The Digital Slim is light enough to be hung from the wall, like a broom.

The Digital Slim is light enough to be hung from the wall, like a broom.

The brush attachment is possible thanks to an improved power pack.

James Dyson loves to vacuum so much that he does it with one vacuum IN EACH HAND.

Dyson Releases Another Vacuum, With A Hint Of Its Portable Future

Dyson releases new products with such steadiness that it can seem almost gratuitous. But there’s a method to the madness.

Dyson has a habit of burying the marketplace with innovation. That’s a savvy business strategy: As I argue in a feature for our October design issue, in any design-driven industry, companies whose chief advantage is design and engineering have to innovate constantly in order to maintain their edge.

The flip side of that is that their innovations bury the real story bubbling under the surface. Such is the case with its newest vacuum, the Dyson Digital Slim, which is a handheld gadget that also has an attachment floor brush. It’s the first Dyson handheld to have that attachment, which was previously only a feature in upright, plug-in models. It retails for $399, and just recently went on sale. How’s that for a high-design premium?

This might seem like a straightforward mash-up of two successful technologies. So it’s actually more interesting to ask why it never happened before. There’s two answers: For one, battery packs were never powerful enough before to power both a vacuum and a brush attachment. The second answer is that digital motors used to not be powerful enough to really pick up all that much dirt while being small enough to carry in your hand. Those same advances in miniaturizing motors are what lie behind Dyson’s high-profile innovations from recent years.

Notice, then, that the real enablers of the new Dyson vacuum, which is outwardly only just an incremental improvement, are really quite fundamental: Its motors and its battery packs. The latter are particularly important: Behind almost any big piece of consumer tech you can think of lies some sort of power source innovation, whether its the Macbook Air or the Nike+ Fuelband. (With the Macbook Air, it was the addition of a flash drive that allowed more space for a battery, and a thinner profile overall; with the Nike+ Fuelband, it was curved li-ion cells, some of the first ever created, which allowed it to communicate with your phone constantly, via a Bluetooth.)

The button on the back for boosting power requires a second hand to push.

There are a few very small design details, which would be easy to ignore or dismiss, that tell a story about the power pack’s limitations: For one, the vacuum has a trigger, not a button, which tells you that it’s meant for periodic use rather than an indefinite session of just being flipped on. (The Digital Slim has about a 20 minute battery life.) Second, there’s a turbo feature, which you engage by pushing another button on the back of the motor housing--that drains the battery in just four minutes, but the shape of the vacuum itself means that you have to push that button with a second hand. So the vacuum, in its design, is really telling you: 'Don’t replace your normal vacuum with me. And if you really need power, you better think about it, because it’s going to be a little awkward to engage.'

As far as the motor, Dyson is very quietly building a massive new motor factory in Singapore, which is thought to be focused largely on producing these very small digital motors that will power a new generation of fundamentally new products. Consider that the Dyson Airblade and the Air Multiplier Fan--and now, this tiny but mighty hand-held vacuum--are all enabled by the first generation of smaller motors.

Click to enlarge. The image you see is close to the motor’s actual size.

If you wanted a lesson about innovation, there’s this: It often doesn’t happen in great leaps and bounds. Rather, it comes during the process of constant refinement. Dyson didn’t set out to invent a hand dryer or a fan. They first started with building a better vacuum, knowing that continual improvement was the surest defense in an industry that was actively copy-catting their designs. But during that process, they had a good enough core technology that they started thinking: Hey, we could probably make a lot of other things. If you think about it, that’s exactly what made Apple great during the 2000's--in constantly thinking about tiny ways to improve their wares, a collateral benefit was instilling a corporate mindset of: What could we do next?

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8 Comments

  • Zpiester

    Cliff, Great article. Dyson has dominated in this category for years. I would opine that their data driven design strategy is at the core of their success. They have successfully done what Apple has in leveraging data driven insights to create better products and experiences which in turn are driving more data.

  • Blogorelli

    We have a Dyson handheld (the C16 or 31?, not sure) that we got as a wedding gift. It. Sucks. Only works for about 3-5 minutes before the battery dies. I'd literally take my mom's Dustbuster from the 1980s over it. We also have a ball upright Dyson (also a wedding gift) that we've had numerous issues with...I will NEVER get another Dyson product! The customer service is horrible too, they will not replace/discount anything and run you through all these troubleshooting that do nothing -- perhaps they should work on innovating that process?

    Miele all the way, baby! 

  • Nathan Adams

    Just recently went on sale? We've had our Digital Slim for at least a year now.

  • Malone

    Great design on all of their products, but their Ball vacuum I bought was the worst vacuum I've ever owned. It sucked... or rather didn't, well. Sold it on ebay a month later at a loss.

  • Jeebus

    I have friend who had the same experience.  Bought the gazillion dollar Dyson vacuum and it sucked (in a bad way). They returned it and got another one - same problem.  The experience has put them and everyone who knows them off Dyson.  You can buy a kick-ass Hoover or other 'traditional' brand for less than half what it costs for a Dyson and get infinitely better results.

  • Benjamin Rogers

    I'd be curious to see what the real-world battery life is on this. I bought the original handheld when it came out back in like 2005 or so and out of the box, you would get 8-10 minutes of use (if you were lucky) and then it was dead. Worst of all - it took like 18 hours to charge back up. Seeing how the turbo mode on this one only gives you 4 minutes, I'm guessing there is no way in real use you're gonna ever get 20 minutes from it. Might as well just get a full size upright or canister version for the same price (those are TOTALLY worth it).

  • Joe Nicklo

    That's really awesome and all but who has the $$$ to drop $400+ on a vacuum?