Product Review: Refrigerator/Freezer Combos

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Introduction
Issues to consider when purchasing
Size
Format
Freezer on top
Side by side
Freezer on bottom
Built-in
Performance
Energy Efficiency
Reliability
Features
Auto Defrost
Ice / water dispensers
Storage
Controls and Displays
Interior Lighting
Multimedia
Other
Price
Styling and Finishes
Stainless Steel
Recommended Products
Manufacturer Links

Introduction

The phrase "they don't make 'em like they used to" could have been coined with refrigerators in mind. Since the 1950’s, when electric refrigerators became ubiquitous in American kitchens, the manufacturers of these appliances have learned how to make cooling systems that distribute cooling and humidity to individually controlled zones, drawers, and door compartments — sometimes controlled and programmed with electronic touchpads and digital displays. They’ve produced increasingly environmentally friendly refrigerators and freezers, with dramatically higher energy efficiency, and without ozone-eating coolants like Freon. They’ve designed clever food storage systems, such as customizable modular bins and compartments, pull-out, spill-proof shelves, elevator shelves, doors within doors, and beverage chillers to keep drinks colder than the rest of the food. They've included ice makers (cubed or crushed), and filtered water dispensers, elevator shelves, even wine racks. They’ve quieted the compressors and fans, and put the appliances on wheels for easy moving and cleaning. And, thankfully, auto-defrost is now pretty much de rigueur.

Multimedia fridges - for a
more animated kitchen.

Recently, we’ve seen multimedia refrigeration, with the integration of computers, the Internet, and home entertainment. These fridges have LCD screens that can display TV channels, programmable calendars, recipes, weather forecasts, your e-mail, information about the proper storage temperatures for food products, and anything else you care to grab from the Web. If you’re willing to do some data entry, you can keep a running inventory of the contents in the fridge — along with expiration dates — to automatically generate shopping lists.

Another way today’s refrigerators differ from the loud, energy-guzzling, rounded-front boxes with fixed, wire interior shelves of two generations ago: they live short lives—nine to twelve years on average— about half the lifespan of GE refrigerators built in the mid-50’s. They’re often laden with functions and features that, on the one hand, offer you a wide range of choices that may improve your day-to-day domestic lifestyle, and on the other, ensure that, of all the appliances in your kitchen, your refrigerator will likely be the costliest to buy, run, and maintain.

To help you choose the right refrigerator for your situation, we outline a straightforward, step-by-step process when shopping.

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Issues to consider when purchasing

  • Size and format
  • Performance
  • Energy efficiency
  • Reliability
  • Features you'll actually use
  • Price
  • Styling

The factors above are interrelated, with several meaningful correlations. Generally, the larger the refrigerator, the more it will cost to operate. The more features it has, the more likely something on it will break and need service. And the more particular your styling requirements, the fewer brand and configuration options you’ll have. In this review, we don't include the smaller units with less than about a 15 cubic-foot capacity. For those smaller refrigerators, for the built-in category (which we mention below), and for the refrigerator-only and freezer-only units, we have separate reviews.

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Size

For good reason, most of the articles written about how to buy a refrigerator begin with the admonition: "Make sure that you choose a unit that will fit where it needs to fit." Generally, you'll want to leave at least 1/2" clearance on the sides and top, and 1" in the rear. If you have a particular location in mind, you'll have to choose a fridge that will fit the space. In all cases, note the height, width, and depth measurements of the unit itself, then ensure that the door configuration you've chosen will work in the location you have in mind. Most single-door models have doors that can be installed to open to either the left or the right. Side-by-side and French door models, which have recently become popular, open out toward either side.

Ideally, the fridge will be located a few steps from your main work area, not adjacent to a major heat source, and a few inches from the wall at its back to allow ventilation where the heat from the cooling system is emitted. If you plan to buy a unit with an automatic ice/water dispenser, remember that it will need to be connected to a cold water supply. Consult a plumber if you have questions about the hook-up.

How much interior capacity do you need? Take into account your experience, current situation, and your needs for the next several years. If your household is growing, a rule of thumb (offered by Better Homes and Gardens Magazine) says to add two cubic feet (cu. ft.) for each new additional household member. Most home refrigerators today have between 17—26 total cu. ft. of storage space. 70% of those sold today have a 21 cu. ft. capacity, a size that has served millions of families of four for almost fifty years. Be aware that the capacity claimed by manufacturers for their refrigerators is inflated, typically by between 20%—35% over actual usable capacity. Manufacturers' claims include the space occupied by shelves and hardware and other unusable spaces. Even though the methodology for measuring fridge capacity is standardized across the industry by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, there still exists a discrepancy between claimed and actual capacity. Usable capacity varies for the different refrigerator formats, but among manufacturers the degree of inflation is roughly equivalent. Proportion of refrigerator-to-freezer space varies by format, which we discuss below.

