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Stick vs corded vacuums: Which should you buy?

Is a stick vac all you need? We crunch our lab test data to find out.

stick_vacs_VS_corded_vacs_product_VS_lead
Last updated: 23 November 2020

Is it time to write off barrel and upright vacuums that rely on mains power now that battery-powered stick vacs are on the rise?

Cordless stick vacuums are fast becoming a popular home appliance. We saw a huge marketing shift towards cordless in 2018, when Dyson announced it was no longer developing traditional corded vacuums because it sees the future as battery driven.

In our CHOICE lab tests, we've seen an improvement in stick vac performance overall since we began testing them almost a decade ago – and these days, some high-end models actually outperform their corded counterparts on carpet. But there is variability: some of the worst performers are no substitute for a traditional vacuum.

The CHOICE verdict

We've crunched the data from our tests, and unless you're willing to pay big bucks for a top-end stick vacuum (and aren't bothered about frequently emptying it) we reckon it's not quite time to get rid of your traditional barrel or upright vacuum just yet for those big cleans.

Of course, every house is different so see our comparisons across key areas below to see which one works best for you and your home. Need more help? It's worth checking out our expert buying guides for stick vacs and barrel/upright vacs too.

Which vacuums are better for cleaning carpet?

Winner (for now): Traditional vacuum

At first glance, there isn't much between stick and vacuum performance when we look at our average test scores for vacuuming on carpet:

 Average CHOICE vacuum cleaning scores from 2018–20

 Vacuum type

 Thorough cleaning on carpet

Quick cleaning on carpet 

 Stick (cordless)

 70%

 64%

 Traditional (corded)

 73%

 60%

But these figures are somewhat skewed by higher-end stick vacuums which can often perform just as well, and even better, than their corded cousins. For example, our top performing stick vacuum scores 95% for thorough carpet clean performance, on par with our top performing barrel vacuum.

So although some stick vacuums are definitely a substitute for a full vacuum – and the performance gap is closing – we can't say that's the case for most models out there. Since we have to choose, the barrel/upright still wins.

Which vacuums are better on hard floors?

Winner: Traditional vacuum

CHOICE stopped testing traditional cordless vacuums on hard floors many years ago, as they all performed well: carpet is where the real performance varies.

Stick vacuums generally achieve good to very good performance scores on hard floors (the average score is a healthy 77%) but our labs have seen some that score as low as 60% – so if your home mostly consists of hard floors, it's worth checking out our individual product reviews. 

Some stick vacuums have special soft head attachments for hard floors that are designed for better pick-up, which we use in our tests when applicable, and they are very convenient to bring out into the kitchen after a dry spill.

Which vacuums are easier to maintain?

Winner: Traditional vacuum

Stick vacuums have smaller dust bins (generally 0.2 litres to 0.7 litres) so they will need frequent emptying and should not be filled beyond the max line. Emptying the bin after each use and cleaning the filters regularly (which can often be fiddly) will help maintain performance for most models.

Some models will indicate when the filter (or filters) need changing, but most stick vacuums won't do this. You'll probably only realise they need changing when you see a decrease in performance.

Mains-powered vacuums usually have a far greater dust capacity; the average measurement is about 1.9 litres – many dust bags from the Miele range, for example, have a huge 3-litre capacity.

Which vacuums are best for pet hair?

Winner: Traditional vacuum

Back in 2010, many of the stick vacuums we tested still left the odd clump of pet hair on the carpet, and results on average were only OK. While we test on different carpet these days and can't compare results directly, we are seeing excellent results for pet hair removal from carpet in general when the vacuums are on their strongest settings. This suggests that both the suction and design of the power heads has improved over time.

However, cats and dogs shed a lot of hair, so although many of the stick vacuums we test these days do an excellent job, you might find yourself emptying the smaller receptacle more often, which can be a pain and unhelpful if you suffer from allergies. 

Stick vacuums can conk out quite suddenly when you least expect it. On average, batteries take 4.5 hours to charge for just 13 minutes of use on full power

What's more, the battery might not last long enough for you to pick up all the hair. Putting the vacuum on a lower setting can help it last longer, but it may not pick up as much hair as you'd like. A traditional bagged vacuum will contain the pet hair when disposed, and both bagged and bagless vacs won't need to be emptied as frequently.

For all types of vacuums, models may struggle if they don't come with a motorised turbo brush or power head to really grab the hair that's embedded in the carpet.

dog on rug with vacuum cleaner

Got pets? Traditional vacs pick up their hair better.

Which vacuums are easier to use?

Winner: Stick vacuum

Stick vacuums we've tested have an average weight of just 2.8kg compared with 6.3kg for corded models, so for ease of moving around the house, it's clear to see why stick vacuums have become so popular.

Cleaning your car is easy with a stick vacuum. With most models the body detaches from the wand and you can easily add a crevice or upholstery tool to suck up pesky pebbles and dirt. Some of the tools are flexible, so you can really get into tight spaces with ease.

The other bonus, of course, is you're cord-free and ready to go. For quick cleans, there's no contest. While there are exceptions, regular vacuums have a limited reach of between 9 and 10 metres on average, so you'll need to plug and unplug.

Don't stick vacuums run out of juice?

Winner: Traditional vacuum

Stick vacuums can conk out quite suddenly when you least expect it. On average, batteries take 4.5 hours to charge for just 13 minutes of use on full power. Thankfully, the situation is getting easier to manage with many models. 

For instance, swappable batteries are standard with some brands. Ryobi's stick vacuum comes with an easy-to-remove battery that's also compatible with its family of tools, so you can keep a charged-up spare hanging around. And LG's top-end A9 models have a dual power pack so you can charge one battery in the dock while the other's in use, then swap over when needed. Dyson has recently introduced swappable batteries in its newer models, too, but they come at an extra cost (there is a countdown timer to let you monitor power levels if you don't want to invest in an additional battery).

If you're well-prepared, a stick vacuum can see you through a household clean, but it doesn't compare with the constant power-source of a corded vac.

Which vacuums are noisiest?

It's a tie

It depends. Vacuums may have a number of suction settings, so we test them at their loudest, strongest settings. On that basis, we don't actually see a discernible difference between corded and stick, with both types measuring 73 to 74dB on average.

Which vacuums are better value?

Winner: Traditional vacuum

Our test results reveal that price isn't necessarily an indicator of performance. While some stick vacuums will set you back more than $900, we've reviewed some at far lower price points that still do a very good job. You do tend to get more value out of a traditional vacuum, though.

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE