Refrigerators have long been thought of as the boxy, boring behemoths of the kitchen, and buying one used to be as simple as choosing between eggshell and off-white. But times have changed, with manufacturers increasingly thinking outside of the icebox to try to redefine what the modern refrigerator is really capable of. Today's shopper will find an ever-increasing range of color and style options, cleverly-designed units designed to disappear into your decor, and a wide variety of new smart features, including ones aimed at transforming your kitchen itself into an entertainment hub. It's enough to make you wonder if the ol' fridge might be going through a bit of an identity crisis.
This reinvention of the refrigerator comes with a daunting new reality: finding the perfect model for your needs and budget is no easy task. Fortunately, you've come to the right place -- a handy overview designed to help you narrow down the countless options and come out confident that the refrigerator you're buying will give you the most bang for your buck.
In the end, finding the right fridge is all about understanding your own needs and asking the right questions, so let's get started with:
What type of refrigerator is best for me?
Style-wise, you've got four options to choose from, and each comes with its own pros and cons. Figuring out which one is best for you is the first, most obvious step towards making a final buying decision.
When I say the word "fridge," chances are good that this is the style that pops into your head. With the bottom two thirds dedicated to fresh-food storage and the freezer unit sitting on top, most of us probably struggled to reach the Popsicles in a top freezer unit when we were kids, or we at least used one in our first apartment. Tastes have moved forward since then, so if you're looking for something modern, high-end, and feature-rich, then a top-freezer model probably isn't for you. If, however, style isn't as much of a concern, then you'll find that top freezers offer some of the best bargains on the market. Plus, there are still enough being made to offer a solid variety of choices.
Average dimensions: Width: 29 inches; Depth: 31 inches; Depth with door open 90 degrees: 58 inches; Height: 66 inches
Best suited for: Bargain shoppers who aren't looking for anything too flashy.
If you're looking for something on the simpler side, and would enjoy slightly easier access to your fresh foods, then a bottom-freezer unit might be right for you. Bottom-freezer units aren't much different from top-freezer units except for the fact that the freezer is located -- you guessed it -- on the bottom. This means that you won't have to hunch over while rooting around for commonly used ingredients. However, it also means that frozen foods will be located down around your ankles -- though a majority of models now come with drawer-style freezer doors, which can make getting the ice cream out a little easier. Bottom freezer units tend to be just slightly bigger than top freezers, but there's also less variety of models to choose from.
Average dimensions: Width: 29 inches; Depth: 32 inches; Depth with door open 90 degrees: 59 inches; Height: 67 inches
Best suited for: Home cooks who don't mind bending over to get into the freezer.
Side-by-side units split your fridge right down the middle, offering you frozen foods on the left and fresh foods on the right. Some models offer equal real estate for both sections while others allocate an extra couple of inches for the fridge. This can make for an especially narrow freezer section, so frozen-pizza aficionados might want to consider something a little less limiting. Side-by-side units come in a wide variety of models and tend to showcase more features than their horizontally minded counterparts. Many of these features are aimed at saving space, especially when it comes to the shelving inside the doors. Side-by-side units also require much less clearance to open the doors, making them ideal for narrow kitchens. Due to the vertical split, you'll probably want to go with the widest model that will fit into your kitchen, and your budget.
Average dimensions: Width: 35 inches; Depth: 30 inches; Depth with door open 90 degrees: 45 inches; Height: 71 inches
Best suited for: Space-conscious consumers looking for a feature-rich fridge.
Highly popular, French-door models combine the drawer-style freezer of a bottom-freezer unit with the low-clearance doors of a side-by-side unit. This means that you'll have a full-width, double-door fridge with plenty of storage space. With your refrigerator door effectively split into two, it also means that you won't be letting as much cold air out when you're opening just one door to grab the milk. Some models come with two separate freezer drawers, with the top one located about waist-high. This will keep you from bending down quite as far as you would with a bottom freezer. With the high demand for French door refrigerators, you're sure to find a huge variety of options, including models with top-of-the-line smart features you won't find with other styles. You can also upgrade the look of your fridge to match your kitchen or even camouflage itself entirely among your cabinets, but be aware that you'll likely be tacking a few thousand dollars onto the already steep price tag.