Take your time, but the meter's running

A refrigerator filled 2/3 to capacity is the most energy-efficient. This is because food acts both as insulation and as thermal mass, helping to maintain a lower temperature inside the fridge with less work from the cooling system. An under-stocked refrigerator is less efficient, wasting energy to keep empty space cool. An overstocked refrigerator can also be inefficient: packed shelves impede air circulation, causing uneven cooling within. Also, the need to stand in front of an open, overstocked fridge as you shift items around looking for that small container of yogurt allows cold air to escape and allows warm air in, requiring your compressor to run for an extra few minutes to bring the temperature down to where it belongs. Do that twice a day and you’ll see an increase on your electric bill.

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Format

Once you know your exterior dimension allowances and have a desired interior capacity, consider the type of refrigerator that will serve you best. In this review, we discusss the two main formats — free-standing and built-in — and three main configurations — freezer-on-top; side- by-side; and freezer-on-bottom, with single or French doors on top.

An effective way to understand how your kitchen management style intersects contemporary appliance design is to familiarize yourself with the actual appliances in a store. You'll quickly determine which advances in storage flexibility and customizability are meaningful to you. Go to a store with a large selection of refrigerators, and start opening doors and pulling out drawers. Assess which configurations and features make most sense to you, given how you and other people in your home store food. Touch the finishes, try the digital touchpad controls, fold up the tempered glass spill protector shelf so you can better reach that bottle tucked in the back corner.

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Freezer on top

The freezer-on-top configuration, introduced in the early ‘60s, was the first combination that actually separated the refrigerator from the freezer. Up to that point, freezers were small compartments, with thin plastic or metal doors mounted inside the main compartment. Today, these freezer-on-top models are considered economy class, with low prices as their main selling points. You can find high-performing machines in this format, but, with side-by-sides and bottom-freezer configurations becoming more popular over the past twenty years, the freezer-on-top models have become known as basic, good buys, generally for under $1000. One practical disadvantage is that the top of the refrigerator compartment is well below average adult eye-level, so you’ll be bending a lot to reach items within.

Side by side

NDR 1402SS

The side-by-side configuration became popular in the 1970s and represented a kind of freezer liberation, as you could now arrange items in the freezer at any height, from top to bottom. Ice makers and water dispensers, supplied by a water hookup in the back, were first introduced in the side-by-sides. In these units, the proportion of freezer space to fridge space is higher: roughly 39:61 for side-by-sides, compared to 29:71 for top- or bottom-freezer. This and other structural factors make the side-by-sides a bit more expensive to run — 10%-25% more than the top- and bottom- models, not including the extra 14%-20% of additional energy typically consumed by ice makers and in-door water dispensers.

Also, the discrepancy between the capacity claimed by the manufacturer and the actual usable capacity is higher for the side-by-sides (averaging close to 35%) than it is for top-freezers (21%) and bottom freezers (31%). Even on a 36" side-by-side, the interior width on the refrigerator side is under 18", which won’t accommodate wide deli platters or big pizza boxes. Maytag solved that problem with a "wide-by-side" model, in which portions of both the refrigerator and freezer are narrower or wider, with a section of the dividing wall between them (and the split between the doors) on a diagonal. Maytag, Jenn-Air, and others also installed lever-activated elevator shelves in a couple of their models. (More on those later.)

In part because of ice/water dispensers, and in part because of structural features, such as a more spread-out air distribution system, side-by-sides have a slightly greater need for service than the other refrigerator configurations.

Freezer on bottom

With their sales growing 25% per year from 2000-2007, bottom-freezer refrigerators are the most popular these days, with particular interest for French doors on top. Whether the refrigerator section has one door or two, the bottom-freezer configuration provides maximum accessibility for the fridge section. To counter the fact that your frozen foods are located at about knee-level, freezer sections on many new models have been designed for ease of use, with tilt-out compartments, swing-down doors, and lift-out bins. This requires less bending over and digging through the clutter of frozen food packages to get to something you need at the bottom of the freezer drawer. Fewer of the bottom freezer models than the side-by-sides have water and ice dispensers on the outside of the door; the ones that do sometimes require a more complex distribution system (for water, ice, and cold air), which increases the price and adds features susceptible to failure. The more moving parts and systems a machine has, the more things there are that can break, but generally, the manufacturers continually add innovations that work well and that make kitchen life more convenient.

Built-in

Pantry... or 'fridge?

Built-ins are high-end, customized models that come in some of the configurations described above. The average price for a full-size built-in exceeds $5000. Apart from price, one distinguishing attribute of built-ins is their kitchen counter depth, typically 25”, compared to a 31”-deep stand-alone, which, on average, has a 21 cu. ft. capacity. The surface panels on built-ins, as well as their depth, often match those of the kitchen cabinetry so that the appliance is completely integrated into the overall design of the room. To compensate for the reduced depth, built-ins are usually about 6" wider than stand-alones, and sometimes taller. Many non-built-in stand-alones are available with similar dimensions, to enable a higher degree of integration with the cabinetry, and to provide a custom look, often for thousands of dollars less than a custom installation.

