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Finding the best washing machines

Washing machines come in three styles: front loaders, top loaders and high efficiency (HE) top loaders:

Top-load washers are easier to load and unload than front-loading machines (since you don't have to stoop over to open them), and they cost hundreds less. Traditional top-loaders, which use an internal agitator that spins on a vertical axis to churn the water and clean the laundry, are the least expensive type. However, they cost more to run because they use more water and electricity than high-efficiency models. They also hold less laundry, make more noise and get lower scores (often sharply lower) in professional tests.

High-efficiency (HE) top load washers use less water and energy than conventional top loaders, but they get higher marks for washing performance in independent tests. While some of these washers still have a traditional agitator design, most use different cleaning mechanisms. One common alternative to an agitator is an impeller -- a fan-shaped ridge at the bottom of the washer drum that spins to create turbulence and somersault laundry through the water. However, these mechanisms can also tangle clothes more easily than a traditional agitator. High-efficiency top loaders are also more expensive than conventional washers, with prices that rival those of the least expensive front loaders, though more and more budget HE top loaders are becoming available. HE top loading washers require the use of the same HE detergent as front loaders.

Front-load washers are the best washing machines in general, and they're the most efficient, too. Their horizontal tubs tumble clothes into and out of the water, making it possible to wash a full load with relatively little water. On average, front loaders tend to be gentler on clothes than top-load machines, as well as more efficient. Front-loading washers can be stacked with a matching dryer to save space, and their higher spin speeds wring out more water, so laundry requires less time in the dryer.

However, front loaders have their own set of drawbacks. They can trap water, dirt and detergent in the tub, creating an ideal environment for mold and odors. This problem can be avoided by wiping down the rubber seal after each wash and leaving the washer door open when not in use. Another common problem is lengthy wash times -- anywhere from 50 to 100 minutes for a standard wash cycle, compared to 35 to 60 minutes in a top loader. The high spin speeds of front-load machines may cause excessive vibration, especially on wooden floors. Once again, use of an HE laundry detergent is a must.

Finding the best reviewed washers

We found current and credible professional reviews for all types of washers at three sites. Leading the list is ConsumerReports.org, which rates models on factors such as cleaning power, efficiency, gentleness to clothes and noise level. ConsumerReports.org also allows owners to write reviews for the specific models they test. However, like their ratings, these owner-written reviews are available only to subscribers. Some may find the site's information on brand reliability helpful as well.

Good Housekeeping is another reliable reviewer. The staff there evaluates washing machines for cleaning power, ease of use and gentleness. Energy use is also factored into the final ratings.

Reviewed.com is new to this report and, relatively speaking, to testing washing machines, but has an established track record as a credible reviewer in other product categories. It provides the most in-depth discussion of specific models, including details on how it tests. While factors such as design and features are considered, most weight is given to cleaning performance and efficiency. Editors' Choice and Product of the Year choices are specifically called out.

Owner-written reviews are useful for gauging long-term durability, something that isn't measured in professional tests. We found the best user reviews for washers at retailer sites such as BestBuy.com, AJMadison.com, HomeDepot.com and Lowes.com. One drawback is that for some brands of washers, most of these retail sites also post reviews that originate elsewhere, notably the manufacturers' sites. These reviews seem to be unbiased since negative as well as positive opinions are included, but their inclusion does mean that there's a bit of overlap between sites. Other sites, including Viewpoints.com and Epinions.com, also offer feedback, but they generally provide fewer user reviews.

If you are torn between models, brand reliability and satisfaction studies, such as ones conducted by J.D. Power and Associates, can be of some help. These studies report on how likely you are to be satisfied with a washer from a particular maker, but don't address specific models. Keep in mind that the best manufacturer will turn out an occasional lemon, while even those that get low ratings will produce a model that performs well, even over the long haul.

Low-efficiency washers can cost considerably less than high-efficiency ones, but that initial savings can be wiped out over time in the form of higher energy and water costs. The government's Energy Star program and the nonprofit Consortium for Energy Efficiency provide valuable consumer information about the energy and water efficiency of washers, specifically naming washers that meet their standards.

Elsewhere in this report:

Top-Load Washers
An in-depth look at the top top-load washing machines, with a focus on high-efficiency models.

Front-Load Washers
Front-load washing machines save energy and water. Read our take on the best choices.

Cheap washers
For those on a budget, these washing machines are good performers and great values.

Buying Guide
Need a washing machine but don't know where to start? Our Buying Guide explains what to look for in a washer.

Our Sources
Links to the expert and user reviews we used to select the top washing machines, along with our assessment of each reviewer's expertise, credibility and helpfulness.

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