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Dryers have come a long way from the noisy, ugly, cubes of laundry days past. These days, you'll find bigger, bolder, more energy-efficient machines boasting game-changing smart features, entirely new levels of functionality, and designs so attractive, you'll feel guilty stashing them in the basement.

In other words, it's a great time to upgrade, or even purchase your very first dryer (I'm looking at you, laundromat junkies.) Armed with the right information, you'll be able to make a purchase that feels even better than putting on a pair of socks straight out of the high heat.

Choosing the right type of dryer

There are several factors to take into consideration while shopping for a new dryer. How much do you want to pay up front? How much do you want to pay the power company each month? How much space do you have available? How important is the dryer's appearance to you? What sort of features do you want your dryer to have?

This guide will cover all of these angles, but first, you need to determine which type of dryer is best for your home. Fortunately, there are only two options, and in many cases, the decision will be a fairly easy one.

Electric vs. gas
With the exception of your refrigerator, the odds are good that nothing in your home will use more energy than your dryer, and this is true for both electric and gas dryers. However, there are differences between the way each type of dryer uses energy that can have a big impact on the true cost of owning and operating one over the other. Understanding these differences is the key to making an informed decision.

All dryers use electricity to spin the central chamber, or drum, and keep your clothing in motion throughout the cycle. Electric dryers also use electricity to power the fan that continually blows hot air through the machine. Gas dryers power the fan using natural gas or propane. They tend to cost a little more up front (typically about $100 more than comparable electric dryers), but since they warm up faster, they also tend to cost a little less to operate. Of course, this depends on the energy rates in your area, as well as the time of year, so be sure and do a little research before you commit one way or the other.

Installation
Electric dryers require a dedicated 240-volt circuit, which almost every laundry room will have. Gas dryers, on the other hand, require a separate gas hookup, and laundry rooms are a little less likely to have one of these. If yours doesn't, and you decide to buy a gas dryer, you'll need to factor in the cost of having a gas line professionally installed. Be aware that this can cost upward of several hundred dollars -- in many cases, this can outweigh the long-term energy bill savings, or at least render them negligible. And even if you already have a gas line ready to go, you still might be wise to have your new gas dryer installed by a trusted professional. The consequences of a faulty installation can include fire, carbon monoxide poisoning, or even an explosion.

The bottom line
If you're looking for an affordable dryer that you can simply plug into an existing laundry room in your house or rental, then an electric dryer is probably what you want. Even if you have a gas line already set up, you may still want to consider an electric dryer if you think there's a chance you might be moving in the next couple of years.

However, if you're comfortable in your home and you have a gas line ready to go (or can afford to install one), then go for the gas dryer. You'll enjoy the slightly faster cycles, and the chances are good that you'll save at least a little bit of money over the long haul.

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Choosing the right size dryer

If you're buying a matching washer and dryer set, then this is a rather painless process. No matter what size set you go with, you'll be able to use your new machines together without any trouble. The confusing part comes when you're buying a standalone dryer to complement an existing washer. Go too small, and you won't be able to dry a full washer load in one cycle. Go too big, and you'll be burning away your money with every cycle.

Know your capacity needs
Your standard "full-size" dryers typically range from about 5.8 cubic feet (cu. ft.) to 8.3 cu. ft., although there are compact units available as small as 3.4 cu. ft., as well as "mega-capacity" offerings as large as 9.0 cu. ft. So, which size is right for you?

For one to two people only washing light garments and no heavy bedding, a compact unit is probably sufficient. Most people, however, will want a full-size dryer capable of drying heavier items and larger loads, and since the load size is determined by the size of your washer, you'll want to start there. One easy rule of thumb is that the capacity of your dryer should be about twice the capacity of your washer. If your washer has a 3.5 cu. ft. capacity, for instance, then look for a dryer with 7.0 cu. ft. This 1:2 ratio is the sweet spot, giving a full load of wet laundry enough room to dry efficiently without wasting energy.

One caution: don't get distracted with sales terminology. Words like "extra-large," "king-size," and "ultra-capacity" are not fixed, standardized definitions, especially between different brands. Just because the store lists your new dryer as "extra-large" doesn't mean that it'll be a good fit with the "extra-large" washing machine that you bought four years ago. Stick to the numbers!

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Plan ahead
When buying your dryer, don't just think about the capacity of the washer you have right now. Think about the capacity of your next washer, especially if your current one is already more than six or seven years old. The last thing you want is to have to replace your dryer yet again when the new washer gets installed.