Recently, under-counter built-ins have become popular. These are like big, single or double dishwasher-size drawers, with between 6-7 cu. ft. of storage space. These can be useful in a commercial kitchen, and while they provide unique options your interior designer will love, they’re usually not a practical alternative to full-size units. Functionally, they're useful as a supplement to a larger fridge, and are popular for items such as beverages.

In terms of performance and features, built-ins are usually equivalent to the stand-alones. Sub-Zero, a popular choice in this category, has a reputation for more frequent problems. One reason for that is that many of their models have two separate cooling systems for refrigerator and freezer, thus twice as many components to fail. Overall, true built-ins, besides their high price tags, are costlier to install and more difficult to service, but, are as energy-efficient and reliable as the other fridge configurations.

In this review, we make no recommendations of built-in models. We will cover those models in a separate review.

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Performance

We refrigerate and freeze food to stop or slow the ruinous growth of bacteria. Milk left out at room temperature can spoil in three or four hours, but will stay good for up to two weeks when properly refrigerated. Frozen food will usually last much longer — several months in many cases — before starting to succumb to deteriorative processes (like freezer burn).

Even though today’s refrigerators have more features than their predecessors of decades ago, are more energy efficient, and use environmentally safe, non-chlorofluorocarbon refrigerant, the cooling process used by today’s machines is basically the same one used fifty years ago.

The primary means by which the cooling is accomplished is with a sealed system of tubing and coils built into the appliance, with a section exposed to the exterior, at the back or bottom. The tubing, configured to aid in the transfer of heat and also in a compression/expansion cycle, is filled with a coolant that has a boiling point of around -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Using a compressor, usually driven by an electric motor and an expansion valve, the coolant is cycled through the system, and alternately compressed and expanded causing it to heat and cool, and change from a gas to a liquid, and back again. This evaporative, thermodynamic cycle enables the transfer of heat from the interior of the freezer and refrigerator to the external air in the kitchen, and is similar to how our bodies use sweat to cool us down: as the liquid on our skin evaporates, it absorbs body heat and transfers it to the surrounding air.

Other key components that help fridges and freezers perform their tasks include thermally insulated walls and doors; seals to keep the cold air in and the warm out; fans and ports to circulate the cool air within the appliance and distribute it to the drawers and compartments; thermostats to regulate the activity of the compressor; and timers to manage automatic defrost cycles. The failure of any one of these components, not to mention the compressor, will likely render the appliance incapable of properly cooling its contents.

The main factors affecting refrigerator performance are:

  • temperature accuracy, where actual temperatures match those specified by the controls
  • temperature constancy, where optimum temperatures are continuously maintained, including in each of the compartments for which there are discrete controls
  • low noise levels
  • high energy efficiency

There are two ways for the user to deal with temperature accuracy, whether the refrigerator controls specify temperature in degrees or use a numerical scale. Appliance thermometers, designed for this purpose and widely available for a few dollars, can help you determine the exact temperatures in a given area inside the fridge. Alternatively, temperature levels and adjustments can be made by using the stored food itself as a guide. If you're used to certain beverage temperatures and ice cream firmness, you'll likely be able to perceive subtle variations. When you switch to a new refrigerator, start with the manufacturer's suggested nominal temperatue setting, and then observe how your food is responding. This process may take several days, as you should give the appliance 24 hours or so to respond to each change you make.

Temperature constancy is a trickier matter, and one over which the user has less control. In today’s refrigerators, the cooling and auto-defrost cycles are timed to maintain optimal temperature and humidity efficiently. Auto-defrost actually employs a heater that periodically turns on to melt the frost that builds up on the evaporator coils inside the freezer. Today’s machines are designed to minimize the temperature variation. This small compromise in temperature constancy yields the positive result of keeping internal ice from building up, which would clog the air ports and which might cause the fan to seize, thereby causing the system to stop working. The systems are particularly challenged when the outside room temperature is high. If your kitchen is air conditioned you’re less likely to experience problems during summer than if the temperature in your kitchen rises into the 80s. Most of today’s fridge/freezer combos have a single cooling system, governed by the freezer control; the refrigerator control determines the amount of cold air distributed to the main fridge compartment. Experimentation will enable you to learn which settings to use, and how to distribute the food throughout the appliance.

With few exceptions, today’s refrigerators are relatively quiet. The compressors and fans are audible while they’re working, and some systems will emit soft, liquid-like sounds as they perform their defrost and evaporation functions, but a properly working fridge should not be very noticeable. The loudest noise you should be hearing from your fridge is the periodic operation of the ice maker, including the sound of the cubes themselves dropping from the ice maker into a storage tray.

