Refrigerator Buying Guide

When it comes to refrigerators, options nowadays go far beyond simply getting a glass of ice water without having to open the door. With custom panels, you can get a built-in that exactly matches your kitchen cabinets. And forget four doors—some newer models have five or more. You can even pull out a refrigerated drawer and find it full of cold sodas. 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 you, and your groceries, can chill out.

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 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. Finally, 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 and shown in our refrigerator ratings charts, which at any given time feature more than 300 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.

A top-freezer refrigerator.

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 28 and 33 inches). Manufacturers claim up to 23-cubic-foot capacities, but our tests found average usable capacity is 17 percent less. Allow for a wide swing of the doors, and get used to crouching down to reach lower shelves and drawers.

Top-Freezer Refrigerators Ratings
A bottom-freezer refrigerator.

Bottom-Freezer Refrigerators

Widths range from 24 to 36 inches, and claimed capacities approach 30 cubic feet, though average 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
A French-door refrigerator.

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 34 cubic feet, though the average usable space is much less, at 17 cubic feet. The space-saving small-swing doors have the added value of opening only half the fridge when stashing smaller items.

French-Door Refrigerators Ratings
A side-by-side refrigerator.

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 roughly up to 28 cubic feet capacity (but only about 70 percent is usable). Narrow doors are a plus for small kitchens, but they don’t open wide enough for, say, a pizza box, and tall, narrow compartments 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
A built-in refrigerator.

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 wide (30 to 48 inches), with capacities up to 27 cubic feet (of which only about 70 percent is usable). Look for optional front panels to match your kitchen cabinets. Or get the look for a little less with freestanding counter-depth versions. Another built-in option: a column fridge, as narrow as 18 inches, to make the most of a kitchen nook.

Built-in refrigerators Ratings
A mini fridge.

Compact Refrigerators

These are perfect for a dorm room, your office, or a kitchenette. Keep in mind that some models have only one quarter the capacity of a regular fridge but cost just as much to operate. Temperature performance can be iffy in some models (allowing it to rise above 40° F, the point at which your food starts to sprout harmful bacteria), so save these minis for sodas and other beverages or for temporary storage of snacks (rather than milk, mayo, or other perishables). Consumer Reports does not currently test compact and mini fridges.

Compact 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 make sure it can fit through doorways. Allow room for the refrigerator’s doors to swing open and for a 1-inch clearance around sides and back for adequate airflow.

To help you find the right size refrigerator for your kitchen, our refrigerator ratings are now organized by width, allowing you to easily see the highest-rated models for the size you need. You’ll find models ranging in width from the standard 36 inches all the way down to 24 inches.

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 found that the amount of usable storage was often less than the amount claimed. Check our refrigerator ratings for the actual capacity of each model.

Interactive Buying Guide

For more, watch our interactive video below, which has chapters you can skip to about types, capacity, features, and how we test.  

Decode the EnergyGuide Label

Energy efficiency has become a big selling point with consumers. All new refrigerators are a lot more efficient than they were a decade ago, but here’s a look behind the label—to 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, but efficiency varies by model (i.e., an unlabeled top-freezer might be more efficient than an Energy Star certified French-door model). Additionally, we test 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.

Five Features You'll Want

Refrigerators at all prices are increasingly tricked out with options to make your life easier and more organized. French-door models are usually the most loaded. Just know that if you can’t live without adjustable shelving or an in-door coffee maker, you’ll have to pay top dollar. The features below are the ones we think will add the most convenience to your refrigerator. For more, check our refrigerator ratings.

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