How many servings do you need? A good rule of thumb is that a 1-pound loaf yields about eight slices and a 2.5-pound loaf, about 20.
Is loaf shape important to you? Unlike vertical loaves, horizontal ones look more like those you'd find in a bakery or supermarket; but some vertical-pan machines are cheaper and smaller, meaning they take up less counter space.
Do you want to peek? A viewing window is a nifty feature, but experts say it's not essential -- so don't pay more for a model with one unless you're sure you'll use it.
Will you use a timer? You'll pay more for this feature -- but don't underestimate the pleasure of waking up to bread that started baking while you were snug in your bed, thanks to the delay start.
What kind of bread do you want to bake? A fancy machine with bells and whistles may be appealing, but depending on your needs, you may be perfectly happy with a modest array of cycles.
What's your paddle preference? Single-paddle machines are less expensive and usually do just fine, although Jessica Harlan of About.com recommends dual paddles for machines with horizontal pans, so the ingredients can be properly mixed and kneaded. (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation.)
Do you want loaves with raisins or nuts? If the answer is yes -- meaning you intend to bake fruit or nut breads -- you'll want a machine with an add-ingredient signal, allowing you to pour in add-ons at the right time, ensuring they don't get dried out or mashed up.
Need a loaf stat? Most machines have one or more quick cycles for situations when you need to speed things up. These cycles shave about an hour off the cycle time, but they may produce slightly flatter loaves and require fast-rising yeast.
One of the benefits of owning a bread machine is that it can actually pay for itself over time. Bakery bread, or even supermarket bread, can add several dollars to a family's weekly grocery bill. By contrast, staples like basic flour, sugar, salt and yeast are fairly inexpensive. Of course, fancier ingredients, like nuts, fruit or specialty flour, may cost more. "Paying off" your bread maker directly correlates to the initial cost of the machine: the cheaper the unit, the faster you'll see your investment pay off!