Editors' note: This is an expanded version of an article from the summer 2015 issue of the CNET Magazine.
Imagine a refrigerator with a water dispenser that identifies the size of your glass. Don't bother standing there while it fills; instead, set your glass down, hit a button and walk away. The future? Hardly, as that feature already exists . That same fridge can also dispense an exact amount of water. Need 2 cups for a recipe? You won't need to dirty a measuring cup. Other fridges can dispense hot water or even coffee, have shelves that double as serving trays, or even have compartments that can switch between fridge and freezer temps.
What used to be a simple box with a block of ice has gradually evolved in features, style and performance. Gone are the days where fridge tech was largely the same -- now it's diversified enough to make shopping for a refrigerator a baffling experience.
Fortunately, CNET is here to help. At our facility in Louisville, Ky., we've devised a series of tests to compare refrigerators, which despite their differences still fall into a predictable pattern. Each type has its typical warm spots that could cause your milk or eggs to spoil more quickly. Knowing where those are will help you find the best fridge type to buy or just better use the one you already have. And from there, you just need to know which features are worth an upgrade, and which are just for show.
When I think of a typical refrigerator, I picture a large fridge compartment with a single door and a small freezer just above. That's what I grew up with, and it's still the most common of the four basic refrigerator types pictured below. Called a top-freezer model, it's also the cheapest full-size refrigerator out there and the most old-fashioned.
You might expect then, that top-freezer models, which range in price from $500 to $1,500, generally perform worse than more luxurious French-door models that cost anywhere from $1,800 to as much as $6,000. The good news, especially for budget-conscious buyers, is we haven't found that to be the case.
Thorough testing, not just a refrigerator's price, will tell you how well it performs. In our Louisville lab, we use a temperature- and humidity-controlled testing chamber to do the hard work for you. We start by putting wires capable of measuring temperature, called thermocouples, onto each shelf of every compartment of the fridges we test. The thermocouples then sit in a jar of solution to minimize temperature fluctuations due to the fridge's internal airflow.
The other end of each wire connects to our data gathering system. Then, we load up the fridges with items to simulate a load of items, using things like bottles of water and soda, and frozen spinach and juice concentrate in the freezer.
Once it's all loaded up, we gather more than 200,000 points of data over the course of three days. Our goal is to gauge how well a fridge maintains its temperature over time. We open the doors of both the fridge and freezer at regular intervals throughout the test to simulate real world use. Then, after three days at the default temperature settings, we turn the dial colder and do it all again.
At the end of it all, we assess how it did. Did it average close to the set point? Did it avoid big spikes and dips in temperature? The Food and Drug Administration recommends keeping spoilable food like dairy products, meats and veggies below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything above that mark we consider too warm. And anything below 32 degrees Fahrenheit is too cold because your refrigerated food can freeze.
Freezer temperature isn't as pivotal. Once food's frozen, it's less sensitive. The ideal mark is 0 degrees Fahrenheit, again according to the FDA. If it's much colder, you'll hasten how quickly your food loses its moisture -- much warmer, and you'll shorten the time it can stay frozen without going bad.
Top freezers generally came out of our tests looking good. It's a simple principle that cool air is heavier than warm air, and thus pushes warmer air upward (aka heat rises), so the lower part -- the fridge -- tends to stay nice and cool. On the other hand, the freezers can run a couple of degrees warmer than zero degrees. Both the $800 GE GTE18GMHES and the $1,000 Frigidaire FGTR1845QF kept things well below 40 degrees in the main body of the fridge, but the freezer ran anywhere from 3 to 7 degrees above the set point of 0.
Generally, that won't matter much, but if you tend to keep frozen foods for extended periods of time, you might want to look elsewhere. Fortunately, you have three other options.
French-door fridges and bottom-freezer models keep fresh food at eye level and put the freezer on the bottom. As you might expect, with the coldest section sitting on the bottom, the freezer portion on both models tends to run at an optimal temperature.
Rather, it's the top shelf of French-door or bottom-freezer fridges that tends to run warm. On both the $4,000 LG LMXS30776S and the $3,100 Electrolux EI28BS80KS4A , that upper shelf in the fresh food area averaged a temperature over 40 degrees at the default setting. That means you should avoid putting containers of cream cheese or cartons of yogurt in that spot on those models.
Side-by-side fridges put the compartments for fresh and frozen food next to each other. Counterintuitively, the top of these models tends to be the coldest. They take advantage of the fact that warm air rises and blow cold air in from the top, counting on it to sink. The idea is sound, and it works pretty well. But in the models we tested, the drawers at the very bottom didn't quite get enough air and averaged over 40 degrees.
The Samsung RH29H9000SR averaged temps over 40 in both of its bottom drawers. Both the Kenmore 51832 and the LG LSXS26326S did slightly better -- the bottom drawers still averaged over 40 by a couple of degrees at the default temperature setting, but the upper drawer stayed cooler. If you keep fragile meats and cheeses in the drawers at the bottom of your fridge, you're better off avoiding side-by-side refrigerators.
We've seen some companies use a cold air fan, as opposed to evenly spaced vents, on other types of fridges as well. In fact, bottom freezers with the fan at the top have been the best all-around performers we've seen. The top shelf can run a little cold, actually, so you'll want to be careful about spreadable foods freezing, but the rest of the compartment showed great averages on models like the GE Artistry ABE20EGHBS and the LG LDC24370ST . Both earned high performance marks by keeping the entire main compartment consistently near the set point and below 40 degrees at the default setting.
