I'm installing a new hardwood floor, and I'm thinking about using cleats rather than staples. Are there any advantages to using cleats over staples?
Yes! Cleats are pretty much the standard in hardwood flooring. Typically, hardwood floors have 'tongue & groove' joints that interlock. First, some definitions of terms that I've used in my answer:
Tongue: the part that sticks out of the hardwood piece is called the 'tongue'.
Groove: the slot it fits into is the 'groove'.
Face: the part of the piece that will eventually be the floor is called the 'face'.
Floor joists: these are horizontal panels that run from one end of the room to the other and rest on beams under them. These provide support and you'll install the flooring on the joists, perpendicular to the direction in which they run.
With cleats, you drive the nail through the tongue onto the floor joists at a 45 degree angle. The cleats (which need to be set in) get hidden by the next piece that overlaps the previous one. The advantage is that all except the last piece in the room will have no nail markings on the surface.
The only con is that you'll need a specialized hardwood floor nailer, that can be pretty expensive to buy ($400-500 for a pneumatic one and $200-300 for a manual one). Needless to say, the pneumatic one is less work (but then again, you'll need to get a compressor for it) than the manual (you'll need a 5lbs mallet to drive a 1.5"-2" cleat in fully). However, these tools are easily available for hire at your local HomeDepot/Lowes (assuming you're in the US).
Now, I've never heard of anyone using staples for hardwood floors. It's more a carpet layer's tool. With staples, you'll also have to nail in through the face, thereby leaving marks all over the floor and ruining the appearance. You can probably use staples to lay down the backer board under the hardwood floor (if you're in a cold weather/windy area, this will help insulate the house by preventing airflow through the slots in the floorboard). Using them on hardwood floors is a terrible idea, and wouldn't recommend it under any circumstances.
Either or is fine, it is up to the installer.
I have used more expensive pneumatic nailers that cost 4-500 USD as well as cheaper ones that are 150-180. If you are DIY then get the cheaper one. Keep your fasteners/nails oiled or drip oil in the male end on the nailer as you reload. They will work fine.
If I was laying more than 4000 sq. ft a year I would consider a more expensive nailer. If I was laying a single room I would consider renting or connect with others who may do a room or two and join together and buy one of the cheaper models.
I have been using staples on all solid wood 3/4 in.flooring accept exotics for 25 yrs never had no call backs.pressure is key 80 to 85lbs is perfect for most applications.on large jobs I never allow more than 2 guns on compressor will use 2 compressors .when pressure is right staples are fine for most solid floor applications.I use (18 g) cleats on exotics-bamboo some engineers.(20g) on others always check nail procedure per manufacturer espechilly engineered.