How to buy the best vacuum cleaner
By Matthew Knight
Get the lowdown on the different types of vacuum cleaner and find the best option for your home.
Cordless, upright, cylinder, robot, bagged and bagless - vacuum cleaners come in all shapes and sizes, which can be overwhelming when you're trying to find the best option in a hurry.
What's right for a larger home with lots of carpets won't necessarily work for a smaller flat with mainly hard floors. We'll take you through the key vacuum cleaner buying decisions to help you narrow down your options and find the right fit.
In this article:
- Video: how to choose a vacuum cleaner
- Types of vacuum cleaner explained
- Upright vs cylinder vacuums
- Bagged vs bagless vacuums
- Corded vs cordless vacuums
- Robot vacuum cleaners
- Vacuum cleaner features
- Buying a vacuum that lasts
Just want to see our top picks? Browse all our top recommended models in our round-up of the best vacuum cleaners you can buy, based on the results of our independent lab tests.
There are three main types of vacuum cleaner:
- Upright vacuum cleaner - good for larger homes. You push the vac in front of you and don't have to bend down to clean. Most have turbo brushes.
- Cylinder vacuum cleaner - traditional vac you pull behind you. They have long flexible hoses, and tend to be cheaper.
- Cordless vacuum cleaner - usually a lightweight stick vacuum that converts into a handheld cleaner. Very convenient but only a few are genuinely good at cleaning, and you're restricted by how long the battery lasts.
These can be either:
- Bagged vacuums - trap all the dust in a disposable bag. Usually have larger capacities, so less maintenance and contact with dust, but you'll have to buy ongoing replacements.
- Bagless vacuums - have a reusable container that you empty. No ongoing costs but can be messy to empty.
Some vacs are designed mainly for cleaning floors, while others have smaller cleaning tools for jobs such as crevices, stairs and even the car.
Interactive tool: quick vacuum choosing guide
To help you find the right vacuum for you, our interactive tool below asks a few questions about your home and budget, and recommends what type of vacuum would suit you.
How much do you need to spend?
You can pay anywhere between £30 and £600 for a vacuum cleaner. In the past we've found some Best Buy corded vacuum cleaners for as little as £50, but typically you'll need to spend £100-200 to get a decent one.
Cordless vacuums tend to be more expensive, particularly if you want decent battery life, and you'll be looking at nearer £200 for a good model. Paying more is no guarantee though, we've found good and bad vacuums at every price.
There are pros and cons to both types, but a lot comes down to the size and layout of your home.
Upright vacuum cleaners
Upright vacs are good for covering large floor areas, particularly carpets. You can vacuum in a more upright position and easily weave round furniture. They're generally better for getting hair and fluff out of carpets too.
They can be harder to use on stairs, in tight spaces and under low furniture though, and are often noisier than cylinder models. You can't usually clean as far from the plug socket as you can with cylinders (8.6 metres on average).
Cylinder vacuum cleaners
Cylinder vacuums tend to be more compact, and better for getting under low furniture and into small or awkward spaces. They'll reach further from the plug socket too (10.1 metres on average). The long, flexible hose and small body usually makes cleaning stairs easier. They're usually quieter, too.
They tend to be harder to push over thick carpets though, particularly if there's no turbo brush attachment, and the long hose and tube can be awkward to store. They're also more likely to bump into walls and furniture as you drag them along.
What to buy
On average, cylinder vacuums tend to get higher scores in our tests, and there are better value options. But whichever type you prefer, we've found Best Buys for each, so check our list of Best Buy vacuum cleaners to see the models we recommend.
With bagless models you don't have the ongoing cost of replacement bags, but they may not be best for allergy sufferers.
Bagless vacuum cleaners
Pros: No need to buy replacement dust bags, which can be expensive.
Cons: Tend to have a smaller capacity (2.6 litres on average), so you'll need to empty them more frequently. Easy to overfill, as the maximum level is often lower than it looks. Can be messy to empty, as dust and fluff can get wedged inside, and dust escapes when emptying.
Bagged vacuum cleaners
Pros: Tend to have a larger capacity than bagless models (4.2 litres on average). Dust and dirt are safely contained in bags, which are thrown away – minimising exposure. Branded bags often have extra filtration to prevent allergens escaping, and some bags self-seal. Cheaper alternative bags are also available (although these usually don't offer the same filtration benefits, so you may need to clean your vacuum's filters more often).
Cons: You need to remember to buy replacement bags, which will be an ongoing cost.
