Front-loaders tend to give you the best of everything, but traditional top-loaders offer the best value
You'll find more variety in the washing-machine aisle when you visit an appliance store these days. Traditional top-loaders with agitators are going strong, but front-loading washers are gaining ground, thanks to their very good washing performance, large capacity, water and energy efficiency, and quiet operation.
Despite the advantages of front-loaders, many Americans still prefer a top-loading design. Manufacturers have responded with washers that promise some of the advantages of front-loaders in a top-loader. Models include the Calypso from Whirlpool and Kenmore, the GE Harmony, and the Maytag Neptune TL. This new breed of washer replaces the usual vertical agitator post with different mechanisms to circulate laundry. The design increases capacity and reduces water and energy usage.
Washing machines of all types are becoming more energy efficient. New, stricter Department of Energy standards regarding energy and hot-water use and water extraction became effective in January 2004, and standards will become even more stringent in 2007. Many front-loaders and some top-loaders already meet the 2007 requirements.
The top four brands--GE, Kenmore (Sears), Maytag, and Whirlpool--account for more than 80 percent of washing-machine sales. Other brands include Admiral and Amana (made by Maytag), Frigidaire (made by Electrolux), Hotpoint (made by GE), and KitchenAid and Roper (both made by Whirlpool). You may also run across smaller brands such as Crosley, Gibson, and White-Westinghouse, all of which are made by the larger brands. Asko, Bosch, Miele, and Siemens are European brands. Fisher-Paykel is imported from New Zealand, LG and Samsung from Korea, and Haier from China.
Traditional top-loaders. Traditional top-loaders fill the tub with water, then agitate the clothing. They use more water than other types of washers, and thus consume more energy to heat the hot water. They also extract less water from laundry during the spin cycle, which results in longer drying time and higher energy costs. Because they need to move the laundry around to ensure thorough cleaning, these machines hold about 12 to 16 pounds, which is less than large front-loaders and top-loaders without agitators in the center of the tub.
On the plus side, top-loaders make it easier to load laundry and to add items midcycle. You can also soak laundry easily. This type of machine has the shortest cycle times and is the only one that gives the best results with regular detergent. But most top-loaders are noisier than front-loaders, and there's a risk of loads getting unbalanced. Price range: $200 to $650.
High-efficiency (HE) top-loaders with new wash systems. The GE Harmony and the Calypso models from Kenmore and Whirlpool have a "wash plate," rather than an agitator, to move clothes around. The Maytag Neptune TL has discs that lift and tumble laundry. Washing performance is usually better than with regular top-loaders, and capacity is generally larger as well.
These top-loaders work somewhat like front-loaders, filling partially with water and spinning at very high speeds. Most are more efficient with water and energy than regular top-loaders, but the high spin speeds that reduce drying time (and energy consumption) tend to make clothing more wrinkled. These machines work best with low-foaming, high-efficiency detergent. Price range: $900 to $1,300.
Front-loaders. Front-loaders get clothes clean by tumbling them in the water. Clothes are lifted to the top of the tub, then dropped into the water below. They fill only partially with water and then spin at high speed to extract it, which makes them more efficient with water and energy than regular top-loaders. Most handle between 12 and 20 pounds of laundry. Like HE top-loaders, front-loaders wash best with low-sudsing detergent. Many front-loaders can be stacked with a dryer to save floor space. Price range: $600 to $1,600.
Space-saving options. Compact models are typically 24 inches wide or less (compared with about 27 inches for full-sized washers of all types) and they can wash 8 to 12 pounds of laundry. A compact front-loading washer can be stacked with a compact dryer. Some compact washers can be stored in a closet and rolled out to be hooked up to the kitchen sink. Price range: $450 to $1,700.
Washer-dryer laundry centers combine a washer and dryer in one unit, with the dryer located above the washer. These can be full-sized (27 inches wide) or compact (24 inches wide). The full-sized models hold about 12 to 14 pounds, the compacts a few pounds less. Performance is generally comparable to that of full-sized machines. Price range: $700 to $1,900.
HOW TO CHOOSE
For best high-end performance, go with a front-loader. If you're willing to spend $1,000 or so, at this point we'd steer you to a front-loader. The best front-loaders offer very good washing, ample capacity, and quiet operation. The front-loading design has been around for a while, and Frigidaire, GE, and Kenmore front-loaders have a good track record for reliability. (Note that numerous readers have reported that their front-loading washers developed mold or a musty smell. Leaving the door ajar between uses and using chlorine bleach occasionally should help.)
Think twice about new-technology top-loaders. Even though some top-loaders have done well in our tests, they're not among our top picks. The Kenmore Calypso was one of the more repair-prone top-loaders, and it left garments tangled and wrinkled in our tests. The GE Profile Harmony and Maytag Neptune TL are too new to have reliability data, and neither was very gentle on clothes.
Get a conventional top-loader for good performance at a modest price. If you want a less expensive machine that's decent across the board, consider a familiar top-loader. Even though these machines aren't as exciting as newer types, they offer decent washing for as little as $500 or less, and there's a large selection of reliable brands. A model judged good or very good for washing should be fine for all but very soiled laundry and should satisfy most consumers.
Consider energy usage. Our tests for energy efficiency differ from those used to determine the government's Energy Star eligibility, giving more weight to performance with maximum loads. As a result, some Energy Star models haven't scored that well for energy efficiency in our Ratings.
Decide if noise is an issue. If you plan to install a washer in a laundry room near the kitchen or a bedroom, we strongly recommend one judged very good or excellent for noise. Front-loaders as a group tend to be very quiet; some top-loaders are as well.
Weigh the value of pricey extras. The more features a washer has, the more it usually costs. Don't buy an expensive model just to get four or more water levels, dozens of cycle and setting combinations, or dedicated cycles for fabrics such as silk. The basic cycles and settings can handle most washing needs, and you can replicate most special cycles with buttons or dials. An electronic touchpad may allow custom programming, but it can also be more confusing to use, especially at first. Unless you insist on the same style, there's no need to match a washer and a dryer. If your old dryer still works fine, don't think you have to replace it when you buy a new washer.
Use the proper detergent. Any washing machine will do a better job if you use a good detergent. For traditional top-loaders, regular detergent is fine, and that's what we used. With front-loaders and high-efficiency top-loaders, you'll get the cleanest clothes with special low-sudsing detergent; that's what we used for these machines. In fact, using regular detergent can cause excessive sudsing in HE washers. Not only is it hard to rinse clothing, but the foam can cause problems with the washer. There are fewer HE products to choose from than with regular detergent, and they cost about 5 to 10 cents more per load than regular detergent. Consider the cost and convenience of ongoing detergent purchases when you're buying a washer.