If you're looking for a reliable, basic machine that offers some extras but won't break the bank, users say you can't go wrong with the Brother XL-2600i (*Est. $80). This mechanical model sets itself apart with a relatively large choice of 25 stitches as well as its one-step buttonholer. This feature is much more convenient than the four steps required by some other machines, creating buttonholes with more precise measurements and better uniformity. The unit also has a thread cutter and an automatic needle threader, which is more common in pricier machines.
The XL-2600i earns an average rating of 4.4 stars out of 5 from more than 450 users posting reviews to Amazon.com, and 4.5 stars out of 5 from nearly 470 users at Walmart.com. Reviewers say it sews well and handles easily, and they like its lightweight construction. Many call it a good starter machine that's also useful for experienced sewers. There are, however, complaints about jams or tension problems, and some say it doesn't handle heavier fabrics well.
The Brother XL-2610 (*Est. $100) is almost identical, and owner feedback is better for both machines than for any other models in this price range. However, there are some significant differences between the two. The most important is that the buttonhole function on the XL-2610 requires four steps instead of just one. On the plus side, it adds six quilting stitches and comes in a festive pink-and-white color scheme, which more than a handful of users call a key benefit.
Overall, the XL-2610 garners far fewer reviews on retail websites than the XL-2600i. While the two machines earn identical ratings on Amazon.com, the Brother XL-2610 boasts only about 15 percent of the total user feedback enjoyed by the XL-2600i. For this reason, and because we think a one-step buttonhole is an important convenience feature, we name the XL-2600i a top-rated model.
Other mechanical sewing machines in this price range just don't compare to these Brother units. Reviews of the Singer 3116 (*Est. $125), for example, are decidedly mixed. It has a one-step buttonholer and 18 stitches, but many users complain of jams, finicky or malfunctioning bobbins, broken threads and stuck needles on Amazon.com and Joann.com. Owner feedback of the Singer 2932 (*Est. $135), which has 35 stitches and a one-step buttonholer, also includes mediocre or poor ratings, with complaints of bobbin issues and jams.
Perhaps the worst reviews go to the Singer PixiePlus Craft (*Est. $40), an inexpensive compact sewing machine intended for small projects. This model has just four stitches plus reverse and only one foot, but can run on batteries in addition to electrical power. However, reviews are anything but pretty. It gets a meager 2.2 stars out of 5 from about 55 owners at Amazon.com, with many reporting a range of mechanical problems.