In an effort to distinguish themselves in a difficult market, makers of large appliances have been loading their wares with more and more features. But do you really need a washer with 33 cycles or a wifi-enabled refrigerator? In our tests of hundreds of appliances at Consumer Reports, our technicians have found fabulous features that improve performance, convenience or safety. But others seem frivolous and may be a waste of money. Here are five of our all-time favorites:
Washers: Auto-load sensing
Are you using too much water, too little? Here's a feature that gives you one less thing to worry about. Auto-load sensing automatically determines load size and the amount of water needed, allowing you to skip a step and possibly save water. Auto-load sensing is common on front-loaders and high-efficiency top-loaders and is coming to some conventional top-loaders.
Dryers: Moisture sensors
This is the most important dryer feature and it's been available on all but the least expensive models for a decade. Moisture sensors do a better job of shutting off the dryer when clothes are dry than models with a thermostat, preventing overdrying. Sensor-based dryers are also easier on fabrics because they don't subject them to unnecessary heat. They also use less energy.
Refrigerators: Digital temperature controls
Digital controls tell it like it is by displaying the actual temperature and the set temperature, allowing you to correct discrepancies and prevent meltdowns—yours and the ice cream's. If you thought we'd pick a through-the-door water and ice dispenser as our favorite feature, no way. That's what buyers request most often, but it's a minor convenience with a major drawback. Our surveys confirm that, as a group, refrigerators with water and ice dispensers still require considerably more repairs than those without dispensers (ask neighbors with dispenser-crazy kids). Water and ice dispensers also boost cost and energy use while eating up space.
Ranges: High power elements or burners
Always in a rush? A high-power gas burner or electric element can quickly bring a pot of water to a boil, making pasta pronto. And high-power burners and elements can heat large quantities fast—great for parties—and are terrific for types of cooking that require high heat such as searing and stir-frying. You'll find this feature on cooktops too.
Cooktops: Hot-surface warning lights
This is an important safety feature since the surface of the electric smoothtop can remain hot long after an element has been turned off. Many smoothtops have at least one warning light, but ideally each element should have its own.