My Hoover was dead. This I knew.

The bagless upright had been in decline for awhile, despite new belts. Last summer's run-in with (how to put this?) cat diarrhea did not help. But the fatal blow came just before Thanksgiving when I yanked on the stretch hose and it ripped off.

Eight years ago, I paid about $200 for the fire-engine-red machine. Do the math: That's 50 cents per weekly spruce-up. It owed me nothing.

What I didn't know, as I held the dismembered hose, was that replacing my trusty cleaner would be time-consuming, angst-ridden, and annoying.

Call me old-fashioned, but the multiplicity of vacuum cleaner brands, models, features, and places that sell them seems inversely proportional to the number of salespeople available to help consumers make smart choices.

But I sucked it up and learned. Here are my sweeping conclusions - just in case your Christmas wish list went unsatisfied.

I grew up on canister vacuums and never questioned that style until my then-husband complained about dragging "R2D2" around (on the rare occasions that he did).

So I got the Hoover, blithely settling on it after fiddling with a few models at Home Depot.

By going upright and bagless, I was part of a trend. But removing and cleaning the "dirt cup filter assembly" was like wrestling with a giant, filthy, stuck jar lid. And that heavy, bulky cleaner was not the wisest choice for a three-story rowhouse, or for carpet embedded with electrostatically evil tufts of feline fur.

This time around, I would be savvier.

I started at Sears.

"Go with a Dyson. It's all I sell," the salesman snapped, steering me toward a $400 model on sale for $350.

Dyson, of course, is the 20-year-old British company that has transformed the boring world of vacuums while cleaning up. In 2002, inventor-billionaire Sir James Dyson entered the U.S. market, saturating it with ads for his uprights, which swivel and pivot on his patented "ball" and "never lose suction" thanks to his "cyclone technology."

I was not convinced. I wondered how Dyson compared with lower-cost competitors (OK, copycats), including Sears' own Kenmore brand.

"I was also wondering about this Shark," I said, eyeing a lavender contraption. "But it looks complicated. How does it convert to a canister?"

The salesman gave me an if-you're-too-stupid-to-figure-it-out eyeroll, then dissed Shark as "too many pieces to break."

It got worse. In the next eight department, discount, and home improvement stores, I couldn't find even a condescending salesperson. Heck, I couldn't find an outlet to plug in a vacuum.

Clearly, I needed to do my homework before hitting the display aisles.

"Even if you'll order online, go to a store first," advises Consumer Reports magazine. "Push, pull, turn, and lift models you're considering. Check out the controls and features. If an online price is low, see if the store will match it."

I should have consulted CR - the venerable, not-for-profit product-testing organization - at the outset. When I belatedly did, I realized (duh) that sales of vacuums, like everything else, have been changed by the Internet. A lot of people test-drive in the store, then bargain-hunt online. No wonder store salespeople aren't always eager to serve.

CR also validated my skepticism. It tested more than 100 models, rating them on carpet, bare floors, airflow, noise, emissions, handling, and pet hair.

"Some pricey vacuums deliver less than their price tag suggests," the magazine concluded. (I got free online access as a journalist. If you don't have a subscription, your local library may have one - or old-fashioned print issues.)

Bob Markovich, CR's home and yard editor, dished the dirt: "Dyson is a formidable marketer. But Dyson doesn't do very well in our performance surveys."

Bagless uprights by Hoover, Eureka, Kenmore, and Bissell rated higher than Dyson's versions. So did Shark, made and ferociously marketed by a six-year-old company named Euro-Pro, even though it's in Boston.

My final stop was Best Buy. I pestered a preoccupied salesman into helping me try a few models. I almost chose another Hoover until I scrutinized the stretch hose. Really flimsy.

Instead, I went home with my new dirt predator: Shark's 13-pound, $150 Navigator Lift-Away.

It's still early, but so far the detachable canister and wand are great on stairs. The dust bin and filters are easy to remove and clean. And with the "turbo brush," I laugh at hairballs.\