CNET logo Why You Can Trust CNET

Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement

How to buy a washing machine

Looking for a good washing machine? Here's how to choose one that's perfect for your laundry needs.

Brian Bennett Former Senior writer
Brian Bennett is a former senior writer for the home and outdoor section at CNET.
Megan Wollerton Former Senior Writer/Editor
Brian Bennett
10 min read
Chris Monroe/CNET

If you're searching for a good washing machine, you have your work cut out for you. Our latest count has the number of different clothes washers sold in the US at about 176 distinct models. This sizable group contains products with all sorts of shapes, sizes, features and capabilities. 

There are traditional top-loaders, sleek front-loaders, even compact, all-in-one designs. With so many varied styles to choose from, settling the right machine is daunting. 

How do you sift through all of the options to find something that works? For most people, the answer is: you guess. You pick a budget, find something in that price range and hope for the best.

But a lot of factors come into play in today's appliance market. From washers with built-in sinks to dual units with two cleaning tubs, laundry really doesn't look like it used to. Fortunately, we're here to help. Think of this article as your laundry spirit guide, leading you to the perfect washing machine for your home.

The washer landscape: Front-load vs. top-load

Beyond the obvious -- that front-load washers open from the front and top-load washers open from the top -- there are some significant differences between the two styles. These distinctions will help inform your purchase, as every washing machine you'll look at will be either front- or top-load.

Enlarge Image

Consider if the washer you want will fit in the space you'd like to put it.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Will your new washer fit in your home?

While the majority of traditional front- and top-load washers measure roughly 27 or 28 inches wide and 30 to 35 inches deep, their height dimensions are quite different. That's because front-load models have front-mounted displays (much like a slide-in front-control range) and top-load models have back-mounted displays (much like a freestanding back-control range).

Because of this design difference, many front-loaders have optional stacking kits so you can literally install your matching front-load dryer over your washer (always stack the dryer on top of the washer because it weighs less).

Stacking is ideal when you have limited square footage for your laundry pair, since you can take advantage of vertical space. The last place I lived had a closet set aside for the water heater, the HVAC system and a small washer and dryer. In that case, the decision was easy -- it was either a compact front-load stacked laundry pair or nothing.

But that doesn't mean front-load washers are only suitable for tight spaces. If you find a stackable front-load washer and dryer you like, it's also common to install them side-by-side. For top-loaders a side-by-side install is (perhaps obviously) your only option.

Note: Not all front-load washers are stackable, so make sure to double-check the specs either online or on the unit's packaging before making a purchase.

Consider a washer's drum size

In addition to a washer's external dimensions, you will also want to think about the size of the washing drum inside the unit. Excluding compact units, most of which have a drum somewhere in the 2-cubic-foot range, the majority of standard-size front- and top-load washer drums today range from roughly 4 to 5 cubic feet. That's a great range for a typical 8-pound load.

Of course, as a washing machine drum gets closer to 5 cubic feet, the more easily it can handle larger loads. You'll also find subtle drum size differences when you compare front- and top-load washers. Most front-loader drums range from 4.2 to 5 cubic feet (with the odd sub-4-cubic-foot exception from GE and some 5-plus-cubic-foot exceptions from LG and Samsung).

Top-loader drums are all over the map, ranging from 3.2 to 6.2 cubic feet, and they're complicated by the fact that less expensive models still rely on a traditional agitator -- the plastic rod that extends from the bottom of a top-load washer to the top of its tub. Agitators are a legacy feature left over from the last generation of washer tech and they suck up precious cubic footage from your washer tub. So, a top-loader with an agitator is almost guaranteed to have less than a 4.5-cubic-foot capacity, simply because the agitator is hogging some of the space typically reserved for clothes.

Enlarge Image

A GE agitator-equipped top-load washing machine (left) next to a Samsung' impeller-equipped top-load washing machine.


In the US, most washer manufacturers have replaced their old-school agitators with a lower-profile alternative called an impeller. Less intrusive than traditional agitators, impeller-style washers typically have larger capacities because you don't have that agitator spindle in the way.

Note: Front-loaders tumble-clean clothes, so they don't use either an agitator or an impeller.

