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Shopping for a budget fridge usually means settling on a boring build that's devoid of design-minded features. True to form, the $800 GE GTE18GMHES top-freezer fridge is nothing fancy, but it at least looks the part of something slightly less frugal, thanks to a distinctive slate finish.
There's good stuff happening inside of it, too. Despite larger temperature swings than you'll see with more expensive models, GE's fridge held its own in our tests, with consistent, dependable averages and no worrisome warm spots. With 17.5 cubic feet of capacity, it isn't the biggest top freezer money can buy, but we still came away impressed with its ability to store bulky items. It even managed to outperform the larger-sized Frigidaire Gallery top-freezer model, which costs $200 more. There aren't a lot of bells or whistles with this model (par for the course in this price range), but it keeps food cold reliably well and looks good doing it. If you're looking for something simple yet stylish, you could definitely do worse.
If you look at GE's slate-finished top freezer and see a cheap fridge with a fresh coat of paint, I really can't blame you. After all, slate looks aside, this is is still a run-of-the-mill top freezer, so you'll want to look elsewhere if you want high-end design or unique features. That slate finish is really the only trick up this refrigerator's sleeve.
Still, looks matter when we're talking about something you're going to have to look at each and every day -- and I say this fridge looks good. Call me a sucker for slate, but the finish helps it to appear nicer and more expensive than it actually is. I also appreciated that it wasn't as shiny or as susceptible to fingerprints as a stainless steel fridge might be.
Open the fridge up, and you'll find an interior that's just slightly nicer than the average top freezer. Compared to cheaper fridges in GE's own catalog, the GTE18GMHES adds in spill-proof glass shelving and humidity controls for the two crisper bins. Aside from that, there really isn't a lot here to get excited about.
You'll also find the refrigerator's main temperature dial. Specific temperatures aren't marked -- instead, you get vague settings for "cold," "colder," and "coldest," with GE recommending the "colder" setting. Those settings apply to both the fridge and the freezer, meaning that you can't dial one up or down without affecting the other. More on that in just a bit.
My only real complaints with the interior are pretty minor. The bottom in-door shelf doesn't stick out as far as the shelf above it, which makes getting things in and out of it a bit awkward. The spill-proof shelving works well at isolating messes, except for the glass that sits above the crisper bins. It isn't sealed at the edges, meaning that any liquid spilled on it tends to dribble over the sides and get trapped underneath.
In terms of capacity, the GTE18GMHES offers 17.5 cubic feet of total storage space, 13.5 of which is dedicated to the fridge. That's not bad at all for a refrigerator that's only 28 inches wide. Sure enough, when I tested things out with our standard load of groceries, I was able to fit everything in with room to spare.
I liked that I was able to fit bulky items like soda and a six-pack of beer right in the door -- that isn't always the case with fridges at this end of the spectrum. The crisper bins felt a bit cramped though. Our faux celery stalks barely fit inside (the fact that they're made of a rubbery plastic that doesn't snap when you bend it probably helped.)
All told, it's a basic but functional build that gets more right than it gets wrong. Even without the slate finish, I'd be more or less satisfied with it at the price I'd be paying.
As said before, the GTE18GMHES doesn't let you dial in to a specific temperature, but the recommended setting of "colder" seemed to be the closest to the 37 degree Fahrenheit mark that we typically test at, so that's where we started our performance tests.
Over three days of testing, the fridge saw greater temperature fluctuations than more expensive fridges with more sophisticated cooling mechanics, which wasn't surprising. It still held its own, though, with consistent averages throughout the body of the fridge, along with reasonably cool temperatures in the doors. The averages in the freezer ran a few degrees warmer than the ideal of 0 degrees, but nothing problematic by any stretch.
Looking at the minute-by-minute graph for the fridge, you can see where those averages are coming from. With regular cooling cycles, the fridge manages to keep things steady over the long run, never letting the main body of the fridge (the blue lines) creep much higher than 37, and holding the door and drawers (the green and red lines) right below 40 -- a benchmark for food safety set by the FDA. Only the bottom in-door shelf (the light green line) and the butter bin (orange) spend the majority of the test above 40, neither of which is a serious concern.
What really impresses me the most about that graph are the blue lines representing the main shelving. All three stick close together for the duration of the test -- that tells us that the refrigeration mechanics are doing a good job of cooling things evenly throughout the entire fridge.
We also test our fridges at colder settings -- typically with the fridge set to 33 degrees F, but in the case of the GTE18GMHES, we set the fridge to "coldest." During this test, the freezer did a much better job, falling much closer to 0 degrees, but the refrigerator got too chilly for our liking. In the body of the fridge and even in some of the in-door shelving, the average temperature fell below freezing, which isn't what you want.
In sum, the "coldest" setting is ideal for the freezer but too cold for the fridge, and the recommended "colder" setting is very solid for the fridge but a touch too warm for the freezer. Of the two, I'd much prefer the latter, although I might dial it back down just a bit towards "coldest" to try and keep the freezer closer to 0.
There's likely a "Goldilocks" zone on the dial that's just right for each user, but if finding it gets too tedious, the recommended settings are a safe bet. For better temperature control, you might consider upgrading to a model with independent controls for the fridge and the freezer.
In addition to testing cooling performance, we make sure to test each fridge for usability concerns too -- chiefly, figuring out just how much stuff you'll be able to cram into it. After filling it with our standardized grocery load, we try to see how many different large stress-test items we can stuff in as well.
First, we test to see if we can get any of our six stress test items in without rearranging the shelves, and without moving any of the groceries around too much. By that standard, we were able to fit four of the items in on their own: a party platter, a roasting pan, a casserole dish, and a pitcher, When we tried stuffing them all in at once, we could only fit three -- either the party platter or roasting pan just couldn't fit. The two items that couldn't fit at all were a bulky cake tray with a tall, domed lid, and an extra-large pizza box. The pizza actually came close, but we couldn't quite close the door.
Once that's done, we repeat the test -- except now, we're allowed to move stuff around as much as needed, including the shelves. After squeezing as much food into the in-door shelves as possible, then consolidating the rest to free up space, I was able to fit five out of six items in all at once -- everything except for that pizza box. The fridge was undeniably stuffed, with plenty of items buried in the back, but we were able to close the door, so we called it a win.
Compare those results with those of the $1,000 Frigidaire Gallery top freezer model, which boasts 14.2 cubic feet of storage space in the fridge -- slightly more than GE. Though it was able to fit a greater number of stress test items individually in each test (including that tricky pizza box), it wasn't able to fit as many as once -- two items to GE's three in the standardized arrangement test, and three items to GE's five in the optimized test. That's a strong result for GE, and solid evidence that there's more to capacity than just the number.
The GE GTE18GMHES is a standout among bargain-priced refrigerators, and not just for its attractive slate exterior. Inside, the cooling performance is steady and consistent, with accurate averages across all main sections of the fridge. There's also more storage space than you might expect from a 28-inch fridge, and more wiggle room for bulky items than we've seen with other top-freezer models.
You can find top freezers for less than $800, including stainless steel models, and you'll find a greater number of interesting features if you're willing to spend a little more. Still, if you're looking for an inexpensive, no-frills appliance that doesn't have the look of a compromise, this fridge gets enough right for me to recommend it without reservation.