Dyson started off with its signature upright vacuum cleaners, then expanded with a line of portable handhelds based on the same technology. Now the company is filling in the gap with the Dyson Small Ball – a small upright that claims to pack features comparable to a full upright in half the size. We dirtied up the place and put the Small Ball to the test.

According to Dyson engineer Sean Hopkins, the Small Ball is designed for people living in condos or small flats where storage space is at a premium. With its retractable handle, the Small ball takes up half the volume of other Dyson uprights. It stands 2.6 ft (0.8 m) tall when stored and weighs in at 12.5 lb (5.7 kg), which makes it easier to store than conventional uprights, which tend to dominate cupboard space. In addition, Hopkins says that the smaller Dyson uses less materials and consumes much less power, so it's better for the environment.

In a telephone interview, Hopkins told us that the Small Ball is not simply a shrinking of a Dyson upright, but also tweaks previous designs to include new technical advances and address consumer feedback. The product of three years of development by over 100 engineers, the Small Ball, like other Dysons, packs its motor and electronics into the central ball. This means that shrinking the dimensions of the vacuum required considerable redesign of the ball to maintain comparable performance.

The ball itself was also tweaked for greater maneuverability and stability. In terms of performance, the Small Ball is 30 percent quieter than previous Dysons and has more efficient filtration. As to power, the Small Ball has improved per pound performance with an output of 141 air watts – though Hopkins points out that vacuums are like cars, and engine displacement is an important factor, so larger machines can still manage greater air flow.

One other advance, says Hopkins, is that the self-adjusting head does away with the belt and uses a direct drive to power the carpet sweeper. This puts more power on the carpet and greater agitation, which results in more pet hair, dander, and fine dust being sucked up.

Out of the box, there was the usual first impression of a Dyson, which is that it seems to be made entirely of plastic and that its designers apparently placed a premium on clever ways to hook things together. The good news is, unlike some of the very early Dysons, the company has learned from experience and the plastic for the most part feels sturdier, and the snap-together bits now come across as functional as well as clever.

Set up is very fast, involving little more than attaching the brush head and handle/cleaning extension, but there is an element of solving a puzzle. Even with the graphic instruction guide it wasn't that easy to fit the cleaning extension because we couldn't figure out which way round it went. It was a similar story with the brush attachment rack, but once we figured out what went where, everything snapped together very quickly and easily.

The bagless Small Ball comes fitted with a pair of dust filters. One is conical and fits inside the collection bucket and the other is circular and fits behind a screw-on port in the ball. Both are easy to get to, though the ball cover is tricky to get back on. Both of these need to be washed under the tap and left to dry every three months under regular use.

Once put together, the Small Ball looks like a mini-Dyson with a slide-out aluminum alloy shaft to extend the handle to a working length. The shaft and handle have a good ergonomic feel, but the temptation is to pick up the vacuum by the handle, which simply slides out. Meanwhile, the real carry handle on the dust basket seems a bit delicate for the purpose.

Another notable feature is that the Small Ball has a much longer reach over other vacuums. Hopkins says that the cable on the Small Ball is 25 percent longer at 32 ft (9.67 m) and with the hose that comes out to nearly 43 ft (13 m).

To test the Small Ball we took a two-bedroom flat, let a pair of large dogs shed in it for a fortnight then subjected it to a teenage sleepover party. In addition there were a couple of carpet stains that needed lifting and a number of corners that had been collecting dust for months.

The height of the extended handle was good and felt firm despite the machine's small size.

We found it much quieter than the previous Dysons and the smaller ball did make it a bit easier to move around in tight corners. However, like many Dysons we've tried, the catch that keeps the vacuum upright still tends to undo itself at a touch – leaving the machine to crash to the floor.

The length of the power cord was very impressive and if it hadn't been for furniture and getting caught under doors, it would have been possible to clean the entire flat from one central plug in. As to the hose extension, we found extending and attaching it to be counterintuitive. It needs to be turned around before fitting to the hose, but when it's in place, it provides a proper handle, which makes it much easier to maneuver. One bonus of the Small Ball's lightness is that it's very good to carry while using extensions, so dealing with stairs or getting at dust behind furniture and in tight spaces is much easier.

The Small Ball's self-adjusting sweeper head handled transitions from carpet to bare floors readily and the transparent cover on the sweeper assembly made it easy to check for anything tangling the brushes. The vacuum sucked up dirt with a surprising amount of power and handled both pet hair and fine dust very well. It even took party confetti and carpet cleaner in its stride.

The basket needed frequent emptying, which is a good sign for a machine doing a primary clean. This is done by pressing the release button to let the dust drop into the rubbish bin. Theoretically this means no need to get one's hands dirty, but getting rid of the pet hair meant removing the basket casing as well, resulting in dusty hands. Similarly, when remnants of stain remover were picked up, the resulting damp dust clogged the filter meshes and required careful removal by hand. So you may need to get some dirt under your nails at the end of the day, but overall the Small Ball definitely does indeed punch above its weight in the cleaning stakes.

The Dyson Small Ball is available for US$400. The video below introduces the machine.

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