And while we're talking about looking to the future, are you planning on starting a family anytime soon? If so, you'd be wise to plan on a bigger laundry load, too.

Break out the measuring tape
Settled on a size? Good. Now it's time to make sure that it'll fit in your laundry room. Measure your space, making sure to add at least three inches on each side for heat clearance and pipes/wiring in the back. Most full-size dryers are less than 30 inches wide, somewhere between 25-35 inches deep, and anywhere from 35-45 inches tall. If you can comfortably accommodate those margins, then you're in good shape.

While you've got that measuring tape out, it'd be a good idea to check your vent distance. Measure a path along the wall from the dryer's location to the spot where hot air will be vented outside of the house. Add eight feet for every turn you have to make. Ideally, you want a total distance of less than 60 feet. Anything longer than that, and the heat won't be able to make it to the outside of your home -- a major safety hazard that could ultimately cause a fire.

Space-savers
If space is a concern, you might look into a laundry center. These are the tall, narrow units you'll find tucked away in apartment closets, usually with a top-loading washer on the bottom and a front-loading dryer on top. Units like these can be found in either gas or electric models, and will run you anywhere from $800-$2,000. There are also standalone washers and dryers that can be stacked on top of one another with the help of a "stacking kit," which is typically just a pair of small metal plates that you'll screw into the back of the stacked washer and dryer, bracketing them together. Stacking kits cost anywhere from $15 to $50, and considering that they're made out of about a dollar's worth of metal, they're a bit of a rip-off at any price. They're a necessity, though -- stacked washer dryers that are left unbracketed won't stay stacked for long once things start spinning around inside.

Stackable units and laundry centers can make terrific space savers Whirlpool

Additionally, you may be able to create the necessary space for your new dryer by getting rid of cabinet or shelving space that's in the way and replacing it with a dryer pedestal. These accessories sit beneath the dryer, elevating it to a height that's perhaps more manageable while also creating additional storage space in the form of a built-in drawer.

Choosing the right controls and features

For decades, dryers have been good at one thing: drying. But these days, with consumers demanding more and more from their home appliances, manufacturers have been hard at work designing clever ways to make their dryers a little more well-rounded. As a result, today's shopper will find a wide variety of surprisingly multidimensional dryers available for sale. Here's what to keep an eye out for:

Basic features
Most dryers still use a dial of some sort to select the cycle, along with a start/stop button. The number of preset cycles will vary from unit to unit, but the chances are good that you'll have a few options to choose from, along with more precise timed drying settings. More and more units these days are boasting some sort of digital display. These often make for a fancy, space-age looking dryer, but if they don't offer any additional functionality, they can also just serve as an easy excuse for the seller to charge a little more.

Many dryers also come with a delayed start mode, which will allow you to load the machine, set a timer, and delay the start of the cycle until the timer reaches zero. This can be a great way of running the machine late at night or early in the morning, when power rates are often significantly lower. It can also be a great way of ensuring that you have toasty, fresh-from-the-dryer clothing to wear on frigid winter mornings.

Make sure your dryer door opens away from your washer to make it easier to transfer a damp load into the drum. Colin West McDonald / CNET

One other basic feature to think about is the hinge. Do you want your dryer door to open on the left or on the right? Almost all models will allow you to choose. We recommend placing the hinge on the side opposite your washer. That way, the door won't be in your way when transferring damp clothing from the washer into the dryer.

Increased functionality
One of the most popular recent developments in dryer technology has been the addition of steam cleaning cycles. Using nothing more than the power of evaporated water, these brief cycles can remove light stains and odors from clothing. They're great at removing wrinkles, too, with many users all but retiring their ironing boards in favor of a quick, steamy tumble in the dryer. Some steam cleaning cycles will even allow you to sanitize formerly non-washable items like throw pillows and children's toys.

Steam cycles are an increasingly popular feature in today's dryers. Colin West McDonald / CNET

Though the steam cycle was initially a feature found only in the most high-end models, its popularity has helped it to quickly spread throughout more affordable mid-level units, as well. As such, dryers featuring steam cycles can be a perfect fit for shoppers looking for an affordable but distinct upgrade over their current hardware.

Another feature aimed at improving the functionality of your dryer is the drying rack. These detachable racks are designed to rest horizontally within the drum, allowing you to dry delicate or clunky items with having them tumble about. You might also find units with enhanced storage capabilities, including models compatible with shelving towers that fit in between the washer and the dryer, or models with an adjustable, built-in folding table on top. And if you wash a lot of large, bulky bedsheets and comforters, keep an eye out for detangling features that finish the cycle by pausing and slowly spinning backwards, leaving your bedding neat and wrinkle-free.

