Top-loaders ($350 and up) are easy to use―they don't require bending over. Front-loaders ($600 and up) use 65 percent less energy and a third less water, since their basins don't completely fill. However, new, pricier top-loaders ($900 and up) rival the energy efficiency of front-loaders.
A machine that heats only the water it needs. "This is the most important thing that people overlook," says John O’Meara, manager of Standards of Excellence, an appliance showroom in San Rafael, California. The feature saves energy by heating only the necessary water, not the entire household water tank. In general, "washers made now are one-third more efficient than those made seven years ago," says Jill Notini of the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, in Washington, D.C.
A speedy spin cycle. The faster the cycle, the more water will be extracted, and the less time clothes will spend in the dryer. Look for "a high rpm [rotations per minute], which adds up to energy-efficiency," says Alex Cheimets, editor of applianceadvisor.com. Go for at least 900 rpm. To save even more energy, pair the washer with a dryer that has a moisture sensor, which shuts off the unit when the clothes are dry.
Minimal water usage. Most conventional washers go through 40 gallons of water per cycle, so "if you do a load a day," says Audrey Reed-Granger of Whirlpool, "that’s more than 14,000 gallons a year." Check the labels; some machines consume as little as 14 gallons a cycle.
Pedestals. Some washers (and dryers) can be equipped with pedestals ($100 to $200), which sit underneath the appliance and raise it for easier loading and unloading. Many include drawers for stashing detergent, bleach, and stain-removal sticks.
An additional rinse cycle. This option, which dispenses extra water during washing, is great if you need to fight a stubborn stain or want to remove excess detergent that can irritate allergy sufferers or babies. But it will increase your water bill.
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Top freezers ($400 to $1,200) are the most space- and energy-efficient; bottom freezers ($700 to $1,500) locate the refrigerator section at eye level and offer deep freezer storage. Side-by-sides ($800 to $2,000) have two full-height doors―a freezer on one side, a refrigerator on the other.
A just-right size. Refrigerators are measured in cubic feet, but that number can be misleading: It includes space taken up by the freezer, the shelves, and the bins. For two to four people, an 18-cubic-foot refrigerator (with about five of those cubic feet devoted to the freezer) should suffice. An ice maker will use about one cubic foot of the freezer cavity; some newer models locate the ice maker on the freezer door to save room.
Space-expanding features. Motorized shelves can be raised and lowered to accommodate items. Elevator shelves, which adjust with the crank of a lever, are just as effective. Also look for movable door bins, as well as pullout shelves, which offer access to goods stashed in the back. Some units have caddies that hold soda cans and racks for storing wine bottles horizontally.
Easy-care materials. Stainless steel is sleek, but it shows streaks and fingerprints; faux stainless doesn't. Inside, glass shelves are easier to wipe down than metal grills and have lips that contain spills, says Chris Hall, cofounder and president of the appliance-maintenance website repairclinic.com.
Energy efficiency. Bottom freezers use 16 percent less energy than side-by-sides; top freezers consume 13 percent less. You'll use 14 to 20 percent more energy if you pick a through-the-door water dispenser. The most efficient fridges bear the Energy Star label, which ensures that they use 15 percent less energy than federal efficiency standards require.
Water filters. Some appliances contain a water dispenser with a filter for the ice maker―ideal for minimizing lead and chlorine―in a through-the-door configuration or inside the refrigerator.
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Models vary in terms of capacity and special features: While some entry-level units start at $200, those with bonuses, such as hidden controls, can cost upwards of $2,000.
The number of place settings it holds. Dishwashers with standard-size tubs fit 12 five-piece place settings. If you entertain frequently, consider ones with tall tubs, which store 14 place settings and can easily handle large stockpots, vases, and cookie trays. Ideal for tight areas, compact 18-inch models hold six to eight settings. Don't feel guilty loading up these workhorses; they actually use less water than you would doing the dishes by hand. Isn't technology great?
A delay-start option. This allows you to set the machine to turn on at a later time, like when you're tucked snugly in bed. (Plus, in some areas, utility rates are lower at night.) If you're concerned about noise, opt for an insulated machine or one that touts whisper-quiet capabilities.
A forced-air mode. Without forced air, which involves a fan circulating dry air downward throughout the drying period, "anything with a concave top―like plastic cups, bowls, and upturned wineglasses―will collect water," says Hall. "It's a pain."
Space-saving details. Some have tines that fold down to accommodate large platters; others have top racks that can be adjusted or removed.
Multiple cycles. Choose a sanitizing cycle for baby bottles or a gentle cycle labeled specifically for glassware. Some new units have a steam cycle to get baked-on grime off dishes while using less water. If you would like to run small loads or quick loads of glasses during a party, "look for dishwashers with short cycles," says Reed-Granger. These can be as fast as 25 minutes, compared with more than two hours for normal cycles.
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You can control the flame with precision on gas models; electric versions heat food and boil water faster. For both, prices start at $500 and can cost as much as $10,000. Dual-fuel ranges ($1,400 to $10,000 or more) pair gas cooktops with electric ovens.
Convection capabilities. A fan in the back of the unit circulates heated air to cook more evenly and about 25 percent faster. Convection ranges cost about $200 to $300 more than standard ones.
An easy-to-clean cooktop. Electric units have coil tops (look for those with porcelain rather than ceramic or enameled-metal drip pans) or smooth surfaces that wipe down in a flash. The grates on gas models need to be removed before you start scouring. Some have continuous grates, which are sturdy and allow pots to be slid from burner to burner without lifting; the downside is that they're heavy. Look for seamless edges and corners.
Warming drawers. Typically located beneath the oven cavity, these keep food warm before it hits the table and serve as extra storage space when not in use.
Steam technology. Use this feature, manually or automatically, to infuse anything from roasts to baked goods with moisture.
Commercial-style units. If you're an avid cook, check out these professional-looking ranges. They boast up to eight burners and can span 60 inches, so they're ideal for preparing multiple dishes at the same time. Some have grills, griddles, and built-in woks. Note that you will pay top dollar for them.
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Countertop versions ($30 to $250) can be placed anywhere; over-the-range models ($100 to $700) save space and often have lights and exhaust fans on the bottom, so they double as vent hoods.
Power. A microwave’s power is measured by its wattage; the higher the wattage, the quicker food will cook. If you use your microwave mostly for reheating, a 600-watt unit should do the trick. But if you use it to prepare full meals, especially for a large family, opt for 900 to 1,300 watts.
A convection mode. If you entertain a lot and would benefit from a second oven, or if you want superfast cooking results, consider machines with convection technology, which uses a heating element and a fan to circulate air for roasting, baking, browning, and grilling in half the time of a regular oven.
Turntable size and function. Microwaves with 16-inch-diameter turntables are large enough for most cooks. Look for turntables that rotate automatically for even cooking results and that can be removed for easy cleaning.
Sensors. These shut off the microwave when food is done by calculating how much steam is being emitted from the food―no more overcooking or undercooking.
Childproof doors. Some microwaves have door locks (which can be activated and deactivated via the keypad) so curious hands don't get burned on hot dishes.