Choosing a Vacuum Cleaner
Vacuum cleaners are one of those ho-hum appliances found in almost every home. An effective and reliable vacuum is essential for suctioning up the dirt, dust, and debris that settle onto floors and upholstery on a never-ending basis. There are plenty of types to choose among -- upright, canister, stick, handheld, even robotic. We cover the latter two styles in separate guides, but we picked through the rest of the offerings, both bagged and bagless, and read scores of reviews to glean the best vacuum cleaners under $150.
The type of vacuum to choose ultimately depends on personal preference, as well as on the home to be cleaned: Are most floors carpeted or bare? Are there lots of steps and draperies or blinds? Do you have children or pets? What about the ergonomics of an upright versus a canister model, with the vacuum head on the end of a hose? Is portability critical? Where will the vacuum be stored? Each type of vacuum cleaner has its pros and cons.
Upright Vacuums.Uprights are the more common, and traditional, type of vacuum cleaner. They're generally considered the go-to household appliance for heavier cleaning, like ridding deep-pile carpets of embedded dirt and pulling up mounds of pet hair. As the name implies, there's no bending over when operating these machines and the push-pull motion isn't too taxing. The wide cleaning path -- usually 13 to 14 inches -- requires fewer "sweeps" across the floor or carpet to cover a large area. The main drawback of uprights: They can be hard to maneuver into corners and under furniture owing to the wide and thick head.
Canister Vacuums.Canister vacuums are quite versatile. A hose serves as the conduit between dirt and machine and connects to an array of attachments. Canisters are compact and lighter than uprights, easier to carry around, and better suited for stairs. They're also a tad quieter. On the downside, users may need to bend over slightly while cleaning and must pull the vacuum from behind, a setup that's perhaps less comfortable and opens the possibility of dinging furniture or walls. The nozzle attachments also tend to cover less territory than an upright vacuum. However, the narrower nozzles on canister models -- usually around 10 inches -- are easier to maneuver in smaller rooms, around furniture, and into corners.
Stick Vacuums.A subset of the upright segment, stick vacuums are bagless, sometimes cordless, and lighter than uprights and canisters. They're engineered for small jobs, like daily sweeps of tile or hardwood floors, quick once-overs for area rugs, or simple cleanup behind shedding pets or messy kids. Some stick models are combo units featuring a detachable handheld powered component. Users swear by the convenience and ease of use, although they gripe about batteries that run out of juice quickly, often in 15 minutes or less.
Bagged vs. Bagless Vacuums.As with the choice between canister and upright, the decision to go bagged or bagless is personal. One difference is that the dirt cup in a bagless vacuum must be emptied and cleaned frequently, preferably after each use. Some users consider this a grubby chore. A closed bag provides a layer of protection against escaping dust and dirt, which may irritate allergy sufferers. Still, many like the simplicity of dumping the contents of the dust cup into the garbage compared with opening the vacuum to remove the bag and always keeping replacements on hand. Some experts are partial to bagged vacuums, saying they do a better job deep-cleaning carpets and rugs than bagless models do. Proponents of the bagless variety counter that bagged vacuums incur ongoing cost and are less eco-friendly because of the endless stream of used bags going into landfills.
Pricey vs. Cheap Vacuums.The market for cheap vacuum cleaners is filled by well-known brand names such as Bissell, Hoover, Dirt Devil, Eureka, Shark, and Black & Decker. Oreck occupies a middle ground in terms of price, along with models from some of the manufacturers previously mentioned. Popular high-end labels, some bearing price tags of $1,000 or more, include Dyson, Miele, and Kirby. Upscale models generally outflank less costly vacuums with more powerful suction, more robust technology, more complex air filtration systems, and more features and accessories. They do a better job cleaning carpets with deep pile and picking up debris with less scatter. Still, the best cheap vacuums get the job done more than adequately, though perhaps not to white-glove standards.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Vacuum Cleaner Reviews: What We Considered
In researching our picks, we looked to commentary from sites such as Consumer Reports, TopTenReviews, CNET, BestReviews, and Wirecutter, which test products they review. The experts there are familiar with many different models and adept at spotting the stars, including some in the budget range. We also sought firsthand feedback in scores of consumer reviews on manufacturers' web pages and retail sites including Amazon, Best Buy, Home Depot, Kohl's, Target, and Walmart.
Two priorities regularly surface in vacuum reviews: cleaning ability and ease of use. We also factored in the weight, attachments, and cords, which affect ease of use; the filtration system, which has health implications; and the durability of these low-budget cleaning machines. Although the issue of noise arises occasionally in vacuum cleaner reviews, it rarely impacts users' overall assessment.
Each type of vacuum has its strengths, and expectations for canister vacuums differ slightly from those for uprights, not to mention stick vacuums. Reviews indicate that users are more likely to demand an upright that sweeps the whole house for weekly cleanings, a canister for more frequent cleanups, and a stick vacuum for spot jobs.
