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
- Runner up
- 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; that usually means plugging it in. (And if you have any carpet, you also need a brushroller.)
That being said, some new battery-powered vacuums are designed as all-purpose cleaners, meant to pull double-duty as an all-house upright and a hand vacuum; these are sometimes referred to as stick vacuums. In an older version of this guide, we’d recommended one of those stick vacuums as a step up: the Dyson DC44. But that category has evolved pretty quickly and serves a different kind of owner, so we’ll be breaking that out into a separate guide over the next few weeks. In the meantime, the Dyson DC44 Animal is still a great pick in that category, and we like it even more now that the price for a manufacturer-refurbished unit has dropped to $230.
How we picked
This is our third year picking the best portable vacuums, and in 55 collective hours of research and testing, we’ve learned that the best models all 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 it basically works in this context). The cheapest crap-vacs can use batteries as weak as 6 volts, while the $280 Dyson DC58 uses a 22.2-volt monster. The sweet spot is 18 or 20 volts, where you get plenty of suction without paying tons 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 we weren’t compelled to look for a better option until Black & Decker refreshed its lineup of 20 V models in spring 2014. After hearing about the new models, we did a quick sweep of the category for due diligence, just in case we’d missed anything.1
All told, fewer than 10 new hand vacs had hit shelves since our last round of research. Among those, only two are in the ballpark of the reigning champ. There was the $280 Dyson DC58, which is just too expensive for most people to consider buying as a secondary vacuum. The other contender was the Black & Decker 20 V MAX Flex Vac BDH2020FLFH, the updated version of our old pick. On paper, it has a few improvements like a larger, removable dust bin and a smidge more suction, so it was an obvious choice to call in for testing.
How we tested
The reasons we liked the old Flex Vac are the same reasons that we like the new Flex Vac, so we mostly just spent our time using the BDH2020FLFH around the house. I have a fluffy cat and it’s the summer; she sheds hair all over the place and kicks litter everywhere. I like to go camping on the weekends, so there’s all sorts of crap on the floor of my car. I spill food and coffee grounds like anyone else. I made sure to try out all the attachments—even the floor extension—and used it for jobs where I probably should’ve used a full-size vacuum.
Sweethome editor Seamus Bellamy had tested the older 20-volt Flex Vac in the style of Consumer Reports’ lab tests—controlled amounts of flour, cat hair, dust, potting soil, uncooked brown rice, and uncooked black-eyed peas, each spread across a square foot of tiling, a square foot of carpet, and sometimes onto furniture, all pitted against the sucking power of a hand vac. After all was said and done, the old Flex Vac blew the other competition in its price bracket out of the water—it wasn’t even close.2
Since the new Flex Vac is super similar and nothing else has come out in its price range that can challenge its dominance, we decided to focus on around-the-house tests, with the assumption that standardized testing would give us the same results as last time around. We had plenty to work with.
The BDH2020FLFH looks more like a miniature canister vacuum than an old-school Dustbuster, but it’s a much more versatile cleaner because of that. 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 was released in late May 2014, and there weren’t many reviews available at the time of writing. It hadn’t been reviewed by any other big, reliable editorial outlets, and there were only two user reviews on Amazon to consider (they aren’t positive, but reading the specifics, one buyer might’ve gotten a lemon and the other’s complaints focus mostly on the fact that it was unable to function as a floor vacuum). But since it’s so similar to its predecessor, it’s fair to use some of those data points here.
The old model has an average Amazon user rating of 4.2 stars from 190 ratings, including 155 4-star and 5-star scores. One Amazon user named ED said that “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 9 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.
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 2 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.
The step up
If there’s a logical endpoint for how much power you’d need in a hand-vac, the DC34 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 65 air watts of suction (though the battery life drops to about 8 minutes). The Black & Decker cleaned all of the messes that we threw at it, but this Dyson cleans them faster.
For the price—even if it is heavily discounted—we’d like to see one or two more tools included. It comes with a basic crevice tool and combo brush, and they both click into place at the main nozzle. But there’s no pet-hair brush—neither a mini-turbo tool that is included with more expensive models nor even the simply rubberized attachment that comes with the Flex Vac.
We’d still recommend the Black & Decker Flex Vac to most people because it’s cheaper, reaches more spots, and sucks up debris like a pro. But if you need to blast through your small cleanups quickly, the DC34 is a very good 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 4.1 stars over 1,459 reviews.
Our pick for pet hair: corded for endless run time
Out of 4,075 customer reviews of the 71B on Amazon, 2,691 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.
The Dyson DC58, the company’s newest hand-vac, is even more powerful that the DC34, and even comes with a turbo brush for cleaning pet hair. But it costs $280, which is just too pricey for a portable vacuum.
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