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, starting at around $500. We found several models with excellent test scores priced at $1,200 or less. Top-freezers 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 -- generally between $900 and $2,200, with the best-rated models falling in the $1,500 range. 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 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. We found good reviews for models priced between $1,100 and $3,000. 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: typically between $1,500 and $3,500, with the best-rated models costing toward the top of that range. 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, though some models sell for $1,500, or even less. 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.
Compact refrigerators are great for small kitchens. Those that live in apartments or otherwise have tiny but fully functional kitchens need refrigerators, too. Cube-style refrigerators like the ones in our mini fridge report are one option, but with their very small capacity, tiny or non-existent freezers, and sometimes inconsistent cooling, they are better for storing beverages or take out leftovers than they are for someone who actually plans to prepare meals. Instead, the best apartment refrigerators are large enough to deal with the needs of singles, couples and even very small families. Performance is good on the top-rated models, as is energy efficiency. Options include top freezers and bottom freezers, and some are counter depth. You can play a lot for an apartment-sized fridge with good performance, but we found some good choices priced at less than $1,000.
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. Good Housekeeping also tests refrigerators, but has not done so in a couple of years so the recommendations found there were too dated to be helpful (all of the top rated models are discontinued and hard to find at retail).
There seem to be plenty of user reviews available at sites like HomeDepot.com, Lowes.com and elsewhere. We say "seem to be" because, in fact, many of those reviews are actually the same, originally written at the manufacturer's web site or elsewhere-- albeit by legitimate and verified owners -- and syndicated across the Internet, so they end up appearing on multiple sites. Even though most retail websites include some reviews generated by its own customers as well, the large body of duplicate reviews can skew overall ratings posted at retail sellers. 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, 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: Traditional refrigerators with their freezers on top are still a good choice, especially for those on a budget. These are the top models.
Bottom-Freezer Refrigerators: More convenient than top freezers, bottom-freezer refrigerators put your everyday groceries right where they are the easiest to reach. We discuss pluses and minuses and profile top performers.
Side-by-Side Refrigerators: Side-by-side refrigerators have some downsides, but their narrow doors make them great for narrow spaces. These are the best models.
French-Door Refrigerators: French-door fridges marry the narrow doors of a side-by-side with the convenience of a bottom freezer, but can get a little pricy. These are the best performers, and the best buys.
Counter-Depth Refrigerators: Counter-depth refrigerators perform better than built-in models, reviews say, but at a fraction of their cost. These are the ones reviewers say are tops.
Compact Refrigerators: Full-sized fridges can be a bad fit in less-than-full-sized kitchens. If you need a very shallow, very narrow fridge, these are the models that offer the best performance and value.
Buying Guide: Not sure where to start to find the right fridge for your family, your kitchen, or your budget. We outline the key things to consider to get you going in the right direction.
Our Sources: We rely on expert reviewers and owner feedback to identify the best refrigerators. These are the source we used in preparing this report, ranked in the order of helpfulness and expertise.