Choosing a Dishwasher
Frugal consumers have clear expectations for dishwashers: This essential kitchen appliance should leave dishes clean and shiny without making much noise, running up the utility bill, or straining the household budget. Cheapism.com set out to accommodate these requests by fixing a price ceiling of $500 and scouring expert and user reviews to identify suitable models. Along the way we found a few other dishwashers that offer a little something special.
Three models stacked with plenty of features and that deliver on performance qualify as best cheap dishwashers: the Maytag MDB4949SD (starting around $495), Whirlpool WDT720PAD (starting around $450), and Samsung DW80J3020U (starting around $494).
The second tier holds three additional models that pass muster for similar reasons, but with a tad less conviction: the Amana ADB1500AD (starting around $399), GE GDT545PGJ (starting around $449), and Frigidaire Gallery FGID2466Q (starting around $449).
At the bottom of the rack are two budget models: the very basic Frigidaire FBD2400K (starting around $249), a non-starter that gets zapped for poor build quality and noisy operation, and the GE GSD3301K (starting around $324), which is dinged resoundingly for inefficient rack design.
Editor's Note: Listed prices were accurate at the time of writing, but prices in this category are particularly fluid. Dishwashers are subject to frequent sales and we often see prices fluctuate from one week to the next, sometimes by more than $100. Waiting to make a purchase may sometimes be a wise choice.
Dishwasher Brands.The key players in the low-priced segment of the market are household names: Whirlpool, GE, Frigidaire, Maytag (owned by Whirlpool), Kenmore (made by Whirlpool or Frigidaire), and Amana (also owned by Whirlpool). These brands offer an array of models at a variety of price points that top out in the midrange; each model is distinguished by a specific bundle of features and sometimes by their finish. Samsung and Bosch, both with high satisfaction ratings in the J.D. Power Kitchen Appliance Satisfaction Study, make only a limited appearance in the Cheapism zone. LG and KitchenAid, two other brands with strong satisfaction ratings, start at prices well outside budget territory. Ultra high-end dishwashers bearing nameplates such as Miele and Thermador can hit stratospheric price points -- $2,000 is no exaggeration.
Cheap vs. Expensive Dishwashers.The best budget dishwashers have a lot in common with their pricier counterparts. They provide four or more wash cycles for different soil levels and contain a tall tub and rack design that maximizes interior space and loading flexibility. They sport an Energy Star label and often boast a sanitize rinse, electronic controls with delay-start, and hard-food disposer or filter system (goodbye pre-rinse). Indeed, many practical and performance-enhancing features once reserved for high-end dishwashers are trickling down to the cheaper segment -- silverware jets, a third spray arm, adjustable racks and tines, stainless steel tubs, soil and leak sensors, and hidden controls, to cite just a few. For those who are more aesthetically-minded, many of these budget dishwashers offer a choice of white, black, and stainless steel exteriors, but a stainless steel finish may tack on a premium of $100 or more. One disadvantage to stainless steel is the endless battle against fingerprints, while white shows dirt more easily than black.
What separates upscale dishwashers from entry-level? Noise, primarily. Virtually all modern dishwashers make less noise than in the past, but the higher the price, the quieter the appliance. The Bosch Ascenta SHX5AV5 (starting around $540), for example, carries a starting price just north of our $500 limit and a decibel-level reading of 46 compared with a 50-to-55 range for Cheapism’s picks. (The most expensive model in the Bosch Benchmark series claims a near-silent 39 dBA; the typical noise level in libraries is rated at 40 decibels.) Higher-end dishwashers also come loaded with more extras, like wash-cycle variety, more customizable rack options, the ability to add a front panel that matches the kitchen décor, and even Wi-Fi connections in “smart” models.
A couple of matters worth noting: Unless you plan a DIY dishwasher installation, the cost of calling in a professional can add several hundred dollars to the final price, depending on vendor and location. Also, dishwashers don't automatically come with the fittings necessary for installation, especially cheap ones, so be sure to check whether this is part of the package or requires a separate purchase. (The GE GSD3301K, for example, comes with a power cord; while GE’s GSD3300K does not.)
