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Refrigerators

Fridge face-off! French door vs. side-by-side

Your refrigerator's design can make a big difference in your daily kitchen experience. Let's take a look at two GE models to get a better sense of how French doors and side-by-sides compare.

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You're buying a new refrigerator, and you've ruled out the old school top and bottom freezer kinds that many of us grew up with. You want something bigger and at least a little bit fancier -- that means you've likely narrowed it down to either a French door fridge or a side-by-side model.

Both have their pros and cons, and picking between the two is largely a matter of preference. So, with two GE fridges on deck for reviews here at CNET Appliances -- a midrange side-by-side and a midrange French door model -- I thought the time might be right to step back and take a look at how the two refrigerator styles stack up, and to offer some tips on how to decide which one is right for your kitchen.

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You get what you pay for?

The GE GSE25HEMDS side-by-side refrigerator.

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The fridges I've been testing for the past few weeks -- the GE GSE25HEMDS side-by-side and the GE GFE26JSMSS French door -- are both pretty decent examples of what you can expect from midrange models in their respective categories.

On the side-by-side front, the $1,800 model isn't quite a bare-bones, entry level fridge, but it's not too far off. You can actually get a nearly identical GE side-by-side for about $500 less. The extra money you'll spend on the GSE25HEMDS will net you improved efficiency and a classy "black slate finish," but that's really about it as far as the actual upgrade is concerned.

That's pretty much par for the course with side-by-sides. Aside from the occasional model with a door-in-door compartment, they don't typically come with a whole lot of bells and whistles. Model to model, what usually ends up setting them apart from one another is the size, the efficiency and the cooling performance. Those last two can be tricky to evaluate as you comparison shop -- but hey, that's where fridge testers like me come in. More on that front in just a bit.

The GE GFE26JSMSS French door refrigerator.

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On the French door side of things, the $2,400 model I tested is also a step or two above entry level. It doesn't include any fancy features such as temperature-adjustable drawers or an auto-fill water dispenser, but it does include an in-door ice maker, something you typically won't find in French door models that retail for less than $2,000.

One last note: That $700 gulf between a fairly ho-hum GE side-by-side and a fairly ho-hum GE French door model is also pretty typical. French door fridges are trendier, so you should expect to pay more of a premium for them -- especially if you want something high-end.

Think about your space

Side-by-side and French door fridges both tend to be good picks for narrow kitchens since neither one requires you to open a door that runs the full width of the fridge. By splitting things down the middle, the doors only need to swing out half as far. The French door approach also tends to be slightly more efficient while in use, because you only need to open one door to get things in and out. Make a habit of that, and your fridge won't lose nearly as much cold air as you use it, and it won't need to work as hard to maintain its target temperatures.

Aside from aesthetics, what really separates side-by-sides and French doors is the way they make use of the space inside. For starters, French door models typically offer a little more room in the fridge section than comparable side-by-sides. The two GE models I've been testing are a pretty good example -- both offer about 25 cubic feet of total storage space, but the French door model's fridge compartment is about 2 cubic feet bigger than the one in the side-by-side.

Of course, the obvious flip side is that side-by-sides tend to offer more room in the freezer (aside from the space that gets eaten up by the ice maker, anyway). On top of that, the verticality of the design gives you multiple shelves for easier organization. You can keep short-term groceries on the high, easy-to-reach shelves, for instance, while leaving long-term frozen goods down below. In a French door, everything just tends to pile up together, and you'll always need to stoop down a little bit to get things out.

Side-by-sides like this one will sometimes struggle to keep consistent temperatures from shelf to shelf. Warm air is less dense, so it "rises" to the top -- and there's more room for it to rise in a side-by-side.

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Consider performance

Over five years covering the fridge category, side-by-side fridges have struggled more often than any other category in my cooling tests. The GE model I just finished testing was no exception -- at its default setting, the top two shelves in the main body of the fridge both returned average temperatures above 40 F, a benchmark for food safety used by the FDA.

Like I said, that's not uncommon among side-by-sides. The problem is the verticality of the design, which gives you a fridge compartment that spans the entire height of the fridge. Air that's colder and more dense will sink to the bottom, which makes it more of a challenge for side-by-sides to keep things consistent from shelf to shelf. It's even more of a problem in this GE model, since our heat map indicates that a majority of the cold air enters the fridge compartment at the bottom, just above the crisper bins.

The French door model fared a little better, but we still saw a pesky hot spot on that top main body shelf.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

As for the French door model, it performed better than the side-by-side, but not by as much as you might expect. At the default setting, temperatures ran warm throughout the entire right door -- a common trouble spot for French door models. The average temperature on the refrigerator's top shelf was also notably warmer than the rest of the fridge, eking up above 40 at the default setting. One small consolation -- dialing down to the coldest setting fixed that problem. The same can't be said of the side-by-side

Performance will vary from brand to brand and model to model, but the comparison between these two GE fridges is pretty indicative of what you should expect between the two categories. French doors do tend to perform a little better by virtue of the design, but don't expect a huge jump in cooling power -- and don't expect flawless performance. Your best bet: Shop for models reviewed by sites like ours that conduct full cooling tests on each model we write about. When we spot good performance, we'll tell you all about it.

In the end, it all comes back to preference. It's French doors or bust for some folks, while others like the side-by-side approach (not to mention the fact that they typically cost a little less). Both have their pros and cons, and both will get the job done when it comes to keeping your food cold. Let us know which style you prefer in the comments, and for further fridge study, be sure to check our full reviews of the GE GFE26JSMSS French door and GE GSE25HEMDS side-by-side refrigerators.