While everyone's requirements are different and there may be genuine reasons why a top loading washing machine is better for you, on the whole we've found front loaders perform better, are gentler on clothes, take up less space and are more energy- and water-efficient. Yes, they cost a little more to buy and take longer to complete a cycle, but the trade-off is cleaner clothes, and cheaper running costs for the life of the machine, which helps to offset the purchase price. So if you want better washing, then your future is likely to be front loading.
Front loading washing machines, as the name would suggest, are loaded and unloaded from the front rather than the top, but the differences go deeper than that. Understanding how these two machines differ in operation, performance, price and characteristics is key to choosing the right washer for you.
Front loaders work by tumbling your washing – repeatedly picking up your clothes and dropping them into soapy water. They don't have agitators or impellers like a conventional top loader, and instead use gravity and this tumbling action to wash.
While it sounds harsh, this action is actually quite gentle on clothes. It also means less water is used than in an equivalent top loader, which needs enough water for your clothes to be able to 'float' and move around. A front loader is a very water- and energy-efficient option for your laundry.
- Better washing performance
- Gentler on clothes
- More energy- and water-efficient
- Cheaper to run
- More temperature options
- Higher spin speeds (for shorter drying time)
- Small form factor (can fit under a counter or worktop)
- Can be used as a workbench
- You may not be able to add or remove items mid-cycle
- Longer cycle times than a top loader
- Typically more expensive
- Heavier, yet more prone to vibration
- May leave clothes more creased
- Tend to be noisier
- Poorer rinse performance
Is a front loader kinder on clothes?
Yes. Front loading washing machines tumble your clothes using gravity, rather than an agitator or impeller. Therefore they're quite gentle on clothes, so score higher for gentleness in our tests.
Higher spin speeds extract more water from your clothes, which is especially good if you use a clothes dryer, but it does make clothes more prone to creasing. You can usually dial the spin speed down though if creases are a concern for you. Front loaders are also more adept at handling unbalanced loads, as the tumbling action helps to evenly redistribute your laundry.
Temperature wash options
Front loaders generally offer more temperature options than top loaders because they use an internal heater rather than hot water from the tap (which is a maximum of 65°C).
So while most front loaders don't have a hot water inlet, they can comfortably wash at up to 90°C (which is partly why, for safety reasons, you can't open the door mid-cycle). While heating water this way is more expensive than using off-peak electricity or solar, the low volume of water front loaders use means they're more cost effective to run than top loaders, especially on hot cycles.
Most front loaders can comfortably wash at up to 90°C.
Do front loaders need hot and cold water connections?
The majority of front loaders only have a cold water intake, and have an internal heater instead of a hot water inlet. This gives you more precise temperature control and location options as you only need a cold tap. It also means you may not be able to hook up your new front loader to a solar hot water service if you have one.
There are still quite a few front loaders with both hot and cold water intakes available though, so if you have solar hot water and regularly wash in warm water then one of these may be more cost effective, as your hot water is essentially free.
Average program wash time
Front loaders take longer than top loaders to complete a full wash cycle – a bit over two hours on average from our washing machine tests, which is twice as long as the average top loader. Some even take up to five hours.
Our tests show longer wash times don't necessarily correlate to cleaner clothes though, and you should consider how the length of a wash cycle will affect your lifestyle before you buy. Many front loaders do have a fast wash program, which is great for day-to-day washing, but it may not be suitable for large or heavily soiled loads.
Manufacturers are becoming increasingly aware of consumer frustration with long cycle times, and many now offer a 'daily wash' program, which gives you nearly the same performance as the traditional cottons program but with a much shorter cycle time.
What does it mean in real terms? This front loader versus top loader washing machine comparison shows you the average cycle times and water and energy usage from the currently available washing machines we've tested.
|Capacity||Water used||Energy used||Cycle time|
|Front loading washer||9kg||60L||0.222kWh||130 mins|
|Top loading washer||8kg||130L||0.117kWh||55 mins|
|Capacity||Water used||Energy used||Cycle time|
|Front loading washer||9kg||79L||325Wh||282 mins|
|Top loading washer||8kg||95L||510kWh||92 mins|
So for both our testing (3.5kg load, cold wash) and the Australian standard test (full capacity load, warm wash), a front loader uses less water than a top loader, but takes significantly longer. However, you'll also notice that for a cold wash a top loader uses less energy than a front loader, whereas for a warm wash the opposite is true.
