As a guy who tests fridges as part of his job, it’s a question that comes my way pretty often. And, exactly 6 years to the week since joining the CNET Smart Home and Appliances team, I still don’t have an easy answer. Sure, there are lots of(and plenty that are ) — but fridges aren’t one-size-fits-all, and every home, kitchen and budget is different. With so many different brands and models to choose from, it isn’t always easy to find a fridge that feels like a perfect fit.
But if you’re in need of a new icebox, don’t feel overwhelmed. The trick is to focus on the features and designs that matter most (and, better yet, to figure out which ones you can skip). From there, it’s just a matter of keeping an eye out for a good deal on a reputable refrigerator that fits the bill. Here are some quick tips to remember as you go.
Start with what you know
We use our refrigerators each and every day without thinking too much about them. The next time you open yours, ask yourself what you like and don’t like about it. Maybe you fill your glasses from the water dispenser more often than you fill them from the sink or pitcher. Maybe your fridge has adjustable shelves that slide in or fold up out and out of the way — but you never bother using them. Maybe you never seem to have a good spot for a specific grocery that you like to have on hand. Maybe your fridge is a top freezer or a side-by-side and you hate having to stoop down to get into the crisper bins.
Little insights like that are really helpful, because they’re informed by the best data you’ve got — your own habitual fridge usage. It might seem obvious, but before you start browsing and talking to salespeople, make sure to stop and put some thought into what actually matters from your fridge, and what upgrades might be the most meaningful to you.
Narrow things down
Next, you’ll want to break out the measuring tape and figure out how much fridge your kitchen can fit.
Beyond the basic width, depth and height measurements, you’ll want to be sure to consider how much clearance you have for the doors. Side-by-side and French door models typically require a little less — with the doors split down the middle, you only have to swing one half the width of the refrigerator open whenever you use one.
As for capacity, a good rule of thumb is to aim for 4 to 6 cubic feet of storage space for each member of your family, plus a couple of extra cubic feet as contingency. If you’re married with two kids, for instance, then you’d probably want at least 20 cubic feet of total storage space. If you buy groceries in bulk or like to host lots of parties, then upgrading to something even bigger might be worth it. And don’t forget to look up the capacity of the fridge you’ve already got. If it feels cramped when you squeeze a full load of groceries in, then a couple of extra cubic feet would probably go a long way.
Set a budget
Aside from size, the other big limiting factor for your buying decision is obviously how much you’re willing to spend. Prices vary based on brand, time of year, and how new the model is, but in general, you should expect to pay about $700 – $1,000 for a new top freezer fridge, $900 – $1,500 for a new bottom freezer, and $1,200 to $3,000 for a new side-by-side. French door fridges are the most popular with homeowners, so they see the highest markup — expect to pay anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000 for a new one.
Manufacturers tend to focus on unique-sounding features and flashy designs to stand out from the competition, but for the most part, we haven’t seen many dramatic refrigerator improvements over the past five years or so (and efficiency standards haven’t gone up since 2014, either). In other words, a fridge made in 2019 isn’t likely to be noticeably better than a comparable fridge made in 2015.
Get a feel for things
Okay, you have a basic sense of what kind of fridge you need and how much you want to spend. Your best bet now is to head to the store and get your hands on the models that interest you. Literally. Open and close the doors and the drawers, press the buttons, try rearranging the shelves… whatever you want.
Your goal is to figure out if any of the fridges on your list feel cheap to the touch, or if there are any little things about the way they’re designed that would put you off during day-to-say use. I like to start by focusing on all of the moving parts — the crisper drawers, the hinged lid over the butter bin, any shelves that fold up, etc. If I’m paying thousands, then all of them should move smoothly and comfortably (and as I’m sure you’ll discover, lots of them don’t).
I also like to reach into all of the drawers and feel the overhang from the shelf above. It’s a common spot that manufacturers tend to overlook. In a lot of cases, it’ll be a little bit rough or even sharp, and can scratch your hand as you’re reaching in and out.
This is also a good time to get info from the stores you’re shopping at about warranties. I’d recommend sticking with models that cover the sealed system (the refrigerator’s condenser, compressor, evaporator and tubing) for at least 5 years and preferably 10.
Three fridges — which would you buy?
Let’s walk through a quick example of how you might want to approach a purchase. Let’s say you’re that happy couple with two kids I mentioned before, and let’s also say that you’re sick of your side-by-side refrigerator’s narrow freezer, and the way you have to bend down low to get fruits and veggies in and out of the crisper bins. That puts you in the market for a refrigerator with a full-width freezer, waist-up access to all of your fresh groceries and at least 20 cubic feet of total storage space.
A French door feels like the obvious upgrade, and maybe that’s the way you’ll go — but you shouldn’t rule out bottom freezers, either. They aren’t typically as fancy or feature-rich as French door fridges, but they still check all of your boxes, and you’ll have a much easier time finding a good deal on a great one.
Whirlpool bottom freezers, so let’s look at the Whirlpool WRB322DMHV, a 22-cubic-foot model that comes in black stainless steel for about $1,700. We’ll compare that with the equally-sized Frigidaire Gallery FGHD2368TD, a black stainless steel French door model that retails for $3,300, and also with the Electrolux EW23BC87SS, a high-end French door model that retails for $4,450.
I recently tested all three in our climate-controlled lab, and didn’t find very much separating them as far as performance is concerned. The Electrolux model had a few hot spots in the door shelves, and the Frigidaire saw its crisper bins affected by the temperature-adjustable drawer beneath them, which I dialed down to the minimum setting during the test. Neither are deal-breakers.
The important point of note is that neither of those French doors outperforms the bottom freezer despite costing thousands of dollars more. That’s pretty typical, both in terms of cooling power and efficiency. There are definitely outliers, but most of today’s fridges are playing in the same ballpark, regardless of what they cost. And again, all three of these are roughly the same size — 22 cubic feet.
That leaves features and design as the key differentiating factors. The Whirlpool bottom freezer has an icemaker down in the freezer, but it doesn’t have one in the door, and it doesn’t have a water dispenser, either. And, unlike the Frigidaire and Electrolux fridges, it doesn’t have a temperature-adjustable pantry drawer. It’s up to you whether conveniences like that plus the appeal of French door design are worth the markup. Other high-end models might substitute in other nifty gimmicks to tempt you — the autofill water dispensers in certainand models, for instance.
If it’s my money, I’m either saving my cash and going for the bottom freezer, or — if a French door model is a must-have — looking around for one that’s about two years old and marked down by at least $1,000, if not $1,500.
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