We tested the cheapest fridges from a handful of big stores, and picked the best of the bunch.
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Among the low-cost mini-fridges we've tested, the Kenmore 93382, available at Kmart for about $100, is our top pick.
A mini fridge is more than just a cold box for beer. It's a badge of pseudo-adulthood, a signal that this 8-foot by 10-foot cement-walled dorm room is a home, and a grown-up person with a grown-up appliance lives here.
That's adorable, but as tens of thousands of freshmen will learn before orientation ends, these ain't real fridges (and you ain't real adults). Uncooked meat and fresh produce won't keep for more than a few days, and pizza boxes won't fit. But they're great for drinks, and work fine for short-term food storage.
As with many other types of commoditized small appliances, the strategy for buying a mini-fridge goes something like this: Drive to a store, and buy the cheapest one on the floor.
We wanted to see if that's a decent way to shop. Is the barest-bone compact refrigerator fine for a dorm room? Or will you end up with a dud? And can we draw any conclusions based on price?
So, we went out and bought the cheapest minis available at each of four national big-box stores, plus a top-selling model from Amazon.com, and ran some tests.
For this roundup, we decided to use a more scaled-back rubric than we do when we test full-size refrigerators. Freezing chicken is important in a proper french-door fridge, for example, but compacts really just need to hold a lot of cans.
We focused on three categories in testing these fridges: capacity, cooling speed, and temperature performance. The Kenmore mini fridge from Kmart gets our recommendation because it performed well across the board, and costs less than any of the other contenders. It holds up to 72 canned drinks—enough for a pretty decent party—and it can chill a six-pack in under 30 minutes. Temperatures stay in a safe, suitable range throughout the interior, and remain consistent (no freezer burn here). Other models can hold more drinks or get to colder temperatures. But none are as well-rounded as the Kenmore, especially considering the price.
For starters, we let each fridge run for 48 hours before we conducted any testing. It's standard procedure for all of our fridge testing, as it lets the appliance hit and maintain a chilly internal temp. (During this phase, we discovered that one of the fridges we ordered, an Igloo-branded model from Walmart, wasn't working.)
Capacity testing came first. All of the contenders, including the tiny Haier model, can easily store 30 cans, passing the "rack of cheap beer" test with flying colors. Then we stuffed each one to the gills, and counted the total capacity. The Emerson holds a whopping 87 cans, while the Haier tops out at 35. The Kenmore and Frigidaire models have the same advertised capacity—3.3 cubic feet—but the Kenmore makes better use of the space, holding 72 cans compared to the Frigidaire's 63.
Then we put a room-temperature six-pack of soda into each fridge, and waited 30 minutes to see if the cans got cold enough to drink. (As a rule, if it's in a can, it does not taste good when it's warm.) The drinks in the Haier got the chilliest after a half hour, though the others did fine—if you're thirsty, you'll drink them. After an hour, all of the drinks in all of the fridges were nice and frosty.
Finally, we did some proper temperature testing, like we do with full-size fridges. On a Thursday afternoon, we put three sensors into each mini-fridge: one at the bottom, one toward the top, and one in the freezer. Monday morning, we pulled them out, and gathered the temperature data. The results varied considerably. The Kenmore, for example, was on the warm side, but within a safe range, and stayed very consistent. The Emerson, on the other hand, had wild temperature fluctuations in its freezer.
We came to the general conclusion that if you're storing perishable food in a mini-fridge, it probably shouldn't be for more than a couple days at a time. Temperatures tended on the warm side, and could swing pretty considerably over the course of a day.
The Kenmore mini fridge offers the best balance of price, performance, and capacity, so we'd buy it before any of the others. Grab it at Kmart.
If you’re really focused on the “mini” aspect in your purchase and don’t care much about capacity, the Haier from Amazon.com ($109) is a great pickup. It's also far and away the best performer in terms of cool, consistent temps.
When it comes down to it, any of these cheap mini fridges will support a dorm-room diet. If you can't find this particular Kenmore, look for something with about 3 cubic feet of capacity and a low price. Paying extra doesn't necessarily get you a better product, as we found, so aim low.
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