The Aroma Hot H20 X-Press is our favorite no-frills, low-cost electric kettle. It boils a liter of water faster than other cheap kettles we've tested, costs less than most of them, and looks good, too. It's available at Target for about $33.
Electric hot-water kettles aren't terribly popular in the US—we just don't drink that much tea. But staples of the dorm denizen's diet need boiling water—think ramen noodles, Kraft Easy Mac, instant oatmeal, and their ilk. Kettles can make enough piping-hot water for any of those foods (and, of course, tea or coffee).
There's a pretty good chance that most students won't be allowed to use a kettle in their dorm rooms—most colleges and universities ban them from residence halls. But if you can use one in a communal kitchen, or if you live in an apartment, a kettle is a handy gadget to have around.
We grabbed the cheapest kettle available at each of four major national big-box stores, plus one from Amazon.com, and group-tested them. There are plenty of higher-end models to pick from, with temperature settings and faster boil times. But we wanted to see how the bottom end of the market holds up—why pay more for a single-purpose gadget?Our test was simple: We filled up each kettle with a liter of water, switched them on, and timed how long they took to boil (or at least to "pop" after boiling). The Aroma Hot H20 X-Press finished the fastest, right around 5 minutes and 40 seconds. The rest finished within 30 seconds of the Aroma—about 10 percent difference from the fastest to the slowest.
So...there really isn't much to separate these kettles, at least in terms of performance. All of them have a maximum capacity of 1.7 liters (the plastic Hamilton Beach claims 1.8 liters, but the scale printed on the side of the kettle is inaccurate, according to our measurements). Some of these models are strikingly alike—the Aroma and Chef's Choice models, for example, sit on similar bases and even use the same on-off switch, with a blue LED indicator. Based on what we've seen in other commoditized small-appliance categories, it's likely that they have several other components in common, too.
That said, we think the Aroma is the way to go. The faster boiling cycle certainly counts for something. Just as importantly, the metallic finish and heft give it a more durable feel than the all-plastic models we tested, and costs less than the other metal kettles.
Again, like we've seen in other categories, the quality among very cheap kettles doesn't vary a whole lot, so it's a legitimate strategy to just pick the absolute cheapest of the cheap-cheap models out there. If you want to save a few more bucks, you can grab one of the plastic models. The Proctor Silex from Kmart and the Hamilton Beach from Best Buy are almost completely indistinguishable and both cost about $20, so grab whichever your penny-pinching heart can afford.