When you picture a blender, you probably imagine something that looks a lot like this:
That's the $39 Hamilton Beach Smoothie Smart Blender -- and it's an excellent option for all of your basic blending needs. More and more often, though, all kinds of fancy-pants blenders that boast ginormous capacities, powerful motors that sound like helicopters in flight, and special features like touch screens and single-serving attachments are popping up in stores.
So we tested this $39 model against the $149 KitchenAid 5-Speed Diamond Blender, the $199 Cuisinart PowerEdge 1000 Watt Blender, the $199 Breville Hemisphere Control Blender, the $199 Ninja Ultima Blender, the $454 Blendtec Designer Series Wildside Blender, and the $529 Vitamix 7500 Blender to see what you might be missing if you opt for a budget model over a significantly more expensive one.
I found out that it's very difficult to definitively recommend one over any of the others. More than design, usability, features, and performance, this decision has a lot to do with you: how often you plan to use a blender and what you plan to make in that blender. And since none of them spontaneously burst into flames during testing, there weren't any true duds (except perhaps the Cuisinart, but I'll discuss that more later).
In light of that, here's my recommendation: Get the Hamilton Beach if you typically use a blender to make basic things like salad dressing, smoothies, and puréed soups. It can also make more complex recipes like pesto, but it will take a bit more effort (and patience) on your part. It won't require much counter space, if that's a concern, but it also can't hold as much food as some of the other blenders. It will disappoint if you want a high-powered blender-food processor hybrid that can decimate an entire block of cheese in seconds. But don't forget that it's over $100 less than any of the other models, so I still think it's quite an impressive little blender.
The Hamilton Beach Smoothie Smart Blender mixes it up (pictures) See full gallery
Design, usability, and features
This blender has a height of 14.5 inches, an 8.5-inch depth, and a 7-inch width. It has a 48-ounce glass pitcher and black and brushed silver finish. The overall design is very simple, but it's sturdily built and it looks much nicer than its $40 price tag would suggest.
Its design simplicity plays directly into its usability. This blender couldn't be easier to operate. The lid has a spout so you don't have to remove the whole top when you're pouring a smoothie (or any other blended thing) into a container. The jar has a sizable handle to make lifting and pouring as manageable as possible. And it fits nicely into the base after each use.
The buttons, too, are incredibly streamlined. For your $40 you get a mix/milkshake, a pulse/ice crush, a puree/icy drink, and a smoothie setting. There's nothing superfluous here at all, just good old-fashioned blender settings, nicely arranged for effortless reading and operation. As you know, blenders aren't typically a very feature-rich appliance. They plug in, they turn on and off, and they blend things. This Hamilton Beach model is no exception -- the presets are pretty much all it has to offer in the features department. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's lacking, though.
So, how did the Hamilton Beach actually do during testing? You already know that it can't shred a block of cheese, but it can do some other things pretty darn well.
Since a lot of blenders come with an ice crush setting, this seemed like an important test to conduct. So I tossed ice cubes, ice cubes in water, and bagged ice into the Hamilton Beach for three different measures of ice crushing performance. The user manual suggests crushing cubed ice right after it's removed from the freezer and to make sure that no pieces are stuck together. This definitely helped the process along, but it still took a lot of pulsing to get the ice to a uniformly crushed state.
The ice cubes in water got to the desired consistency much faster, and the blender blades barely made a dent in the bagged ice. That's probably because it was a frozen solid block, rather than uniform cubed pieces (something to think about if you're planning to make delicious icy beverages en masse). All of the blenders responded in pretty much the same way, although some of the more expensive models got there sooner.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Every blender made passable smoothies. The Hamilton Beach scored the lowest at 96.41 percent. That means that it had a couple of small chunks of strawberry left over after I ran the auto smoothie setting. If you blended it a bit longer, though, you would have a perfect smoothie. But, if you do want perfect smoothies every time, the Vitamix, Blendtec, and Breville placed in the top three.
I also made spinach pesto in the Hamilton Beach blender. To start, I added the spinach, walnuts, garlic cloves, cheese, and olive oil and then pulsed it 15 times. Each time it took about 60 pulses to get to a reasonable pesto consistency, but it was still a bit on the chunky side. Between every 15 pulses, I mixed the ingredients with a spatula to make sure that it blended the pesto evenly. It only took the Ninja 15 pulses to get a totally smooth, uniform sauce. So, while some of the more expensive models can act as food processors, the Hamilton Beach can't really compete on that level.