Stick and hand vacs are the lightweights of cleaning machines for the home. They don’t have the cleaning power of a full-sized vacuum cleaner, nor do they offer the same range of accessories. But they are easy to store and easy to tote when you simply need to vacuum up cracker crumbs or broken glass. And compared with many full-sized vacs, they can be dirt cheap. Those we tested range in price from $20 to $95. Full-sized units start around $90 and can go above $1,000.
Generally, we found that stick vacs and hand vacs were good at “busting” the dirt from bare floors, but for most, removing potting soil from carpeting was a challenge. Some models with a revolving brush that can’t be turned off ground the dirt in; some took dozens of strokes to pick it up. (We suspect that most people would give up well before we did with the Black & Decker Dustbuster Plus DB450–after 57 strokes). Only the Sanyo Transformax SC-15 and the Hoover Portapower S2561, both stick vacs, did an excellent carpet-cleaning job.
We tested 13 stick vacs and 11 hand vacs for this report. Four of the stick vacs have a removable handle, so they can also be used as a hand vac, and two hand vacs are designed to handle most liquid spills. About half the vacs are powered by a rechargeable nickel-cadmium battery pack. The rest have a cord that plugs into a standard outlet.
In addition to performing tests on bare floors and carpeting, we ran all the vacs along a rig that mimicked the corners and edges of a floor and put them to the challenge of picking up simulated pet hairs (actually, fine rayon threads) off carpeting. We also judged them for convenience, including how much noise they made and how easy it was to dispose of the dirt.
What type for what job?
Stick vs. hand. You could conceivably use a stick vac as you would a regular vacuum cleaner, to tidy floors and lift surface debris from carpeting. A top-rated corded model might even be an inexpensive alternative to a full-sized upright or canister for someone who has mostly bare floors and little storage space. But few stick vacs excelled at all types of cleaning, and even those that could remove potting soil from carpeting were poor at removing ground-in dirt, as in the tests we do for full-sized vacuum cleaners.
Hand vacs are typically less expensive than stick vacs but not practical for cleaning a whole room. They’re better suited to spot-cleaning jobs such as picking crumbs off a sofa. The hand vacs overall did a better job than the stick vacs of cleaning along wall edges, because they could get closer to the molding and were easier to angle into nooks and crannies.
Cordless vs. corded. Cordless vacs should be fine for quick cleanups, but you generally can’t dillydally with them. Most peter out in 10 to 20 minutes; only the DeLonghi models give you about an hour of cleaning time.
A plug-in vac allows you unlimited time to chase after crumbs–or at least until its dirt container is full. (A large dirt capacity, though, can be a curse in disguise: The corded hand vacs with a big, soft-sided dirtbag were especially messy to empty.) The corded stick and hand vacs we tested have a cord at least 15 feet long. We found that with most hand vacs, storing the cord could be a hassle.
Pet hair. If your cat or dog plagues you with pesky hairs that cling to couch and carpeting, consider a model with a revolving brush, including any of the corded hand vacs.
Dirt release. Some models blew more air out their vents than others, increasing the likelihood that they could kick up nearby dust.
Wet spills. The Hoover Dubl-Duty Supreme S1117-900 and Black & Decker Spillbuster DB425 have a squeegee attachment for picking up liquids. Both models easily sucked up plain water from a hard surface but had a harder time digesting milk and soggy corn flakes. A regular sponge would be just as effective–as well as quieter and easier to clean afterward.
If you just want an extra tool for quick cleaning jobs, an inexpensive cordless hand vac may be all you need. Most are easy to use and do an excellent job on bare floors and in nooks and crannies. Corded hand vacs across the board excelled at picking up simulated pet hair, but they all have a revolving brush that can’t be turned off and that tends to grind surface dirt into carpeting. Stick vacs are somewhat more versatile, but it’s hard to generalize about their performance; choose one that excels at the tasks you want it to do.