Loading it up
After you pick a fridge type, a few simple tricks can help make the most out of it. For one, the doors of all models tend to run warmer than 40 degrees. Let door bins be your place for condiments, since they have plenty of preservatives, and store milk and dairy products in the main compartment.
Secondly, don't overfill your fridge. Avoid stacking items on top of each other if possible, and give each a little space on its sides. If you can grab something without knocking into its neighbor, you've done well. That way, the cold air blowing from the back of the fridge can circulate around your food, keeping it cool and allowing the air to reach every corner of the compartment.
Finally, separate your fruits and veggies into separate drawers. Some of the former, like apples and cantaloupes, release odorless gases which can speed the decay of veggies. If you have humidity sliders on your drawers, open them up to let the gas out if you're storing these fruits in them. Keep them shut for veggies, as they're more sensitive to moisture loss.
If you want to pay more for that dispenser that fills your glass automatically or lets you set the water temperature, go for it. But keep your expectations in check. Like with price, we've yet to spot a direct correlation between dispenser tricks and performance, so know you're paying a premium solely for the sake of that feature.
Also take care when considering trendy, futuristic designs. The door-in-door feature, in its various iterations, has gotten a lot of hype, for example, but we've found it isn't all it's cracked up to be.
The premise -- you can open a separate outer panel without opening the entire fridge door -- is billed as both convenient and efficient because you can access items in the door more easily while saving energy by letting less cold air escape.
It's eye-catching, sure, and it lives up to its convenience promise. But the problem is that according to CNET's tests, the door with the panel tends to run much warmer than other areas of the refrigerator. The door-in-door design also adds tedium to your normal routine. Since a barrier typically separates those easily accessible door bins from the rest of the fridge, navigating that obstacle as you load groceries can be a nuisance. You'll also pay a premium over similar models without this feature, so if you're at all on the fence about it, I'd pass.
As far as those serving tray shelves I mentioned in the intro, you'll only find them on high end Electrolux French door fridges like the EW28BS85KS . Using fridge shelves as a serving tray never appealed to me, even in concept. In practice, you have to tilt the shelves so much to get them into or out of the fridge that you'd ruin any food arrangements, and they make moving the shelves to better use the space in your fridge much tougher. It's a perfect example of a feature meant to make a fridge seem premium that gets in the way of day-to-day use.
Counter-depth refrigerators -- another recent designer trend similar to the door-in-door feature -- also have a downside: They aren't as deep as standard models. Sure, they might blend into your cabinetry more seamlessly, but you'll generally lose at least 5 cubic feet of space and will pay around $300 more for the look.
If you're looking at French door fridges with an in-door dispenser, you'll also want to make a note of the placement of the dispenser ice bin. Keep in mind, it'll be taking up room in the fridge, not the freezer. Containers built into the door keep from impeding too much on your space, but don't hold much ice. You'll also regularly find long bins in the upper left corner. Those fit more ice, but might cause your fridge to feel more cramped if you need to squeeze in a lot of groceries.
Features you should consider in a refrigerator
Some add-ons, however, are worth a little extra money.
Spill-proof shelves are great. I know this because we dump an 8-ounce glass of water on the top shelf of all the fridges we test and see how long it takes to clean up. Though it doesn't affect temperature performance, cleaning up is much faster with any type of spill-proof shelving than without. For a messy person like me, I'd call these shelves a must. The good news -- even fridges at the low end of the price spectrum can ship with this feature.
Folding shelves -- also a plus. We do load testing on all our fridges as we don't take the listed cubic feet at face value. We pack each fridge with groceries like milk, soda, condiments, beer and cheese, then stuff them some more with extra-large items you might want in your refrigerator on special occasions, like a party platter, a cake tray and a big pizza box.
Especially when dealing with such large or tall items, folding shelves make loading your fridge easier. They allow you to push the front half of a shelf under its back half, and put taller items on the space beneath. Especially since rearranging the actual shelves on almost any fridge is a pain, having this quick option to easily shift configurations when you need it is great.
Drawers with custom temperature settings give you a nice, extra spot for particularly sensitive food that needs special care.
By the same token, having a customizable compartment that can switch between fridge temps and freezer temps allows a great deal of flexibility when buying groceries or planning for a party. Samsung's 4-door fridges like the $6,000 Chef Collection RF34H9960S4 use these compartments to offer enough space to fit your own grocery store. As the $6,000 price indicates, though, be prepared to pay a premium for the extra compartment.
Both folding shelves and customized temperature drawers are becoming more and more common, but tend to be found only on higher-end models.
Keeping your cool
As different as fridges look from style to style and brand to brand, they have a lot of similarities. Knowing where the warm spots are in a French door vs. a top freezer can help you make better use of your current fridge, and can help you decide which new type will best fit your lifestyle. To be sure, in our tests we've definitely found some fridges to be better than others. But any fridge can work as long as you know where to keep your more fragile foods.
The better ones just don't need as much accommodation. They might also have a few cool features. Just be careful when paying more for those, as some can negatively affect performance. Still, spending more for something that looks good and has features that excite you makes sense. A fridge is an investment you want to keep for years. You have plenty of options. Keep your cool, and you'll make the right choice.