A drab college dorm room or a stark office will feel more like home with a snack or cold drink at your fingertips. Putting a compact refrigerator in a media room, man cave, or home workshop can also save trips to the kitchen. Add in prices as low as $95 and it's easy to see why Americans buy a few million of these appliances each year.
But don't expect the same temperature performance of a regular refrigerator. In Consumer Reports' refrigerator tests, the Frigidaire FFPH44M4L[M] ($220), with a claimed capacity of 4.4 cubic feet, is the only one that performed well enough in both the refrigerator and freezer compartments to make our recommended list. That's why the best uses for compact refrigerators are to keep sodas and other beverages cold and to provide temporary storage of snacks. If you plan to store milk, mayo, or other perishables long term, it's important to use a refrigerator thermometer to make sure temperatures don't exceed 40° F, the point at which harmful bacteria start to thrive.
One more caution: Though it's obvious that storage space will be less with a compact refrigerator, some of the models we tested were more miniature than others, holding just one-tenth as much as a regular refrigerator. But you might find that when it comes to energy consumption, they cost as much to operate.
All that being said, as long as your expectations are appropriately in check, a mini fridge can be a worthwhile investment. We tested almost 20 models from brands such as Frigidaire, GE, Igloo, and Kenmore to find the top performers. Here's how to figure out which compact refrigerator is right for you.
Generally speaking, buy the biggest compact refrigerator that fits your space. Larger models not only hold more but may also be more energy efficient and deliver the most conveniences. Here's how to proceed:
Pick the type
Compact refrigerators come in three basic configurations:
Tall. These models are among the largest compact fridges and the most practical overall. Most of the ones we tested have about 4 cubic feet of claimed storage capacity. Because their thermostat is located in the refrigerator, temperature performance tends to be better in that section than in the freezer. Prices are $95 to $200.
Two-door. These models have a separate freezer with its own door, similar to a full-sized top-freezer. Their thermostats are located in the freezer, so temperature performance is much better in that section than in the refrigerator. Prices are $100 to $240.
Cube. Named for their cube shape, these models are basically bare-bones boxes with few conveniences and less than 2 cubic feet of space, offering the least value. Consider one only if nothing larger fits your space. Prices are $110 to $130.
Weigh the features
Some features matter more than others. Among those you should consider:
Interior layout. Shelves and door bins that you can raise, lower, or remove facilitate storage. Glass shelves contain spills better than wire shelves. A door-mounted dispenser holds a vertical stack of cans.
Locking door. You might not need one in your house, but you'll welcome being able to thwart freeloading co-workers or roommates in an office or dorm.
Finish. Compact refrigerators come in different colors and finishes, including black, white, faux stainless steel, and wood grain. Black is most popular, perhaps because it blends into many décors, and a stainless-look metallic finish is a close second.
Ice-cube tray. Even tall models often have just one. The tray produces miniature ice cubes, which melt quickly.
Interior light. It's probably easy enough to find whatever you're looking for in a compact refrigerator without one.
Sales of compact refrigerators spike sharply every August, an indication that many mini fridges are campus-bound. Although a lot of schools have no restrictions, there are some that ban refrigerators in dorms. Others provide a free compact refrigerator or microwave/refrigerator unit in every dorm room but prohibit all other models. Still other colleges have capacity limits. So check with the campus housing authority or the college website before making a purchase.