Cleaning Performance.Users want a vacuum that suctions up dirt, debris, and dust from all types of surfaces -- hardwood and tile floors, rugs large and small, shag and low-pile carpeting, baseboards and stairs, furniture and drapery -- without leaving anything behind, creating more scatter, or emitting nasty particles back into the air. Pet owners want all that plus thorough pickup of pet hair, fuzz balls, and dander. Each model on our list generally meets these standards. Some reviewers are so impressed with the performance of our favorite canister and stick vacuums that they use the machines for more tasks than they planned.
Still, none of our budget picks garners exceptional ratings from reviewers. An average of 4 stars (out of 5), give or take a decimal point or two, is about as good as it gets. Insufficient suction, motorized accessories that don't work, and dirt blowback are among the biggest performance irritants.
Consumers sometimes seem to expect more from this basic home appliance than it is engineered to provide. Cheap vacuums are primarily intended for lighter duty rather than whole-house deep-cleaning, and some users express annoyance when the suction falters on room after room of thick carpeting. But, for the most part, reviewers accept the minor limitations and praise the models on our list.
Ease of Use.A potpourri of features helps make the best inexpensive canister and upright vacuums easier to operate, and stick vacuums generally are very user-friendly. According to reviews, users are particularly enamored of cords that rewind automatically and motorized brush rolls with an off switch, so the rotating brush doesn't scatter dirt across a hard surface before the vacuum has a chance to suck it up. Only some models in the budget zone are blessed with these elements, however. Different cleaning heights for different surfaces are a plus; some vacuums transition automatically among different carpet piles and bare floors and others are manually adjusted for the surface at hand. (The experts at Consumer Reports prefer manual adjustment because it's more precise, although adjusting the machine may require bending way down.) Dirt cups and bags that are easy to detach and replace, don't fill up too quickly, and don't clog with pet hair likewise find favor with reviewers, as do features like swivel steering.
Weight.In the not too distant past, upright vacuum cleaners were bulky beasts weighing 30 to 40 pounds, while canister vacuums were bulbous and awkward. These days consumers can find high-performing electric cleaners with compact styling, svelte profiles, and envy-inducing weight. Uprights are generally heavier than canisters, which often are designed for portability and ease of use on stairs; stick vacuums are lighter still. We read occasional comments about certain models feeling heavy, especially to older users or those with physical limitations.
Attachments.These days, upright vacuums almost always feature a hose, and there isn't much difference between the array of attachments included with a canister versus an upright. Stick vacuums are comparatively thin in the accessories department.
Common cleaning aids include a crevice tool, dusting brush, upholstery brush, and extension wand, or some combination. Pet-oriented vacuums usually feature a turbo (motorized) tool of some kind, and turbo tools for stairs and upholstered furniture are part of the package with some standard vacuums, as well. Users appreciate onboard attachments that travel with the machine and hoses that don't kink.
Cord Length.Nearly all upright and canister vacuums get their power through a cord plugged into a wall outlet. The length of the power cord is often an afterthought that users come to regret. The models we researched have cords ranging between 16 and 27 feet. Depending on the area to be vacuumed, a few extra feet of cord can mean the difference between efficiency and frustration. The longer the cord, the greater the reach and the fewer outlet changes. Some reviewers complain that even 25-foot cords seem short. Of course, the full reach is extended by the hose, and often an extension wand. Some stick models run on batteries with no cord to get tangled or constrain movement, although then the run and recharge times can be limiting.
Filters.Air sucked into a vacuum cleaner alongside dirt and dust should be filtered for health reasons before being expelled. The gold standard is a HEPA filter, which traps more than 99.97 percent of dust, bacteria, pollen, and other nasty particles and is especially recommended for people with asthma or allergies. HEPA filters almost always appear on high-end vacuums and increasingly show up at the budget end of the market. Several models we picked come with a HEPA filter, usually as part of a multi-stage filtration process. Some vacuums intended for pet-filled households add an odor-absorbing carbon filter into the mix. Others have standard multi-level filtration that may include a secondary anti-allergen filter. Regardless of type, filters should be cleaned or replaced regularly; be sure to read the owner's manual for care instructions.
Durability.Complaints about build quality (lots of plastic) and limited durability pop up in reviews of nearly all the models we researched. Reports about pieces breaking -- especially small items like the clip that holds the dirt cup or a turbo brush that stops spinning -- surface occasionally. More often we read about machines overheating and then conking out. Possible explanations include a dirty filter or a clogged dirt cup or hose, any of which may trigger a shutdown to avoid damaging the motor. In many cases cleaning out the blockage sets things aright, but some reviewers say their machines never worked again.
Warranties on most low-cost vacuums run one or two years. Some Shark models carry a five-year warranty.