Top-load agitator washers have been around for decades, and their appeal endures. Although most don’t clean as well as other washer types, they still outsell front-loaders and high-efficiency top-loaders, the kind without an agitator.

Roughly 4.9 million washers were shipped to stores in the first six months of 2017. About 39 percent were top-load agitator washers, slightly more than HE top-loaders, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. Only 25 percent of washers shipped were front-loaders.

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“Agitator washers remain popular, in part, because they have shorter cycle times than other types of washers,” says Emilio Gonzalez, who oversees Consumer Reports’ tests of laundry appliances. “And they’re usually your least expensive option.” 

Most of the more than two dozen top-load agitator washers in our washing machine ratings cost less than $500. Gonzalez and a CR technician are testing new top-load agitator washers from Fisher & Paykel, Frigidaire, Hotpoint, and Kenmore, and you’ll see them in our washing machine ratings in the next few weeks.

If you’re considering a top-load agitator washer, here are five things you need to know.

1. Cleaning: Not the Best but Good Enough

Front-loaders are usually the best at cleaning in our tests, and a few HE top-loaders we tested match their cleaning ability. None of the top-load agitator washers we tested earned an Excellent score in cleaning. That’s partly due to the way the agitator is designed, and the fact that wash times are shorter.

Many scored a Good, meaning they should clean a typically soiled load well but might have trouble with heavily stained or soiled items. “Among agitator models, the worst at cleaning in our tests are also the least water efficient,” Gonzalez says.

(If your washer’s cleaning performance is lackluster, use a more aggressive setting, such as the heavy-soil or heavy-duty cycle. Pretreat tough stains, and use a laundry detergent that delivers more punch, such as Tide Plus Ultra Stain Release or Persil ProClean Power-Liquid 2in1.)

2. They're Tough on Fabrics

“The agitator churns the laundry, and the fabrics rub up against each other, which can cause the fabrics to wear out,” Gonzalez says.

Many top-load agitator washers get a Good or a Fair in our gentleness tests. A Good score means the machine is likely to wear down fabrics over time. A Fair score indicates the fabric will deteriorate even sooner. The Speed Queen AWNE92SP113TW01, $1,000, and the Fisher & Paykel WA3927G1, $800, both earned an Excellent in this test.

3. They Use Less Water Than Older Models

Due to tougher federal standards, today’s top-load agitator washers use less water than older models do. However, they still use more water than other types of washers.

Some top-loaders we tested 20 years ago used more than 40 gallons of water to wash an average-sized load. Today, the least water-efficient agitator washers in our tests typically use 25 to 26 gallons. Most agitator machines get a Good or a Fair in water efficiency, using about 16 to 24 gallons.

Some now have an automatic load-sensing feature, which adds the right amount of water based on the load’s weight, which improves water efficiency. 

4. Few Carry the Energy Star

Our washing machine ratings show how well each washer did in our tests for water and energy efficiency. If a washer carries the Energy Star logo, that tells you that a third party has certified the machine’s energy efficiency. The Energy Star status comes in handy if you’re hoping for a rebate from your utility company.

All of the front-loaders in our ratings are Energy Star qualified, as are most of the HE top-loaders. The only Energy Star-qualified top-load agitator washers we tested are the GE GTW685BSLWS, $550, and the GE GTW485ASJWS, $500.

5. Don't Let the Marketing Confuse You

Traditionally, top-load agitator washers were more about function than form, considering these appliances were typically hidden in basements.

But some new models are getting stylish curves, a glass lid, or a stainless finish and look similar to HE top-loaders. These design tweaks, of course, can push up the price.

Some manufacturers have gone as far as slapping the HE label on top-load agitator washers, which can be misleading. “Agitator top-loaders typically use a lot more water than HE top-loaders, and they can’t spin as fast, so they extract less water, which makes dryer time longer,” Gonzalez says. “That’s hardly high efficiency.”

Ann Bailey, director of the Energy Star Products Program, further warns about the need to beware of high-efficiency claims associated with a so-called HE agitator washer. “The HE designation is intended to match certain washer types with specially designed laundry detergent,” she says. “There are no standards for energy efficiency behind it.” 

Regular detergent is too sudsy for a water-efficient machine, so manufacturers recommend using HE laundry detergents. They produce less suds, which helps prevent washer odors and problems with functionality. Your owner's manual will tell you what type of detergent works best for your machine.