Price: $1,599-$3,999 ($4,500-$8,000 for a built-in cabinetry appearance)
Average dimensions: Width: 35 inches; Depth: 29 inches; Depth with door open 90 degrees: 48 inches; Height: 68 inches
Best suited for: Fashionable chefs who want easy access to fresh storage and the most advanced features available.
Selecting the style that's right for your kitchen is half the battle, and should give you a much clearer idea of what you want from your new refrigerator. But don't run off to the department store just yet, because you still have some very important questions to ask yourself, including:
How big of a fridge do I need?
It varies, but a general rule of thumb is that you'll want 4 to 6 cubic feet (cu. ft.) of refrigerator space per adult in your household, along with a little bit of extra contingency room. With full-size refrigerators ranging from 10 to 32 cu. ft., this means that a family of four probably won't want anything much less than 20 cubic feet, and might prefer something even roomier. That said, a bigger fridge means a bigger energy bill, so be careful not to splurge on extra space that you aren't actually going to need. You'll be paying more both upfront and down the line as you continue paying the power company to refrigerate that wasted space alongside your food.
If you're looking for something on the small side, you'll probably want to stick with a top freezer, as none of the other types of refrigerators come in sizes much smaller than 20 cu. ft.
You're likely to hear this term quite a bit as you shop around. "Cabinet-depth" refrigerators are simply refrigerators that are designed to align perfectly with the edges of your cabinets, leaving only the refrigerator door sticking out. This gives your fridge the appearance of an expensive, custom-designed unit that's built directly into your cabinetry -- without anything actually being custom-built. Cabinet-depth refrigerators won't grant you any extra storage capacity, but they are more fashionable (and thus, more expensive) than standalone units.
On the other hand, there's a multitude of features available aimed directly at the space-conscious consumer. Many of these can help make your fridge seem roomier, or at least give you more flexibility when it comes to storing your food. Units with adjustable shelving are becoming more and more popular, and will allow you to move shelves not just up and down, but also side to side and in and out for greater access to formerly hard-to-reach ingredients. Other models have shelves that can even be folded up and out of the way when not in use to make room for taller, bulkier items below. Don't forget about bins and drawers, either. Many of them come with their own advanced features, and some can be moved entirely out of the way with ease if needed.
And while we're on the subject...
What other features should I look for?
Refrigerators have come a long way since the debut of the egg holder and the butter bin. These days, you'll find a wide variety of features designed to bring a whole new level of functionality to your fridge. With the endless parade of trademarked names and bold claims, figuring out what you really need can quickly become overwhelming. So, which features are worth it?
Take care of the foods you love
First, think about the things you like to cook and/or eat, then look for features that take really good care of those things. It's a safe bet that those are the features you'll enjoy using the most. Are you a devoted foodie who always wants a variety of fresh ingredients on hand? Many models offer sectional climate controls for the different compartments in your fridge that can help you keep a variety of foods fresher for longer -- LG's Push & Seal Crisper Drawer goes so far as to vacuum the air out of your produce bins whenever you close them. Do you live off of TV dinners and frozen leftovers? Look for advanced defrosting features like GE's Frost Guard, designed to help eliminate freezer burn. Love a nice glass of pinot grigio? Look for a fridge with a built-in wine rack.
Save time with multitasking features
Ingredients aside, some features are designed to make for a more multifunctional fridge. Just look at today's in-door water dispensers. Refrigerators have been dispensing water for years, but now GE boasts a "PreciseFill" smart dispenser on several of its models that will dispense the exact amount you need, or automatically detect when your pot or water bottle is full. Other models have water dispensers designed to easily accommodate tall or bulky containers. Some will dispense hot water on demand, perfect for a quick cup of tea or a bowl of soup. Samsung recently teamed with SodaStream, unveiling a refrigerator capable of dispensing fresh seltzer water.
There are plenty of opportunities to multitask located inside today's refrigerators, too. LG has started producing units with blast chillers capable of making a warm can of soda icy cold in less than five minutes. Built-in deodorizer compartments will help you make boxes of baking powder a thing of the past. And if you're constantly making runs to the gas station to pick up a bag of ice for your cooler, look for a unit with an ice maker capable of dispensing ice in bulk.
