What's the best handheld fabric steamer—and can it replace your iron?

How to be the best consumer you can be.
May 6 2008 7:38 AM

Getting Steamed

What's the best handheld fabric steamer—and can it replace your iron?

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Rowenta Ultra Compact Steambrush

Rowenta Ultra Compact Steambrush, $39.95 The 800-watt dual-voltage Rowenta is a classic "power drill" steamer. Unlike the electric teakettles, which produce a steady flow of steam until switched off or unplugged, the more sophisticated power drills eject steam only when you press a button (similar to the steam button on a traditional iron). They also produce a not-unpleasant burring sound. To use these steamers, you hold the fabric taut against a wall and press down with a brushing motion.

I found much to admire in the large but lightweight Rowenta: the efficient test-tube-shaped water tank, the dial that controls steam output, the fabric brush that removes cat hair and lint (both plentiful commodities in this household), the canvas zip-up bag for travel. Too bad it was marred by some serious technical glitches. After just a few days of use, the steam-activation button overheated within seconds of my pressing it, singeing my thumb. The replacement model that I tested, while certainly safer, was still a bit on the ornery side. It clicked on and off without warning, as if disagreeing with my choice of outfit.

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Portability: 5
Design/ease of use: 7
Performance: 10
Total: 22

Conair Deluxe Hand-Held Fabric Steamer

Conair Deluxe Hand-Held Fabric Steamer, $42.99 (on sale for $27.99) The other power-drill-style steamer I tested, the Conair, bore the closest resemblance to a traditional iron. Indeed, if you remove the dual lint/fabric brush attachment, the exposed soleplate can double as an iron. But if you're whipping out the ironing board, why not just iron?

This is not to say that this Conair was entirely without merit. I particularly liked the high-medium-low dial, the fabric brush, and the triangular shape, which outmaneuvered other steamers on corners and seams. But even though this 1,000-watt steamer is dual voltage, it's probably the least sensible travel companion of all the models I tested. It's bigger and heavier than the others—an issue not just at the airline check-in counter, but in medias steaming as well. My arm tired swiftest with this steamer; for my mom, the heftiness was a deal-breaker. And like the Rowenta, the Conair had its share of semi-scary moments (for example, puffing out steam for several minutes after being unplugged). I thought I'd prefer these higher-tech power-drill steamers, but the rudimentary teakettles proved more reliable in the end.

Portability: 3
Design/ease of use: 9
Performance: 12
Total: 24

Joy Mangano My Little Steamer

Joy Mangano My Little Steamer, $29.98 My Little Steamer has the details down. It comes with—count 'em—three fabric-brush attachments and a drawstring travel bag. I loved the Eisenhower-era mint-julep color; my mom applauded the retractable power cord (the only steamer I tested with this feature). The My Little Steamer is easy to fill, holds a fair amount of water, and was the only teakettle model I reviewed with an on/off switch. The wattage—850—surprised me, though, since the steam just didn't get all that hot. And piping-hot steam, I've found, is the make-or-break test of a good steamer, way more important than a selection of attachments, which in this case were frustratingly difficult to muscle onto the steam head. It was also on the heavy side, and the five larger-than-normal steam-ejecting holes encouraged excess dribbling and sometimes left fabrics damper than desired. Single voltage.

Portability: 5
Design/ease of use: 9
Performance: 10
Total: 24

SteamFast Compact Fabric Steamer

SteamFast Compact Fabric Steamer, $39.99 (on sale for $24.99) My mother's enthusiasm for the SteamFast surprised me. A fairly primitive teakettle model, the single-voltage SteamFast has no on/off switch; you just plug in to operate. The size is certainly right—it's the second smallest, next to the Samsonite—and my mom liked the ergonomic finger grips. This 800-watt steamer delivers a continuous flow of just-hot-enough steam through nine small holes that minimize leakage, especially compared with the My Little Steamer. The SteamFast's water capacity could be better: Its max-fill line is much lower than on similarly proportioned steamers. And while the two attachments (a lint and fabric brush) worked pretty well, the sticky rubber head was a schmutz magnet. Even so, for the price, you can't go wrong with this unobjectionable little machine.

Portability: 8
Design/ease of use: 8
Performance: 12
Total: 28

Jiffy Esteam Travel Steamer

Jiffy Esteam Travel Steamer, $69 The Jiffy Esteam isn't much to behold: a simple teakettle-style apparatus with no on/off button, no temperature controls, no fun brushes or lint-remover attachments. It's not particularly small or light, and it isn't even dual voltage. Why, then, the steep price tag? Perhaps because the steam produced by the Jiffy is really, really hot—a little mysterious, considering it's only 600-watt. The Jiffy is the only steamer I tested that achieves anything like the power and precision of a regular iron. Whatever the explanation, merely aiming the Jiffy in the general direction of a garment conquered crinkles and creases more aggressively than any competitor.

The Jiffy is definitely coming along to my next destination wedding. Does this mean I'm ready to give up ironing for good? Not just yet. These steamers are great for travel, for straightening out delicate silk, and for freshening up cashmere. Steaming is also a good deal quicker (and less backache-inducing) than ironing. But it is also, for now, a much less exact art. For the heavy-duty jobs—or if you require a super-smooth, boardroom-ready dress shirt—you still can't get around dragging out the old ironing board. For ultimate crispness, the iron is still king.

Portability: 6
Design/ease of use: 6
Performance: 20
Total: 32

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