Think about price

No matter what, you're probably going to shell out a minimum of $500 on a new washing machine, but there are also clear cost disparities between front- and top-load washers. Here's a table to help guide your budget:

Comparing front- and top-load washer price ranges

Front-load washersTop-load washers
GE $899-$1,199$629-$1,049
LG $849-$1,800$800-$1,600
Samsung $899-$1,199$629-$1,049
Whirlpool $899-$1,549$549-$1,199

As you can see, front-load prices tend to start around $800, whereas top-load prices start lower at around $500 (with the exception of LG). High-end top-load models also tend to cost around $200 less than their high-end front-load counterparts.

A look at performance

We've reviewed dozens of washing machines. While we still have a long way to go before we've tested all of the models on the market, top-load washers have earned our best (and worst) stain removal performance scores so far.

In contrast, the front-load washers we've reviewed tend to fall somewhere in the middle performance-wise, with a few outliers on either side. 

Top-load washers are generally less efficient since they tend to use more water during cleaning cycles than their front-load counterparts. 

We found this to be *mostly* true during our testing. Specifically, we used two flow meters (one each for hot and cold water) to calculate how many gallons of water a washer uses during a normal cleaning cycle, with normal soil, hot water and high spin settings.

The front-load washers we tested averaged just 8.74 gallons of water per load, whereas the top-load washers we tested for comparison averaged 17.94 gallons of water per load. 

That means those specific top-load models used two times more water than the front-loaders we tested on average. Clearly the extra water didn't help out the top-loaders very much either, since their performance results are all over the chart.

That 17.94 gallons of water average for top-load washers is also slightly misleading, since some top-load models used as little as 5 gallons. Others required as much as 38 gallons during their cycles.

In contrast, the front-load models we tested were much more consistent, and frugal, in their water consumption. They ranged from  about 7 gallons on the low end, to over 10 gallons on the high end of the spectrum.

What's the deal with high efficiency?

According to the American Cleaning Institute (ACI), a trade association whose mission is "to support the sustainability of the cleaning product and oleochemical industries, through research, education, outreach and science-based advocacy," all front-load washing machines are high efficiency (HE).

That's because they're designed to tumble-clean your clothes and rely on less water in the process. The trade-off is that your front-loader will likely take longer to complete a cleaning cycle.

In contrast, not every top-load washer earns the HE designation. ACI explains that, "Top-loading washers that are labeled 'HE' use low-water volume wash cycles. They have either no center post or a smaller-sized center post instead of a traditional agitator." That means traditional agitator-equipped top-load washing machines don't qualify as high-efficiency appliances .

Enlarge Image

Make sure to choose the right detergent for your washing machine.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

You have to be careful with labels, though, because some models may have an HE logo, even though they have agitators too. That's because you can use low-sudsing HE detergent in these machines. Doing so will reduce soap residue and clean your clothes more effectively.

Note: You can use HE detergent in a non-high-efficiency top-load washer, but you should always use HE detergent in a front-load washer. Most of the Tide liquid detergent available today comes in both regular and HE varieties -- look for the HE logo to be sure, or check the price marker.

Enlarge Image

Look for "HE" on the detergent or on the price tag.

Megan Wollerton/CNET

So, we know that agitator-equipped top-loaders are typically not high-efficiency washers, but how about the rest of the top-load models?

When in doubt, check the user manual. If it says something like, "Note: This is a high-efficiency washing machine with infusor wash action." Then, bingo. You have your answer. Other brands make it easier. Whirlpool's 4.2 cu. ft. High-Efficiency Top Load Washer with Agitator mentions the HE designation right in the product name, for example.

Here's what the ACI says on the subject of HE detergent: "As a result of extensive research, HE detergents are formulated to be low-sudsing and quick-dispersing to get the best cleaning performance with HE washers. Excess suds can cause problems in HE washers by 'cushioning' -- or even preventing -- the tumbling action. This can impact proper cleaning. HE detergents are also formulated to hold soils and dyes in suspension in low water volumes, so they don't redeposit onto cleaned laundry."

Special features

All washing machines today perform the same basic function. That's why their control panels look similar. You'll always have a normal cycle and usually at least eight or nine more specialty cycles and a way to adjust temperature, spin and soil settings.

