There are more choices in refrigerators than ever
If you're in the market for a new refrigerator, you have more choices than ever before. Basic cooling technology hasn't changed in decades, but there have been major advances in efficiency, organizational options, and other features. The four basic types of refrigerators are top-freezer, bottom-freezer, side-by-side, and French-door models, and each style has a different set of pros and cons. If you need a very small counter-height or "cube"-style refrigerator, suitable for dorms and other small spaces, we cover those in our separate report on mini fridges.
The old-fashioned top-freezer refrigerator is the least expensive option. They also offer more usable space for their size than other types, while using less electricity. (A typical top-freezer fridge costs between $40 and $65 a year to run.) In addition, they are less repair-prone than other fridges. Their biggest downside is convenience: since most people use the fridge more than the freezer, they'll have to bend over frequently to reach the lower half of a top-freezer's refrigerator compartment. Also, most top-freezer models have limited storage options -- especially in the freezer, which often has just a single shelf. In professional tests, top-freezer fridges also tend to be a bit noisier than other types and not quite as good at maintaining a consistent temperature.
Bottom-freezer refrigerators are pricier than top-freezer types. However, they're generally more convenient to use because the more frequently accessed area is on top. On current bottom-freezer models, the freezer compartment is often a drawer, which makes it easier to see the contents at a glance, though some bottom freezers are accessed via a door, the same as top freezers. Regardless of the type, you'll still have to bend over to reach the food. Baskets in the freezer compartment of drawer-style freezers help with organization, while the best door-type bottom freezers will have pull-out bins.
Side-by-side refrigerators are great in narrow kitchens. The biggest advantage of side-by-sides is their narrow door clearance, which can be a plus in a narrow or galley kitchen. They're also convenient for families with kids, who can reach both the fridge and freezer compartments easily. Side-by-side fridges don't use either space or energy as efficiently as other models; though some, more innovative models do much better than others when it comes to sipping kilowatts. Their narrow widths may not accommodate common wider items and food stored in the back may be harder to reach.
French-door refrigerators are the most recent fridge design. These attractive appliances pair side-by-side doors on top with a full-width freezer below. This design lets you open just one side of the fridge so less cool air escapes while still providing space for wider items such as sheet cakes and pizza boxes. French-door models are the priciest refrigerators overall; however, they provide a lot of machine for the money. Most range in size from 20 to 30 cubic feet and come with lots of convenience features such as adjustable shelves and water filters for the ice maker. Many fridges of this type also include through-the-door ice and water dispensers. Some French-door refrigerators have four doors, splitting the freezer section into two independent compartments.
Counter-depth refrigerators are specially designed so that they don't protrude beyond the edges of cabinets and countertops. These come in side-by-side, bottom freezer and French-door styles. Some models accept panels that match your cabinets so they seem to almost disappear in your kitchen. Counter-depth fridges create a streamlined look, and are generally the priciest type of refrigerator overall. One major downside is that counter-depth refrigerators are the least-space-efficient type. They also lag in energy efficiency, though many are efficient enough to earn Energy Star certification.
Finding the best refrigerators
ConsumerSearch editors looked at dozens of refrigerators, narrowing it down to the top picks by examining reviews by experts and owners. Up-to-date, hands-on expert reviews can be found at a few sites, most notably ConsumerReports.org and Reviewed.com.
Owners are very passionate about their refrigerators, rightfully so for such a big investment, and it was not unusual to find hundreds of reviews for individual fridges at sites like HomeDepot.com, Lowes.com and elsewhere -- a few even had thousands. The one issue is that sometimes those reviews have quite a bit of overlap as these appliance stores usually mix in reviews from the manufacturer's website with their own, unique reviews. We took the existence of those duplicate reviews into consideration in deciding which refrigerators are truly Best Reviewed. It's worth noting that at least a few sites, such as BestBuy.com, largely continue to keep their user ratings unique. Sears.com provides the best user feedback for Kenmore fridges.
Once all of the review data is analyzed and distilled, we consider features, performance, ease of use and appearance to help you find the perfect refrigerator for your cold storage needs.
Elsewhere in this report:
Top-Freezer Refrigerators | Bottom-Freezer Refrigerators | Side-by-Side Refrigerators | French-Door Refrigerators | Counter-Depth Refrigerators | Buying Guide | Our Sources