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Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency is inseparable from operating costs. Today’s fridges are about twice as efficient as the units made in the early 90s, and nearly five times more efficient than the refrigerators made in 1960s. This is a result of a combination of advances in technology and minimum standards imposed by governments.

An example of the symbiosis between these two factors is EnergyStar, a joint effort of the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy started as a voluntary energy-efficiency labeling program in 1992. Refrigerators and freezers that exceed federal standards by 15% and 10%, respectively, qualify for an EnergyStar label. (Read more about EnergyStar.)

Currently, the average annual energy used to run a 21 cu. ft. refrigerator is about 650kWh, at a cost of around $65, with freezer-on-top models the most economical versions, and side-by-sides the most expensive to run. Energy specifications are published on a label on the front of the unit for comparison purposes, or on the manufacturer’s website, if you’re not shopping in person.

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Reliability

Apart from ice makers and filtered water dispensers, the failure of which won’t necessarily affect the cooling system, the most common problems with refrigerators result from a malfunctioning auto-defrost system. During normal operation, water vapor inside the refrigerator condenses on the cooling coils as frost. Over time, the frost builds into a thickening layer of ice. Today’s frost-free machines employ an automatic cycle that periodically melts the ice; the water then drains into a tray and evaporates into the room. If one of the components of this defrosting system fails — thermostat, timer, or heater — the ice build-up on the coils prevents efficient cooling, sometimes obstructing the flow of cool air to one section of the unit or another. The problem is progressive, and often requires manually defrosting the system in order to find the cause of the problem. While it might cost $225 to replace a heater or timer, that's not bad compared to the $500-$900 it might cost to replace a compressor. Door seals are another common problem, and cost at least $200. They can be tricky to properly replace, so consider having a professional do that work.

The great majority of refrigerators, comprising most of the major brands, are manufactured at a handful of factories, and have similar performance and durability characteristics. After the two major brands with the worst repair history (Sub-Zero and Maytag, as reported in the Aug. ’07 Consumer Reports) there is insufficient differentiation between the rest of the manufacturers to predict dependable performance. An example of the vagaries of brand differentiation is the 2006 merger of Maytag with Whirlpool, the latter of which has an excellent reputation for reliability. Among models by Whirlpool, Kenmore, Frigidaire, KitchenAid, GE, Amana, Hotpoint, LG, Samsung, and others, there is no way of telling how long the compressor will last, when you may need to replace the seals or components of the auto-defrost system, or have the ice maker serviced.

When something does break, and your well-stocked refrigerator stops cooling in the middle of August, a good manufacturer’s product warranty will be useful. Most warranties of the leading brands are similar... and meager: usually a one-year "limited" warranty, covering parts and labor for factory defects. Some companies improve on that by including extended coverage of some parts, including the sealed cooling system itself, for up to twelve years. But, if your compressor, or another part of the refrigeration system, fails between years 6—12, and you don’t have coverage on the sealed system, you'll have to choose between a costly repair and a new refrigerator. Many manufacturers and vendors offer extended-term service plans.

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Features

Auto-defrost

We’ve discussed automatic defrosting, which became standard on home refrigerators during the 1960s. These systems can cause problems, but that’s progress for you: defrosting a refrigerator manually in the 21st century is reminds us of washing a load of laundry by hand in the kitchen sink. Not to worry... none of the units we recommend require manual defrosting with normal operation.

Ice and water dispensers

In-door stations that dispense filtered ice water and cubes or crushed ice are popular, especially on side-by-sides, and are supplied via a cold water hook-up in the back of the unit. This means tapping into the cold water line in your kitchen. Some dispensers have a status indicator to alert the user when it's time to change the filter, and most in-door dispensers have night lights. The filters are usually activated carbon (charcoal) filters, (similar to a Brita filter), and are located either in the base grille or behind an easily removed interior panel so they can be changed every six months or so without removing the contents of the fridge. While these features add components subject to mechanical failure, they provide enhanced convenience and economy. Some companies claim that these dispensers save energy by obviating the need to open the fridge door every time you want ice or a glass of cold water, but these savings are usually offset by the energy it takes to run the automatic features. The real savings result from the fact that filtered water from your refrigerator costs about 20 cents per gallon, vs. up to $2 for a gallon of bottled water, which you have to lug home from the store.

Storage

In several ways, the storage features on modern refrigerators enable the operator to become like a power user of a computer, who customizes the features on her machine and software — many of which the average user is not even aware — to maximize its capabilities.

Three, please.

