The Best Portable Vacuum

If you're looking for a portable vacuum to do some spot cleaning around the house without having to plug in, we like Black & Decker’s $150 20V MAX Lithium Flex Vac BDH2000FL. Its powerful suction, decent battery life, reasonable recharging time and versatile accessory set make it a great choice for jobs that don't require a full-size vac.

Last Updated: January 17, 2014
Updated the competition section with two new (and pricey) portables from Dyson, the DC58 and DC59.

Bigger plug-in vacuums are great for cleaning large areas, but they’re awful for cleaning small or awkward places like the floor of your car or a countertop. They’re also overkill when it comes to dealing with small messes. Who wants to drag out a 30 pound vacuum every time the dog tracks in a few dirt clods? This is where portable vacuums excel: they’re smaller and more nimble than a conventional vacuum cleaner, so they’re easier to pull out, easier to use, and easier to put away. Easy is good.

In recent years, portable vacuums have taken on a variety of newer form factors, adding flexible hoses and extendable suction heads to the age-old Dustbuster-style handheld body type for more cleaning versatility. When you’re shopping for a portable vacuum, there’s a handful of key features to look out for. First, it should be light and small enough that you won’t think twice about using it. It should also be battery powered–no one wants to deal with untangling cords and searching for outlets for a single dust bunny. These things are meant for quick cleanups, so a battery rated for 20 minutes of runtime is more than enough. Finally, it should have a variety of attachments and cleaning modes, because no matter how much suction it produces or how long its battery lasts, if it comes with a single cleaning mode and/or no attachments, it’ll be decidedly limited in its capabilities. At the very least, you’ll want a crevice tool for getting into cracks between your couch cushions and other hard-to-reach areas. A brush tool is a good choice too–it comes in handy for cleaning upholstery or for cleaning down into heavy carpeting, especially if you’re dealing with pet hair.

Where’re the Sources?

Long story short, there really aren’t any.

Typically, we rely on the recommendations of expert reviewers to steer us (and ultimately, you) in the right direction when it comes to clicking “buy.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do that in this case. Very few sites and magazines take the time to cover portable vacuum cleaners.

I asked our own Richard Baguley, who helped set up the testing labs and procedures for Reviewed.com and has reviewed portable vacuum cleaners in the past, why there might be so few reviews out there. “That happens in the less-exciting categories,” he said. “Especially with non-Dyson products: they become pretty much an uninteresting blur for most people, and there are not a lot of people testing vacuum cleaners.”

Good Housekeeping–typically a comprehensive source for hardware you’d use around the home–has a graded rundown of a number of handheld vacuums cleaners published in October 2011 which looked like it might be a great resource, but it turned out to be kind of sketchy. For example, they gave the Dirt Devil Accucharge a B+ rating. The vacuum was also well-liked on Amazon, so I called it in. But when I tested it, I found that it had a Ni-Cad battery, which takes a lot longer to recharge than a lithium ion cell. Even worse, suction power declines as the battery drains. No bueno. In the accessories department, its charging stand was meant to be wall-mounted, but the nipple that keeps the vacuum in place on the stand was blasted by Amazon users for its inability to keep the hardware in place–you had one job! And overall, the build quality and materials used in this thing were crap: lots of sharp edges and no seal to speak of on the fold-out crevice tool. And that’s just one vacuum.

The Good Housekeeping roundup covers 35 different vacuums, all of which are now older models, with many sporting perplexing ratings. Our last pick for Best Portable Vacuum, the Black & Decker Pivot Vac PHV1810 Handheld Vacuum, only rated a ‘B,’ despite the fact that its far more powerful that the Dirt Devil Accucharge, has a longer-lasting battery and a better build quality. Same goes for the B-rated Dyson DC 31: Even though it’s far more powerful than the Accucharge, boasts a comparable runtime and design, has multiple attachments that actually stay on the vacuum when you use them, and a build quality that puts the Dirt Devil to shame, it’s a half-grade lower.

What I’m getting at here is that we didn’t find this particular vacuum roundup to be reliable enough to trust. I found that Consumer Reports has a great all-around guide to buying a vacuum cleaner, which we used to help develop our own criteria, but the site’s vacuum cleaner coverage is largely limited to full-sized upright and canister-style vacuums, with only a single review posted to their Small Vacuum category. So, with very little trustworthy editorial content to draw upon for reference, we could do only one thing: turn to hands-on testing in order to figure out which portable vacuum is worth paying for.