But today's washers are doing more than ever before, especially when you look at higher-end models. Here's a quick overview of a handful of advanced washer features:

  • Auto-dispense: Many of GE's top-load and front-load washing machines have a feature called Smart Dispense Technology. These appliances come with a soap reservoir designed to hold enough detergent for "up to 48 loads". When you're ready to start a cycle, the washers sense the amount of soap you need, dispatch it from the reservoir automatically, and save the rest for upcoming cycles.
  • fl-whirlpool-wtw7500gc-washing-machine0
    Enlarge Image

    Some washing machines come with interesting extras like internal sinks.

    Tyler Lizenby/CNET
  • Built-in sink or faucet: Yes, that's right -- Some Samsung washers have their own sink. If your laundry room isn't large enough to accommodate a standalone sink, but you like pretreating tough stains and hand-washing delicate items, this feature might work for you. Other models, like a few from Whirlpool and GE have integrated faucets
  • Multiple washer tubs: LG shook up the laundry market when it introduced its Sidekick washers. Part of LG's Twin Wash system, these small-capacity washing machines fit inside a pedestal. That means you could have a regular front-load washer up top and a smaller, secondary washer below with its own water line for simultaneous cycles. Samsung followed suit with its FlexWash System. FlexWash is slightly different, though, because it has a smaller top-load washer incorporated into the regular washer body, rather than into a separate pedestal accessory.
  • Giant capacities: LG, Samsung, Maytag and Kenmore aren't satisfied with the standard 4-to-5-cubic-foot washer range. Instead, they're leading the charge in the US market with mega-sized front- and top-load models. LG's front-loaders go up to 5.8 cubic feet and its largest top-loader has a 5.5-cubic-foot capacity. Samsung sells 5.6-cubic-foot front- and top-load washers. But Kenmore and Maytag models that have a whopping 6 and 6.2-cubic-foot capacities respectively.
Enlarge Image

Some washing machines out there have amazingly large capacity drums.

Chris Monroe/CNET

There's an app for that

Certain mid- to high-end washers work with apps that let you start, stop and pause a cycle remotely or simply view the status of a cleaning cycle from your phone. GE even offers IFTTT integrations so you can time your Philips Hue LEDs to flash when a wash cycle ends, as well as a voice control integration with Amazon Alexa. Select Whirlpool appliances work with Alexa, too, so you can say: "Alexa, start the washer."

We're seeing companion apps and voice control partnerships more and more, but most of the integrations are still pretty limited today. Laundry apps, too, still have a long way to go -- with a couple of small exceptions.

Enlarge Image

Some GE washing machines connect to Wi-Fi and a mobile app.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Case in point: the GE Laundry app for Android and iPhone. Follow the steps to connect compatible GE washers and dryers with the app and it will display a nice readout of the time remaining on your wash/dry cycle. It looks great, but you can't actually initiate a cleaning cycle remotely.

LG's Twin Wash washing machine is app-compatible, but the software was extremely glitchy during testing. The same goes for the wonky Samsung Smart Home app that's designed to work with its Wi-Fi-enabled washers. 

Whirlpool's Android and iPhone app is our favorite laundry software so far. You can start/pause runs remotely, as well as view the time remaining on a cycle.  The app can even alert you when a cycle ends and provide energy usage stats based on info from your local electric company.

There's one significant drawback, though. You have to enable a feature called "Remote Start" on your compatible Whirlpool washing machine before you leave your house. That means you have to anticipate when you'll want to access your washer remotely, rather than just pulling up the app and start a cycle on-demand.

So even the best of today's laundry-related software still needs some help to be truly useful, but the trend is promising as more manufacturers introduce smart Wi-Fi-enabled washers.

Enlarge Image

Using Whirlpool's washer and dryer app.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The future of laundry

It's an exciting time for the laundry industry. Companies like Samsung and LG are taking more of an interest in the US market and we're seeing a lot of new features and technology as a result -- things like mega-capacity washing machines, app integration, models that come with sinks and even some that have secondary washers hiding in a traditional-looking front-load pedestal or a shallow top-load compartment.

That's forcing other manufacturers to reimagine products that have been around for generations, leading to innovations like GE's voice control via Amazon Alexa. It also means that you have more options than ever before.

So before you start dreaming about adding a supersize washer (and companion dryer) to your house, measure your laundry room space (and your doorways), weigh your cubic-foot-capacity needs against front- and top-load performance and efficiency trends. Think about your budget, too. And if you have more than $1,000 to spend on a washer, you might just be able to enjoy some of the new and innovative things we're seeing in the laundry market today.