Which type should you buy?
Our tests show that both bagged and bagless models can lose suction as they fill up, or leak allergens into the room
Manufacturers of bagless vacuums often claim that bagged models lose suction as the bag fills up, whereas bagless vacs don't. Some also claim their bagless systems have hygienic emptying features.
However, we've found that both bagged and bagless vacuums can lose suction as the bag or container fills up. We've also tested bagless vacs with hygienic emptying features, and found they still released much more dust into the room when emptied than bagged models.
If you don't want to pay out for bags, you can take steps to prevent dust escaping back into your home after cleaning. Empty bagless vacuums outside, ideally into a bag, and use gloves and a mask if you have serious allergies. If you'd rather not have the hassle, opt for a bagged model.
It's also important to choose a vacuum cleaner that doesn't leak dust and allergens back out into the room while cleaning. This can happen if the internal system is poorly sealed, or the dust filters aren't effective. We test this in our lab, and have found both bagged and bagless models that excel at keeping allergens locked up while cleaning, so check our vacuum cleaner reviews for the models with five-star allergen-retention scores.
Cordless vacuums are quick and easy to use, but can be pricey, and only a few match corded vacs for cleaning
Cordless vacuum cleaners are increasingly popular. They tend to be light, bagless, stick-style models, with handheld vacuum accessories. However, some do have larger capacities, and there are even bagged versions such as the cordless Henry vacuum.
- Usually very light, as little as 2.4kg compared with around 7-8kg for a standard vacuum.
- Compact and easy to store.
- No cord makes it much easier to get around.
- Often good for cleaning cars, stairs and other awkward spots.
- Smaller dust capacity means more frequent bin emptying and filter cleaning required.
- Can be expensive compared with corded models.
- Lots of very poor models on the market.
- Cleaning time is limited by battery life (although some models have swappable batteries).
What to buy
On average, corded vacuums are still a better bet if you want a good-value deep clean, or have a larger home. But the best cordless vacuums are just as good as corded equivalents, and many people are converted by how light and manoeuvrable they are.
However, you need to choose carefully. We've found more than 25 Don't Buy cordless vacuums - models which are so poor at cleaning we recommend you avoid them. Check our cordless vacuum cleaner reviews before you buy to be sure you're getting one that can actually clean your home.
Vacuum cleaners come with a range of whizzy extra features and accessories, but which ones do you really need?
Most vacuum cleaners with come with a basic combination floor head as standard. This works across all floor types, and can either be adjusted when switching from carpet to hard floor, or, on more premium models, self-adjusts as you move across different surfaces.
Floor tools with spinning brush bars, or powered turbo brushes, can be handy for picking up pet hair and dislodging dust from carpets.
We test each tool to ensure it does a good job on the floor surface it's supposed to clean. Check our vacuum cleaner reviews to see the models which perform well across all floors, or to find a vacuum that is brilliant on your main floor type.
Extra mini tools
Most vacuum cleaners include a basic set consisting of a crevice tool, upholstery tool and dusting brush, or a combination tool which does several of these jobs. Here are some other tools to look out for:
- Mini turbo tool – the most common extra, which will usually add around £30 to the price of the vacuum. This compact cleaner head has a spinning brush bar, and can be great for sucking up pet hair, lint and fibres from sofas, stairs and other tricky spots the main floor tool won't reach.
- Up-top tools – flexible wands that allow you to vacuum the tops of doors and on high shelves.
- Mattress tools – let you more easily vacuum up the dust particles and skin cells left in your mattress.
- Extension tubes – can give you extra reach to tackle things such as ceiling cobwebs or long flights of stairs.
If you have lots of different floor surfaces in your home, or carpets of different thickness, then you'll want a vacuum that has easily variable suction so you can push it easily over different floor types without it sticking down. The best models have an adjustable dial that lets you change suction to the desired level. Cheaper models might rely on vents that you can open or close on either the floor head or the suction tube.
Position of controls
Some vacuums have a lever on the floor head that you flick to adjust suction, or to switch from carpets to hard floors. Pricier ones tend to have shortcuts to these controls on the handle, or self-adjusting tools, so you can change the controls without having to bend down.
These prevent fine dust particles and allergens from escaping back into the room when cleaning. Some can be washed clean, others have a self-cleaning action, and others need replacing periodically. Doing this is important, as it affects how well your vacuum works, so it's worth checking how easy this is to do.
