When shopping for a new vacuum, it can be hard to know what you're actually paying for, let alone what you should be spending, with price points ranging from under $100 to over $1500. Mid-priced vacuum cleaners usually offer the best combination of performance and value, although it's the more expensive models, loaded up with the latest and most powerful technology, which give the very best carpet cleaning. Some low-cost vacuums compare favourably with pricier models, but generally the cheaper models are better suited to cleaning hard floors.

Video: How we test and review vacuum cleaners to find the best

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The task at hand

When buying a vacuum cleaner, keep in mind the type of cleaning that's required.

  • Barrel models are easier to carry up stairs and use in awkward places, such as a car or behind furniture.
  • Upright models suit large areas of carpet cleaning, on a level surface, as they have built-in power heads.
  • A conventional cleaning head is usually all you'll need to vacuum carpet. But when it comes to picking up pet hair, a model with a turbo brush or power head will often give a more thorough clean.

The Big Question

Bag or bin?

Vacuums have either a bin or a bag to collect the dust, and both systems have their pros and cons. Bins and reusable cloth bags are messier and harder to empty, while paper bags are more user-friendly, but have ongoing costs and may be something you're always forgetting to buy. You also need to consider the costs of bags on the environment (in product tests, CHOICE now includes the price of each bag where applicable and also make note of the company's policy of bag disposal).

Bags

  • They tend to be less messy to empty. Bags generally come with sliding shutters to prevent dust from spilling out when removed.
  • With a bagged vacuum you can just put the full bag into the rubbish bin, rather than risk letting dust and allergens back into the air as you tip the vacuum bin into the rubbish. This could make a bagged model a better choice in an apartment, or when you don't have a garden into which you can empty the vacuum bin dust.
  • Bags aren't necessarily recyclable, but are usually biodegradable. If the bags are completely biodegradable, you can simply put them in your compost - your garden worms will thank you for the tasty snack.
  • When you change the disposable bag, you're also changing and refreshing a large part of the filter system. However, the other filters still need replacing from time to time.
  • Generally a disposable bag is larger than a bin, so doesn't need to be emptied as frequently.
  • This type of vacuum does involve an ongoing cost as you'll need to buy bags from time to time, and it can be inconvenient if you run out.

Bins

  • It's easier to see and retrieve an item that's been accidentally sucked up.
  • Disposing of the waste from a bin can release dust and allergens back into the area. But if you have a house with an outside area, this is less of an issue - you could even dump it straight into the garden or compost.
  • With a bin model you'll need to either clean the main filter frequently, or replace it – a hidden extra cost.
  • Make sure you replace filters when necessary, as the vacuum's performance could deteriorate otherwise.
  • Bin models generally involve fewer ongoing costs as you don't need to keep buying bags.

Features

Check out this list to decide which features or functions are must-haves for your new vacuum.

Power head or turbo head

A power head replaces the standard cleaning head and has an inbuilt motor that operates the brush. Using one generally improves dirt removal from carpets, whereas a turbo head (which uses airflow to operate the extra brush) is usually less effective. These attachments are designed to boost cleaning performance but tend to make vacuums bulkier and/or heavier and they may not be as easy to use or manoeuvre.

Tools

Tools such as a crevice nozzle (for narrow corners and around chair cushions), an upholstery brush (for curtains and soft furnishings) and a dusting brush can be very handy. Check whether these tools are supplied with the vacuum cleaner or if they're optional extras.

Telescopic wand

This lets you adjust the wand to suit your height, so you can vacuum without bending your back too much. If you're tall, try to test the model in-store to ensure it's long enough for you.

Adjustable head height

This feature's useful if you have carpets with different pile heights, and also for wooden or tiled floors.

Variable suction/power

A control on the wand that allows you to vary the suction for more delicate jobs, such as cleaning curtains.

Dustbag-full indicator

This handy feature lets you know when the dust collector is full without having to open the vacuum.

Blower

A vacuum that can reverse the airflow to blow air continuously is a godsend when it's time to blow up the airbed!

Onboard storage for accessories

Handy when you are cleaning edges and upholstery, and/or dusting furniture whilst vacuuming.

Wand storage

Allows the wand to be attached neatly to the cleaner when storing. This is useful for keeping all the bits together.

Retractable cord

This is much easier than winding up the cord manually! Uprights don't have this feature, but you can wind the cord around two hooks to keep it tidy.

HEPA filter

This stands for high-efficiency particulate air filtration. It's an international standard for filters that trap minute particles. This type of filter can help if you have asthma or a dust allergy or sensitivity, but you have to clean or replace it regularly (about once a year) to ensure it works efficiently - which may mean more ongoing costs. Given that vacuums with a HEPA filter are usually more expensive, do you really need one? If you have asthma, a dust allergy or are simply sensitive to dust, it can help, though for asthma sufferers it's not likely to be the complete answer to house dirt. Read more about HEPA filters, asthma and allergies here.