Upright vacuums — modern twists on the traditional vacuum cleaners of yesteryear — are more compact and easier to store than canister vacuums, and more powerful than stick vacuums. They’re also easy to use, so they’re good for spot cleaning and well-suited to households full of pets or kids that require heavier-duty spot cleaning than a handheld vacuum can provide.
To help you choose the best upright vacuum, we spent two weeks testing a half-dozen highly rated models. We put each one through a series of tests, from cleaning up the fur left behind from two dogs and three cats to sucking up cat litter spills, assessing performance, overall ease of use and usefulness of attachments. In the end, we found three winners capable of handling your cleanup needs.
Best upright vacuum overall: Shark Rotator Professional Lift-Away NV501 ($245, originally $299.99; amazon.com or $269.99; bestbuy.com)
The Shark Rotator Professional Lift-Away NV501 was a standout in all of our testing. It was one of the easiest vacuum cleaners to maneuver, thanks to its swivel head and fairly light weight. It weighs 15.8 pounds, which doesn’t sound especially light, but compared to the others it was easy to pick up and move around. It also has a large padded handle that was especially helpful when utilizing the lift-off feature, which lets you remove the motor unit to use as a sort of miniature canister vacuum with upholstery and other above-the-floor accessories.
The canister easily comes off the vacuum base with the push of a large button, so when we needed to vacuum the stairs or extend into the corners of the ceiling, we could detach the pod and carry it independently. Next to the canister release lies another button that releases the wand, so in just two moves the lift-off pod is off and ready to go.
The Shark Rotator comes with an upholstery tool, a dusting brush and a crevice tool, which all worked well. The attachments fit onto the end of the handle, so you can use them when the vacuum is intact or when you’re taking advantage of the lift-off feature. The tube has a nice amount of stretch to it, which made it easier to get into harder-to-reach areas without having to keep moving the vacuum.
An extra bonus was how neatly the attachments fit onto the machine. They’re easy to grab and remove, and they don’t get in the way when you’re utilizing other features. They also firmly clip into their respective holders so they don’t fall out when you’re moving around or accidentally bump into something.
It also has headlights, a useful feature when vacuuming on hard floors. While not as handy on carpet (since dirt and debris sink in instead of lying on the surface), the headlights helped illuminate missed spots on the wood and vinyl flooring.
As far as suction power and performance go, the Shark Rotator Professional Lift-Away NV501 got high marks across the board. Both the main brush head and the attachments picked up pet fur in one pass on all types of floors, and the main brush head made easy work of pulling cat litter out of high-pile carpet.
The Shark’s XL dustbin allowed for continuous cleaning — we were able to get through the entire house and then some without stopping to empty it — and it was simple to detach and empty. The design itself was similar to the other bagless models on this list, with a latch on the bottom that opens to release everything into the trash can. But, because this vacuum has three filters, there was no dust or blowback when emptying the machine.
The only real flaw we found was when the dustbin was off, the vacuum itself sometimes toppled backward given the uneven weight distribution, landing hard on the floor a couple of times before we got the hang of better positioning it.
Though not a deal breaker, we didn’t love the red and white color scheme. It looked a bit outdated when compared to other models. We would have also loved a retractable cord, but none of the units we tested had one, so we can’t hold that against the Shark.
Best upright vacuum for pet hair: Bissell Pet Hair Eraser Lift-Off Upright Vacuum ($331.66; amazon.com or $339; bissell.com or $350.99; walmart.com)
Similar in design to the Shark Rotator, the Bissell Pet Hair Eraser Lift-Off Upright Vacuum lives up to its name in its ability to pick up cat and dog hair. It was comparable to the Shark in almost every way: ease of use, design, ease and cleanliness of emptying and suction power/performance. It features a similar lift-off motor unit that makes using it on upholstery and other above-the-floor objects easier.
The Bissell has a swivel head that makes it easy to maneuver and a detachable pod that lets you drop the base and more easily vacuum stairs and out-of-reach places. The wand and base both detach with the touch of a button, and you can change from low carpet to plush carpet with a lever that’s conveniently positioned on the thumb portion of the handle.
One standout feature of the Bissell is the Pet Turboeraser tool from which it gets its name. While the Shark comes with a regular crevice tool, the Bissell’s Turboeraser has a spinning brush head with bristles that pull hair off upholstery and stairs. This tool worked well on the cat tower and shorter-pile carpets, though it did need some help on the high-pile stairs. It never got jammed up though, even when pulling up longer human hair, and was a welcome addition to the setup.
Ultimately, this vacuum didn’t earn the top spot because it’s a bit heavier than the Shark (it weighs almost 18 pounds), has a smaller dustbin that needed more frequent emptying, and it didn’t perform as well as the Shark on hard floors, despite being more expensive. But if you’re looking for a vacuum cleaner specifically to get control over the mess left by shedding pets, the addition of the Turboeraser makes this a good choice.
