Tried & tested: Heat and dust

We expect vacuum cleaners to save us from allergies, tackle acres of carpet and get into every corner. Can one machine fit the bill?
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After the washing machine, there's no other electrical appliance which has so radically improved domestic cleaning as the vacuum cleaner. No household with wall-to-wall carpets can do without one; but the modern desire to clean upholstery, curtains, dust-collecting ledges and floor surfaces of all types with the magic suction technique means vacuum cleaners face tougher demands from consumers than ever before.


Dave Woodward, who repairs vacuum cleaners for a living, joined Concetta Wetherburn, Philippa Yeoman, Harry Webster, Alan Stewart, Celia Nicholas and Claire Blezard, all seasoned users of vacuum cleaners, some of whom have cleaned professionally.


We chose vacuum cleaners representative of the various types on the market - upright, cylinder, bagless - and quickly found that qualities are generic to the type chosen rather than the specific model. On the whole, upright models are best for large expanses of carpet while cylinder cleaners cope better with stairs, furniture and small spaces. We looked at ease of use, cleaning efficiency, noise levels and design appeal.


pounds 179.99

Testers found that this cylinder cleaner had one brilliant feature: a turbo roller brush at the end of its hose, the closest thing to the roller brush power of an upright "without having to lug an upright around", Concetta Wetherburn noted. As the owner of two long-haired cats, Claire Blezard gave her full stamp of approval to the Miele's ability to suck up animal hairs - not to mention her own, long blonde ones, which wound themselves round and round the roller brush and had to be cut off. But she found it "very average for everything else and unwieldy for dusting high up. The weight of the metal hose is exhausting when doing the picture rails." Dave Woodward compared the Miele's engineering to that of German cars. Philippa Yeoman said, "It's very efficient, but too long to balance on the stairs, and it kept getting stuck around the corners - unlike the round Henry." When empty, with the vent on the pipe open or closed, the suction is ferocious, "I couldn't push against the pile of the rug," said Philippa.


pounds 150

The upright Hoover 1300 tested is said to have "unique seven-stage high filtration providing 99.99 per cent filtration 100 per cent of the time", and is promoted - like others in its class - as "ideal for asthma and allergy sufferers," which means you have to change the hospital-standard filters regularly. The price impressed many testers, given its hygiene claims, but panellists who were keen on the highest levels of cleanliness thought the bagless models (Dyson and Electrolux) with their transparent dust cassettes, were more convincing than the Hoover with its hidden collection. "It's certainly loud enough, if that means powerful," said Concetta Wetherburn, who feared recriminations from her neighbours after vacuuming her wooden floors. (All the upright models tested caused excessive vibration on floorboards, and none fulfilled their claims to clean "edge-to-edge", unless you use the tools.) At least there's no searching for the Hoover's tools which are stored on the back of the machine (you pull the hose out of a hole in the base). The testers were baffled by the "autosense" feature which is supposed to adjust suction power automatically depending on floor surface. "You imagine a laser beaming out under the motor, but of course there's no such thing," said Dave Woodward. You have to adjust the suction manually, just as you do the extension or retraction of the brush head.


pounds 229.99

If you are interested in vacuum cleaners per se, or insist on a certain style in every sphere of your life, then the Dyson is for you. Despite Dave Woodward's cynicism about the brand - "half of the people who buy them think they're the best thing since sliced bread; the other half say it's the worst purchase they ever made" - this upright model inspired slavish devotion in several panellists. As Dave notes, Dyson's publicity machine and acclaimed bagless design account for some of this. The Dyson's attributes include hospital standard filtration and a screen designed to pick up and retain viruses, pollen and other health-threatening particles. Wow! It's too bad that when you come to empty the "dual cyclone cassette", those very particles are liable to escape into the air, but then nothing's perfect. You may save money on dustbags, but replacing the filters costs around pounds 6 a month (the motor cuts out if you don't replace them). The Dyson still has it's fans, though. "I've had mine for three years," says Celia Nicholas. "Things do go wrong but I find the helpline brilliant. They send the parts overnight and it's such a simple design that I always fix it myself. Its only fault, really, is that it's not much good on stairs." As side issues, Concetta Wetherburn complained she couldn't reach under beds because none of the Dyson's brush accessories faced downwards, and Claire Blezard found the Dyson's long, stretchy hose (cunningly connected to the upright's handle) effectively put a stop to her picture rail-dusting fetish: "You have to stand on a ladder, because it isn't solid." Nevertheless, she noticed that even immediately after using any of the other cleaners, the Dyson picked up dust from her rugs.


pounds 49.99

The cheapest vacuum cleaner in our survey, the Goblin, although not a thing of beauty, does the job, even if some accessories sold as extras turned out to be essential. "It's noisy, but it sucks up dirt and dust well. Because the head has bristles, threads are left behind, though," noted Harry Webster. "I'd say a brush insert (pounds 2.59 on the spares list) is a must." On upholstery, he found it sucked so well that it was difficult to move, even with the pipe vent open. When it came to emptying the drum, Concetta Wetherburn realised that a foam filter and paper cartridge were fitted around the motor to protect it from dust, but there was no dustbag fitted or supplied for the drum, so she was "covered in dust and fluff clinging to the motor cover and all the crevices around it." Dave Woodward summed up the Goblin's appeal: "It's a good cheap machine, used mostly by builders, quite rough-and-ready. They haven't insulated the motor to keep the price down, so home-users find it noisy."


pounds 199.99

"I think this is a better machine than the Dyson," said Dave Woodward. "You can choose between bagless cleaning or high filtration dustbags. Basically bagless is for big bits; you want the fine dust in a bag." Unfortunately the Electrolux doesn't look as good, despite its racing green casing, transparent dust cassette and "specially designed back-saver handle". Concetta Wetherburn liked "the feel of the ergonomic handle but I don't think it did much for my back." Alan Stewart found the suction "very impressive", but thought the plastic casing "seemed a trifle frail" and complained that the machine didn't pick up threads well. You have to replace the filters regularly (a red neon light alerts you to this), and buy dustbags. Aside from the bagless cleaning function, there wasn't much to choose between this and the Hoover.


pounds 115

Design slaves will be disappointed to hear that, on a purely practical basis, the panel voted the popular Henry cylinder vacuum cleaner - notable for its cheerful painted eyes and smile around the suction pipe - the winner in our trial. It was the most widely known and used, and cropped up frequently in comparisons with other models tested. "It's very light; it eats dirt; you can drag it about by its hose (nose); and it never damages anything it bumps into. The cord winds up into its head so it doesn't flop about in the cupboard. It does nothing special but it never goes wrong," said Concetta Wetherburn. Dave Woodward supported this claim; he was one of four panel members to own one, or have one in their office. "The only thing that could be improved is the wheels," he said, adding: "You can buy a Microtex (99 per cent efficient) filter for pounds 21.80 if you have allergies." The range includes other (more powerful and bigger) models called Edward, Charles, George and Basil - news which did not impress Philippa Yeoman, who thought calling a vacuum cleaner Henry was "patronising to housewives - like a little man following them around." But she still liked using Henry more than any other model.


Miele, Goblin, Hoover, Dyson and Electrolux all available from Comet, tel: 0500 560570. Numatic Henry from independent electrical suppliers - prices vary, call 01460 68600 for local stockists.