Going green
Dryers typically account for more than 10 percent of household power consumption. If you're truly concerned with minimizing your eco footprint, then you might want to consider selling your current machine rather than buying a new one. After all, clotheslines and drying racks work perfectly well, and they do so without using so much as a watt of electricity.

That said, if you're looking for less extreme ways of making laundry day more energy efficient, you're in luck. As you shop for a modern dryer, you'll be bound to come across green features capable of reducing your energy consumption, as well as your monthly power bill. In addition to thinking about getting a gas dryer, consider models that come with moisture sensors built into the drum. These sensors detect when your clothes are dry, then tell the dryer to go ahead and shut down, preventing over-drying and also saving energy. You can also look for units with dual temperature heating elements -- these are usually capable of heating and cooling the dryer much more efficiently. Usage tracking functions such as GE's eMonitor catalogue the efficiency rating of each load, then let you review the information on an electronic readout to help you learn how to use your dryer more efficiently.

Trying to be more energy efficient? GE's eMonitor can help you learn how. GE

While you're at it, consider taking a look at your own laundry habits, too. In the long run, simple practices like running dryer loads one after another to take advantage of the already heated drum can put a noticeable dent into your energy consumption.

Choosing a smart dryer

Everywhere you look, it seems that home appliances are smartening up, or at least trying to, and dryers are no exception. While the options are still somewhat limited, more than one major manufacturer is already selling their take on the smart dryer, with promises of entirely new categories of functionality.

Whirlpool's 6th Sense Live offers comprehensive, power-saving smart features. Whirlpool

Smart usage tracking

Usage tracking isn't unique to smart dryers -- one high-end, non-smart model from GE already offers detailed efficiency statistics for each load that you run, helping to teach you how to be smarter about your energy usage. Smart dryers have the potential to take this feature to the next level, though, wirelessly delivering the data straight to your computer, phone, or tablet. When you combine this capability with smart grid awareness, as Whirlpool's smart dryer does, things really start to get cool. Throw your wet laundry in before you go to bed, then the dryer will automatically detect when overnight energy rates are at their lowest, running the load accordingly and saving you money. You'll wake up to fresh, dry clothing, as well as a nifty report from the dryer delivered straight to your phone showing you exactly how much money you saved. Smart grids aren't accessible in all areas, so check and see if it's an option before you invest in these kinds of features.

Remote controls

Most smart dryers come with remote alerts that will notify you with a text when the cycle is complete, meaning no more constant runs down to the basement to see if your clothes are ready to come out yet. Some take it a step further, offering smartphone controls that allow you to check the real-time status of a load, start or stop the dryer remotely, or even change the drying cycle.

The Samsung DV457 promises to smarten up laundry day in style. Samsung

Touch screen displays

There are plenty of dryers out there with digital displays, but some manufacturers are going so far as to introduce smart dryers with integrated touch screens. Samsung's smart dryer offers a full 8" LCD touch screen, and while this doesn't actually bring any new dryer functionality with it, at least not yet, it does make for a more high-tech looking machine. Add in the fact that the dryer is Wi-Fi enabled, and the possibilities start coming into focus, especially given the fact that the touch screen on Samsung's smart refrigerator comes preloaded with fun, useful apps like Pandora and Google Calendar. Don't be surprised if its dryer heads in a similar direction.

When things go wrong, LG'S Smart ThinQ Dryer has your back. LG

Smart maintenance
There are few things worse than waiting on hold to speak with a repair technician in the middle of a busy day of laundry. Models like LG's Smart ThinQ Dryer will help ease your pain, offering advanced troubleshooting guides and self-diagnosis capabilities designed to make even advanced maintenance a breeze for any user. Some units will even automatically send detailed error information directly to customer service, allowing them to send useful answers back your way -- perhaps before you're even aware of the problem.

The bottom line
If you're shopping for a smart dryer, don't expect a huge selection. As of this writing, there were only three models that we could truly classify as smart, connected machines, and as you can see, there isn't a whole lot that separates them. In some cases, some of these key smart features might not even be usable in your situation -- we don't have Smart Grid access here in Louisville, for instance, and if you don't have the right kind of phone, you won't be able to use the Samsung DV457's Smart Control feature. You'll want to be sure that do your research before making such a big purchase, and to that end, our in depth reviews are here to help.