Carpet cleaning: If you have rugs, you owe it to yourself to buy a vacuum that can actually dig the hair and dirt out from the fibers. That’s how you keep your rugs looking, feeling, and even smelling good over time. It probably improves your indoor air quality, too. Deep cleaning is a rare trait among cordless vacuums. Most cordless vacuums just tickle the top of your carpet, picking up crumbs and hair that haven’t been mashed in yet. Some models do okay on low-pile rugs, but we’ve found only a few that work well on longer, thicker rugs.
We’ve found that it’s a waste of time trying to guess which vacuums are the strongest cleaners based on specs. The vacuum industry hasn’t agreed on a simple unit of measurement for cleaning power, so you can’t make accurate comparisons among brands. Some companies use air watts (AW), some use kilopascals (kPa), and some just advertise the motor wattage. A higher number on any of these measures should mean the vacuum is better at cleaning rugs, but we haven’t found any clear patterns. In our testing, we’ve started to measure suction in “inches of water lift” (an arcane industry-standard unit), and airflow in CFM (cubic feet per minute), and they have some correlation with carpet-cleaning performance. But you won’t find them on a spec sheet.
Battery life: It’s not as important as you might think. Here’s our rule of thumb: Take the square footage of your home and divide it by 50. That’s how many minutes you’ll usually need to vacuum your whole place in a single session, including a quick pass over the upholstery and the odd cobweb. So if your apartment is 1,150 square feet, you’ll need about 23 minutes of battery life to clean it all in one go.
You can get more battery life if you want it, but don’t let it be the main reason you pick a vacuum—it’s a trap. You’ll either end up overpaying for battery life you’ll rarely use, or you’ll get a fake deal on a weak vacuum that struggles to clean rugs.
And you might be okay with less battery life. Cordless vacuums are so convenient that owners often end up cleaning in shorter bursts—maybe whenever they notice a mess, maybe one or two rooms at a time—rather than doing a whole-house cleanup once a week. So if you have a big home that would need something like 50 minutes of run time, you might be fine with a lot less.
If you’re the type who likes to vacuum everything all at once, your best bet is probably a plug-in vacuum.
Handling: Although cordless vacuums are almost always lighter and slimmer than standard upright or canister vacuums, they’re often top-heavy, and some people don’t like the way that feels. Several of those models also have trigger-style power switches that you have to keep squeezed to run the vacuum (it’s a battery-preserving design). If you have chronic wrist or hand pain (arthritis, tendinitis, carpal tunnel, and the like), the combination can make it uncomfortable to use the vacuum for more than a few minutes at a time. You can find models with better weight distribution and a standard on/off power switch if you need them.
Reliability: This includes longevity, durability, repairability, ease of maintenance, warranty coverage, and customer service. Our take: The category is too new to draw strong conclusions here. Statistics are hard to come by (and those that are available are flawed), most brands haven’t been around long enough to generate useful historical data, and brands make big changes to each successive model. Our guess is that you’ll get something like three to five years of good use out of a typical cordless vacuum, depending on how you use it, before you need to replace an expensive part like a battery (look for third-party options) or cleaning head. Basic maintenance tends to be very simple. Warranties and customer service are hit-or-miss across all brands.
Dustbin: We haven’t seen a perfect design. Most rely on a simple trap door, which is fine unless the bin is jammed with hair: You’ll have to reach in and pull it out by hand. A few vacuums eject their bins more forcefully, though vacuums can get finicky with age as their moving parts begin to stick. And if you don’t aim the vacuum properly when releasing the bin, it will just shoot all the debris back onto your floor or your clothes. Pick your poison.
Storage: Some cordless vacuums stand up on their own, but the stronger models usually rest in a wall-mounted dock or on a floor stand (or you can shove them into a closet).
Filtration: It’s important because clean air is good for your health, but it’s not a major distinguishing factor among cordless vacuums because they’re all bagless—any time you empty the dustbin, there’s a risk that it will send a plume of debris back into your home. If you need or want a vacuum with truly excellent filtration (for example, if you have asthma or severe allergies), look into a high-end bagged vacuum with a sealed system. But any vacuum with clean filters will improve your air quality.
Attachments: Some cordless vacuums come with more tools or attachments than others, though every good brand sells every useful tool, and you can always buy them separately if they don’t come with the vacuum, so don’t sweat this detail too much. A mini motorized tool is always worth having if you’re a pet owner, because it’s so effective at getting hair off upholstery.