How Did We Decide What to Test?

I conducted about 40 hours of online research, trawling Amazon.com’s user reviews, looking at the posted hardware specifications of vacuums on their manufacturers’ homepages, watching YouTube user-created reviews, separating spam blogs from honest user-written posts on the cleaning hardware they actually use, and hunting down as many scattered editorial reviews for portable vacuum cleaners as I could find.

By the time my research was done, I ended up with 15 pieces of hardware that I thought might be worth testing, based on what I’d learned and the criteria I outlined earlier in this piece for what folks should look for in a good portable vacuum. The vacuums I looked at came from a wide range of brands including Dirt Devil, Black & Decker, Europro, Porter Cable, Dyson, Hoover, and Bissell. I even looked into convertible stick vacs like the Electrolux Ergorapido Bagless Cordless Handheld/Stick Vacuum Cleaner. But I found that stick vacs really more of a stick vacuum moonlighting as a hand vacuum as opposed to the other way around–they’re just not as versatile as a hand vac should be.

I eliminated 10 of these possible contenders for various reasons, including poor user reviews, shoddy hardware design, reports of lack of suction, inferior battery technology, or an unwarranted price point for the features offered. For instance, vacuums that didn’t come with the necessary complement of accessories, like a locking mechanism to hold all of said accessories in place, or a washable filter/dirt canister, were all cut from the list. As were those that seemed to suffer from overall build-quality issues. In the end, after 40 hours of research all-told, I was left with five leading vacuums to consider, all of which I called in for testing.

Testing Procedures

Once the hardware arrived, I tested each vacuum’s battery life and recharging time by charging it for the amount of time specified in the device’s user manual and then running it until it stopped working. This test was conducted six times per vacuum to ensure that the runtime I getting out of each machine was within the ballpark of what its battery was actually capable of.

Drawing inspiration from the tests conducted by Consumer Reports on full-sized vacuums, I tested each portable vacuum’s cleaning power by pitting it against a variety of messes–all-purpose flour, dust, potting soil, uncooked brown rice and uncooked black eyed peas on carpet, upholstery and tile.

The flour, dust (which I collected with an upright vacuum cleaner that I already own,) and potting soil I had on hand were each laid out in a 1′ x 1′ area on the carpet in my office and my bathroom’s tile floor in order to provide a controlled testing environment. For the rice and black eyed peas test, I took a half cup of each and spread them out in the same sized area over the same surfaces as the rest of my test substances.

Additionally, and this is a big one for a lot of people, I threw each vacuum against the scourge of my existence: cat hair. My cat sheds so much, he should be as bald as I am by now. I wouldn’t even know where to begin if you asked me to measure the exact amount of cat hair I used for the test, but I can say that I brush the little bastard every night and get an average of three brushes full of hair out of him from each session. I used three day’s worth of fur in my test, spreading it on furniture, carpet and tile.

I also looked at how easy it was to clean the vacuum’s filter and empty its dirt container. This is important: you should be able to clean a portable vacuum with as little effort as it takes to use it. And if you end up spilling the contents of your bagless vacuum all over the floor every time you empty it into the trash, or frequently have to fork over money for new bags and filters so you can keep your house clean, I say that the hardware you’re using is poorly designed.

Why This Is the Best

Our pick, based on extensive research and tests, this is the best balance of power, features and price.
 Of the five vacuums I tested, Black & Decker’s 20V Max Lithium Flex Vac BDH2000FL had the best combination of power, versatility and price.

The BDH2000FL is a strange-looking piece of gear insofar as portable vacuums go. When someone says “portable vacuum,” most of us typically see an old school DustBuster in our mind’s eye. While this style of handheld portable vacuum has been around for years, it’s far from versatile. The wide nozzle on most of the vacuums of this style make cleaning up loose dirt and debris from flat surfaces a breeze, but they’re poorly suited for dealing with other kinds of cleaning, and because of their all-in-one design, they’re bad at getting into tight spaces. While some come with built-in crevice tools or flip-out brushes, these accessories are often much less effective than those found on full-sized vacuum cleaners–the length of the accessory is dictated by the size and design of the portable vacuum cleaner they’re built into, and bigger is usually better in these cases.