In the old days, refrigerator shelves were minimally adjustable, if at all, and there weren't split shelves and separately controlled drawers and compartments that could be dedicated to particular types of food. Today’s refrigerator interiors are designed for maximum flexibility, and can be configured by the user to meet many different food storage needs. Why would you ever need an elevator shelf that can be raised or lowered with the touch of a button or turn of a small hand crank? So that you can re-organize the storage arrangement to accommodate different-size items without removing half the fridge’s contents while you refit the shelves by hand. Most shelves slide out for easy access to food at the back. Some shelves are refrigerator-wide, and some are split so you can allocate the appropriate amount of shelf space to your tallest items. Most are labeled "spill-proof", which means they have raised edges to contain spills - a big improvement over the flimsy aluminum grills used for shelves in older models.

Materials for the interior storage components are usually a combination of clear and/or opaque glass, plastic, and metal, including vinyl-coated mesh baskets. Storage compartments are designed for maximum visibility so you can see items in the back without having to shift the contents around. They also provide easy access, with combinations of ball-bearing sliders for drawers and baskets, tilt-down compartment doors, adjustable door bins, and removable bins with handles that can be brought to a work area or to the table as a condiment tray.

While these storage features maximize the flexibility of storing food of different sizes and shapes, they also allow for the optimal preservation of different types of food, with segregated compartments in which temperature and, in some cases, humidity, can be individually controlled. 0 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature normally maintained throughout the freezer compartment. But the refrigerator section is likely to contain food with varying optimum storage temperatures. Meat is best kept at about 32 degrees, while vegetables stay freshest at a point closer to 50 degrees. Other fresh and packaged food should ideally be refrigerated at a particular temperature in that eighteen-degree range. Most refrigerators today have several segregated bins and containers, with dedicated temperature controls, to facilitate this multi-purpose food storage approach.

Plenty of storage options in modern refrigerators (Maytag MF12568)

Some compartments offer individually controlled humidity: most vegetables are ideally stored in a warmer, more humid evironment than other refrigerated food so that they won’t dry out. How about a bin for lettuce in which you can raise the temperature AND the humidity, next to another bin for strawberries that is kept colder and drier to stave off mold growth? The humidity in a separate bin is controlled by closing off air vents, sometimes with a fabric filter to trap moister air inside the bin.

Controls and displays

As the array of refrigerator features has expanded, so has the range of controls on the machines. We've discussed separately controlled compartments in which the temperature and, sometimes humidity, are set with dedicated controls— knobs or sliders—that adjust the amount of cold air flowing into the compartment, or the amount of humidity contained inside it. The main control panels on current models usually consist of electronic buttons or push pads and, on the higher-priced models, LCDs, which indicate the respective temperatures in the refrigerator and freezer sections, and, sometimes, the outside room temperature. Often, you'll have the option to switch between Fahrenheit and Celsius. Traditionally, the controls were located inside the fridge but are, increasingly, installed on the outside of the door. When you’re shopping, make sure that the controls are visible and accessible even when the shelves are full.

"WeatherPlus/Internet" panel

Other controls on the panel can include a quick-chill, or maximum cool mode, to drop compartment temperature in a hurry; a power-saving vacation mode, which slows the defrost cycle for low-use periods; various alarms, to alert the user in case of malfunction, or an ajar door; change-filter reminders; settings for the water temperature, ice dispenser, and lights for the internal compartments and in the external dispenser; and master settings for controls such as locks for temperature and display.

Interior lighting

The less expensive among the full-size machines have a single mini incandescent bulb in the fridge compartment and, sometimes, no lighting in the freezer. As interior capacity increases, so does the need for multiple bulbs, placed according to the storage configurations. Manufacturers have responded by offering two, or even three lights in some side-by-sides. A front-and-center position for the main lighting fixture works best, and clear bins/shelves, and wire baskets enhance visibility.  All of our recommended models have sufficient illumination.

Multimedia

 

Years before 1962, when the term was coined, refrigerators had multi-media capabilities: magnets! Today, communication and entertainment functions are implemented by adding various devices, such as radios, TVs, small computers, LCD screens, and built-in speakers and microphones. These features allow you to manage various aspects of your domestic life and communicate with other members of your household. In addition to normal TV and computer functions, these systems can be programmed to store data on refrigerator contents and expiration dares, text or voice messages for family members or roommates, ongoing calendar alerts, and settings for the refrigerator itself.

Samsung, with multimedia tablet

Others

A few manufacturers have recently introduced various features that may become the standards of tomorrow. For example, LG uses an activated carbon filter to eliminate odors from inside the frige. [Ed. note: When possible, use the separate bins to avoid mixing aromas, and when any of the pleasant food scents become bad odors, it may be time to discard the offending items.]

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Price

There are a few home refrigerators with prices higher than $10,000 and scores of models with prices approaching the five-figure point. Brands like Bosch, Haier, Miele, Viking, Themador, Sub-Zero, Northland, Jenn-Air, KitchenAid, Liebherr, and Electrolux have series they call Luxury or Professional or Designer, and are frequently installed as custom built-ins. We list websites for these high-end options at the end of this review. But the great majority of fridges purchased for home kitchens are stand-alones, and fall between the $500 and $2000. Generally, price is more an indication of size, styling, and features than of reliability or longevity.

