Washing machines are one of the hardest appliances to shop for. They're a pain to transport, the market is flooded with complex jargon and enticing "innovations" and, of course, there's the decision-making stress that comes with any large, expensive purchase.
The good news is that a high quality washing machine will last a very long time, so choose wisely and you'll have worry-free washing for many years to come.
The first step in narrowing down your choice is to decide whether you would prefer a front-loading washing machine or a top-loading washing machine. You might already have a preference based on your previous washer, laundry space, or even your mobility, but it's always worth examining why one or the other might suit you best.
Front-loading washing machines generally cost more to buy than top loaders, but perform better and use less water and energy. They work by gently turning your washing over and over in a tumbling action, picking it up and repeatedly dropping it into the wash water. While it sounds harsh, they're actually quite gentle on clothes. It also makes them better at handling unbalanced loads. Because they use less water, the wash cycle often takes longer than a top loader, though many front loaders have "fast-wash" cycles.
If you have solar hot water and wish to use it for washing, you need a washing machine with a hot water connection. Finding front loaders with a dual hot and cold water connection can be difficult as most have internal heaters.
- Gentler on clothes
- Generally use less water
- Generally more energy efficient when washing in warm water
- Use less detergent
- More programs and higher temperature options
- Cheaper to run
- Higher spin speeds, which means faster drying (and cheaper if you use a clothes dryer)
- Best for small spaces – you can fit most under a bench or put a dryer on or above it
- Longer wash cycles – over three hours in some cases
- Difficult or impossible to retrieve keys, phones or other items left in pockets mid-cycle
- Generally more expensive to buy
- You often can't add to the wash load after the cycle has started
- Heavy to move
- Some need special brackets if placed on a wooden floor
- Tend to have louder spin cycles
- Some may rinse poorly due to their low water usage
Top-loading washing machines are generally cheaper to buy, weigh less and wash a lot faster than front loaders, but they use a lot more water, are harsher on your clothes and generally don't wash quite as well. Unlike front loaders which use gravity to wash your clothes, top loaders use a lot of water to float your clothes, then use either an impeller or agitator to move them about and wash them:
- Agitators are a large, conical, screw-looking device which sticks up through the centre of the drum from its base. Agitators vigorously twist and turn to move your washing around. This removes dirt quickly, but can be rough on clothes.
- Impellers are a raised disc on the bottom of your wash drum with ridges or vanes radiating from the centre to create turbulence in your wash water as it spins. Impellers tend to tangle clothes more than agitators, which means they may also go off-balance more frequently. They also generally use more water and energy than agitators, making them more expensive to run, but they also take up less room so you may get more capacity in a smaller appliance with an impeller.
- Low-profile agitators are bigger than an impeller but smaller than a full-size agitator.
- Tend to be more reliable than front loaders
- Shorter wash cycle times
- Generally cheaper to buy
- Lighter and easier to move
- Easy to add clothes once a cycle has started
- Easier to retrieve forgotten items like tissues, keys and phones from pockets mid-cycle
- Generally better rinse performance
- Generally harsher on clothes
- Use more water than front loaders
- Use more energy when washing in warm water
- Use more washing detergent
- Cost more to run
As the name suggests, washer-dryer combos combine both a front-loading washing machine and a clothes dryer in a single appliance. It seems like a great idea, but they can be expensive, more prone to break downs, and many of them take a very long time to dry a load of clothes. Some of them even use more water to dry your clothes than to wash them (sometimes a lot more – up to 210 litres!). While washer-dryer combo technology is improving rapidly, you're still better off with stand-alone appliances unless you'll only use the dryer as a last resort.
Capacities range from about 5kg to over 18kg, so you should have no problem finding the right sized machine for your household. While larger machines are great for big households or for washing bulky items such as bedding, you may not need as big a washing machine as you think. Most of us only fill our washing machines half full – about 3.5kg on average. Measure how much you wash in a typical load by jumping on your bathroom scales, then picking up your full basket of laundry and jumping back on. Calculate the difference and use this figure as a starting point to work out what capacity you really need.