The BDH2000FL solves both of these problems by ditching the design normally associated with portable vacuum cleaners. Instead, it borrows from the look and functionality of a larger canister-style vacuum, and at just under four pounds, you can easily swing it around just like you would any other handheld vacuum cleaner. But the cool thing about the BDH2000FL is that you don’t have to.

It comes with a four-foot long hose that can be unwrapped from around the body. This makes cleaning in tight spaces or above your head a cinch, and better still, also allows you to set the vacuum down while you use it. By holding the body of the vacuum in one hand, and the cleaning head in the other, I found that cleaning the dirt and cat litter off of the carpeted stairs that lead down into the basement of my house went a lot faster and took less effort than using the other portable vacuums I tested.

Since we’re on the topic of the BDH2000FL’s hose, let’s spend some time looking at what you can attach to it. The BDH2000FL comes with a six-inch crevice tool. That’s a just under half the size of the crevice tool that came with my full-sized Hoover upright vacuum, but it’s longer than the ones that came with any of the other portables I looked at with the exception of the Dyson DC44 Animal (more on that in a bit.) I found it was long enough to clean under and behind my desk, pick up the snack crud deposited between my couch cushions, suck the cobwebs off of my ceiling fan, and clean the storage bins built into my car doors without taking the skin off of my knuckles. It also comes with a combination brush/nozzle attachment and an attachment for removing pet hair. I reckon you’ll find yourself using the brush/nozzle attachment more than anything else, as it’s the most versatile of the accessories that the BDH2000FL came with, but if you’re a pet owner or tolerate having one in your life, it’ll be the pet hair removal tool that you’ll love the most. It’s nothing fancy: just a textured, rubberized head with a hole in the middle. 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. It’s worth mentioning that unlike many vacuum cleaner accessories which are held in place with nothing more than a tight seal and friction, the BDH2000FL all lock into place on the end of the vacuum’s hose with a thumb switch. No need to worry about the crevice tool falling off in your driveway after you’ve cleaned your car.

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, that’s not the case with this thing. As it’s name suggests, the 20V Max Lithium Flex Vac peaks at 20V of power, but it typically runs at around 18 volts. It uses this power to produce 22.3 air watts (a metric used to measure the movement of air through a vacuum cleaner) of suction.

If you’re familiar with our previous pick for Best Portable Vacuum, you’ll remember that it was capable of producing 35 air watts. That’s six more air watts than any other cordless vacuums I could find. Even Dyson’s powerful portable vacuums can only conjure up 28 air watts in their regular operating mode (they also have a secondary power mode that ups their output to 65 air watts for a short amount of time.) 35 air watts is a crazy amount of power in a portable vacuum, and in my opinion, it’s unnecessary.

A portable vacuum’s designed for spot cleaning: dirt, dog hair, coffee grounds or maybe some saw dust. You’re not going to use one to suck up marbles, and it doesn’t need to be able to lift a bowling ball with its suction. In my testing of the BDH2000FL, I was able to pick up uncooked brown rice, potting soil, all-purpose flour and uncooked black eyed peas in one pass on tile. I got similar results from cleaning my bedroom carpet and the floor of my car.

Black & Decker claims that the BDH2000FL takes four hours to recharge and has a 16 minute runtime. In my testing of the hardware, it consistently exceeded this expectation. The longest runtime was for 17:49. Once the vacuum’s Lithium Ion battery is depleted, it shuts off entirely. I found this was way better than having a vacuum slowly lose power as you use it up to the point where it becomes completely ineffectual, which was the case when I tested Dirt Devil’s AccuCharge 15.6 Volt Cordless Hand Vac which uses a Ni-Cad battery.

Once you’re done cleaning up whatever mess you’ve made, the BDH2000FL’s dirt canister is easy to clean out: flick a switch on the side of the vacuum’s body, tip it into the garbage and you’re done. The same goes for its two-piece filter assembly. It can be twisted out once the dirt canister is opened, washed and then replaced once it’s dry.

The BDH2000FL was only released a few months ago, so there’s not a lot of reviews out there for it yet. I talked to Richard Baguley and contacted Keith Barry, Reviewed.com’s Editor-in-Chief for Appliances, to see if either of them had the opportunity to test this vacuum, but neither one had. I also got in touch with Melissa Valentino and Carol Mangis at Consumer Reports to see if any of the organization’s people had the BDH2000FL in their testing pipeline–they said they haven’t run any recent tests of newer handheld vacs. If and when they do, we’ll update here.