Other extras to look for
- Quieting systems that can make for less humming and buzzing
- Anti-bacterial interior coatings to help keep your leftovers germ-free
- LED lighting
- Steel-reinforced hinges to support door storage
- Rimmed, "spill-proof" shelving to help keep messes from dripping throughout your entire fridge
Of course, you will also find refrigerators with touch screens and built-in Wi-Fi, and plenty of bold manufacturer claims about smartening up your kitchen -- which brings us to one last question:
Do I need a smart refrigerator?
You can certainly live without one, if that's what you're asking -- particularly if affordability is your chief concern. Simply put, smart fridges don't come cheap, and whether or not the extra cost is worth it is really up to you. For some, smart technology gives refrigerators a whole new cool factor, and the fact that we use our refrigerators every day makes these features a sound investment. For others, "smart" just seems like another word for "gimmicky." If this includes you, then spending an extra $1,000 or more in order to watch Food Network on your fridge or to have it text you when the milk is about to expire is probably a pretty tough sell.
That said, don't be too quick to slam the door on so-called "smart" features, because there are plenty of them that live up to the name. Many of these include smaller, less flashy, more affordable features that can nonetheless have a huge positive impact on your everyday kitchen experience.
Smarter energy efficiency
Those looking for a greener kitchen (not to mention a lower power bill) will likely enjoy smart features aimed at making your refrigerator more energy efficient. Many new models can track their own energy consumption -- some go a step further, delivering the information straight to your smartphone and allowing you to monitor usage or change the temperature remotely. At least one model will even do the work for you by tracking when usage levels on your local power grid are at a minimum, then automatically taking advantage of the lower energy rates.
If energy efficiency is an important factor in your buying decision, but a top-of-the-line smart refrigerator doesn't fit within your budget, don't worry. There are plenty of features available that will help you go green without breaking the bank. At least one model comes with a sensor that detects when the door isn't fully shut, helping put an end to costly leaks. Several others will allow you to access commonly used ingredients without ever opening the refrigerator at all, either using a "door-within-a-door" compartment or a sliding panel granting access to the bottom bins. Features like these can make a small, but welcome difference when it comes to your energy usage.
Today's smart refrigerators won't stop at usage statistics when it comes to sharing information with you. Whirlpool models equipped with 6th Sense Live technology will send you helpful texts letting you know when the water filter needs replacing, or alerting you to a power outage. Other models are equipped with intuitive interfaces that kick in whenever something isn't working, helping you to identify the problem and troubleshoot a solution. There are even models that will offer suggestions on what to make for dinner - that is, if you're willing to tell your fridge what ingredients are inside of it by keying them in one at a time using a drag-and-drop interface on the touchscreen.
Some of the most buzzed about smart features for refrigerators have been focused on entertainment. More than one manufacturer has introduced models with Wi-Fi, integrated speakers, and LCD touchscreens built right into the door. Samsung has even incorporated popular apps like Google Calendar, Twitter, and Picasa into its high-end models, opening up a whole new world of fridge functionality. Want to check the weather and the morning headlines while you wait for the coffee to boil? Looking for step by step risotto-cooking guidance? Want to stream your favorite Pandora station while baking cookies? With an entertainment-minded smart refrigerator, all of this and more is just a tap away.
Of course, showcase smart features such as these have been met with a fair dose of skepticism from consumers and critics alike. After all, it's not exactly as if people have long been yearning to play Angry Birds on their refrigerator door. But if you're an entertainment junkie with a love for gadgets, then a media-minded smart refrigerator could be the appliance you never knew you wanted.
The bottom line
If you decide that a smart refrigerator might be something you'd be interested in, make sure to shop around. Different manufacturers have different visions for where smart technology is headed, so you'll want to be sure and find a brand that emphasizes the specific type of tech that appeals to you. So far, Samsung has focused almost exclusively on entertainment capabilities, while Whirlpool's features are geared more towards energy efficiency. LG has taken a broader approach with its high-end refrigerators (and other home appliances, too), offering a mixture of smart offerings worth looking into under the name Smart ThinQ. Other brands, like Kenmore and GE, have played it a bit more conservatively, choosing to focus less on entertainment and connectivity and more on subtle design and engineering upgrades. Though your choices might be limited to two or three models per manufacturer, the variety is definitely there. Do a little homework, then buy with confidence.