Best budget upright vacuum cleaner: Eureka DashSprint Dual Motor Upright Vacuum With Headlights ($99.99; costco.com)
The Eureka DashSprint Dual Motor Upright Vacuum is significantly less expensive than the Shark Rotator and Bissell Pet Hair Eraser, and cheaper than most other options we tested. As such, we didn’t have high hopes for its performance, but were pleasantly surprised in all areas.
The Eureka is the lightest of our recommendations, weighing in at just 12.6 pounds, and it was easier to maneuver and carry from one floor to the next than the others. The swivel was the smoothest; it could move on a dime, plus it didn’t get tripped up on high-pile carpets or when transitioning from hard floors to area rugs. It had excellent suction power, too. While it didn’t do an exceptional job on hard floors, especially during the cat litter test, it performed well on all carpet heights and the attachments made easy work of cleaning the couch and cat tower.
It comes with a Pet Pal Turbo tool that’s almost identical in design to the Turboeraser that comes with the Bissell. While it wasn’t quite as impressive as the Turboeraser — it occasionally needed two passes instead of one — it did a stellar job 90% of the time.
The dustbin is larger than the Bissell’s, 1.5 liters compared to Bissell’s 1, but it needed more frequent emptying since its filter — located in the center of the bin — is larger than the Bissell’s, so we found ourselves needing to clear debris trapped around it more often. Emptying it was simple enough, using the same process as the others: Just open the latch at the bottom and the debris comes out into the trash can. However, we ended up having to reach into the canister repeatedly to clear out debris by hand.
There’s no lift-off feature, which was kind of a bummer, but the wand does come out of the base to clean harder-to-reach above-the-floor areas. The tube isn’t attached to the wand like the others, so you have to detach the tube from the base then hook it up to the wand before you use it, a straightforward enough but still additional step.
Why buy an upright vacuum?
Upright vacuums are, for the most part, less bulky and less expensive than canister vacuums and more powerful than stick or handheld models.
As all-in-one products with the motor housed inside the main unit, upright vacuums are easy to carry around the house to take care of various tasks and, true to their name, can simply stand up on their own when stored. Typically they include a range of accessories for above-the-floor tasks like upholstery, drapes and stairs, though since the motor unit is integrated with the floor head, they aren’t quite as suited to such use as canister vacuums or cordless stick vacuums (though lift-off models like our top recommendations address this issue).
With wider cleaning heads embedded with a turbo brush, upright vacuums are also a good choice if you have lots of rugs or wall-to-wall carpets, and since there’s less stuff to lug around, you’ll be able to clean much larger areas in a shorter period. They feel more natural when you push them since you’re not dragging a canister behind you.
Since everything is integrated, however, they may be harder to maneuver around furniture or obstacles in the room than the wand and floor brush of a canister vacuum. They are also not the best for lugging up and down stairs, and since the motor unit is right in front of you, they do tend to be noisier in use.
Many current uprights (including two of our top-rated models) have a “lift-off” feature that mitigates these concerns and makes them better all-around performers. These let you separate the motor unit from the frame of the vacuum so it can be used separately with a hose, wand and above-the-floor accessory heads as a miniature canister vacuum.
How we tested
We looked through user reviews and product specifications and landed on six models that are marketed toward pet owners, not just because pet hair is such a common application for vacuum cleaner purchasers, but also since these vacuums are typically more powerful and full-featured overall and include upholstery tools that work equally well in pet-free households.
We rated each vacuum based on setup, design features and performance, considering things like suction power and effectiveness on different floor types and pile heights.
Setup and assembly
While setup was a consideration in our rating, we didn’t weigh it too heavily since you only have to assemble the vacuum once during its lifetime. We did take note if any were especially difficult to put together.
- Ease of use/maneuverability: How easy it was to vacuum different types of spaces. We measured based on whether or not the vacuum could swivel, if it could lie flat to go underneath couches and how heavy it was. We also considered if the vacuum pulled, dragged or got stuck on the carpet. If there was a lift-off canister, we checked if it made a difference in the overall experience.
- Ease of emptying: How easy the vacuum was to empty and how messy (or clean) the process was.
- Capacity/dust canister size: How often you have to empty a vacuum depends on how much debris you’re picking up, but the bigger the canister, the less often you’ll need to stop to clean it out. We factored this into our testing as well.
- Organization: All of the vacuums on the list came with various attachments. Part of our rating included whether or not there was a place to neatly store each of the attachments.
- Suction power: Suction power was one of the biggest considerations. Since these vacuums are targeted toward pet owners, we tested the main brush head and each attachment on pet fur and cat litter on all types of floors. We considered whether the vacuums could pull the heavier cat litter particles out of high-pile carpet and if the debris got adequately sucked into the canister versus getting spit out the back and not making it into the canister. We also tested if the heavier particles could travel the length of the tube when using an attachment or if they spilled out the front of the attachment once the vacuum was turned off. We took note of suction power when the canister was empty and when it was full to see if the vacuum lost effectiveness as the canister filled up, and if it was necessary to empty it during use to keep the vacuum functioning up to par.
