it pick up debris from carpets more quickly.
We think that the Black & Decker Flex Vac is the better choice for most people because it’s cheaper, gets into more hard-to-reach areas, and sucks up debris like a pro. But if it’s more important to you that you blast through your small cleanups quickly, the Dyson V6 Trigger is a great step up.
A step down
The main downside is that it uses a nickel-cadmium (NiCd) battery, which is old, outdated technology. The power level drops off significantly in the second half of the 16-minute runtime, so you get about 7 or 8 minutes of strong suction before it loses effectiveness. Recharging takes a while, too. It also doesn’t support attachments, so sucking up pet hair from the couch will be a challenge, and it won’t reach crevices as effectively as the Flex Vac.
But if you’re confident that you won’t get much use out of the Flex Vac’s hose, or you have some other preferred method of cleaning crevices, pet hair, and your car, then you could save a few bucks and grab this step-down model instead. People who own it tend to like it, as it has an average Amazon user score of 4.2 out of five across 1,810 customer reviews.
Our pick for pet hair: corded for endless run time
Out of 5,403 customer reviews of the 71B on Amazon, 3,534 were five-star ratings. It’s also Consumer Reports’s second-favorite hand-vac (among a very limited sample size). There’s also a short hose that you can detach, which is cool, but it felt very cheap, which isn’t.
Our issue with the Eureka is that its power head is wide, it doesn’t pivot, and can’t be removed. You could argue that the plastic guard that covers the power head can be flipped up to make cleaning upholstery and stairs easier, but it’s just not enough to make me happy. Additionally, we didn’t think the 71B was balanced well, and as it weighs five pounds, using it in one hand for even a few minutes was an issue.
All that said, let’s back up for a second. A portable vacuum is a complement to a full-size vacuum. Any decent full-size vacuum has a big motor. Many come with a mini brush tool for cleaning upholstery, and you can buy a cheap one for the rest of them. You should already have the tools to clean pet hair off of your sofa. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to buy a redundant piece of equipment like this.
The primary competitors to the Black & Decker BDH2020FLFH are the other models in the Black & Decker 20 V MAX series. The battery drives a ton of power, but none of them have the hose, and as such, they just don’t clean as many hard-to-reach areas.
The BDH2000PL has a pivoting head like our step-down pick, but it still just can’t reach as many spots as the Flex Vac. At $71, we were tempted to make it our runner-up pick, and may still do so when the old version of the 20 V Flex Vac goes permanently out of stock.
The BDH2000L takes the powerful battery of the 20 V Max series and wastes it in a boring Dustbuster-style body. It’s discontinued but still widely available. Either way, you can skip it.
The BDH2000SL is like the 2000L but with a removable battery. That can come in handy for some folks—say, if they work in a shop, or use other Black & Decker tools that run on that same battery. But for most folks, it’s a good way to end up losing your vacuum’s power source. This has also been discontinued with no obvious replacement, though some stock is still available.
The Black & Decker 16 V MAX Lithium Flex Vac BDH1620FLFH sure is tempting—it has the flexible hose. But a lower battery voltage means less suction, so it’s going to have more trouble picking up debris, and it still costs $100. Pass. There’s also a 12 V Flex Vac model, which is even weaker.
We (briefly) considered other Black & Decker models, including the BDH1800S, CHV1510 (Amazon’s best-seller), and a handful of weaker hand-vacs, but dismissed them all because they fall short in terms of power and versatility.
Consumer Reports hasn’t reviewed many portable vacuums—including any of the Black & Decker 20 V models—but their favorite is the Shark Pet Perfect II Hand Vac SV780 ($60). 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 step-down 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 18 V BD10175 ($60) is very similar to the Shark, and we also toyed with making it a step-down pick, since its user ratings are solid. But it’s more expensive than the 18 V Black & Decker we picked, we didn’t trust the build quality when we tested it last year, the cleaning head doesn’t pivot, and again, we don’t see carpet cleaning as particularly important.
Beyond those, we found a bunch of low-end or discontinued models:
- Black & Decker Orb Vac ORB4810: It’s 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.
- About a dozen cheap Dirt Devil models: If we don’t trust the build quality on the high-end model, we can’t trust the build on the cheap ones either.
- Electrolux Rapido ION EL820A – Discontinued.
- Hoover Platinum Collection LiNX Hand Vac – Discontinued
- Porter Cable 18V Bare Hand Vac – Discontinued
Wrapping it up
All in all, the Black & Decker 20V MAX Lithium Flex Vac BDH2020FLFH was a pretty clear winner thanks to its more than capable suction power, easy to use design, great battery life, plethora of effective attachments, and reasonable price-to-performance ratio. If you need a portable vacuum, this is the one to get.
Originally published: August 6, 2014