Alternative Designs.The standard built-in dishwasher, regardless of price, is a front-loader measuring 24 inches across. Anyone strapped for space, or looking for an apartment-size dishwasher, must hunt around for alternatives. There are only a handful of 18-inch dishwasher models out there, although the portable SPT SD-9241 (starting around $475) from manufacturer Sunpentown is a viable and affordable option. Portable dishwashers move around on wheels; the top can serve as extra counter space; the hose connection adapts to most kitchen faucets; and a regular 110-volt electric outlet is sufficient. One downside: Portables have less insulation than good-quality built-ins and are comparatively noisy.
The upmarket Fisher & Paykel DishDrawer DD24SCT (starting around $749) represents a new direction for this basic kitchen appliance: space-saving and ADA compliant, these units pull outwards to open like a drawer. Drawer dishwashers are a boon to households that don’t wash lots of dishes at one time, for people in a wheelchair or who have trouble bending over, or in a small kitchen where the door of a standard dishwasher would bump into something across the way. Single dish drawers also use less water and energy than full-size dishwashers. Double-drawer dishwashers are also available, and offer the convenience of accommodating larger loads as necessary and allowing individualized cycles for items placed in each compartment, but these fall far outside of our price zone.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Dishwasher Reviews: What We Considered
The unsurprising revelation in dishwasher reviews posted on sites such as Home Depot, Lowe’s, Best Buy, AJ Madison, Abt, and Walmart is that washing/cleaning excellence is consumers' top priority. Performance expectations also include quiet, trouble-free operation. Having a rack system that works with the type of dishes used is another feature consumers frequently weigh in on. We also took guidance from expert sites such as Consumer Reports, Good Housekeeping, and the American Cleaning Institute.
The final conclusion: The best cheap dishwashers perform just fine. Reviewed.com, for example, notes that entry-level dishwashers are perfectly adequate. Tests by CNET show that price is an unreliable indicator of cleaning ability; that is, some less expensive models outperform costlier alternatives.
Still, complaints about food and oily residue on dishes, spots on flatware, and milky film on glasses crop up in reviews of nearly every budget model. Two issues vex even those who rave about a unit’s cleaning prowess: the very long cycles -- about double the time required by older models, and often as many as three hours or more from start to finish when using the "normal" or "heavy" setting plus sanitizing and dry options -- and the likelihood that the contents are damp even after going through a heated dry. (Manufacturers recommend using a rinse aid to facilitate drying and spot-free results; consumers report this tactic often falls short.) That said, these latter two performance weaknesses are not necessarily brand or model specific, but largely attributable to the resource-conserving goals and requirements of the Energy Star program. All of the models we researched, but for the Frigidaire FBD2400K, bear an Energy Star label.
Cleaning Performance.The models on our list of favorites generally earn enthusiastic reviews for cleaning ability. Dishes, cutlery, and glasses emerge from the Whirlpool WDT720PAD sparkling, according to consumer reviews posted on Home Depot’s website. Purchasers of the Amana ADB1500AD commenting on Home Depot say that, for the money, this model is hard to beat; some enthuse that even with the shortest wash cycle dishes are cleaner than they were with older machines. Our other top picks likewise garner kudos from a majority of reviewers.
Nearly every dishwasher these days has at least two spray arms, one below the bottom rack and one below the top rack. Some, including the Maytag MDB494SD, Samsung DW80J3020U, Amana ADB1500AD, and GE GDT545PGJ have three. (The Fisher & Paykel DishDrawer has one.) Reviews of the GE GDT545PGJ on the company’s site say the top-most arm assures everything on the upper rack is thoroughly cleaned. The Frigidaire FBD2400K and GE GSD3301K, by contrast, dispense with the spray-arm design for a center-mounted wash tower and one arm under the lower rack. Reviews at Home Depot for the former and on the GE site for the latter generally concur that the arrangement works adequately. The Frigidaire Gallery FGID2466Q earns a special shout out for a proprietary technology that mounts a rotating attachment on its bottom wash arm to disburse water more widely than traditional spray arms.
Noise.Users assign high priority to quiet operation, hardly a surprise given the kitchen's location close by living and sleeping quarters in many homes. Noise is measured in decibel levels, and, according to experts, an increase of 10 decibels would be perceived by the ear as a doubling in loudness. So there’s a big difference between the 62 dBA Frigidaire FBD2400K, the 55 dBA Amana ADB1500AD, the 50 dBA Maytag MDB4949SD, and the very quiet 44 dBA Fisher & Paykel DishDrawer.
