Refrigerator Buying Guide

    Refrigerator Buying Guide

    When it comes to refrigerators, your options nowadays go far beyond getting a glass of ice water without having to open the door. With custom panels, you can get a built-in that matches your kitchen cabinets. Some refrigerators offer a door-in-door design, allowing you to access frequently used items from the door shelves without fully opening the door. You can even pull out a refrigerated drawer and find it full of cold sodas, chilled wine, or kid-friendly grab-and-go snacks. Our fridge-by-fridge guide helps you choose the right type for your family, demystifies claimed vs. usable storage space, and helps you to find the quietest models—so that you, and your groceries, can chill out.

    We’ll also cover everything you need to know when it comes time to buy a new fridge, from the measurements you need in hand to finding models that are still in stock, despite pandemic-related appliance shortages. For more information on navigating the current options, see our guide to shopping for a new appliance right now.

    Latest Trends

    Refrigerators might not seem as high-tech as smartphones and computers, but manufacturers keep trying to innovate on them, even if some of those innovations might feel gimmicky.

    Samsung has added large touch screens to many of its French-door and side-by-side models, complete with apps for finding recipes, ordering groceries, watching TV, playing music, and controlling smart home devices. LG has models with windows for seeing what’s inside without opening the door, as well as a Craft Ice feature that makes large ice balls for cocktails and spirits. GE even makes French-doors with a built-in Keurig coffee maker. And many manufacturers are creating door-in-door refrigerators with a small outer door over the fresh-food cavity’s door that opens for easy access to items on the door shelves.

    In addition, more and more new models come with WiFi connectivity and a companion smartphone app, allowing you to remotely change fridge settings and temperatures, receive alerts if a door is left open, and (if the fridge has cameras) view the contents of your fridge while out shopping. But these features have been slow to catch on. According to a nationally representative survey of 2,036 adults (PDF) conducted by Consumer Reports in October 2021, only 2 percent of Americans own a smart refrigerator that is connected to the internet, while an additional 4 percent of Americans own a smart refrigerator that is not connected to the internet.

    What isn’t a gimmick, though, is consumer preference for refrigerator configuration—at least when it comes to CR members. In our most recent refrigerator survey, French-doors made up 64 percent of new refrigerators purchased by CR members in 2020 and the first half of 2021, followed by side-by-sides at 20 percent, bottom-freezers at 6 percent, and top-freezers and built-ins at 5 percent each.

    How We Rate Refrigerators

    In our labs, each refrigerator we test gets wired up with temperature sensors. We then monitor it for more than a month in a temperature-controlled chamber to evaluate thermostat control and temperature uniformity.

    CR’s test engineers collect more than 5.4 million temperature readings for each model to detect warm and cold spots and to determine which refrigerators will keep your food fresh longest. The results reveal that many refrigerators simply don’t do well at their primary task, and that could mean more wasted food and bigger grocery bills.

    To test the freezer compartments of refrigerators, our engineers fill the appliances with boxes and boxes of frozen spinach, then evaluate how well they keep the packages frozen.

    In addition, we measure usable storage capacity, which rarely matches what manufacturers claim. Our engineers then use these measurements to calculate energy efficiency. Last, we incorporate survey data collected from CR members on thousands of refrigerators to judge predicted reliability and owner satisfaction for each brand and refrigerator type.

    All this data is consolidated into one Overall Score for each model that’s shown in our refrigerator ratings charts, which at any given time feature more than 200 models. 

    Pick a Style

    There’s a refrigerator configuration to suit every household. French-door models are extremely popular because of their high-end aesthetic. Some consumers prefer the convenience of bottom-freezers, which put fresh foods at eye level, but side-by-sides can fit better in a smaller kitchen because of their narrow doors. Here’s what you need to know to make the best choice. See our full refrigerator ratings for how models in the different sizes and styles below performed in our tests.

    Top-Freezer Refrigerators

    Top-Freezer Refrigerators

    These traditional refrigerators are good for a lot of storage in a fairly tight spot. They tend to offer the most space for their size. (Widths vary between 24 and 33 inches.) Manufacturers claim capacities of up to 23 cubic feet, but our measurements show that total usable capacity goes up to only 20 cubic feet. Allow for a wide swing of the doors, and get used to crouching down to reach lower shelves and drawers.

    Top-Freezer Refrigerators Ratings
    Bottom-Freezer Refrigerators

    Bottom-Freezer Refrigerators

    Widths range from 24 to 33 inches, and claimed capacities approach 25 cubic feet, though our measurements show total usable space is less than that of comparable top-freezers. (Top-freezers cost less, too.) Instead of the freezer (which many people use less) being at eye level, your refrigerator shelves are easily scannable. Just get used to bending to rifle through frozen goods.

    Bottom-Freezer Refrigerators Ratings
    French-Door Refrigerators

    French-Door Refrigerators

    These have two narrow doors on top and a freezer below. Sometimes there is one drawer (or more) in between. Widths range from 28 to 36 inches. Claimed capacities go up to 30 cubic feet, though the total usable space maxes out at just 21 cubic feet. The space-saving, small-swing doors have the added value of opening only half the fridge when you’re stashing smaller items.

