Refrigerator Buying Guide

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Refrigerator Buying Guide

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When it comes to refrigerators, options nowadays go far beyond simply getting a glass of ice water without having to open the door. With custom panels, you can get a built-in that exactly matches your kitchen cabinets. And forget four doors—some newer models have five. You can even pull out a refrigerated drawer and find it full of cold sodas. Our fridge-by-fridge guide helps you choose the right type for your family, demystifies claimed vs. usable storage space, and helps you to find the quietest models—so you, and your groceries, can chill out.

Latest Trends

Refrigerators might not seem as high-tech as smartphones and computers, but manufacturers keep trying to innovate on them, even if some of those innovations might feel gimmicky.

Samsung has added large touch screens and cameras to many of its French-door and side-by-side models, complete with apps for recipes, watching TV, playing music, and controlling smart home devices. LG has models with windows for seeing what’s inside without opening the door, as well as a Craft Ice feature that makes large ice balls for cocktails and spirits. GE even makes French-doors with a built-in Keurig coffee maker. And many manufacturers are creating door-in-door refrigerators with a small outer door over the fresh-food cavity’s door that opens for easy access to items on the door shelves.

What isn’t a gimmick, though, is consumer preference for refrigerator configuration. According to CR’s most recent refrigerator survey, French-doors made up 64 percent of new refrigerators purchased by CR members in 2019 and the first half of 2020, followed by side-by-sides at 20 percent, bottom-freezers at 6 percent, and top-freezers and built-ins at 5 percent each. Retailers are following this trend, too. According to market research firm Gap Intelligence, French-doors make up 61 percent of in-store selection.

How We Rate Refrigerators

In our labs, each refrigerator we test gets wired up with temperature sensors. We then monitor it for more than a month in a temperature-controlled chamber to evaluate thermostat control and temperature uniformity.

CR’s test engineers collect more than 5.4 million temperature readings for each model to detect warm and cold spots and determine which refrigerators will keep your food fresh longest. The results reveal that many refrigerators simply don’t do well at their primary task, and that could mean more wasted food and bigger grocery bills.

To test the freezer compartments of refrigerators, our engineers fill the appliances with boxes and boxes of frozen spinach, then evaluate how well they keep the packages frozen.

In addition, we measure usable storage capacity, which rarely matches what manufacturers claim. Our engineers then use these measurements to calculate energy efficiency. Finally, we incorporate survey data collected from CR members on thousands of refrigerators to judge predicted reliability and owner satisfaction for each brand and refrigerator type.

All this data is consolidated into one Overall Score for each model and shown in our refrigerator ratings charts, which at any given time feature more than 300 models. 

Pick a Style

There’s a refrigerator configuration to suit every household. French-door models are extremely popular because of their high-end aesthetic. Some consumers prefer the convenience of bottom freezers, which put fresh foods at eye level, but side-by-sides can fit better in a smaller kitchen because of their narrow doors. Here’s what you need to know to make the best choice. See our full refrigerator ratings for how models in the different sizes and styles below performed in our tests.

 A top-freezer refrigerator.

Top-Freezer Refrigerators

These traditional refrigerators are good for a lot of storage in a fairly tight spot. They tend to offer the most space for their size. (Widths vary between 28 and 33 inches.) Manufacturers claim up to 23-cubic-foot capacities, but our tests found that average usable capacity is 17 percent less. Allow for a wide swing of the doors, and get used to crouching down to reach lower shelves and drawers.

Top-Freezer Refrigerators Ratings

 A bottom-freezer refrigerator.

Bottom-Freezer Refrigerators

Widths range from 24 to 36 inches, and claimed capacities approach 30 cubic feet, though average usable space is less than that of comparable top-freezers. (Top-freezers cost less, too.) Instead of the freezer, which many people use less, being at eye level, your refrigerator shelves are easily scannable. Just get used to bending to rifle through frozen goods.

Bottom-Freezer Refrigerators Ratings

 A French-door refrigerator.

French-Door Refrigerators

These have two narrow doors on top and a freezer below. Sometimes there is one drawer (or more) in between. Widths range from 28 to 36 inches. Claimed capacities go up to 34 cubic feet, though the average usable space is much less, at 17 cubic feet. The space-saving small-swing doors have the added value of opening only half the fridge when you’re stashing smaller items.

French-Door Refrigerators Ratings

 A side-by-side refrigerator.

Side-by-Side Refrigerators

With the fridge on one side and freezer on the other, these usually have through-the-door ice and water dispensers. With widths typically 33 to 36 inches, they’re claimed to have up to about 28 cubic feet capacity (but only about 70 percent is usable). Narrow doors are a plus for small kitchens, but they don’t open wide enough for, say, a pizza box, and tall, narrow compartments make items stuck at the back hard to find. Overall, they’re not as energy- or space-efficient as other types.

Side-By-Side Refrigerators Ratings

 A built-in refrigerator.

