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How to buy a washing machine

Dirty clothes got you down? Don't worry -- we'll help you sort through your washer options.

By my calculation, there are about 150 different washing machine models sold in the US today.

That includes everything from standard front- and top-loaders to compact, unitized, all-in-one, and other miscellaneous one-off styles. Within that selection of washers, about a dozen mainstream brands and a handful of startups and smaller companies duke it out for your business.

How do you sift through all of the options to find something that works? The default answer is you guess; you pick a budget, find something in that price range, and hope for the best.

But a lot of factors come into play in today's appliance market. From washers with built-in sinks to dual units with two cleaning tubs, laundry really doesn't look like it used to. Fortunately, we're here to help. Think of this article as your laundry spirit guide, leading you to the perfect washing machine for your home.

Now playing: Watch this: Here's how to buy your next washing machine

The washer landscape: Front-load vs. top-load

Beyond the obvious -- that front-load washers open from the front and top-load washers open from the top -- there are some significant differences between the two styles. These distinctions will help inform your purchase, as every washing machine you'll look at will be either front- or top-load.

  • Will your new washer fit in your home?

While the majority of traditional front- and top-load washers measure roughly 27 or 28 inches wide and 30 to 35 inches deep, their height dimensions are quite different. That's because front-load models have front-mounted displays (much like a slide-in front-control range) and top-load models have back-mounted displays (much like a freestanding back-control range).

Because of this design difference, many front-loaders have optional stacking kits so you can literally install your matching front-load dryer over your washer (always stack the dryer on top of the washer because it weighs less).

Stacking is ideal when you have limited square footage for your laundry pair, since you can take advantage of vertical space. The last place I lived had a closet set aside for the water heater, the HVAC system and a small washer and dryer. In that case, the decision was easy -- it was either a compact front-load stacked laundry pair or nothing.

But that doesn't mean front-load washers are only suitable for tight spaces. If you find a stackable front-load washer and dryer you like, it's also common to install them side-by-side. For top-loaders a side-by-side install is (perhaps obviously) your only option.

Note: Not all front-load washers are stackable, so make sure to double-check the specs either online or on the unit's packaging before making a purchase.

  • Consider a washer's drum size

In addition to a washer's external dimensions, you will also want to think about the size of the washing drum inside the unit. Excluding compact units, most of which have a drum somewhere in the 2-cubic-foot range, the majority of standard-size front- and top-load washer drums today range from roughly 4 to 5 cubic feet. That's a great range for a typical 8-pound load.

For my husband and me, a typical load translates to two large bath towels, two pairs of my jeans, two pairs of his slacks, and two of his button-down dress shirts. Looking at that short list of items, I'm confident that we produce at least 16 pounds of laundry per week -- which would equal two loads of laundry weekly in a standard-sized washer.

Of course, as a washing machine drum gets closer to 5 cubic feet, the more easily it can handle larger loads. You'll also find subtle drum size differences when you compare front- and top-load washers. Most front-loader drums range from 4.2 to 5 cubic feet (with a few sub-4-cubic-foot exceptions from Frigidaire and GE and some 5-plus-cubic-foot exceptions from LG and Samsung).

Top-loader drums are all over the map, ranging from 3.2 to 6.2 cubic feet, and they're complicated by the fact that less expensive models still rely on a traditional agitator -- the plastic rod that extends from the bottom of a top-load washer to the top of its tub. Agitators are a legacy feature left over from the last generation of washer tech and they suck up precious cubic footage from your washer tub. So, a top-loader with an agitator is almost guaranteed to have less than a 4.5-cubic-foot capacity, simply because the agitator is hogging some of the space typically reserved for clothes.

GE's agitator-equipped top-load GTW485ASJWS washing machine (left) next to Samsung's impeller-equipped top-load WA52J8700 washing machine.


In the US, most washer manufacturers have replaced their old-school agitators with a lower-profile alternative called an impeller. Less intrusive than traditional agitators, impeller-style washers typically have larger capacities because you don't have that agitator spindle in the way.

Note: Front-loaders tumble-clean clothes, so they don't use either an agitator or an impeller.

  • Price

No matter what, you're probably going to shell out a minimum of $500 on a new washing machine, but there are also clear cost disparities between front- and top-load washers. Here's a table to help guide your budget:

Comparing front- and top-load washer price ranges

Front-load washers Top-load washers
GE $800-$1,400 $500-$1,200
LG $800-$1,800 $800-$1,600
Samsung $800-$1,700 $550-$1,500
Whirlpool $900-$1,400 $550-$1,400

As you can see, front-load prices tend to start around $800, whereas top-load prices start lower at around $500 (with the exception of LG). High-end top-load models also tend to cost around $200 less than their high-end front-load counterparts.

