As a class of appliances, compact refrigerators don't perform nearly as well as full-size refrigerators. Freezer performance suffers in particular, reviewers say, and we read numerous owner complaints about mini fridges breaking down -- often after only a few months of use. With less insulation, compact fridges use more energy per cubic foot than full-size refrigerators. That said, mini refrigerators are well suited for a dormitory room, office, wet bar or anywhere space is too limited to make a large refrigerator practical. If you're looking to store wine at proper temperature, a mini fridge is not recommended; instead, you'll need a wine cooler.
Higher-quality mini fridges use compressors, -- just like full-size refrigerators do -- to regulate temperature. Cheaper models rely on thermoelectric (Peltier) coolers, which use electrical currents to keep cool. Generally speaking, mini fridges that use thermoelectric cooling are sufficient for chilling drinks, but little else. They cannot maintain temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's threshold for safe food storage, and they are not as energy efficient as compact refrigerators that use compressors.
It's important to know which type of cooling system is used before buying a mini fridge, especially if you plan to store food in it. Most thermoelectric mini fridges are identified as such on packaging. If you are unsure, check the product specs: If they state that the unit cools a certain number of degrees below ambient temperature, or that it must be unplugged intermittently, it's a thermoelectric style fridge.
Although some well-known companies (including GE, Frigidaire and Magic Chef) produce mini fridges, there are also a number of obscure brands out there, too, and many of them fare poorly in reviews. In fact, when it comes to quality, one company -- Danby -- dominates the compact refrigerator product category.
The smallest mini fridges (sometimes called cube fridges), are good for keeping beverages cool and little else. Most of these models are about 17 to 21 inches square in size -- small enough to fit beneath a desk -- inexpensive and usually made of cheap components that make them inefficient and unreliable. One notable exception is the Danby DAR195BL (*Est. $120). This Energy Star-rated mini fridge is fairly small -- just 1.8 cubic feet -- but it maximizes that space by eliminating the freezer compartment. Although this may seem like a drawback, experts say the freezer compartments on most mini fridges are too small to be of use and rarely keep food frozen.
Though small, the Danby has several useful features that owners praise in reviews. It has two adjustable wire shelves (one full-size, one half as deep), as well as a rack in the door that holds six cans and a bin that can accommodate a 2-liter bottle. It also has a reversible door (meaning it can be mounted to open from the left or the right), automatic defrost and a scratch-resistant black finish. Unlike some larger models, it lacks an interior light.
Reviewers generally praise this mini fridge. PlanetGreen.com names the DAR195BL one of the most energy-efficient compact refrigerators available, and nearly 30 owner reviews at CompactAppliance.com give it an average score of 4.9 stars out of 5. Users say the unit is relatively quiet and maintains a constant temperature, although a few complain that the temperature dial is inconveniently located on the back of the unit. Nearly 50 owners posting to Amazon.com give this model an overall average of 4 stars out of 5 and say that it performs well, although some report mechanical problems and some say they received units that had been damaged in shipping. A dozen owners gave the DAR195BL a unanimous 5-star rating at HomeDepot.com. The Danby carries an 18-month warranty, and the company sells a separate extended warranty.
A less expensive cube fridge, the 1.7-cubic-foot Magic Chef MCBR170 is also considered a good value. Like the Danby model, this fridge uses a compressor and has a reversible door; unlike the Danby, it has a freezer compartment. It has one interior adjustable shelf and two in-door shelves with room for tall-bottle storage. More than 50 users posting to HomeDepot.com give the Magic Chef MCBR170 an overall average rating of 4 stars out of 5, with some saying that it chills beverages and fresh foods effectively and operates quietly. It also gets about 10 reviews on Walmart.com, with most owners praising it for being, as one reviewer put it, "cold, cold, cold" -- although another user complains that it is noisy. Reviewers in one professional test report poor energy efficiency and poor freezer performance, but these are common complaints about cube fridges in general.
Midsize mini refrigerators cost slightly more than cubes, but they perform better with roughly the same footprint. The larger models are about 24 to 28 inches tall and have a capacity of 2.5 to 2.8 cubic feet.
One well-reviewed midsize model is the 2.5-cubic-foot Danby DAR259 (*Est. $150). Like the DAR195BL, this compressor-powered model is Energy Star-rated and lacks a freezer compartment (again, reviewers say that's no loss). It features automatic defrost and has three adjustable wire racks, as well as an eight-can rack and 2-liter bottle storage in the door. It is available in white or black and carries an 18-month warranty. We found numerous complimentary owner reviews for this model at Walmart.com, ABT.com, AJMadison.com and CompactAppliance.com. The few users who give this small fridge less than a 4-star rating generally report shipping damage, rather than problems with the actual unit.
The Haier ECR27 (*Est. $130) 2.7-cubic foot refrigerator is another Energy Star-rated midsize model. Standard features include black or white finish, a half-width freezer and two full-width door shelves, one of which accommodates up to three 2-liter bottles. Unlike the Danby, it must be manually defrosted. This fridge is too new to garner a significant number of reviews, but previous Haier models have been well rated.
The largest mini fridges, sometimes called counter-height compact refrigerators, tend to perform better and more efficiently than smaller models. Among counter-height models, the 4.4-cubic-foot Danby DAR440 (*Est. $200) earns the best reviews. Like both smaller Danby models, the DAR440 is Energy Star-rated and lacks a freezer unit. This model has three adjustable wire shelves, along with room for eight cans, a 2-liter bottle and two bins in the door.
In addition, it has reversible door hinges (so it can be adjusted to open from either the left or right), automatic defrost and an interior light. Like its smaller siblings, the DAR440 receives excellent scores from owners -- 4.5 stars from nearly 270 reviewers at Walmart.com, with most complaints targeting shipping damage. It also makes Bestcovery.com's list of five recommended dorm fridges.
If you want a compact refrigerator but need a reliable freezer that can hold more than a single ice-cube tray, consider a two-door model. Two-door units have separate refrigerator and freezer compartments, and owners say freezer performance tends to be as good as a full-size fridge. Of course, extra insulation is required for the freezer, meaning that two-door models offer less capacity than comparably sized single-door models.
One of the least expensive two-door mini fridges is the Emerson CR500 (*Est. $190), which has a capacity of 3.1 cubic feet, with 2.2 cubic feet devoted to the refrigerator compartment. It has two adjustable wire shelves and a vegetable drawer, with room in the door for tall bottles and several cans. There are also reversible door hinges and an interior light, as well as a rack on the freezer door for extra storage. Nearly 20 users posting reviews to Amazon.com give the CR500 an average 3 star rating. Reviewers praise the freezer's performance, although some report mechanical problems with the unit, and some say the refrigerator compartment doesn't chill as well as they'd like.
Finally, the 3.3 cubic-foot Haier HNDE03VS (*Est. $200) has similar features to the Emerson CR500, with a few extras including glass shelves and a glass-covered vegetable crisper. Sixty owner reviews at HomeDepot.com give it an average rating of 3.4 stars. Owners praise its roomy interior and freezer performance freezer, but some report mechanical failures and say the fridge does not cool adequately.
The only multiproduct test of compact refrigerators comes from ConsumerReports.org (available to subscribers), which rates 15 models based on performance, energy efficiency and noise level. However, most of these models have been discontinued. We did find many useful owner reviews of current products on a range of retail websites, including Walmart.com, Amazon.com, CompactAppliance.com, HomeDepot.com and AJMadison.com. Finally, we considered ratings and reviews on PlanetGreen.com, an environmental website, as well as Bestcovery.com, a consumer-product review site, although neither indicates if, or how, products were actually tested.