We test how well each vacuum's filters prevent dust escaping back into the room. We've found some that let out almost as much dust as they pick up, while others retain more than 99% of small dust particles, so be sure to check our vacuum cleaner reviews for the models you can rely on to keep dust locked up.
Ease of use
To get the best vacuum cleaner for you, it's worth considering the following factors:
- Weight – this can range from as little as 2kg to more than 10kg. If you know you'll have to carry it around a lot, for example up and down the stairs, opt for a lighter model.
- Noise – some models make a real racket, equivalent to standing next to a busy road, while others are whisper-quiet. For a more pleasant vacuuming experience, and to avoid disturbing the household, pick a Best Buy vacuum that gets a good rating for noise.
- Push/pull force – unlike weight, this depends on the design of the floor head. Some vacuums can be almost impossible to push over floors, particularly on thick carpets. We mark down the models that will leave you with worn-out arms every time you clean.
- Reach – if you opt for a corded model, check how long the cable is. It's often shorter on cheaper vacuums. Cord lengths vary from just six metres to more than 15 metres, which makes a big difference to how often you have to switch plug sockets.
- Capacity – depending on the type of vacuum you buy, capacity can vary massively, from just 0.5 litres (enough for one small home-clean) to more than four litres. If you have a large area to cover, opt for a larger capacity, so you aren't constantly having to empty your vacuum.
Since 1 September 2017, all vacuum cleaners made or imported in the EU can have a motor of no more than 900W, and must abide by minimum performance, noise and durability restrictions.
Vacuum cleaners must all display an energy label, stating how energy-efficient they are, as well as showing data about their cleaning performance and dust emissions.
Some people have concerns that lower-powered vacuums won't clean as well, but our independent tests have shown that vacuum cleaners don't need to be powerful to be brilliant at cleaning. See our Best Buy vacuum cleaners for the models we recommend.
Want to know more about the new rules? Head to our energy labels explained guide for more information.
Robot vacuums can't match the real deal for cleaning power, but can be a useful top-up option, especially in smaller homes with hard floors.
Robot vacuum cleaners are small, automatic vacuums that clean your home unaided. They can cost anything from £150 to more than £800, and some can be controlled via an app on your phone.
Unless you live in a small home with mainly hard floors, a robot vac is unlikely to be able to replace your main vacuum cleaner. Even the best robots can't match a standard vacuum for cleaning power, especially on carpets. And they can't tackle tricky areas such as stairs, corners and crevices. However, they can be a convenient way to keep your floors free of everyday dust and hair in between deeper cleans.
We've tested models from all the major brands, including Dyson, iRobot, Neato and Samsung. We've found one brilliant option, and several models you'll want to avoid – including one that picked up just 4% of the dust in front of it. See our robot vacuum cleaner reviews to find out which models we recommend.
If you're in the shop, here are a few quick checks you can do to find out if the vacuum you're considering is suited to you.
1. Turn it on – if the shop allows, switch the vacuum on. This will give you a real impression of how noisy it is, and how easy it is to use and manoeuvre. If you find it sticks to the floor rather than gliding across, and you can't adjust the floor head or suction to help this, it's best to choose another model.
2. Pick it up – if you're going to be lugging your vacuum cleaner up and down the stairs, make sure you don't buy a model you'll struggle to carry.
3. Lay it flat – if you've got low-lying furniture to get under, check the vac can lie flat and get into tight spaces. Some models won't be able to do this, meaning you'll need to shift furniture around when cleaning.
4. Check the bag/canister and filters – check how easy it is to replace the bag, or empty the canister if it's a bagless model. Then make sure you can get to the filters and remove them easily; they'll need washing or replacing to keep your vacuum in working order.
What you can't check in the shops
You won't be able to tell how well a vacuum cleaner will clean your home, or if it will lose suction as it fills up. We've uncovered models that are so bad they simply skip over dust, choke on pet hair and leak allergens back into the room.
We test every vacuum cleaner on a range of floor surfaces, including carpet, laminate and floorboards. We also rate how well they suck up different types of mess, from fine dust to larger crumbs, lint and hair.
If longevity is a key consideration for you, check our guide to the most reliable vacuum cleaner brands for 2018 before you start to consider specific models.
We've pulled together all our historic testing insight, along with data gathered from owners, to bring you our unique guide to the vacuum cleaner brands that will last once you get them home, and the ones more likely to break down early.
Ready to buy? Head to our vacuum cleaner reviews.