There's more to buying washer and dryer than you might guess

When it comes to buying a washer and dryer, the trick for consumers is to know what to look for -- as well as what they need and can afford.

Consumer Reports' latest tests found that many of this year's budget-friendly machines can perform at a very high level. For example, the $400 Estate top-loader washing machine (ETW4400T) cleaned as well as the $1,500 LG Tromm SteamWasher (WM2688H), CR's top-rated front-loader. CR also found that, despite improvements and declining price tags, top-loaders continue to use more energy and water than front-loaders.

PUTTING A SPIN ON SPECIAL FEATURES -- Manufacturers are still pushing pricier models with features such as steam settings, fancy drums, sleeker styling and even germ-fighting silver technology. But some of those extras aren't worth it.

CR's latest tests of washers and dryers found the following:

Steam settings are on the rise. Three front-loaders -- the Kenmore Elite HE5t Steam, Whirlpool Duet Steam and LG Tromm SteamWasher -- have steam modes that claim to boost cleaning, sanitize fabrics and remove stains. Such settings did better at removing stains -- the LG's, less so -- but the models cleaned well even without using the steam.

CR also tested the steam settings of Kenmore's and Whirlpool's matching dryers. Both use a water hookup and heat to get rid of wrinkles and odors, and they mostly did so with the shirts CR tested.

But the steam mode allows only up to four garments per load. Another wrinkle: At $1,100-plus, those dryers cost about twice as much as CR's Best Buys.

Novel designs fall short. Miele's front-loader has a tub with a honeycomb design that's billed as gentler on clothes. But the $1,900 Miele was only middling for gentleness. Staber's $1,300 washer, the priciest top-loader tested, requires loading clothes through the top into a chamber that spins like a front-loader. Yet that design significantly reduces capacity.

Silver technology under scrutiny. Samsung's SilverCare front-loaders release silver ions into the water to fight germs. CR's test loads of clothes worn after they were washed in one such Samsung, since discontinued, suggested that the silver might slow growth of odor-causing bacteria. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has determined that silver in waste-water could harm aquatic life and told CR that Samsung is expected to submit data to prove the technology can be used without unreasonable risks.

HOW TO CHOOSE -- Front-loaders, because of their higher spin speeds, might vibrate too much for high-traffic living spaces. And since many new units are deep, it is important to measure carefully if the washer and dryer are in a tight location. Other points to keep in mind:

Top- or front-load washer? With better, more efficient performance, front-loaders spin out more water, so clothes dry more quickly. But they cost more and have longer cycles. The best high-efficiency top-loaders are improving wash performance, though conventional top-loaders, while typically less adept at washing, cost much less and have shorter cycles.

Assess costs. Washer and dryer owners tend to keep their units 10 to 13 years, according to a National Association of Home Builders study. So, high-efficiency models can end up costing the same as or less than standard models.

Be choosy about features. Auto temperature control gives consistent water temperature and wash performance on a given setting.

Automatic dispensers release detergent, bleach or softener when needed. Extended-spin cycles don't extract much additional water. In general, no more than four or five wash cycles are necessary.

Porcelain tops are more durable and scratch-resistant and color adds pizzazz, but both are pricey.

Skip extended warranties. CR's survey data show that major appliances tend not to break during the typical extended-warranty period. When they do, repairs tend to cost about the same as the warranty. Instead, check whether buying with a credit card extends the manufacturer warranty.

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