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Refrigerators

Refrigerator buying guide

Last updated: May 2014

Getting started

Just as kitchens are becoming more social, so too are refrigerators. Indeed, some of the latest models have party-enhancing features, such as Bluetooth-enabled sound systems, wine-chilling compartments, and even cafe-worthy dispensers that serve more than just water. But it's the day-in, day-out performance that matters most, and that's what our tests are designed to capture, measuring things like temperature control, noise, and energy efficiency. Our buying guide will help you zero on the best fridge for your needs and desires.

Four-door models flood the market

Our Ratings now include a separate category for four-door models, which more manufacturers are bringing to market. Most of them feature a middle drawer, often with separate temperatures controls. Samsung introduced the first truly four-door model, the Samsung T9000, which has abundant usable capacity, along with outstanding overall performance. We expect the four-door category will only get bigger.

Fridges expand, along with the features

Space ranks right up there with style on most shoppers' refrigerator wish lists. We're seeing more models that claim more than 30 cubic feet of capacity, and some boast upwards of 33 cubic feet. High-end features, such as temperature controlled drawers, adjustable shelves, split shelves, and internal water dispensers, are increasingly available on even the most affordable refrigerators. Some come loaded with features, including through-the-door ice and water dispensers, LED interior lights, and dual evaporators designed to maintain optimal humidity in their fresh food sections.

We're also seeing more refrigerators designed for smaller spaces. Column refrigerators, which range from about 18 to 30 inches wide and don't include a freezer, fit spots too narrow for most refrigerator-freezers. You can also pair one with a column freezer, available in similar widths, for added flexibility. Manufacturers are also squeezing a bottom-freezer design into a svelte 30-inch width.

Check the specs

Make sure the refrigerator fits your kitchen. Remember to factor in the door swing in relation to adjacent walls, cabinets, and other appliances. And leave at least a 1-inch clearance around the unit and the surrounding cabinetry to ensure adequate air flow.

Consider your food-shopping habits

Do you do a big weekly shop or like to stock up on bulk purchases? Then you may need a larger capacity than the 19 to 22 claimed cubic feet that most manufacturers suggest for a typical family of four.

Use EnergyGuide labels wisely

Don't look for the Energy Star alone, since efficiency standards vary by refrigerator type. A non-Energy Star-qualified top-freezer might actually be more efficient than a side-by-side with the label. For an apples-to-apples comparison, use the annual operating costs and the kilowatt-hours per year the refrigerator uses, which are listed on the yellow EnergyGuide label. The label has been updated to reflect a new federal energy standard that took affect January 1, 2014. In general, models manufactured after that date will be more efficient than earlier ones. You can also check our Ratings, which are consistent between types, for efficiency and energy costs.

Don't be afraid to haggle

Those who did saved about $100 on a large appliance, according to our latest reader survey of retailers. Checking market prices will help you negotiate, though basic courtesy often goes further with salespeople than hardball tactics. And skip extended warranties.

Consider shopping online

While most major appliances are still bought at walk-in stores, online sales continue to climb. But you may still want to go to a showroom to check fit, finish, and features, and give the retailer a chance to match an online price.

Types

Most people buy refrigerators by type, according to the industry. But if it's been awhile since you've shopped, you'll find several new choices that may be a better fit for your kitchen. Here are the pros and cons of each kind. Whichever type you choose, be sure the model you pick fits your space, especially if you're slotting the new one into the same spot. That means measuring the height, depth, and width before buying. Also be sure the new unit fits through halls and doors on its way to your kitchen. Here are the types of refrigerators to consider.

Top-freezer refrigerators


These are the traditional type, dating back to the earliest refrigerators. Widths typically run from about 30 to 33 inches. Manufacturers claim up to 22-cubic-foot capacities, but usable capacity is typically 20 percent lower by our measurements.

Pros:

They typically offer the most storage for their size. Fairly wide refrigerator shelves make it easy to reach the back. They also cost the least as a group, yet they offer stainless trim on many models for a more stylish look.

Cons:

You have to bend to reach bottom shelves and drawers and the wide-swinging door requires sufficient clearance.

Bottom-freezer refrigerators


Sales of bottom-freezers are growing fastest as a group and include both French-door models, with two narrow refrigerator doors, and four-door models, typically with an extra drawer between the two-door fridge and freezer drawer. Widths run from 30 to 36 inches for most. Claimed capacities can approach 30 cubic feet or so though usable space doesn't quite match that of comparable top-freezers.

