Appliance manufacturers regularly update their top-of-the-line products with new technology and fresh design elements—and pass the expense of each "improvement" along to the consumer, of course. Some of these upgrades do in fact deliver the added convenience they promise, but others may not be good enough to pay more for. Here's a rundown of features to consider and those to skip:
Digital temperature controls. They display the actual temperature and the temperature you set, allowing you to correct discrepancies and prevent meltdowns—yours and the ice cream's.
Through-the-door ice and water dispenser. This frequently requested feature is a minor convenience with a major drawback. Consumer Reports' surveys show that, as a group, refrigerators with water and ice dispensers require considerably more repairs than those without. And dispensers boost energy use and cost while eating up food-storage space.
Grab-N-Go door. Offered on the Kenmore Elite 7206 refrigerator, this extra compartment swings open with the touch of a button, offering easy access to snacks, beverages, and frequently used condiments. Besides adding convenience, it supposedly saves energy by preventing cool air from escaping the refrigerator's main compartment. The Kenmore Elite 7206 did receive very good and excellent Ratings in our tests, but at $3,360 is far more expensive than other top-performing French-door refrigerators we tested. Our advice: Say no to the Grab-N-Go.
Heavy-duty adjustable racks. Easy-to-load models typically include adjustable racks, plenty of flatware slots, and sometimes fold-down tines so you can fit odd-sized dishes. Thicker coated wire holds up better over time.
Dishwasher drawers. They're high in price and typically low in performance. Instead, opt for a traditional model with a half-load option.
Specialized cycles. Normal, heavy-duty, and delicate cycles are all you really need.
Hidden controls. Yes, they help make the front of the dishwasher look sleek, but they might not allow you to see how much time is left in the cycle. Look for a model with a cycle-time display. The Thermador DWHD651JFP offers a creative solution: a light beam that projects cycle status on the floor in front of the dishwasher. But it's also pricey: The model performed well in our tests but costs $2,200, more than five times the price of the lowest-priced dishwasher model we recommend, the $420 Kenmore 1327.
Kitchen range and cooktop conveniences
Hot-surface warning lights. This is an important safety feature on electric ranges and cooktops, because the surface can remain hot long after an element has been turned off. Many smoothtops have at least one warning light, but ideally each element should have its own.
High-power elements. Available on both gas and electric ranges and cooktops, these elements can quickly bring a pot of water to a boil or heat large quantities of food fast, and they're terrific for high-heat cooking styles like searing or stir-frying.
Our top-rated 30-inch gas range, the LG LRG3097ST, $1,900, has two high-powered burners and was very good at bringing water to a boil. Our top electric range, the Kenmore 92163 smoothtop, $1,550, also has two high-powered elements and was a champ at the high temperature test.
Buying by Btu. Short for British thermal unit, Btu is often touted by range or cooktop manufacturers. But that measure merely indicates the amount of gas used and heat generated, not performance. Indeed, a higher number didn't guarantee faster heating.
Adapted from Consumer Reports Kitchen Planning & Buying Guide.