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Whether you need a new dishwasher because your decade-old model is finally quitting on you, or you're just in the market for a fancy upgrade, shopping for one can be intimidating. Walk into any appliance store and you'll see a dozen models of exactly the same height and width with similar stainless finishes and seemingly interchangeable cycles and features. How are you supposed to pick?

Fortunately, similar surfaces belie drastic differences from brand to brand and even model to model. We're here to help you sort through the ranks and find the dishwasher that fits you best.

The biggest factors to consider

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Having a price range in mind will help you to start narrowing your options. If you're on a strict budget, don't worry. Plenty of capable dishwashers can be had for $500 or less, especially if you're willing to negotiate. For $600 to $900, you'll be able to find a nice mid-range model with a few features. Once you get above $1,000, shoot for the moon and look for a model with everything you could want.

Also, be willing to negotiate. Like with cars, you should be able to walk away with large appliances for a chunk off of their listed price.

Other than price, here are the biggest factors to consider to help you narrow down your choices.

Cleaning power

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Budget model performance comparison: from left to right, these models cost $700, $500, $650 and $500.

Steve Conaway/CNET

Of the major factors, budgets shoppers will be glad to know that we've found little correlation between price and performance in our testing. The $500 Kenmore 13479 scored a fantastic 87 percent on our rigorous cleaning tests. The $1,100 Frigidaire FPID2497RF only scored a 55 percent. The $1,200 GE PDT750SSFSS posted a 74 percent total.

Of course, lower priced machines aren't universally better at cleaning. The $1,200 LG LDT9965BD earned a 90.3 percent. We've also seen plenty of variation in different models from the same manufacturer. That $1,100 Frigidaire isn't great at cleaning, but the $650 Frigidaire FGID2466QF is. It earned a highly respectable 83 percent.

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Mid-range comparison: From left to right, these models cost $600, $900, $700 and $800.

Steve Conaway/CNET

So the bad news: cleaning performance is tough to predict based on manufacturer or price. Our reviews will help sort the wheat from the chaff.

The good news: if cleaning power is your primary concern, you can find it without breaking the bank. Plus, we've yet to test a dishwasher that isn't at least competent at cleaning. If you rinse or scrape your dishes before loading them, they'll probably come out of your dishwasher spotless regardless of which model you pick. The better cleaners simply require less work on your part and can handle tougher, stuck on dirt.

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High-end comparison: these models cost $1,100, $1,200 and $1,200 respectively.

Steve Conaway/CNET

Noise level

Unlike cleaning power, a dishwasher's noise rating often does directly correlate with its price. If you want a whisper quiet model, expect to pay a premium. That said, even low-end models are significantly quieter than your parents' old, racket-inducing machine.

You can easily look up any dishwasher's sound rating. We list it in our reviews. You can also search the model number online, find the manufacturer's page for the model and scroll down to specs. We've yet to test a machine that anecdotally sounded different than the listed rating.

Think about the location of your dishwasher, and what those sound ratings mean to decide if an upgrade will be worth it. Old fashioned dishwashers tended to rate around 80 dBs, meaning they were as loud as a disposal. You definitely couldn't have a conversation in the room where it was running, and you could still probably hear it throughout your entire house.

Low-end: 50ish dBs

Even $500 dishwashers now tend to have sound ratings in the mid-50s. The $500 Kenmore mentioned above is rated at 53 dB. The $500 GE ADT521PGJBS is 54 dB. If you're in the same room while these dishwashers are running, you'll have to speak up. 50 dB is about the noise level of a quiet conversation. 50 dB isn't loud enough to wake up a sleeping child in an upstairs bedroom, though. In fact, by the time you get to the next room, you should barely hear it. If your dishwasher is removed from where your family gathers, you probably don't need to pay more for a quieter model.

Mid-range: mid 40s

If your family does tend to converse in the kitchen, paying for a mid-range model and a sound rating in the 40s might make sense. For $600 to $900, look for a sound rating in the mid 40s. At that level, you'll still be able to hear it at its loudest moments when you're in the same room, but you should easily be able to talk over it.

High-end: low 40s to high 30s

If you're particularly sensitive to noise, you can find models that you'll barely be able to hear even when you're in the same room. Both the $900 LG LDF7774ST and the $800 Bosch SHS63VL5UC are rated at 44 dB. Cross into four digits, and you'll find plenty of models at 42 dB. You can even find dishwashers rated in the high 30s. At that level, you'll barely be able to hear the dishwasher even if you're standing right next to it. The models in the low 40s will still be audible at the loudest parts of their cycle, but only if you're listening for noise while in the same room.

