Refrigerators have long been thought of as the boxy, boring behemoths of the kitchen, and buying one used to be as simple as choosing between eggshell and off-white. But times have changed, with manufacturers increasingly thinking outside of the box to try to redefine what the modern refrigerator is really capable of.
As a result, today's shopper will find an ever-increasing range of color and style options, cleverly designed units designed to disappear into your decor, and a wide variety of new smart features, including ones aimed at transforming your kitchen itself into an entertainment hub. It's enough to make you wonder if the ol' icebox might be going through a bit of an identity crisis.
This reinvention of the refrigerator comes with an overwhelming abundance of new models to choose from. Fortunately, you've come to the right place -- a handy overview designed to help you narrow down the countless options and come out confident that the refrigerator you're buying will give you the most bang for your buck.
In the end, finding the right fridge is all about understanding your own needs and asking the right questions, so let's get started with:
What type of fridge do I want?
Style-wise, you've got four options to choose from, and each comes with its own pros and cons. Figuring out which one is best for you is the first, most obvious step towards making a final buying decision.
When I say the word "fridge," chances are good that this is the style that pops into your head. With the bottom two-thirds dedicated to fresh-food storage and the freezer unit sitting on top, most of us probably struggled to reach the Popsicles in a top freezer unit when we were kids, or maybe we used one in our first apartment.
Tastes have moved forward since then, so if you're looking for something modern, high-end, and feature-rich, then a top-freezer model probably isn't for you. If, however, style isn't as much of a concern, then you'll find that top freezers offer some of the best bargains on the market. Plus, there are still enough being made to offer a solid variety of choices.
Price: $479 to $2,199
Average dimensions: Width: 29 inches; Depth: 31 inches; Depth with door open 90 degrees: 58 inches; Height: 66 inches
Best suited for: Bargain shoppers who aren't looking for anything too flashy.
If you're looking for something on the simpler side, and would enjoy slightly easier access to your fresh foods, then a bottom-freezer unit might be right for you. Bottom-freezer units aren't much different from top-freezer units except for the fact that the freezer is located -- you guessed it -- on the bottom. This means that you won't have to hunch over while rooting around for commonly used ingredients.
Of course, this also means that frozen foods will be located down around your ankles -- though a majority of models now come with drawer-style freezer doors, which can make getting the ice cream out a little easier. Bottom-freezer units tend to be just slightly bigger than top freezers, but there's also less variety of models to choose from.
Price: $999 to $1,899
Average dimensions: Width: 29 inches; Depth: 32 inches; Depth with door open 90 degrees: 59 inches; Height: 67 inches
Best suited for: Home cooks who don't mind bending over to get into the freezer.
Side-by-side units split your fridge right down the middle, offering you frozen foods on the left and fresh foods on the right. Some models offer equal real estate for both sections, but most allocate an extra couple of inches for the fridge. This can make for an especially narrow freezer section, so frozen-pizza aficionados might want to consider something a little less limiting.
Side-by-side units come in a wide variety of models and tend to showcase more features than their horizontally minded top and bottom freezer counterparts. Many of these features are aimed at saving space, especially when it comes to the shelving inside the doors. Side-by-side units also don't need as much clearance to open the doors, making them ideal for narrow kitchens. Due to the vertical split, you'll probably want to go with the widest model that will fit into your kitchen, and your budget.
Price: $1,149 to $3,099
Average dimensions: Width: 35 inches; Depth: 30 inches; Depth with door open 90 degrees: 45 inches; Height: 71 inches
Best suited for: Space-conscious consumers who still want a feature-rich fridge.
Highly popular, French-door models combine the drawer-style freezer of a bottom-freezer unit with the low-clearance doors of a side-by-side unit. This means that you'll have a full-width, double-door fridge with plenty of storage space. With your refrigerator door effectively split into two, it also means that you won't be letting quite as much cold air out when you're opening just one door to grab the milk.
With the high demand for French-door refrigerators, you're sure to find a huge variety of options, including models with top-of-the-line smart features you won't find with other styles. You can also upgrade the look of your fridge to match your kitchen or even camouflage itself entirely among your cabinets, but be aware that you'll likely be tacking a few thousand dollars onto the already steep price tag.