Only 15 Amazon customers have reviewed this thing so far, and of those 15, 11 gave the 20V Max Lithium Flex Vac a five-star review. 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 Amazon user named C. MacPhail said “They got almost everything right. The best hand vac yet from Black & Decker.”

Dan Maxey of Tools in Action felt that the vacuum’s four-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.”

Of course, there are flaws. Let’s start by talking about BDH2000FL’s price. It’s selling for $150. That’s a lot to spend on a portable vacuum, but I’d rather pay more for something that works well in a number of situations like the BDH2000FL does than save some money and wind up with a one-trick pony.

I also wasn’t thrilled with its charging stand: it takes up a good amount of floor or shelf space, and there’s no way to forego the stand and plug the vacuum directly into the wall. There’s no on-device storage for its attachments–everything gets stored on the recharging stand, which adds to the stand’s size.

Finally, I found that pet hair had a way of clinging to the inside of the vacuum’s dirt canister as well, forcing me to dig in and clean it out with my finger. But you’ll find similar problems with other portable vacuums too, so there’s no sense in whining about these things.

As for the BDH2000FL price, I think it’s safe to assume that it’ll drop as the weeks wear on. In my experience, especially on Amazon, most brands of household appliances (including Black & Decker) tend to drift well below the price point suggested by their manufacturer, and I think that’s what we’ll see here. Give it time, and if you can wait, buy it when it hits a price point you’re comfortable with.

The Step Up

Also Great
With more power and better design, the Dyson is the king of all hand vacs. But at over 2x the cost of our pick--making it more expensive than most full sized vacuums, it's not for anyone but the rich.
*This price has changed. Shop wisely.
 The B&D is the portable vacuum I’d recommend for most people, but Dyson’s DC44 Animal is a better vacuum. It’s also overkill for most situations, and at $370, it’s prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of users–especially for a secondary device.

It has a 20-minute battery life and cranks out 28 air watts of suction, but it can also be put into boost mode for about eight minutes of runtime, providing an insane 65 air watts of suction.

Like the BDH2000FL, the DC44 comes with a crevice tool and dust/nozzle attachments. But it also has a motorized beater head with carbon fibre filaments, a smaller motorized head for harping on tough to clean messes and a 26” extension tube so you can use it as a stick vac to clean your floors, or lift it over your head to clean the cobwebs off your window valances.

It’s well balanced, and easy to use. The DC 44′S 28/65 air watts and two powered cleaning heads handily beat out the BDH2000FL in head to head testing. And unlike the BDH2000FL, the DC44 can also do the job of an upright vacuum cleaner in a pinch, thanks to its extension tube. But the Black & Decker handheld was still powerful enough to clean up all of the messes that I subjected it to, so one has to wonder if all that extra power is even necessary.

And you can’t forget its $370 price tag. That’s nuts when you consider the fact that this is a product designed for occasional spot cleaning. I don’t think I could sleep at night knowing that I’d spent so much money on a portable vacuum. But maybe you can. If so, and if you can look past the fact that it’s not going to clean your car or spots like behind your fridge as well as the BDH2000FL’s hose might, buy one. It’s one of the best vacuums, corded or battery powered, that I’ve ever used.

A Step Down

OK
If $150 for our main pick is too much, last year's $50 pick is the best you can get for the money. We wouldn't blame you.
*This price has changed. Shop wisely.
 If the BDH2000FL or Dyson’s DC44 are both too rich for your blood, our previous pick for Best Portable Vacuum, the $51 Black and Decker Pivot PHV1810 is still available. It’s an 18V vacuum that’s capable of producing up to 35 air watts of suction. Like the BDH2000FL, the Pivot has a 16 minute runtime. But it’s nowhere near as versatile as the BDH2000FL, which can be used in a multitude of situations with the pet hair remover, crevice tool (the Pivot comes with this too, but it’s short and attached to its body) and the four-foot flexible hose that allows it to be used just about everywhere. Try trying to clean underneath the seat of your car with a handheld unit like the Pivot–very difficult, if possible at all. Still, at a third of the price of the BDH2000FL, it’s not a bad vacuum for someone on a tight budget. But if it were me, I’d save up until I could buy the BDH2000FL.

