Dyson redesigns canister vacs; can it please can-hatin' America?

You'd be hard pressed to find a canister vacuum in American households. It's exceedingly rare, making up only one in nine full-size vacuum sales in 2011, according to NPD Group. In contrast, canisters are still a favorite in international markets. 98 percent of vacuum sales in France were canister models, for example. This leads me to wonder: Is there something wrong with the canister, or with the American perception of what makes a good vacuum?

In short, it's both.

Though they dominate European homes, canister vacuums are incredibly clumsy. They're awkward to store. They're bested by corners and furniture. They fall over. Bottom line: They're a hassle. It'd make sense that James Dyson — famous for his well-engineered, pricey eponymous machines — would introduce the iconic ball design found in his uprights to the canister. The popular design solves the steering problem, but has Dyson found a way to make this convenient for storage? Read on to find out if this is the canister vacuum for you.

The DC39 is Dyson's first canister on a ball, a feature that allows for effortless maneuvering. Using a canister requires a change in mindset. It's sort of like learning how to walk a dog. Contrary to what you might see on television (unless, of course, you watch Dog Whisperer), it's the human who leads in this relationship. Don't push the vacuum ahead; pull from behind. Got it? Good.

The Case For Canisters

Americans have been wrong to overlook canisters. When designed well, you realize vacuuming doesn't have to be a back-breaking experience. The body of the DC39 makes up the bulk of its hefty 23 pounds. Instead of physically working this heavy machine back and forth like an upright, it stays in place while you use an extendable hose to clean the surrounding area. Like a faithful companion, when you're a little too far, it follows along, extending the retractable cord so it's never more than a few steps behind. With the hose and power cord, you have quite a bit of reach — about 33 feet in total. There's no need to swap tools or divert suction: it transitions from carpet to upholstery to under furniture to window screens with ease.

The canister glides smoothly across carpet and still has trouble around corners. When moving from room to room, it can get trapped behind walls and doors if you're not actively guiding it. Of course, picking it up by the handle solves the issue, but who wants to do that when this weighs just as much as an upright? The handheld wand also utilizes the ball design where it meets the rotating brush head. About 95 percent of the time, you aim for straight lines for that just-vacuumed look, but when it comes to cleaning around table legs and under the bed, that ball provides much-needed flexibility in cramped spaces.

A Powerful Sucker

Like the rest of the Dyson lineup, the DC39 uses cyclone technology, which the company says means no suction power is lost. At 275 air watts, it certainly is powerful, but only marginally more so than my $100 Hoover WindTunnel upright with about 260 air watts, which also touts no loss of suction. I will note that a trigger on the DC39's wand handle will stop the rotating brush, an action that not only helps relieve some airflow, but is useful in case the vac snags something it shouldn't. Ever have to use a pair of chopsticks to coerce a sock out of a hose? It's not nearly as fun as it sounds.

One thing Dyson fails to do is create a canister that's convenient for storing. Unlike the upright DC41, for instance, this canister, while attractive, doesn't have quite the eye appeal to make it a focal point of a living room. So where do you stash it? There's a notch to attach the wand to the body, making it one cohesive unit, but the form factor isn't ideal for a cramped closet corner. To make due, I had it seated under a side table, the hose strewn about. This is probably the most frustrating thing about the machine. Given their unpopularity in the U.S., innovation in the canister space is lacking. But to see higher adoption, it's not good enough to just create a canister that's facile to pilot. Dyson's done a lot right with the with the DC39, but still stumbles when it comes to how to neatly stow it.

The Bottom Line

With the DC39, Dyson has managed to redesign a vacuum that avoids the movement pitfalls of traditional canisters, but it's yet to come up with a storage solution. Until that's resolved, I can't see Americans adopting the canister design en mass. At the end of the day, as a premium vacuum, you pay for the design more than anything else. Does a $500 Dyson have five times the utility of my Hoover? No. But is it five times more attractive? At least. I just need to find an apartment with more closet space.

Overall, while this canister is a notch above its predecessors, it's certainly not for everyone — those who live in cramped quarters for instance. Like the Rhodesian Ridgeback, a dog bred to hunt lions, the DC39 belongs in a home with plenty of room to roam around. There, it'll conquer thousands of square feet with less effort; not to mention, in this home, storage space won't be an issue. Chances are, the owners of said property will never learn how to operate this vacuum, but at least their housekeeper will appreciate the Dyson design.

All images by Alice Truong for DVICE.