A look at performance

We've reviewed dozens of washing machines. While we still have a long way to go before we've tested all of the models on the market, top-load washers have earned our best (and worst) stain removal performance scores so far.

In contrast, the front-load washers we've reviewed tend to fall somewhere in the middle performance-wise, with a few outliers on either side. 

Top-load washers are generally less efficient since they tend to use more water during cleaning cycles than their front-load counterparts. 

We found this to be *mostly* true during our testing. Specifically, we used two flow meters (one each for hot and cold water) to calculate how many gallons of water a washer uses during a normal cleaning cycle, with normal soil, hot water and high spin settings.

The front-load washers we tested averaged just 8.74 gallons of water per load, whereas the top-load washers we tested for comparison averaged 17.94 gallons of water per load. 

That means those specific top-load models used two times more water than the front-loaders we tested on average. Clearly the extra water didn't help out the top-loaders very much either, since their performance results are all over the chart.

That 17.94 gallons of water average for top-load washers is also slightly misleading, since the top-load models range from the Samsung WA52M7750AW's 5.12 gallons on the low end to the Maytag MVWB765FW's 38.26 gallons on the high end.

In contrast, the front-load models we tested were much more consistent in their water consumption. They ranged from the Electrolux EFLW417SIW's 7.41 gallons on the low end to the Samsung WF45M5500AZ's 10.59 gallons on the high end.

  • What's the deal with high efficiency?

According to the American Cleaning Institute (ACI), a trade association whose mission is "to support the sustainability of the cleaning product and oleochemical industries, through research, education, outreach and science-based advocacy," all front-load washing machines are high efficiency (HE).

That's because they're designed to tumble-clean your clothes and rely on less water in the process. The trade-off is that your front-loader will likely take longer to complete a cleaning cycle.

In contrast, not every top-load washer earns the HE designation. ACI explains that, "Top-loading washers that are labeled 'HE' use low-water volume wash cycles. They have either no center post or a smaller-sized center post instead of a traditional agitator." That means traditional agitator-equipped top-load washing machines don't qualify as high-efficiency appliances.

You have to be careful with labels, though, because the GE GTW485ASJWS we tested for water consumption has an HE logo even though it has an agitator. That's because you can use low-sudsing HE detergent in this washer to reduce soap residue and clean your clothes more effectively.

Note: You can use HE detergent in a non-high-efficiency top-load washer, but you should always use HE detergent in a front-load washer. Most of the Tide liquid detergent available today comes in both regular and HE varieties -- look for the HE logo to be sure, or check the price marker.

Look for "HE" on the detergent or on the price tag.

Megan Wollerton/CNET

So, we know that agitator-equipped top-loaders are typically not high-efficiency washers, but how about the rest of the top-load models?

When in doubt, check the user manual. A keyword search for "high efficiency" in the GE GTW485ASJWS's manual (the washer with the agitator) didn't yield any results, but GE's GTW860SPJMC top-loader (the one that averaged only 12.3 gallons of water per cycle) mentioned high efficiency several times. Most of the time it was related to detergent, but the top of page 7 says, "Note: This is a high-efficiency washing machine with infusor wash action." Bingo.

Other brands make it easier. Whirlpool's 5.3 cubic-foot Cabrio High-Efficiency Top Load Washer with Active Spray technology mentions the HE designation right in the product name, for example.

Here's what the ACI says on the subject of HE detergent: "As a result of extensive research, HE detergents are formulated to be low-sudsing and quick-dispersing to get the best cleaning performance with HE washers. Excess suds can cause problems in HE washers by 'cushioning' -- or even preventing -- the tumbling action. This can impact proper cleaning. HE detergents are also formulated to hold soils and dyes in suspension in low water volumes, so they don't redeposit onto cleaned laundry."

Special features

All washing machines today perform the same basic function. That's why their control panels look similar. You'll always have a normal cycle and usually at least eight or nine more specialty cycles and a way to adjust temperature, spin and soil settings.