The quickest way to get an overview of which appliances are available in a particular price range is to peruse the online sites of the appliance mega-vendors like US Appliance, Universal Appliance, Appliance Best Buys, AJ Madison and
OneClick Appliances. Also, you can visit the shopping sites, of which Bizrate, ConsumerSearch, and Shopping.com are good starting places. If possible, visit a few stores with large selections to check out the units in person.

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Styling and finishes

Technicians have vastly improved the interior workings of the refrigerator over the past fifty years. Not to be outdone, the designers who work on the exteriors continually offer innovative styles and, once in a while, a bona fide fashion statement. Consumers can express their material and lifestyle sensibilities by choosing from brands that offer showy, retro stylings, with pastel enamels and curved edges, to luxury built-ins that seamlessly evanesce into the surrounding kitchen cabinetry. Even more than the many options in food storage configuration, the diverse looks and finishes of today’s refrigerators argue for in-person inspection.

Acrylic Jenn-Air, flowers Heartland 1050 "Flames"

Stainless steel

During the 1980s, stainless steel became a very popular kitchen appliance finish. Refrigerators with stainless doors are typically about $100 to $150 more expensive than those with standard finishes, and aren’t as easy to clean as the pebbly white refrigerator finishes. Over the past few years manufacturers have offered various smudge-proof, faux-stainless finishes. These are usually vinyl coatings over brushed metal, are less expensive than real stainless steel, and are easier to keep clean.


kitchenCritical Recommends:

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Below are our recommendations of top-freezer, bottom-freezer, and side-by-side standalone refrigerator/freezer combinations, ordered by ascending price within each category. Some of the models recommended below are available in counter-depth versions. LG, GE, and Kenmore have websites that allow you to search easily for the counter-depth models.

The interior capacities we list are those claimed by the manufacturer (see our explanation of the discrepancies between claimed and actual space in the section on size.) Dimensions for height include the top door hinge, which typically extends about an inch over the top of the door. Dimensions for depth do not include the handles. The list and street prices we quote are from the manufacturer and vendor websites, and are subject to change. Most models are available in a variety of finishes, priced accordingly. The last letter or two at the end of the typical model numbers often refer to finish/color.

Below the recommended models are links to the refrigerator pages on manufacturer sites.

Freezer-on-top units

This entry-level, full-size Frigidaire—available in black, white, bisque or, for about $25 more, silver mist (pictured)—is a basic, well-performing fridge with simple clean lines inside and out. An optional internal ice maker is available for $50. The refrigerator section has two sliding wire shelves, three fixed door racks, one of which will store gallon-size containers. It also features a butter compartment with a clear door, two clear crisper drawers, and a humidity control. The freezer section has a half-width shelf, and two door racks. The doors are right-swing, available in white with left-swing doors.

Each section (refrigerator and freezer) has its own temperature-control dial, which maintains consistent temperatures, fitting with Frigidaire’s reputation. The FRT18B doesn’t offer much interior storage flexibility, and it’s not Energy Star rated, but at just over $400 it’s a quality, dependable refrigerator.

White finish Silver Mist finish

 


With similar external dimensions, and just a bit more interior capacity, this Kenmore still represents a big step up from the entry-level Frigidaire FRT18B5JM, above, with regard to storage flexibility and energy efficiency. The four spill-proof glass shelves in the refrigerator section are adjustable, as are the three door bins. The adjustable freezer shelf, and automatic ice-maker, which will make cubes in one of three adjustable sizes, are standard. Digital temperature controls round out this Energy Star-compliant appliance.

As with several Kenmores, the 7997 has contoured doors, stylish for a mid-priced fridge, especially with the titanium finish, which costs about $150 more than the white, black, or bisque models.

Kenmore 7997 interior Black finish

 


Whirlpool has as good a service record as any major appliance manufacturer. The company has more than two dozen freezer-on-top models, eighteen side-by-sides, and eleven freezer-on-bottom units. Nearly three-quarters of Whirpool refrigerators are EnergyStar qualified, including the W1TXEMMWQ, which is high performing, energy efficient, and quiet. Its standard features include a mix of adjustable and fixed storage components, including glass shelves in the fridge section, and wire shelves in the freezer. Two humidity-controlled see-thru crispers and a built-in automatic ice-maker are included. The W1TXEMMWQ is available in white, black, biscuit, and, for about $200 more, stainless steel.