Top loaders are generally faster than front loaders, partly because front loaders use less water. If you prefer a front loader, look for one with a "fast wash" cycle – but this may not be suitable for very full or heavily soiled loads, no matter how much of a hurry you are in to get the washing on the line. You should also factor in drying time. With a higher spin speed, front loaders extract more water so your drying time can be shorter, saving you money if you also use a dryer.
How much room do you have? Where will the machine go? How much space will you need in order to open the door or lid, load and unload the machine, move around with a full basket of wet washing and open and close any doors to the laundry space itself? Is access to necessary electricity, water or gas points restricted at all? If your new washing machine needs a hot water inlet, is one available in your laundry? Get the measuring tape out, write dimensions in a notebook (including the dimensions of your current machine) and have them with you when you shop.
If you're tight on laundry space then you may find a front loader is a better option, as you can more easily stack or wall-mount your dryer above it, or the top surface can double as a work space. The majority of front loaders are also designed to fit in a standard kitchen cabinet space, so they can also be installed under a benchtop.
As a general rule, front loaders are louder and higher pitched than top loaders due to their faster spin speed. If your laundry is close to your living area this can be a big deal, so consider this in your decision – you can compare noise levels in our washing machine reviews.
Hot and/or cold water connections
Some machines need both hot and cold water to operate correctly, or may need a special connector or a sealing cap for the hot water inlet if you want to connect it to cold water only. A machine with a heater (front loaders only) can be particularly useful if you connect to cold only, as it still gives you the option of a warm wash should you need it.
For dual-connection models, many manufacturers recommend a lower maximum temperature than most hot water systems deliver – particularly solar hot water systems. You may need a tempering valve to reduce the temperature. Counter-intuitively, washers without hot water inlets will actually give you a greater range of temperature options as they're not limited by your household hot water system's 65 degree maximum temperature.
Stains are often set by hot water, so a cold-water fill and slow heat up to optimum wash temperatures helps the stain-removal process. Well designed dual-connection washers should fill with cold first then add the hot water.
If your hot water is a little slow in coming, it's worth remembering that most front loaders use small volumes of hot water for the main wash; for a dual connection, only 7–10L of hot water may be used to get a warm wash. So, depending on how far the water has to travel from the hot water source, the machine may decide it's taken in enough hot water before any actual heated water gets to your clothes! You can check on this by running the hot water tap in your laundry into a bucket and measuring how much cold water flows before it turns hot.
Some machines have "child-lock" functions – this could be either on the door to the washer so it can't be opened mid-cycle, or a program that can't be changed during a cycle.
In a house with children it's worth activating the door lock when the washer is inactive, although sometimes manufacturers recommended keeping front loaders partially open due to potential mould growth in the rim of the washer. If you're worried about curious kids playing with the washer, you might want to look into a child safety gate for the laundry.
Ease of use
When you're comparing models in store, consider:
- Is the labelling on the controls clear?
- Is the program selection straightforward and intuitive to set?
- Does it have the features I need?
- Will I actually use all the fancy features of a high-end model?
- Is the lint filter easy to clean?
- Are the detergent and fabric dispensers easy to use?
- Is the door or lid opening large enough?
- Does the door or lid open far enough?
Modern washing machines come with a bewildering array of features and technology. While many of them will give you better washing performance, don't pay extra for fancy features you'll never use.
Auto-sensing water level
This feature can help you save water, energy and time as the machine automatically adjusts the water level according to the size of the load and/or fabric type. Some machines also claim to adjust the washing action to suit the load size . We've found these can be less effective than we expect. Check the "water label" column (the manufacturer's claim) against the "water used" column in our test results to see how effective this is.
Delicates, or "Hand wash" programs
Some machines have an extra-gentle wash cycle for garments labelled as only suitable for hand-washing – including woollens, silk and cashmere.
Designed for lightly soiled and/or small loads, a fast-wash option (also referred to as "fast", "quick" or "rapid") reduces the length of the selected program or is a faster cycle in itself. Just how "fast" it is can vary from machine to machine. Fast-wash programs are great if you're in a hurry to get the washing done, but may not be suitable for large or heavily soiled loads.
This feature automatically detects and redistributes an out-of-balance load, which can interrupt a cycle mid-wash – either by spinning slowly before the full spin cycle, or by taking in more water, which is what many top loaders do. If you're concerned about high water usage, opt for a machine without this feature, or go for a front loader. When first installing the washer, make sure you follow the instructions to balance the machine physically. Washing machines generally come with a tool to lower or heighten the legs to the appropriate length.