The reason is, for the warm wash most of the energy used is for heating the water, and as top loaders use more water, there's more heating required. For a cold wash, where no water heating takes place, the greater energy consumption is due to the longer cycle time, though you'll note for both front and top loaders that a cold wash uses significantly less energy than a warm wash.
Are front loading washing machines noisy?
Front loaders are a little noisier than top loaders, averaging around 61dBA, or about as loud as a normal conversation, and higher spin speeds also mean they tend to have a higher pitch. In comparison, top loaders average 58dBA, which isn't a huge difference, but one that's noticeable to the human ear.
These are hardly rock concert volumes, but if your laundry is close to living areas then you may want to opt for a washer that's quieter.
Front loaders have higher spin speeds than top loaders, with 1600rpm spin cycles increasingly common. This is good because the higher the spin speed, the more water extracted from your clothes, which reduces drying time (and energy if you use a clothes dryer).
The flipside is more creasing, and it can crush the pile on your towels (making them scratchy). Most washers offer a range of speeds to suit different laundry types, so you can easily adjust this for the load you're doing at the time.
A high maximum speed gives you the most options. If you use a clothes dryer, a high spin speed will remove more water from your clothes so the dryer has less work to do, reducing its running costs. Conversely, if you're line drying you may want to dial the spin speed down a little to reduce creasing and not flatten the pile on your towels as much. It doesn't matter if drying takes a little longer, because it costs you nothing.
There's a wide range between a basic and premium front loader.
With prices ranging from around $400 to more than $3000, there's a wide range between a basic and premium front loader. Aside from differences in performance and capacity, higher prices translate to more features, ranging from an array of programs, time delay and sensor wash, through to full home network integration.
While a Wi-Fi enabled washer sounds seductive, you should take a step back and think about whether you need all the advanced features, because there's no point paying for something you'll never use.
What's the difference between front loader and top loader detergents?
Because front loaders use less water and a tumbling action they don't need as many suds as a top loader. As a result, front loader detergents contain a suds inhibitor so your machine doesn't overflow and flood your laundry.
So don't use a laundry detergent designed for a top loader in your front loader or you may be left with a foamy mess to clean up and possibly even a damaged appliance. That said, you can use a front loading detergent in a top loader because they don't generate as many suds (but you may need to add a little more detergent than you normally would).
These days there's a growing number of laundry detergents that have been developed for use in both front and top loaders. Once again you may need to use a little more in a top loader, but a little less in a front loader.
As you'd expect, the larger the washer the more water it will use, but front loaders can use up to 70% less water than the equivalent size top loader (36,000 litres per year in a typical household). This is good news if you're on tank water, because front loaders don't need clothes to float around for effective washing – instead your clothes are washed by repeatedly picking them up and dropping them into the wash water.
Many modern washing machines are also able to vary their water consumption based on the size of your laundry load, so look for a machine with a sensor if water wastage worries you. This also explains why our test results and the figures quoted on the water label are different – our tests use a 3.5kg load, but the star ratings are measured at full capacity.
It's also worth remembering that many machines try to compensate for unbalanced loads by adding additional water, so it's doubly important to load your washing machine carefully.
How much power do they use?
Front loaders are more energy-efficient than top loaders, in part because front loaders take advantage of gravity for their wash action, rather than using an agitator or impeller. They also use less water, which means less mass to move about, so the motors don't have to work as hard.
As front loaders don't have agitators taking up space in the drum, you can also fit more clothes in the same sized appliance, so you can wash more with fewer runs, and fewer runs means less water and electricity used.
If you use a clothes dryer, then front loaders also offer knock-on efficiencies – their higher spin speeds extract more water from your clothes, so your dryer doesn't have to work as hard.
What's the range?