Price: $1,599 to $3,999 ($4,500 to $8,000 for a built-in cabinetry appearance)
Average dimensions: Width: 35 inches; Depth: 29 inches; Depth with door open 90 degrees: 48 inches; Height: 68 inches
Best suited for: Fashionable homeowners who want lots of space for groceries and the most advanced features available.
Selecting the style that's right for your kitchen is half the battle, and should give you a much clearer idea of what you want from your new refrigerator. But don't run off to the department store just yet, because you still have some very important questions to ask yourself, including:
How big do I really need my fridge to be?
The bigger, the better, right? Not necessarily!
It varies, but a general rule of thumb is that you'll want 4 to 6 cubic feet (cu. ft.) of refrigerator space per adult in your household, along with a little bit of extra contingency room. With full-size refrigerators ranging from 10 to 32 cu. ft., this means that a family of four probably won't want anything much less than 20 cubic feet, and might prefer something even roomier.
Of course, the biggest limiting factor is your kitchen, so be sure to measure to see how much width, height, and depth you've got to work with before you start shopping around.
All of that said, a bigger fridge means a bigger energy bill, so be careful not to splurge on extra space that you aren't actually going to need. You'll be paying more both upfront and down the line as you continue paying the power company to refrigerate that wasted space alongside your food.
If you're looking for something on the small side, you'll probably want to stick with a top or bottom freezer, as none of the other types of refrigerators come in sizes much smaller than 20 cu. ft. If your kitchen is particularly cramped, or if you're just looking for something small for a garage or a back room, you'll find compact-size models in both styles, too.
Do I need a counter-depth refrigerator?
You're likely to hear this term quite a bit as you shop around. As the name suggests, "counter-depth" refrigerators are simply refrigerators that are designed to align perfectly with the edges of your countertops, leaving only the refrigerator door sticking out. This gives your fridge the appearance of an expensive, custom-designed unit that's built directly into your kitchen's cabinetry -- without anything actually being custom-built.
Since they shave a few inches off the front of the fridge, counter-depth refrigerators are slightly less spacious than their normal-size counterparts. They also tend to cost a little bit more. Whether or not you're willing to sacrifice that space and pay extra for a more fashionable fridge is totally up to you, but for my money, it's a feature you should consider skipping.
And hey, while we're on the subject of features...
What features should I look for?
Refrigerators have come a long way since the debut of the egg holder and the butter bin. These days, you'll find a wide variety of features designed to bring a whole new level of functionality to your fridge. With the endless parade of trademarked names and bold claims, finding the features you actually want can quickly become overwhelming. So, which ones are worth it?
Take care of the foods you love
First, think about the things you like to cook and/or eat, then look for features that take really good care of those things. It's a safe bet that those are the features you'll enjoy using the most. Are you a devoted foodie who always wants a variety of fresh ingredients on hand? Many models offer sectional climate controls for the different compartments in your fridge or even dedicated, temperature-adjustable drawers. Do you live off of TV dinners and frozen leftovers? Look for advanced defrosting features designed to help eliminate freezer burn. Love a nice glass of pinot grigio? Look for a fridge with a built-in wine rack.
Get sneaky with your storage space
If you're constantly rearranging things in your fridge to make space for groceries, then look for storage-minded features designed to give you a hand. Shelves that slide in or fold up will make it a lot easier to make room for tall items, and the increasingly common door-in-a-door feature can transform your in-door shelves into a makeshift mini-fridge for kitchen staples like beverages and condiments.
One storage-minded consideration you might not have thought of: the ice maker. Some fridges situate it up on the top shelf -- the ice drops down through a chute in the door into your waiting glass. That's all well and good, but the icemaker eats up some obvious space inside of the fridge, and the bulky overhang of that in-door chute will tend to block off the in-door shelves underneath it.
That's why I tend to prefer fridges that squeeze the entire icemaker into the door. They tend to make less ice, but they'll also give you more usable space inside of the fridge. That's a fair trade-off in my book.
Consider the water dispenser
One trend that we've seen over the past few years: creativity from the water dispenser. GE is been leading the pack here, with French door models capable of dishing out the exact amount of water you want, and even ones capable of shutting off automatically once they detect that your glass, pitcher or pot is full. You'll even find nifty features in GE's less-expensive top-freezer models -- most notably, ones that come with an "Autofill Pitcher" that'll fill itself back up whenever you place it back in the fridge.