- Effectiveness on different floor types: We have four different types of floors in our house — carpet, hardwood, tile and vinyl — and we tested the vacuums’ suction power on each using pet fur and cat litter. We used both the main brush head and the various attachments, when appropriate, to see how each performed.
- Effectiveness on different pile heights: In addition to testing different types of floors, we tested the vacuum on various pile heights using high-pile carpet, a medium-pile area rug and a low-pile area rug.
- Effectiveness on various surfaces: While we measured the effectiveness of the attachments on the different floor types, this test was specifically aimed at testing each attachment’s specific functionality. We used the attachments on a cat tower, a fabric couch, high-pile carpeted stairs, low-pile carpeted stairs, and hard floors, as well as in corners (both on the floor and ceiling).
- Tangling/clogging: We also considered whether or not longer hair got tangled in the brush roll after several uses, and if the canister got clogged and negatively affected suction power.
- Noise level: While not a major factor in our testing, we considered the noise level of each model and noted if a particular model was considerably quieter or louder than the others.
Other upright vacuums we tested
The Hoover WindTunnel 3 High Performance Pet Vacuum was a worthy contender, but it ultimately fell short due to its heavy weight and lack of maneuverability. Compared to the other models on the list, it was a bit clunky and difficult to carry up and down the stairs. Using it on the stairs was also a struggle since it doesn’t have the lift-off capabilities of our top picks and you have to rely on the attachments and the not-long-enough tube. Plus, it doesn’t swivel. The canister is fixed on the head, so even on flat surfaces movement is more difficult, especially when combined with the heavier weight.
The upside is that it did well in all of our performance tests. The suction power got high marks on carpet and hard floors. It pulls up cat litter and picks up pet hair from high-pile carpet in one pass and easily sucks up cat litter from hard floors without spitting it out the back. The brush roll’s seven-position height adjustment made it easy to transition from hard floors to area rugs to carpets without a lot of fuss or swapping out parts. All of the attachments also have a home on the machine, so when you’re not using them, everything stores neatly packed away.
Emptying it was simple. The process was on par with the other machines — just take the canister off and empty it with a latch on the bottom — and the canister is a generous size. We were able to clean up 900 square feet of high-pile carpet without stopping to empty it.
The TL;DR: If you’re looking for pure suction power and don’t care as much about maneuverability, this could be a good choice for you.
The Kenmore AllergenSeal Bagless Upright Vacuum is a decent option, especially for the price. The performance was good and it was able to handle all types of floors, although it did get a tripped up on the plush area rug. While the attachments struggled a bit with cat litter — they’re really designed for upholstery — the main brush head had no problem clearing the heavier debris from wood floors or carpets.
It lost points in two areas: the swivel capabilities and the attachments. The swivel wasn’t as smooth as the other options. It moved from side to side well, but wasn’t as free-flowing as the top picks. If you’re a stickler about vacuuming in straight lines, this might not matter as much, but we got spoiled with the smooth movement of some of the others.
The two attachments were also sub-par compared to the others — a three-in-one combo tool and an upholstery tool. Both tools had the rough surface finish of an old-school lint brush, but using them required more manual scraping on our part and they got clogged halfway through cleaning the couch and the cat tower. We would have preferred to see a rotating brush like some of the other pet models. There are also no additional features, like a lift-off pod or detachable wand.
If you’re looking for a basic vacuum for quick cleanups, this one can do the job, but if you’ve got a house full of pets or kids, it might not stand up to the challenge.
The Kenmore Intuition is reminiscent of traditional bagged vacuums. It has upgrades, of course, but when compared to other models, especially at this price point, it felt a little underwhelming. It got decent marks for portability and maneuverability, since it is fairly lightweight and easy to move around. It also has a lift-off canister, so if you need to vacuum the stairs or other hard-to-reach places, you can ditch the base and carry the canister and the wand around with you.
Its major downfall was using it as a regular upright. It got tripped up on high-pile carpets, which make up the entirety of our second floor. While it has decent suction power and operates on a swivel which makes it easy to maneuver (in theory), it dragged along on plush carpet, rather than smoothly gliding like the others. This meant little clumps of hair were sometimes left behind and required a second pass. It was one of the better performing on hard floors and shorter-pile area rugs, though, so if that’s what you need most, this vacuum can handle it.
The attachments are pretty standard — there’s a specialized pet tool, a three-in-one combination tool and a dusting brush — and performed just as well as the others’. There were no standouts here.
Also worth noting in case you skimmed over the name: This vacuum utilizes bags, which are thrown out and then replaced. Aside from adding an extra overall cost to its use, it seemed inconvenient to keep a steady supply of bags in the house. Of course, this is a matter of personal preference — it was easy enough to take the full bag out and replace it with a new one — and not something that we weighed heavily since we were aware that it was a bagged vacuum right out of the gate.