Most front loaders are a standard size – 85 x 60 x 60cm – so they can be installed under your kitchen or laundry benchtop, which is handy for smaller households.
However, we're starting to see high capacity front loaders which are built to a larger US standard dimension. While they won't fit under a benchtop, they're no bigger than a large-ish top loader.
There are also some smaller capacity front loaders that are significantly smaller than the standard, making them suitable for granny flats or smaller apartments. Regardless of size, all front loaders have the advantage of a flat top surface that can be used as a workbench. And being front loading means you can mount a clothes dryer above your washer, so they're a good choice for smaller laundries.
One drawback of front loading washing machines is that they're heavy, as they use ballast to help keep them stable. While this doesn't impact day-to-day operation, you'll notice the weight if you move house frequently, or need to manoeuvre your new washer up several flights of stairs.
Front loaders have an average capacity of over 8kg.
Average capacity for load
With an average capacity of over 8kg (for the models we've tested), front loaders offer more capacity in a smaller package than a typical top loader (just over 7.5kg), partly because they don't have an agitator, which takes up a lot of space.
Front loaders are also increasing in capacity, and we're starting to see 16kg models appearing on the market – great news for large families – as well as a new style of laundry appliance combining both a front and top loader into one.
Can you put them in a cupboard or cabinet?
Yes. The majority of front loaders are built to fit in a standard 60cm kitchen alcove, so you can easily install them under your kitchen counter or in a laundry niche. Front loading washing machines are also suitable for installation under a shelf, cupboard, dryer or enclosure as you don't need to access the entire top of the appliance.
Average cost for a front loader
Front loaders cost a little more than top loaders due to their complexity. The models we've tested range from about $400 to over $3000, and you can generally expect to pay a couple of hundred dollars more than you would for the equivalent top loader.
Remember though the prices we quote in our tests are recommended retail, and at the end of the day the only price that matters is the one you can negotiate.
What about a front loader washer with a dryer included?
Combining a washer and a dryer into the one appliance makes sense, particularly if you don't have a lot of laundry space, and there's a growing number of washer dryer combos that do just that.
While their clothes cleaning performance is comparable to a standalone washing machine, we've found their drying is more than a little lacklustre and they can take a long time and use a lot of water (up to 6 hours and 210 litres) to dry a load of clothes.
Their added complexity can also cause headaches in reliability terms. So while the technology is improving, we've found you're better off with standalone washers and dryers.
Run your washing machine's cleaning cycle (if available) or give it an occasional run on its hottest cycle with a good quality detergent.
How to clean a front loader
Over time, detergent residue – or scrud – can build up in your washing machine, particularly if you wash in cold water. Regardless of the type of washing machine you choose, scrud build-up can cause detergent deposits on your clothes and can even cause your washing machine to lock up entirely.
Remove scrud by running your washing machine's cleaning cycle (if available) or give it an occasional run on its hottest cycle with a good quality detergent. If you wash in cold then running the occasional hot water wash will also help keep scrud at bay and should become part of your washing machine cleaning routine.
A washing machine is a considerable investment and we expect our washers to last at least 10 years. While long-term durability is beyond the scope of our tests, we regularly survey our members to learn more about their experiences with their own washing machines.
Check out our washing machine reliability survey to see how the different brands stack up in terms of reliability, owner satisfaction and service support.
Front loaders can be susceptible to vibration on some timber floors.
Front loaders are heavy, and this may be a factor if you need to manoeuvre your washer up several flights of stairs or if you move house fairly regularly.
Front loaders can be susceptible to vibration on some timber floors. If you've got questionable flooring then you may need to move your washer to a stable corner, or even mount it on a plate or board to keep it stable.
If you've got a clothes dryer, then a front loading washer means you can mount the dryer above it, saving you space. While vented dryers can be wall mounted, condenser and heat pump dryers must be stacked on the washer itself. Some dryers can only be stacked on the same brand washing machine, so check with your manufacturer or retailer first. The flat top of front loaders also gives you an extra work surface, which can be handy.
Unlike top loaders, front loaders are shipped with transfer bolts installed to prevent damage. It's a good idea to keep these bolts handy for if you need to move house.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.