If you want less ironing in your life, a permanent press or "anti-crease" cycle, designed for easily creased or pleated fabrics, can make your ironing easier. Anti-crease works in various ways, including: not draining the last rinse water (rinse hold); not spinning after the last rinse water is drained (spin hold or drip dry); gradually reducing the rinse water temperature after a warm or hot wash; or, with some front loaders, continuing to tumble the clothes at the end of the program.
Selectable spin speed
You can change the spin speed on some programs. Higher spin speeds extract more water from your clothes, reducing drying time (and saving you money if you use a dryer). Alternatively, you might want a lower speed for delicates or easily creased fabrics. The higher the spin speed, the more likely your clothes will be very stiff when they come out of the wash, requiring a quick shake or two to straighten them out a little before drying.
An extra rinse can be useful if your wash hasn't removed all the detergent, leaving white marks behind. Some washers have it as an extra run added to the end of a program, or as a simple single run (rinse and spin) once the primary program is finished. Some also can either do a spray-rinse only (water saving), or a deep rinse. An extra rinse can be especially useful if you have sensitive skin and find your detergent is causing a reaction as it helps to minimise any residual product.
Internal water heater
Most front loaders have a heater that allows a connection to cold water only while still giving you the option of warm or hot washes. Top loaders generally don't have a heater, so need a connection to both hot and cold water taps. A washing machine with an internal heater gives you more (and hotter) temperature options, and more flexibility in where to put your washing machine as you don't need a hot tap, but means you can't take advantage of free solar hot water if you have it.
Some washers have a feature that allows you to program your preferred wash option (favourite or memory program) for future use at the touch of a button.
Many high-end washing machines now offer Wi-Fi connectivity. This allows you to monitor the progress of your wash and receive notification when it's completed, download additional wash programs and manage your washing machine remotely via the manufacturer's app. We're not sure how useful this is – you still have to load and unload the clothes yourself.
Many machines now have self-cleaning lint filter systems, while others use the traditional mesh trap in the wash drum that you have to clean manually. Lint filters in washing machines are designed to prevent particles being redeposited on your clothes, but aren't designed to capture microparticles before they go down the drain. Front loaders typically don't need lint filters because they're gentler on clothes, but they will have a trap filter for those coins that fall into the washer. Our test results list washers that have lint filters.
All washing machines have to carry a label that shows their energy rating. This is written as a series of stars, plus a number that tells you the overall kilowatt hours per year (kWh/per year) it uses to run. Some manufacturers separate the kWh into warm and cold washes, but they're only required to give you the warm-wash figure. Washers with both hot and cold intakes and no internal heater (typically top loaders) will include an estimate of the energy your home's hot water service will use to heat your wash water in this figure as well as the energy used by the washing machine itself, so you can more readily compare internal heater and non-internal heater washers. To calculate the annual running costs of your machine, multiply your electricity rate (for example, 30c) by the washer's kWh (for example, 600kWh). Using the example figures, the machine's running cost is $180 for the year.
The stars are a quick take on energy ratings – the more stars, the more energy-efficient the machine. However, you can only compare star ratings between machines of the same capacity. A bigger machine may well have more stars than a smaller one (because there are energy savings inherent in a larger load), but it will probably use more power overall in a year.
There are more ways to save energy and water. Check out our energy-efficient washing article for more.
If you'd like more info on how specific models perform, you can check out CHOICE's washing machine reviews and product profiles. The testing process is scientific, detailed and rigorous, and you can use our online tools to compare machines and see which ones:
- Get your clothes the cleanest
- Rinse detergents most thoroughly
- Are the most water and energy efficient
- Are gentle on your clothes
- Offer both hot and cold connections, and
- Wash the fastest
Not all washing machine brands are created equal. The CHOICE brand reliability survey tells you which brands our members have found most reliable, which have the highest owner satisfaction and how well manufacturers have dealt with problems if something goes wrong. The most recent survey looks at brands including Ariston, Asko, Bosch, Electrolux, Fisher & Paykel, Hoover, LG, Miele, Samsung, Simpson, Westinghouse and Whirlpool.