Pros:

Bottom-freezers offer the convenience of an eye-level refrigerator. French-door models offer the space-saving narrow door swing of a side-by-side and the option of opening only half the refrigerator for smaller items. Four-door versions take a French-door configuration and add a refrigerator or freezer drawer between the fridge and freezer compartments. More now have the in-door ice and water dispensers that debuted on side-by-side models.

Cons:

You have to bend to reach the freezer--but you'll typically use the refrigerator much more often. Bottom-freezer fridges cost more than top-freezers overall, while French-door and four-door models can cost even more and are more difficult to find in narrower widths.

Side-by-side refrigerators


A vertical, full-length split places the freezer on one side and refrigerator on the other. Side-by-sides typically come with through-the-door ice and water dispensers, temperature-controlled bins, and rapid ice-making cycles. Width typically measures 32 to 36 inches. Claimed capacities can reach roughly 30 cubic feet, but typically only about 65 to 70 percent is usable.

Pros:

The narrow doors are a plus in a tight kitchen.

Cons:

Most doors don't open wide enough for a pizza box or other wide items, and tall, narrow compartments make items toward the back difficult to find--issues that have helped boost sales of French-door bottom-freezer models. Side-by-sides are not as energy- or space-efficient overall.

Built-in refrigerators


These pricey models are designed to fit almost flush with cabinets and counters. Built-ins typically come in bottom-freezer and side-by-side styles and include French-door and four-door configurations. You can even buy a separate refrigerator and freezer and build them into a 72-inch-wide opening. Claimed capacities can reach 25 cubic feet or so, but only about 70 percent of that is usable.

Pros:

These offer the sleekest look. And most can accept optional front panels that match cabinets and other elements of your kitchen.

Cons:

Built-in refrigerators are the least space efficient and the priciest overall. And nearly all are wide (36 inches or more) but relatively shallow--25 or 26 inches front to back--contributing to their relatively small space and energy efficiency overall.

Cabinet-depth refrigerators


You get the look of a built-in for less money with these somewhat shallow freestanding refrigerators. Most come as side-by-sides, but top- and bottom-freezers and French-door models are available. Claimed capacities reach over 20 feet, but far less than that is usable.

Pros:

These stick out only a bit farther than built-in models and deliver their upscale look for far less. Many accept panels, which cost extra, for a custom look.

Cons:

Cabinet-depth models have less usable space than the deeper freestanding models and still cost more overall.

Compact refrigerators

Small refrigerators are a good choice for rooms with limited space such as a dorm room, office or kitchenette. Keep in mind that some of the models we tested hold just one-fourth as much as a regular refrigerator but can cost just as much to operate. And, with some models, temperature performance can be iffy at best. Generally speaking, we advise buying the biggest compact refrigerator that fits your space.

Pros:

The best use for a mini-fridge is to keep sodas and other beverages cold, or to provide temporary storage of snacks and other non-perishables.

Cons:

Don't expect the same temperature performance of a regular refrigerator. If you plan to store milk, mayo, or other perishables, use a refrigerator thermometer to make sure temperatures don't exceed 40 degrees F, the point at which harmful bacteria start to thrive.

Refrigerator drawers


These are a more recent choice for kitchens where even the biggest refrigerator simply isn't enough.

Pros:

They can mount under a countertop or within a kitchen island for storing drinks and other specialized items. They don't cost much to run, but that's because of their limited capacity.

Cons:

Refrigerator drawers tend to be large on price and small on space. Although they cost little to run, refrigerator drawers provide unimpressive energy efficiency overall for their size.

Features


The most important features increase versatility. Some frills add unnecessary complexity and reduce reliability. Here are the refrigerator features to consider.

Adjustable door bins and shelves

You can move these to create room to fit tall items.

Deep door bins

These make the most of available storage space on the door. But while most of these bins are sized to accommodate milk, butter, and eggs, all three of those items belong inside the refrigerator, where cooler temperatures will keep them fresher longer.

Elevator shelves

These crank up and down without you having to remove the contents.

Freshness features

These include air purifiers that promise to eliminate bacteria and mold spores, climate-keeping systems that claim to keep foods fresh longer, crisper drawers that help vacuum-seal produce, and other systems. But freshness claims are hard to measure. Models with dual evaporators tend to maintain higher humidity levels in the fresh-food section and can help keep freezer odors from migrating to the refrigerator. But our testing has shown that models likeliest to keep your food freshest maintain a consistent 37 degrees F in the main refrigerator comparment, 32 degrees F in the meat compartment, and a frigid 0 degrees F in the freezer.

Full-extension drawers

As their name implies, these drawers provide you with greater access to stored items.