But today's washers are doing more than ever before, especially when you look at higher-end models. Here's a quick overview of a handful of advanced washer features:

  • Auto-dispense: GE's top-load GE GTW750CSLWS washing machine has a feature called "Smart Dispense Technology." Like a Keurig coffee maker with an attached water reservoir, the GTW750CSLWS has a soap reservoir designed to hold "up to 75 ounces" of detergent. When you're ready to start a cycle, this washer will sense the amount of soap you need, dispatch it from the reservoir automatically, and save the rest for upcoming cycles.
  • fl-whirlpool-wtw7500gc-washing-machine0

    The Whirlpool WTW7500GC's built-in faucet.

    Tyler Lizenby/CNET
  • Built-in sink or faucet: Yes, that's right -- the Samsung WA52M7750AW has its own sink. if your laundry room isn't large enough to accommodate a standalone sink, but you like pretreating tough stains and hand-washing delicate items, this feature might work for you. Other models, like Whirlpool's WTW7500GC and GE's GTW750CSLWS have integrated faucets. 
  • Multiple washer tubs: LG shook up the laundry market when it introduced its Sidekick washers. Part of LG's Twin Wash system, these small-capacity washing machines fit inside a pedestal. That means you could have a regular front-load washer up top and a smaller, secondary washer below with its own water line for simultaneous cycles. Samsung followed suit in early 2017 with its FlexWash System. FlexWash is slightly different, though, because it has a smaller top-load washer incorporated into the regular washer body, rather than into a separate pedestal accessory.
  • Giant capacities: LG, Samsung, Maytag and Kenmore aren't satisfied with the standard 4-to-5-cubic-foot washer range. Instead, they're leading the charge in the US market with mega-sized front- and top-load models. LG's front-loaders go up to 5.2 cubic feet and its largest top-loader has a 5.7-cubic-foot capacity. Samsung sells 5.6-cubic-foot front- and top-load washers. But Kenmore's Elite 31633 and Maytag's MVWB955FC win -- both have a whopping 6.2-cubic-foot capacity.

There's an app for that

Certain mid- to high-end washers work with apps that let you start, stop and pause a cycle remotely or simply view the status of a cleaning cycle from your phone. GE even offers IFTTT integrations so you can time your Philips Hue LEDs to flash when a wash cycle ends, as well as a voice control integration with Amazon Alexa. Select Whirlpool appliances work with Alexa, too, so you can say: "Alexa, start the washer."

We're seeing companion apps and voice control partnerships more and more, but most of the integrations are still pretty limited today.  Laundry apps, too, still have a long way to go -- with a couple of small exceptions.

Case in point: the GE Laundry app for Android and iPhone. Follow the steps to connect compatible GE washers and dryers with the app and it will display a nice readout of the time remaining on your wash/dry cycle. It looks great, but you can't actually initiate a cleaning cycle remotely.

LG's Twin Wash washing machine is app-compatible, but the software was extremely glitchy during testing. The same goes for the wonky Samsung Smart Home app that I wasn't able to configure to work with the Wi-Fi-enabled Samsung WF50K7500AV washer.

Whirlpool's Android and iPhone app is my favorite laundry software so far. You can start/pause runs remotely, as well as view the time remaining on a cycle. The app also integrates with Works with Nest, a Google program that connects the Nest Learning Thermostat and other Nest devices with products from other manufacturers like Whirlpool and Lutron. The app can even alert you when a cycle ends and provide energy usage stats based on info from your local electric company.

There's one significant drawback, though. You have to enable a feature called "Remote Start" on your compatible Whirlpool washing machine before you leave your house. That means you have to anticipate when you'll want to access your washer remotely, rather than just pulling up the app and start a cycle on-demand.

So even the best of today's laundry-related software still needs some help to be truly useful, but the trend is promising as more manufacturers introduce smart Wi-Fi-enabled washers.

Using Whirlpool's washer and dryer app.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The future of laundry

It's an exciting time for the laundry industry. Companies like Samsung and LG are taking more of an interest in the US market and we're seeing a lot of new features and technology as a result -- things like mega-capacity washing machines, app integration, models that come with sinks and even some that have secondary washers hiding in a traditional-looking front-load pedestal or a shallow top-load compartment.

That's forcing other manufacturers to reimagine products that have been around for generations, leading to innovations like GE's voice control via Amazon Alexa. It also means that you have more options than ever before.

So before you start dreaming about adding a supersize washer (and companion dryer) to your house, measure your laundry room space (and your doorways), weigh your cubic-foot-capacity needs against front- and top-load performance and efficiency trends. Think about your budget, too. And if you have more than $1,000 to spend on a washer, you might just be able to enjoy some of the new and innovative things we're seeing in the laundry market today.