Stainless finish Black finish

 


Few Americans will be surprised to hear that General Electric has more appliance models available than any other manufacturer, and that’s not counting GE's Hotpoint brand. The PTS22LHS is one of 76 freezer-on-top models, which includes many color choices. The fridge section features fully adjustable, split shelves both in the compartment and on the doors, except for the full-width door bottom shelf, which is fixed in height to accomodate tall bottle storage. Two humidity-adjustable crispers, a temperature-adjustable meat pan, and internal water dispenser nicely round out the fridge section. The freezer cabinet has an automatic ice maker, and bi-level, removable wire shelves. The freezer bins are split, offering maximum flexibility. Unlike the three models above, this GE has a freezer light, a nice extra.

This model is available in white, black, or, for an added $330, stainless. There are several GE freezer-on-top-models, in different sizes and finishes, which are set up like this one. The PTS25LHS series is a 24.6 cu. ft. version, for a list price of $1869. The PTS18SH has a 17.9 cu. ft. capacity and a $1539 price tag. All of the PTS models are Energy Star qualified.

Interior GE Profile PTS22LHSBB (black) GE Profile PTS22LHSBB exterior

 


Freezer-on-bottom units

The freezer-on-bottom format is the most popular today, for its convenience and space efficiency. Freezer-on-bottom refrigerators come in three different configurations: 2-door (one fridge door, one freezer drawer); French door (two fridge doors, one freezer door); and 4-door, which has French doors for the fridge and 2 drawers or swing-down doors for the freezer.,

This non Energy Star Amana highlights the basic practicality and affordabilty that makes freezer-on-bottom the leading refrigerator format. The ABB1921DEW refrigerator compartment contains the usual storage features, including two humidity-controlled crispers. A nice extra is the raised edges designed to catch spills on its three adjustable shelves. The lighted freezer has one fixed wire shelf and a glide-out wire basket below it. This model has reversible door swing, but is available only in white. It's been manufactured since 2004, and was named Best Buy by Consumer Reports in CR's summer 2008 refrigerator review.

Amana ABB1921 exterior Amana ABB1921DEW interior

 


This 33" wide, Energy Star-compliant LG is compact for a French door model. The LFC23760SW offers a flexible storage configuration, typical of the format, and one reason for the format's popularity. The refrigerator section has four spill-proof, split, tempered-glass shelves, two humidity crispers, a snack pan, and an arrangement of six, gallon-size shelves/bins in the door that you can adjust to suit your storage needs. The freezer drawer has a full-width wire basket, an ice bin, and an automatic ice maker.

White finish Black finish

 


As prices reach the four-figure range, the features on refrigerator models become even more interesting. This Energy Star-compliant Samsung French-door model has what the manufacturer calls a "Twin Cooling System". There is only one compressor—the motor of the cooling system—but there are two separate evaporators and fans, one each for the fridge and freezer. The evaporator is the internal configuration of tubes that transfers the cooling action of the refrigerant that flows through them to the air inside the appliance. The fans circulate the cold air through each of the two compartments, allowing for more separation between the temperature/humidity environments of each. A top-mounted, two-sided electronic panel, with dual digital displays, provides precise control of the temperature in each compartment.

The storage features provide plenty of flexibility, and include five spill-proof tempered- glass shelves, two humidity-controlled crispers, and a full-width "Cool Select Pantry" drawer with dedicated adjustable temperature control. The refrigerator compartment also contains separate dairy and egg compartments, and three, one-gallon door bins. The freezer features a pull-out drawer and tilting pocket to store and access flat, wide packages (up to 16"), such as a pizza box.

Also standard on this unit is an internal filtered water dispenser in the fridge, an automatic ice cube maker in the freezer, and a door alarm. Samsung’s new EZ-Open handle is designed to make it easy to open a fully loaded freezer drawer. Lifting the handle slightly allows the freezer drawer to glide out effortlessly.

The Samsung RF266AEWP is available in white or black at the $1,600 list price. A stainless steel finish is available for an extra $200, and for $1,900 (list price) you can get a stainless platinum finish. Finally, the RF266AEW offers a door-mounted water/ice dispenser, available as a $300 option.

Samsung RF266AEWP exterior EZ-Open handle

 


The Whirlpool Gold GH5FHTXVQ has less storage space than the Samsung RF266AEWP, above, and a higher price tag, but we recommend it because, among freezer-on-bottom, French-door models in its price range, no refrigerator is more energy efficient, more durable, or has a better temperature performance record, all of which score high marks with us. Other than that, the Whirlpool's feature set is essentially the same as the Samsung's. This Whirlpool is available in white or black, or for $200 more, stainless and "monochromatic satina" (pictured).

Black finish Monochromatic Satina finish

 


As the price of refrigerators exceeds $2,000, you'll encounter large-capacity models with a full feature-set, and quieter operation. The LG LFX28977SW garners praise for its efficient interior that houses a cavernous 28 cu. ft. of space. The 13" tall external water/ice dispenser allows easy filling of large glasses. A child lock, LED interior lights in both compartments, and its exceptionally quiet operation make this three-door LG an easy recommendation for us.