Multimedia combos


More manufacturers are hawking $3,000-plus refrigerators that incorporate high-tech equipment such as TVs, digital-picture or music devices, and family-organizing centers. You can save hundreds if not thousands and get better performance by buying such equipment separately.

Pullout shelves or bins

These improve access to items stored. An alternative to pullout shelves or bins in the freezer is a bottom-freezer with a sliding drawer.

Split shelves

These allow you to adjust shelves to different heights independently.

Shelf snuggers

These sliding brackets on door shelves secure bottles and jars. A few models have a wine rack that stores a bottle horizontally.

Stainless-steel trim

Stainless finishes continue to top most buyers' wish lists on fridges as they do on ranges and other appliances. But real stainless typically boosts the price while often showing fingerprints. More brands now offer print-resistant stainless as well as faux-stainless finishes.

Temperature-controlled drawers


You can set them several degrees cooler than the rest of the refrigerator. You might want to keep meat, fish, and cold cuts at lower temperatures. Some drawers can chill or thaw their contents quickly.

Through-the-door water and ice dispenser


This is the feature most requested by buyers. It's included in most side-by-sides and available on a growing number of other configurations. But it's a minor convenience with a major drawback: Our surveys confirm that, as a group, refrigerators with water and ice dispensers still require considerably more repairs than those without dispensers. Water and ice dispensers also boost cost and energy use while robbing space.

Water filter

A water filter is designed to reduce lead, chlorine, and other impurities. You can also add a filter to the refrigerator's water-supply line.

Brands

Amana arrow  |  Electrolux arrow  |  GE arrow  |  Jenn-Air arrow  |  Kenmore arrow  |  Kenmore (Sears) arrow  |  KitchenAid arrow  |  LG arrow  |  Maytag arrow  |  Samsung arrow  |  Sub-Zero arrow  |  Thermador arrow  |  Viking arrow  |  Whirlpool arrow

Sometimes you might decide to buy a refrigerator based on a brand, not by a specific model. The information below will help you compare refrigerators by brand.

Amana

Amana is positioned as Whirlpool's value brand and goes head to head against other value brands available at big-box, independent, and regional stores. All of its refrigerators have a special antimicrobial lining on the door bins and in the deli bins.

Electrolux

This is a new brand to the U.S. market and is being positioned as a mass-market luxury brand.

GE

The GE lines include GE, GE Profile, GE Café, and GE Monogram. GE will be offering an interactive LCD screen on some of its models, and on one Profile model there will be a refreshment center and fold-away shelves.

Jenn-Air

This brand, part of Whirlpool, is positioned for the cooking enthusiast. It is considered a high-end brand, and its appliances offer a slightly softer look than other pro-style models.

Kenmore

Kenmore offers a number of lines, including Kenmore Elite and Kenmore Elite Trio. Kenmore will be offering more products with LED lights and integrated dispensers on its high-end models.

Kenmore (Sears)

Kenmore offers a number of lines, including Kenmore Elite and Kenmore Elite Trio. Kenmore will be offering more products with LED lights and integrated dispensers on its high-end models.

KitchenAid

This brand, part of Whirlpool, is positioned as a high-end brand with many extras geared towards the kitchen enthusiasts and sold heavily though independent dealers.

LG

LG, a leader in the bottom-freezer, will be introducing a four-door French-door and more LED lights throughout its refrigerators as well as taller integrated dispensers and a new 33-inch model with ice and water dispenser.

Maytag

One of the Whirlpool brands, Maytag is a major player in the bottom-freezer section of the market. The company was one of the first to introduce a French-door model with an external ice-and-water dispenser and a cabinet-depth model with an external dispenser.

Samsung

Samsung's new bottom-freezer French-door refrigerators will come with new easy-open door systems, foldaway shelves, LED lighting, and dual evaporators. It's expected to be debuting the largest French-door model in the U.S. market with its 29-cubic-foot refrigerator.

Sub-Zero

One of the major built-in brands, Sub-Zero is in the process of introducing a new line of refrigerators with new technology in different side-by-side and bottom-freezer configurations.

Thermador

This brand is positioned as a company that delivers beauty with functionality, form, luxury, and efficiency. These high-end refrigerators are sold generally through independent dealers.

Viking

The other major built-in brand entered the freestanding market last year with the introduction of French-door and side-by-side styles. Viking's position is professional performance for the home.

Whirlpool

Brands under the Whirlpool umbrella include Maytag, Amana, KitchenAid, Jenn-Air, and Whirlpool, all of which offer French-door models in addition to other types. Whirlpool refrigerators are known for measured-fill dispense systems on their water dispensers.

   

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