    French-Door Refrigerators Ratings

    Side-By-Side Refrigerators

    Side-By-Side Refrigerators

    With the fridge on one side and freezer on the other, these usually have through-the-door ice and water dispensers. With widths typically 33 to 36 inches, they’re claimed to have up to about 28 cubic feet of storage capacity (but usable storage maxes out at about 22 cubic feet). Narrow doors are a plus for small kitchens, but the tall, slender compartments may not be wide enough for, say, a pizza box, and make items stuck at the back hard to find. Overall, they’re not as energy- or space-efficient as other types.

    Side-By-Side Refrigerators Ratings
    Built-In Refrigerators

    Built-In Refrigerators

    Pricey and made to fit almost flush with cabinets and counters, these sleek beauties come in bottom-freezer, side-by-side, and French-door styles. They are usually tall (upward of 85 inches) and wide (30 to 43 inches), with claimed capacities up to about 25 cubic feet (though usable capacity tops out at about 20 cubic feet). Look for optional front panels to match your kitchen cabinets. Or get the look for a little less with a freestanding counter-depth version. Another built-in option: a column refrigerator, which forgoes a freezer compartment to maximize fresh-food storage and is often paired with a separate column freezer unit.

    Built-in Refrigerators Ratings

    Consider Size

    Most refrigerator configurations come in a range of sizes and capacities. Always measure where you plan to put the refrigerator before you shop. And don’t forget to measure the width and height of any doorways, hallways, stairways, etc., that the new one will have to travel through to get to the kitchen. Allow room for the refrigerator’s doors to swing open and for a 1-inch clearance around the sides and back for adequate airflow.

    To help you find the right size refrigerator for your kitchen, our refrigerator ratings are organized by width, allowing you to easily see the highest-rated models in the size you need. You’ll find models ranging from the standard 36 inches wide down to 24 inches. We also note the height and depth of each tested model.

    To help you find the best refrigerators outside the standard dimensions, we have guides to the best counter-depth refrigerators30-inch-wide refrigerators, and 33-inch-wide refrigerators.

    As for capacity, most manufacturers recommend 19 to 22 cubic feet for a family of four. But if you do a big weekly shopping trip or buy in bulk, you may need more—up to 30 to 33 cubic feet. Note: Our tests have found that the amount of usable storage is often less than the amount claimed by manufacturers. Check our refrigerator ratings for the actual capacity of each model. And to see the biggest (and best) fridges from our ratings, see this guide to the best refrigerators for big families.

    Decode the EnergyGuide Label

    Energy efficiency has become a big selling point with consumers. All new refrigerators are a lot more efficient than models from a decade ago, but information on a refrigerator’s EnergyGuide label will help you go as green as possible.

    The Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star rating is a good place to start when shopping; it means that a product is in or around the top 25 percent of the market in terms of efficiency. But efficiency varies by model (e.g., an unlabeled top-freezer might be more efficient than an Energy Star certified French-door model). At CR, we test refrigerators for energy consumption, which can add up to a $50 to $60 difference per year, or more than $500 over the life of the unit.

    For an apples-to-apples comparison of which models are most efficient, look at the EnergyGuide labels of the refrigerators you’re considering, and compare the annual operating costs and the kilowatt-hours used per year.

    We give all the refrigerators we test a score for energy efficiency and list their estimated annual energy cost. You can check our refrigerator ratings for details. 

    energy label

    CR CR

    Shopping Tips

    Once you’ve settled on a fridge style, the required dimensions, and the features you want, it’s time to start shopping. Many consumers start their search online, then head to the store to check out the models they’re most interested in.

    If you don’t need a new refrigerator right away, wait for the sales over the next major holiday. We find that refrigerator prices tend to dip in the summer and hit their lowest point around Black Friday.

    Because of an ongoing appliance shortage, many models are out of stock or back-ordered for anywhere from a few weeks to more than three months. According to data from market research firm Gap Intelligence, French-doors are the most available type and side-by-sides are more difficult to come by. Because inventory is low, retailers also don’t need to discount refrigerators as heavily as they normally would. (For more on the appliance shortage, see our guides to shopping for appliances during the shortage and getting a deal during the shortage.)

    If you’re shopping during the shortage, we recommend that you prioritize your must-have features and focus on models that have the top two or three, such as a water dispenser and icemaker. The longer your list of wants, the more difficulty you’ll have finding models that meet your criteria. We also recommend that you comparison shop. Don’t forget to check local, independent retailers, and don’t be afraid to haggle or ask for a discount. If you aren’t sure where to start, see our guide to the best appliance stores.

    Another option if you’re on a budget, or simply looking for a good deal, is to consider buying a used refrigerator. You can get a higher-end model for a lot less than the retail price. The best places to look for used fridges are used-appliance stores and, believe it or not, appliance repair shops. Both types of stores will usually give you a warranty, too. For more on purchasing used appliances, see our used-appliances guide.