Speed and Cycles

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The cycles of the Kenmore 13479.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Most dishwashers tend to have some combination of the following cycle options:

  • Normal: The default cycle for most dishwashers. Meant for a full load of dishes with an ordinary amount of soil (food dirt). The energy and sound ratings (as well as our own performance scores) are gauged using this cycle.
  • Express: Cleans lightly soiled dishes or smaller loads when you need a quick turnaround.
  • Auto: Makes full use of the dishwasher's sensors. Adapts the cycle time to a mixed load based on how dirty the dishes are.

You'll often find these variants as well:

  • Heavy: For bigger dishes like pots and pans, or ordinary dishes with stuck on dirt.
  • China: Lowers the water pressure for more fragile dishes like wine glasses or fine china.
  • Rinse only: A quick way to spray off your dishes.
  • Efficient: This cycle uses less water and energy. With some dishwashers, it takes a little longer than normal. With others, it's meant for more lightly soiled dishes.

Some brands call these cycles something slightly different. For example, "Heavy" could be called "Pots & Pans" or "Efficient" could be "Energy Saver" or "eWash" but the central idea of each of these is the same across brands. Check the instruction manual of a dishwasher (often available online) for a listing of the cycles and their respective range of times.

Make sure the dishwashers you're considering have the cycles you want. For instance, if you have a lot of gatherings with wine drinkers, you'll want one with a "gentle" or "china" cycle. That said, look for options that do effectively the same thing -- lowering the water pressure in this case -- before ruling a dishwasher out for not having the cycle you want.

Other factors to consider

Speaking of options, once you know what you're looking for in terms of the basics, it's time to consider which other factors are important to you.

Type of dishwasher

Most dishwashers are 24 inches wide and meant to be permanently fixed in place under your kitchen counter. If you're looking for a standard dishwasher, that's what you need. All of the options above and below fit into this type, which is why most dishwashers look so similar at first glance.

However, if you have less space to work with, you can find compact 18-inch wide dishwashers from most manufacturers. You can even find portable dishwashers on wheels, or specialty dishwashers that you can build into a drawer or fit on your countertop. Look for those if you have strict space limitations or just want something unique. Otherwise, the 24-inch built-in variety offers the most variety of brands, features and prices.

Style and finish

Typically, the exterior of dishwashers will be white, black or stainless steel -- the standard trio for all large appliances. Expect a $100 price bump to acquire stainless, but it's now available on models in all price tiers.

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GE's Slate finish is a nice departure from traditional stainless steel. This model also has physical buttons, a scoop handle and front controls.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Some manufacturers offer a unique finish. For example, GE has Slate, LG has black stainless and Frigidaire has a smudge-proof stainless. Look for these if you're sick of stainless but don't want something bland like white or black.

Other than the finish, the shape of the handle, along with the type and location of the control panel are usually the only other differences on the exterior of dishwashers. Handles can be subtle scoop handles, squared or rounded.

Control panels will either use physical buttons or digital touch controls. Digital controls are functionally the same as buttons, but less bulky. Look for a time display on the control panel. Does it estimate the time to completion as you select cycles and options? Does it stay on as the dishwasher runs? This varies from model to model, so check carefully.

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This Frigidaire dishwasher has fully integrated touch controls.

Chris Monroe/CNET

The control panel will either be on the front of the dishwasher or hidden on the upper lip. The latter is called a "fully integrated" control panel and these models tend to be more expensive. As you'd expect, touch controls are pricier than physical buttons. If you don't care about these aesthetics, looking for a front control panel with buttons can help you keep the price down on an otherwise feature rich dishwasher.

Capacity and use of space

Despite the fact that all standard dishwashers are 24 inches wide, the capacity from model to model does vary. Higher-end dishwashers have less space between tines so you can fit more dishes. They also tend to have more jets to help water reach into these smaller spaces. If you have bigger dishes, higher-end dishwashers usually offset the smaller spaces with foldable tines so you can still fit your pots and pans.

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We dirty 10 place settings for our dishwasher tests.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Manufacturers usually list a dishwasher's capacity on their websites. You'll notice it's given in terms of the number of place settings it can fit. According to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, one place setting consists of a large dinner plate, a small snack plate, a saucer, a bowl, a coffee cup, a drinking glass, a knife, two teaspoons, a dinner fork and a small salad fork. Most full-sized dishwashers hold between 12 and 16 place settings.

