It's been over five years since I joined CNET to cover smart home gadgets and appliances. One of my chief beats: refrigerators. I've tested, reviewed and written about dozens of them over the years -- and seen just about every gimmicky fridge feature you can imagine.
Some have won me over more than others, but I still see lots of room for improvement. From fancy smart features to basic conveniences that seem obvious in hindsight, there are so, so many ways that the fridges of the future could be better -- scroll through and I'll show you what I mean.
Let's start with an easy one -- fridge design. Wander the appliances section of your nearest big box retailer, and you'll find an ocean of stainless steel appliances that all look alike. It's a "safe" finish for modern homeowners, but it isn't particularly inspired. After all, your fridge eats up a ton of real estate inside of your kitchen -- why not have one that really reflects your home's individual sense of style?
That's why I geek out a little bit when I see fridges like the new Cafe Series models from GE that offer better options for customizing the way your fridge looks. They're still playing it safe and neutral with black and white matte finishes, but the option for handles, knobs and other accents in tones like copper and brass is a definite step in the right direction. Now, how about some color?
You'll find options like these all over the market in Europe and Asia -- why shouldn't the US get some more colorful choices, too?
You know, since I mentioned those Cafe Series fridges a slide or two ago, one of their most unique features is a little Keurig coffee attachment that lets the fridge dispense a quick cup of cheap joe. I like the idea -- particularly because refrigerators have their own dedicated water line, meaning you'll never need to worry about keeping a reservoir filled -- but I wish manufacturers would push the envelope a little bit.
Why limit yourself to K-Cups? Why not pack an even better coffee-making system into that in-door dispenser, one capable of brewing higher-quality coffee, or even specialty beverages on demand? If you need room, you could even ditch the ice maker -- I know I'd be willing to go back to ice cube trays if it meant a perfect Americano to start my morning every day.
If I lost you at "ditch the ice maker," then this one's for you. It isn't hard to find a fridge that makes and dispenses its own ice, and some even let you pick between cubed or crushed ice, but for my money, nothing beats chewable nugget ice with crunchy, compacted layers of flaky, frozen satisfaction. You know the kind if you've enjoyed a beverage from Sonic, or from an above-average gas station. Wouldn't it be great if there was a fridge that could dish it out on demand and save you the trip?
Doing so would require some re-engineering because nugget ice is a little trickier to produce than your average cube. Still, GE's FirstBuild microfactory hit paydirt the other year when its countertop Opal Nugget Ice Maker became a certified smash hit. Pack a smaller version of that bad boy into the door of a fridge, and I know I'd be sold.
One last GE-inspired wishlist item: A better, smarter water dispenser -- and preferably one that I can control with my voice.
GE was the first to offer fridges that can dish out a specific amount of water, and even some that can automatically fill up a pitcher or pot and stop before it overflows. Both are cool, but I don't want to fuss with a touchscreen menu when I'm cooking. Just let me set my pot down and say "fill 'er up with 6 cups of water." Now we're cooking.
Speaking of voice commands, the only voice-activated fridge on the market -- at least until LG's long-delayed Alexa fridge hits retail -- is Samsung's Bixby-powered Family Hub Refrigerator. I had high hopes for this smart fridge when it first launched, but the newest touchscreen operating system seems more sluggish than before, and the Bixby voice controls were underwhelming when they finally arrived.
The fridge boasts its own recipe app, for instance, and it's pretty good! But if you ask Bixby to pull up spaghetti recipes, it won't use it. Instead it'll just pull up a Bing search result on the refrigerator's web browser. Lame.
Meanwhile, voice-activated kitchen gadgets such as the Lenovo Smart Display are starting to get really compelling, primarily because of how good they're getting at pulling up a recipe and walking you through it using simple, intuitive voice commands.
Pack a display like this into a fridge (and the refined voice controls that come with it), and we might just have something.
If you want a smart fridge that's truly smart about pulling up relevant recipes for you to cook, then of course it'll need to have an understanding of the ingredients you have on hand. Some smart fridges let you enter your groceries into the system manually for the process of tracking inventory and populating shopping lists, but that's way too tedious a method.
The better approach? Equip that smart fridge with a barcode scanner like the one on Amazon's Dash Wand. Better still: Partner with grocery chains to put a single barcode at the bottom of your grocery receipt -- scan it once, and the fridge knows all the ingredients you have on hand, plus a rough approximation of their expiration dates.
Some smart fridges are also starting to include cameras that let you look inside using your phone -- a handy way of checking how much milk is left while you're out at the store. I also appreciated the way Samsung's Family Hub let you tag each item in the fridge with a little expiration timer, but the problem is that those tags won't follow your food around if you move it to a different spot.
Smarter cameras capable of tracking food within the fridge or even approximating quantities would be a nice step forward. Imagine parking at the grocery and receiving a geotagged notification on your phone from your fridge saying "hey, FYI, you've only got about a cup of milk left."
Let's talk about performance, shall we? We pay close attention to it here at CNET Appliances, but it isn't always easy to track at home. That's a shame, because knowing which shelves are the coldest can help you make better decisions about where to store your perishable groceries, and save you money in the long run.
You can check performance for yourself by tossing a thermometer into a glass of water and leaving it on a shelf overnight, but I'd appreciate a fridge that made things easier by including a couple of built-in thermometers of its own. Aside from making it possible to keep a closer eye on cooling power, it'd keep the manufacturers honest.
This one will probably never happen, but a fridge geek can dream, right?
I mentioned my desire for fridges that are smarter about talking you through a recipe, but what about fridges that do a better job of serving as cooking gadgets in and of themselves?
That's what we saw from Samsung's Chef Collection fridge a few years back, with cooking-inspired features such as this built-in marination tray. It was way too expensive for most people, but it doesn't seem like it'd be too hard to put likable features like those into something less expensive.
Another cooking-specific feature from that fridge that I liked: The removable "Chef Basket," which made excellent use of the otherwise cramped area behind the in-door icemaker.
It's designed to store things like freshly chopped veggies or grated cheese -- when you're ready to use them, the whole thing pops right out. Such a smart way to prep for Taco Tuesday on Monday night. Put it in a cheaper fridge, Samsung!