The brand's Cafe Series line of fridges can dispense hot water at a variety of temperature settings. The newest models even add in a mini-sized K-Cup brewer that'll let your fridge brew up a quick cup of coffee on demand. It's a surprisingly sensible addition, given that refrigerators have dedicated water lines -- that means you won't ever have to worry about keeping a reservoir full.
Of course if you keep shopping around, you'll also find refrigerators with touchscreens and built-in Wi-Fi, and plenty of bold manufacturer claims about smartening up your kitchen -- which brings us to one last question:
Do I need a smart refrigerator?
You can certainly live without one, if that's what you're asking -- particularly if affordability is your chief concern. Simply put, smart fridges don't come cheap, and whether or not the extra cost is worth it is really up to you.
For some, smart technology gives refrigerators a whole new cool factor, and the fact that we use our refrigerators every day makes these features a sound investment. For others, "smart" just seems like another word for "gimmicky." If this includes you, then spending an extra $1,000 or more in order to have a cutting-edge kitchen probably seems like a waste of money.
That said, don't be too quick to slam the door on so-called "smart" features, because there are plenty of them that live up to the name, and a growing variety of options to choose from, too. At CES 2017, LG even went so far as to say that it plans to start putting Wi-Fi radios into each and every refrigerator that it manufacturers.
In other words, we might be quickly approaching a point where smart refrigerators are the norm, not the exception.
So what do smart fridges actually do?
Glad you asked. Here's a quick rundown of what's currently out there:
- Energy monitoring: More and more, we're seeing connected refrigerators that are capable of syncing up with the smart grid in cities where it's available. Fridges like those can automatically schedule costly defrost cycles for the times when energy rates are at their lowest. One model from Whirlpool will even sync up with the Nest Learning Thermostat to take advantage of Nest's Rush Hour Rewards feature, or send your phone an alert if the power ever goes out.
- Smart multi-tasking: Some smart fridges aim to make your kitchen routine more efficient. That K-Cup-brewing Cafe Series fridge from GE includes Wi-Fi now, which lets you tell it to start heating the water up remotely, from your phone.
- Voice control: Smart fridges are also trying to take advantage of the current surge in popularity for smart-home voice-control platforms. GE's smart fridges offer their own Alexa skill, which lets you ask Amazon's voice-activated assistant to make a quick temperature adjustment, or let you know if the water filter needs replacing. Samsung and LG have each gone one step further, building voice control directly into their own flagship smart fridges. You'll find native Alexa controls in LG's Smart InstaView refrigerator, while the Samsung Family Hub fridge offers voice controls through Samsung's own software. It's not hard to imagine HomeKit-compatible refrigerators that work with Siri in the near future, too.
- Kitchen command centers: Speaking of Samsung and LG, both brands envision their smart fridges as the central command centers for the connected kitchen, if not the entire smart home. That's why each one has a huge touchscreen on the door, complete with its own set of fridge apps. Whether you want to set a cooking timer, follow along with a recipe, update your family's digital calendar, or just stream some music while you cook, smart fridges like these want to handle all of it.
- Fridge cameras: We're also seeing more and more fridges that feature built-in cameras that'll let you check what's inside remotely, from your phone. You can also typically drag little countdown timers over top of your food to help keep track of expiration dates. It's a surprisingly nice little feature.
The bottom line
Again, the question is, "do you need any of this in your kitchen?" And, given that people have done just fine with dumb refrigerators for generations now, the answer is clearly "No." None of these smart fridges come cheap, and none of the smart features are quite compelling enough on their own to justify the extra expense.
That said, most manufacturers are doing their best to tempt you by giving these fridges premium designs and filling them with additional features beyond the smarts -- things like door-in-door compartments, temperature-adjustable drawers, and even see-through panels that let you peer inside without opening the door. You don't need any of these fridges, but I certainly couldn't blame you for wanting one -- or buying one, for that matter.
Fortunately, you don't need to spend thousands on a top-of-the-line fridge in order to feel like you're getting an upgrade. With a growing diversity of options across a wide range of prices, there's nothing stopping you from buying a refrigerator that you'll love -- provided you're willing to put in a little bit of leg work, first. Do your homework and shop smart, and you'll be happy with your fridge for years to come.
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