With a list price of $3,499 (street price $2,650—$3,000), the LG LMX28987ST is basically a four-door version of the LFX, above. It stands about an inch taller, and has an extra freezer door (drawer). The extra drawer seemed like a gimmicky luxury when this format was introduced, but the extra drawer makes organizing and accessing your frozen food easier than in single drawer models. The LMX28987ST's two freezer drawers open at the touch of a button—nice!

LG LFX28977SW LG LMX28987ST

 


Side-by-side units

The bottom of the price range for side-by-side refrigerators is typically around $1,000 (list), so this Energy Star-compliant model could fairly be called "entry-level". Still, it’s an excellent value for the storage space it provides at this price, and for the in-door ice/water dispenser, which will produce cubed and crushed ice, and has a light that alerts you to change the water filter.

This Frigidaire provides plenty of storage flexibility, with a mix of fixed and adjustable shelves, bins, and compartments in the refrigerator compartment. The shelves and bins in the freezer are fixed, but given the larger freezer capacity in this typical side-by-side, this isn't a problem.

The FRS6HF55KW is available in white, black, bisque, "Silver Mist", and stainless steel.

 

 


Moving up the price ladder, this model is representative of the refrigerators that Samsung has released in the past several years, helping the company attain top status in the refrigerator field. Consumers and reviewers have lauded Samsung's appliances for their performance, durability and value. The RS275ACR was praised in the last Consumer Reports refrigerator survey.

The interior is well-designed and roomy, with an ice maker and in-door dispenser that only minimally subtracts from storage area. It dispenses filtered water, and crushed or cubed ice in a serving area tall enough to accommodate large glasses and pitchers. The electronic, push-button controls for the refrigerator and digital temperature displays are also located on the in-door dispenser panel.

The RS275ACRS uses separate fans and evaporators for the refrigerator and freezer sections, making temperature control in each compartment more precise. It’s a stylish unit, available only in stainless

Samsung RS275ACRS RS275ACRS interior

 


The Wirlpool GS5VHAXWA was Consumer Report's highest rated side-by-side refrigerator in its most recent refrigerator review. The magazine rated it significantly more energy-efficient than the other side-by-sides it tested. The manufacturer claims that it uses less energy each year than a 60-watt light bulb.

Features of the refrigerator section include: 4 full-width, adjustable, slide-out, glass, spill-proof shelves; adjustable, clear, one-gallon door bins; a humidity-controlled crisper; a temperature-controlled meat pan; and a few other separate bins and containers commonly found in contemporary refrigerators. The freezer compartment also has slide-out adjustable shelves, a wire basket, tilt-out door storage, and an automatic ice-maker. The in-door ice/water dispenser has a night light and a child lock. The GS5VHAXWA is available in white, black, Satina, and stainless. Satina is Whirlpool’s name for its finish that looks like stainless but is less expensive and easier to maintain... and it will hold magnets!


GE has 76 available side-by-side refrigerators, ranging in list price from $1,100 to $4,240. Many of the models, especially those over $2,000, are available in counter-depth format, which for GE does not exceed 29 5/8". General Electric uses the name "GE Profile" to brand many deluxe models, which carry a longer warranty on the cooling systems. GE recently introduced its line of Café appliances, including ranges, dishwashers, and microwaves, with "restaurant inspired" styling. According to GE, this line of ten appliances was designed to provide "the look and feel of a modern stainless steel restaurant kitchen, combined with the latest cooking advantages available to top chefs."

The CSHS5UGXSS is one of three refrigerators in the Café line. The others are a counter-depth 24.6 cu. ft. side-by-side ($3,579 list), and a counter-depth 20.9 cu. ft. French door model ($3,189). The storage features in the CSHC are basically the same as in the higher-price GE friges. Both compartments provide maximum flexibility with a well-designed array of shelves, drawers, slide-outs, swing-downs, and dedicated temperature- and humidity-controlled compartments. Some of the higher-priced models have a more sophisticated temperature management system, with dual evaporators, similar to a few of the Samsung models recommended above. The more expensive models also have a fancier LED display system and enhanced interior lighting.

Samsung RS275ACRS RS275ACRS interior

 

 


Manufacturers Links

The following links will take you to a manufacturer's main Refrigerator Product Page when one exists. In other cases, the links will take you to a relevant web page.

Manufacturers of Recommended Models:

Amana
Frigidaire
General Electric (GE)
Kenmore
LG
Samsung
Whirlpool
Whirlpool

Other manufacturer pages:

Big Chill
Bosch
Electrolux
Fisher Paykel
Gaggenau
Haier
Hotpoint
Jenn-Air
KitchenAid
Liebherr
Maytag
Miele
Northland
Smeg
Sub-Zero
Thermador
Viking


 

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Updated: February 24, 2010