Built-In Refrigerators

Pricey and made to fit almost flush with cabinets and counters, these sleek beauties come in bottom-freezer, side-by-side, and French-door styles. They are usually tall (above 70 inches) and wide (30 to 48 inches), with capacities up to 27 cubic feet (of which only about 70 percent is usable). Look for optional front panels to match your kitchen cabinets. Or get the look for a little less with a freestanding counter-depth version. Another built-in option: a column fridge, as narrow as 18 inches, to make the most of a kitchen nook.

Consider Size

Most refrigerator configurations come in a range of sizes and capacities. Always measure where you plan to put the refrigerator before you shop. And make sure it can fit through doorways. Allow room for the refrigerator’s doors to swing open and for a 1-inch clearance around the sides and back for adequate airflow.

To help you find the right size refrigerator for your kitchen, our refrigerator ratings are now organized by width, allowing you to easily see the highest-rated models for the size you need. You’ll find models ranging from the standard 36 inches wide down to 24 inches. We also note the height and depth of each tested model.

To help you find the best refrigerators outside the standard dimensions, we have guides to the best counter-depth refrigerators, 30-inch-wide refrigerators, and 33-inch-wide refrigerators.

As for capacity, most manufacturers recommend 19 to 22 cubic feet for a family of four. But if you do a big weekly shopping trip or buy in bulk, you may need more—up to 30 to 33 cubic feet. Note: Our tests found that the amount of usable storage was often less than the amount claimed. Check our refrigerator ratings for the actual capacity of each model. And to see the biggest (and best) fridges from our ratings, see this guide to the best refrigerators for big families.

Decode the Energy Guide Label

Energy efficiency has become a big selling point with consumers. All new refrigerators are a lot more efficient than they were a decade ago, but here’s a look behind the label—to help you go as green as possible.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star rating is a good place to start when shopping; it means that a product is in or around the top 25 percent of the market, but efficiency varies by model (i.e., an unlabeled top-freezer might be more efficient than an Energy Star certified French-door model). Additionally, we test for energy consumption, which can add up to a $50 to $60 difference per year, or more than $500 over the life of the unit.

For an apples-to-apples comparison of which models are most efficient, look at the EnergyGuide labels of the refrigerators you’re considering, and compare the annual operating costs and the kilowatt-hours used per year.

We give all the refrigerators we test a score for energy efficiency and list their estimated annual energy cost. You can check our refrigerator ratings for details.

The EnergyGuide label.

Five Features You’ll Want

Refrigerators at all prices are increasingly tricked out with options to make your life easier and more organized. French-door models are usually the most loaded. Just know that if you can’t live without adjustable shelving or an in-door coffee maker, you’ll have to pay top dollar. The features below are the ones we think will add the most convenience to your refrigerator. 

Through-the-Door Ice and Water Dispenser

This is one of the features most requested by buyers. Caveat: We found that models with this convenience also require the most repairs. Energy costs are higher, too, and you trade ice water for storage space.

Door-in-Door Storage Access

Without opening the entire door, you can grab frequently used beverages and condiments. That will save on energy costs in the long run.

Freshness Features

Dual evaporators help maintain higher humidity levels in the refrigerated areas and prevent freezer odors from migrating there. Air purifiers eliminate bacteria and mold spores, while vacuum-sealed crisper drawers are meant to keep food fresher longer.

Temperature Controls

You decide how cold your fridge is in certain areas. For example, set a drawer to be cooler than the rest of the fridge to better store meat, fish, and cold cuts.

Better Shelves and Drawers

You can rearrange split shelves to different heights independently, and adjust doors to fit taller items. However, if your door has deep storage bins meant for eggs, milk, or butter, be aware that these items are better off on internal shelves, where cooler temperatures keep them fresher longer. Elevator shelves crank up and down without needing to be unloaded. Shelf snuggers attach to racks to secure bottles and jars. Pullout shelves or bins make access to stored items easier.


Shopping Tips

Once you’ve settled on a fridge style, the required dimensions, and the features you want, it’s time to start shopping. Many consumers start their search online, then head to the store to check out the models they’re most interested in.

If you don’t need a new fridge right away, it can also help to wait for the next major sale holiday, which at this time of year is Memorial Day weekend. We find that refrigerator prices tend to dip in the summer and hit their lowest point around Black Friday, so other sale holidays, such as Labor Day, are your next best bet to snag a deal.

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the appliance market. There is an appliance shortage, which means many models are out of stock or back-ordered for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Because inventory is low, retailers also don’t need to discount refrigerators as heavily as they normally would. (For more on the appliance shortage, see our guide to getting a deal during the shortage.)

Despite the shortage, we still recommend that you comparison shop. Don’t forget to check local, independent retailers, and don’t be afraid to haggle or ask for a discount. If you aren’t sure where to start, see our guide to the best appliance stores.

Another option if you’re on a budget, or simply looking for a good deal, is to consider buying a used refrigerator. You can get a higher-end model for a lot less than the retail price. The best places to look for used fridges are used appliance stores and, believe it or not, appliance repair shops. Both types of stores will usually give you a warranty, too. For more on purchasing used appliances, see our used-appliances guide.


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