Don't take that number for granted, though. Take a look inside the dishwasher while you shop. Does the arrangement of tines make sense to you? How many sets of tines fold down? Can you raise and lower the upper rack? Is it easy to do or is it a pain?

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The LG LDS5040ST has lots of tines that fold down and change angles.

Chris Monroe/CNET

How many dishes a dishwasher can supposedly fit isn't as important as how comfortable you are with the racks and if you can find a good spot for the dishes you wash the most. The dishwasher's instruction manual will show recommended loading patterns if you need help envisioning how you'll use the space.

Drying performance

Like washing performance, drying performance doesn't vary directly with price and you won't be able to determine this quality on your own while shopping. Check to see if the dishwasher has options for extra drying, but even that might not lead to the perfect results you're looking for. If dry dishes are important to you, our product reviews can help point you in the right direction.

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Our reviews detail the performance and drying scores of every model. The Bosch SHS63VL5UC is our best performer so far.

Steve Conaway/CNET

Options

Much more so than with cycles, the options you can add to a cycle vary wildly from dishwasher to dishwasher. In addition to adding drying time, some dishwashers let you just wash the top or bottom rack. Others let you add steam to the cleaning or adjust the temperature of the rinse water.

Look the options over to see if one fits your well into how you'd like to use your dishwasher. You will tend to get more options at higher prices.

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The Electrolux EI24ID30QS has lots of options you can add on to your cycle.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Unique extras and smarts

If you want a little extra space or you're particular about silverware, look for a dishwasher with a third rack. They're becoming more common and are no longer exclusive to high end models.

Certain GE models like the $600 GDF610PMJES have bottle wash jets -- which let you clip tall items to them. This Kenmore model has jets for a casserole dish at the back of its bottom rack. The Bosch SHS63VL5UC has an info light which shines on the floor as it runs -- a handy extra since it's quiet enough that you might forget it's running otherwise. An upcoming model from Electrolux will actually lift the bottom rack for you for easier unloading.

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The Electrolux ComfortLift raises the bottom rack as you pull it out.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Additionally, we're seeing the onset of connected dishwashers. Both Whirlpool and GE have app enabled models that let you check on the progress of your cycle from afar. The Whirlpool and GE smart dishwashers also integrate with Amazon Dash, so your dishwasher will order more detergent automatically when you start running low.

Thus far, we haven't seen any dishwasher smarts worth running out to get, but with all else equal, connectivity and unique extras make a nice bonus.

Tub type

Cheaper models use plastic tubs. Higher-end models have stainless steel tubs. Note that this is different than the finish. You can have a stainless steel exterior on a dishwasher with a plastic tub. Stainless tubs are a little more durable and energy efficient, but the tub material won't affect cleaning performance.

Efficiency

Speaking of efficiency, the Environmental Protection Agency uses its EnergyStar rating system to recommend products that save energy without sacrificing features or functionality. You can find this rating -- as well as a dishwasher's estimated energy use and cost per year -- on the yellow tag on the front of the machine.

Filter type

Believe it or not, most modern dishwashers make you do a little maintenance work for the sake of quieter performance. The reason old fashioned dishwashers were as loud as disposals is because they actually had a food disposer built in. You can still find models with these automatic food grinders, but they're rare.

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Most dishwashers now use easily removable mesh filters.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Almost all high-end models use a mesh filter like the one pictured above. Even dishwashers with automatic filters aren't as loud as they used to be, but if you want a super quiet machine, you'll need to occasionally rinse off the mesh filter. Check the instruction manual for the manufacturer's recommendation to see how often you'll need to do this. Don't fret -- removing the filter, rinsing it and putting it back is usually a five minute job at most.

Wrapping up: Pick your price and find your features

Now that you have an idea of what's out there, you won't have to compromise if you're shopping for a premium $1,000+ machine. Look for one with all of the above features that sounded appealing to you. Pick a couple of your favorite features if you're aiming in the mid-range between $600 and $900. If you need a budget machine for $500 or less, fear not, you can still find a competent cleaner. You might even find one with a nice mix of cycles to suit different occasions.

Picking the right dishwasher can be intimidating at first, but have a price range in mind, then pick a few features you want and you'll quickly be able to narrow your options. Our reviews can help you pick between your finalists, and soon, you'll be able to sort through the rows of similar looking options and find a dishwasher perfectly suited to your family's needs.

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