Corded for endless run time

Ehhh maybe
The big benefit of a hand vacuum is its cordless-ness, so we're not sure why you'd want one of these. Still, here's the cordless hand vac we like.
 If you’re after the unlimited runtime that only a corded vacuum can provide, then I say take a look at the $39 Eureka 71B. Out of 2,283 customer reviews on Amazon, 1,539 awarded this thing five stars. It has a 5.5 amp motor, and like the Dyson DC44, it has a spinning power head. There’s also a short hose that you can detach, which is cool, but it felt very cheap, which isn’t. My issues 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, I 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. So like I said at the start of this piece, buy a Black & Decker 20V MAX Lithium Flex Vac. Its versatility, power and respectable (for a portable vacuum) battery life make it a great choice.

The competition

Dyson released a couple of new cordless portables at the beginning of 2014. Dyson says the DC59 is a cordless vacuum that could replace your plug-in upright. It’s also $500. We got some hands-on time with it, and it is powerful for a battery-powered vacuum. We’d have to wait for some proper tests to see if it can really do all it claims: heavy lifting on floors and carpets as well as easy access for stairs and car seats. But…that price is so much more than anybody expects to pay for a stick vacuum, even if it could compete with a “real” upright. It could be worth considering as a whole-home vacuum, but it’s not the one to get if you’re looking for an affordable back-up vac.

The other new Dyson is the DC58, which is basically the DC59 without the stick and brush-head attachments. At $250 it’s still very pricey for a portable, and it doesn’t have the benefit of being a sort-of upright, so we’d pass on this one, too.

Wrapping it Up

All in all, the Black & Decker 20V MAX Lithium Flex Vac BDH2000FL 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.

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Sources

  1. Black & Decker's 20V Max Lithium Flex Vac on Amazon
  2. Black & Decker
  3. C. MacPhail, Well Designed, Expensive, October 25, 2012
    "Run Time - 18.3 minutes. I tested once with no load, and again with nozzle against carpet . Same result both times. Vac was brand new with zero dust in filter. (Test had rest periods every 5 minutes.) B&D says run time may improve after 5 charge cycles. But of course it will decrease with age."
  4. Bailey Z. Rose, Ideal for car detailing, spot cleaning / dust bunnies!, Amazon, November 15, 2012
    "This probably shouldn't be your main vacuum, unless you live in a tiny apartment. That being said, it's an amazingly versatile, powerful, and well-designed unit. I'm glad to have this and will be using it frequently for small cleanup jobs & when cleaning cars."
  5. ED, I love This Sucker, Amazon, January 13, 2013
    "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. The only negative is the price, but with a two year old making messes all over, the convenience makes it worth to us.
  6. Dan Maxey, Black and Decker FLEX BDH2000FL Portable Vacuum – Review, Tools in Action, September 24, 2012
    "The pet hair attachment is awesome, it does a great job at removing per hair from just about anything.  I would buy this vacuum because of the pet hair capabilities alone.  The unit is a tad quieter than a normal vacuum, but so much lighter at only 3.8 lbs."
  • muledoggie

    Just ordered one of the Flex Vacs for 115.00 from Best Buy. Interesting: did a google search for this item and selected shopping on the search result page. Via that result page, 115.00 from Bestbuy.com. If I went in through the front page of bestbuy.com (not the google shopping link), it was 150.00 WEIRD.

    Jeff

  • Brian Cerveny

    Amazon also charges $115 now.

  • http://gdtdesignstudio.com Garrick Dee

    One issue for the Flex Vac is the battery – it’s not removable. Over time the wear and tear of re-charging will take its toll on it. Hopefully for consumers who bought this it’ll outlast its 3 year warranty period.

    Lithium batteries also have a notoriously short battery life if improperly stored.

  • joel

    Just picked this up off of amazon warehouse for $75. Keeps my car nice and tidy. I’m liking it. Thanks for great recommendation.

  • Mike

    Amazon has this with a $15 dollar off coupon right now. Right below the price is a coupon button. You’d miss it if you weren’t looking for it. Click it and at check out you get another $15 dollars off bring the price down to $114.99.

    • http://thewirecutter.com/ tony kaye

      We’re just now seeing the coupon thing all over Amazon. We’ll look into it. Thanks!