Which Washing Machine Should You Buy?

This no-spin guide to the three main types will help you choose—and use—yours correctly.

Washing machines have improved a lot in the last decade, saving you time and money by washing larger loads more effectively while using less energy and water. But whether you have bought a new washer in recent years or are planning to upgrade at some point, there’s a bit of a learning curve. Here’s advice on sorting it all out—from finding your ideal machine to mastering the latest features.

Conventional Top-Loaders

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Photo by Lan Truong

Chances are, this type of machine, which (yup) opens from the top, is the kind you grew up with. And conventional top-loaders still account for about 40 percent of new washer sales today. During the wash cycle, a central agitator, which sticks up in the middle of the basket, turns clothes over, helping to clean the clothes and extract water.

Price range: $400 to $650.

Pros: The least expensive of the three most common models, yet excellent at getting clothes clean. “Nothing beats one when it comes to ground-in dirt,” says Mary Zeitler, lead consumer scientist at the Whirlpool Corporation Institute of Home Science. Usually about 10 percent smaller than most high-efficiency (HE) machines, they’re ideal for tight quarters or smaller families with less laundry.

Cons: Although conventional machines manufactured from 2010 on are more efficient than earlier models, they still don’t offer the monetary and energy savings that HE washers do. The agitator can be rough on clothes, and because a conventional top-loader’s spin speeds are lower than those of HE models, clothing comes out of the washer wetter, so drying takes longer and uses more energy.

Usage tips: Load laundry around the agitator, but avoid covering the top of the central post. “Clothing can become twisted around or under the agitator, so it’s a good idea to put bathing suits or undergarments in a lingerie bag and secure any drawstrings or straps on other clothing,” says Jennifer Schoenegge, product manager at General Electric. When possible, hold off on doing laundry until you have enough items for a full load. “Too little laundry can cause conventional top-loaders to become off-balance,” says Chris Zeisler, technical service supervisor at RepairClinic.com. “That can make the tub shake and damage its support system.” If the machine doesn’t have a dispenser, pour detergent into the washer basket before adding clothes so it starts working as the washer fills with water.

High-Efficiency Top-Loaders

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Photo by Lan Truong

High-efficiency top-loaders account for about 35 percent of total washer sales. Like their conventional counterparts, they open from the top, but most high-efficiency machines lack a central agitator. Instead, they use a central wash plate (located on the bottom of the machine) and different agitator patterns to move the clothing through a smaller amount of water. Electronic sensors automatically adjust the water level to match the load size and the soil level.

Price range: $550 to $1,700.

Pros: "High-efficiency washers use about half as much water and about 65 percent less energy than pre-2010 top-loaders did, so the resource savings are great," says Penny Dirr, principal researcher at Procter & Gamble. High-spin speeds extract more water, which can cut drying time and energy use. These machines are about 40 percent larger than old conventional models, so they’re able to hold four standard loads (or up to 32 pounds) of laundry. But it’s fine to run a small load anytime without worrying about wasting water. “The machine adjusts the water level to the amount of laundry inside,” says Nancy Bock, senior vice president of education at the American Cleaning Institute. Without a central agitator, there’s less abrasion of fabrics, and many models offer a wide range of cycle options (such as sanitation, to tackle bacteria and dust mites; and timed soak, for stains), plus special features, such as steam-cleaning.

Cons: Washing times can be long. With some models, a normal wash cycle can last two hours, says Dirr. (Many machines do offer a half-hour quick cycle for lightly soiled loads.) Also, larger load capacity means a bigger machine—up to three inches taller and six inches deeper than conventional top-loaders—so it can overpower a small laundry room.

Usage tips: Fill the wash basket loosely and evenly, and avoid placing clothing above the top ring of the tub, because it can get damaged during the spin cycle. HE detergent is a must with any high-efficiency washer. (For amounts, follow the detergent manufacturer’s instructions.) “It produces fewer suds than regular detergents, so it rinses out more easily in the lower water levels of a high-efficiency machine,” says Dirr. To prevent musty odors, leave the lid open between loads to allow the machine to dry out.

High-Efficiency Front-Loaders

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Photo by Lan Truong

A front-loader’s wash basket sits horizontally and uses gravity to pull water through the clothes. The machine opens in front, and a thick gasket seals the door tightly when in use. About 25 percent of new washers sold in the United States are front-loaders.

Price range: $700 to $2,000.

Pros: Water and energy savings are substantial. “An HE front-loader uses roughly a third of the water a conventional top-loader uses because the rotation of the tub moves the clothes through the water. There’s no need for the basket to fill completely,” says Schoenegge. The basket spins almost twice as fast as a conventional top-loader’s, so clothing comes out less damp. Like HE top-loaders, front-loaders have no agitator, so they’re gentler on clothes. Most models offer a range of options and features (like steam cycles for dewrinkling and tub lights for visibility), and often they’re stackable. Many also hold a large volume (four standard loads) of laundry.

Cons: They’re pricey. “Electronic controls and higher spin speeds for efficiency drive up the cost,” says Schoenegge. Large machine sizes (akin to HE top-loaders) can crowd a small laundry room. There’s substantial bending and reaching involved in loading and emptying. Many manufacturers, however, offer a pedestal that elevates the machine 12 inches or more for easier access. Also, the holes behind the rubber door gasket need periodic inspection to ensure that little things, like coins, aren’t blocking them. The gasket may get moldy if it isn’t wiped down regularly.

Usage tips: Always use HE detergent to prevent oversudsing and poor rinsing. After each use, wipe around the gasket and leave the door open so the interior can dry. Every few months, clean out the coin trap (usually a panel in the washer’s lower front side), says Zeisler: “If you don’t, small objects, like paper clips, can block it and keep the machine from draining properly or cause it to stop before the cycle is finished.”