What the best shredder has

  • Crosscut shredding. Most shredders on the market these days are crosscut shredders, which cut strips into short lengths resembling confetti. These provide better security than strip shredders, which turn documents into long strips that could possibly be reassembled into a page.
  • Fast shred speeds. A shredder's speed, measured in feet per minute, is most important for those who have large volumes of paper to dispose of.
  • Jam-free operation. Nothing a paper shredder can do is more annoying than clogging so frequently you spend more time clearing jams than actually shredding.
  • Safety features. Most shredders nowadays include safeguards such as slim paper intake slots, switches hidden in the back so you can't turn the shredder on by accident, and guards to protect curious fingers (and paws) from the shredding blades. Some higher-end shredders have safety sensors that shut the machine off automatically if a hand touches the slot.
  • A pull-out bin. Paper shredders with waste receptacles that pull out are much easier to empty than models that require you to lift the whole, heavy shredding apparatus off the bin.
  • A decent warranty. A one-year warranty is standard for paper shredders, but some are covered for two years for more. Also, some shredders have separate, longer warranties for the cutting mechanism.

Know before you go

What are you shredding? Any shredder can handle basic office paper, but if you want to dispose of tougher stuff -- unopened junk mail envelopes, multi-page documents fastened with staples or paper clips, old credit cards, data backup discs, etc. -- then you'll need a heavy-duty paper shredder that can handle these items. If you have large items to shred, such as folders, look for a paper shredder with a wide feed slot. If you plan to shred credit cards or data discs, separate slots for these items are a handy feature.

How much do you have to shred? Look for a shredder that can handle the volume of material you have to process. Personal paper shredders for home or small-office use usually say they can take anywhere from 6 to 24 sheets at a time, but reviewers warn that these estimates are often exaggerated. In some cases, real-world rates are as little as half of what's claimed. Bin capacity is important as well; the more you shred, the faster your bin fills up, so if you're putting a lot of paper through the shredder, look for one with a capacity of 5 gallons or more.

Do you shred in large or small batches? If you prefer to save all your paper to be shredded in a big batch, the shredder's continuous run time is important. That's the number of minutes a paper shredder can work at a stretch before it has to be shut down to cool off. Most shredders require 20 to 30 minutes before you can start them back up without causing damage, but some take as long as 90 minutes to cool off.

How crucial is security? While a crosscut shredder provides more security than a strip shredder, it may not be secure enough for organizations that have to dispose of highly sensitive documents. If you're concerned about expert spies rather than just garden-variety thieves, look for a micro-cut shredder, which turns documents into tiny diamond-shaped fragments.

What to shred

Some articles about identity theft warn that it's important to shred any document that contains "personal information," including your name and address -- which includes every single piece of mail that comes into your house. However, according to the paper shredder buying guide at ConsumerReports.org (which is free to read, even by non-subscribers), you don't actually have to be that extreme. In most cases, your name and address are public information that's easy to find elsewhere, so there's no need to shred personal mail, catalogues, or junk mail addressed to "resident." However, all documents that contain your Social Security number or account numbers -- bank statements, monthly bills, explanations of benefits for your medical insurance and the like -- are possible fodder for identity thieves and should be shredded. Shred any documents with still-valid passwords or PINs on them, as well. One thing you should not shred is your tax forms and documents from the past seven years; keep those on file in case of an audit.