Many manufacturers have been adding features such as sound-absorbing washtubs, vibration absorbers, and low-noise pumps to minimize the din. Their efforts are paying off: Dishwasher reviews indicate that many people who recently replaced older machines with dishwashers on our list are surprised by the quietness of the new appliances.
Although a few users grouse that the model of choice is louder than expected, most describe them as extremely quiet; some users even tell of putting ear to door to make sure machines are actually running. And while some people aren’t bothered by the noise of the Frigidaire FBD2400K and even consider it quiet, a post on Home Depot says it’s loud enough to rattle the floorboards.
Cycles.The number and types of wash cycles and wash options vary by model. Each dishwasher cycle uses a different amount of water and energy and runs for a different length of time. Ideally, users choose the cycle -- “pots and pans,” for example, or “rinse and hold” -- called for by the load’s size and soil level. “Normal” is the go-to for many users, but other choices may include “heavy,” “light,” “economy,” and “quick.” The Maytag MDB4949SD features a proprietary high temperature/high pressure cycle meant to remove crusted food (reviews from consumers on Lowe’s are mixed about its effectiveness) and the portable SPT SD-9241 features an all-in-one cycle for use with special tablets or packets that combine pre-treating, dishwashing, and rinse aid (reviewers posting at Best Buy seem to like it).
Some models offer a “half-load” cycle and some come with “soak and prewash.” All of our best and good picks, as well as the Bosch Ascenta, are equipped with a sensor cycle that calibrates the appropriate water and temperature based on soil level, with the aim of conserving resources. One reviewer on Home Depot says the sensor cleaning on the Whirlpool may stretch the running time, but the results are laudable. Many models, even in the budget segment, also offer a sanitize cycle.
Aside from the cycles, many dishwashers offer options such as “delay start,” “high-temp wash,” “heated dry,” and “control lock.” Terminology gets confusing, however, and what one manufacturer considers a cycle, another considers an option. Sanitize and half-load are prime examples.
Drying.Many low-cost dishwashers come with heated-dry and/or air-dry settings. The former relies on an electric element at the bottom of the unit to heat the air, while the latter uses hot air left from the wash cycle.
Reviewers generally carp about modern dishwashers’ ability to dry a load, regardless which dry setting and how much rinse aid is used. Models with plastic tubs are censured for residual dampness on the tops of mugs and anything plastic, and even units with stainless steel tubs, which seem to have a better handle on the drying thing, garner occasional complaints -- the Samsung DW80J3020U, for one, according to posts on Best Buy. Users likewise grouse about the little SPT SD-9241, also with a stainless tub. One reviewer writes on Amazon that cracking the door open not only helps the drying process but is a no-cost route to a quick facial.
Rack Design.Everyone has a preferred way to load a dishwasher, and the interior design affects user satisfaction. The critical parameter is sufficient rack space for dishes, glassware, utensils, and pots and pans of all shapes and sizes. What that really speaks to is the functionality of the space, which in turn depends largely on the arrangement of tines, the shape and position of the upper rack, and the location of the cutlery basket. The GE GSD3301K takes heat from users for thin tines, glasses that won’t stand upright, and the inability to load anything on the bottom but standard-size plates.
Rack adjustability is a big selling point regardless of make, model, or price, according to reviews. Users appreciate tines that can be angled differently or removed; a notched, tiered, or slanted upper rack; and a top rack that can be lowered and later returned to its original position or removed entirely. All of our preferred choices boast at least one feature that yields more loading flexibility.
All the standard-size models we researched also come with tall tubs, which have capacity for more, and ostensibly larger and/or oddly shaped, items. How much each model can maximally hold varies, however, and ranges from a low of 12 full place settings with the Amana ADB1500AD to a high of 16 full place settings with the GE GDT545PGJ. The Fisher & Paykel DishDrawer takes up to seven full settings and the portable SPT SD-9241, also with a tall tub, takes up to eight.
Warranties and Durability.The usual warranty for dishwashers in the budget range is one year; the International Association of Home Inspectors says the expected lifespan is nine years. All the dishwashers discussed in our buying guide come with a one-year warranty except the Fisher & Paykel DishDrawer, which offers three years; the Maytag MDB4949SD has a 10-year limited parts warranty on the rack, hard-food chopper, and tub. We read quite a number of consumer reviews noting that older models lasted far longer than their newer iterations. Whether any of the dishwashers on our list will reach comparable lifespans is impossible to predict; most reviews are written within six months of purchase.
Still, we came across a few trouble spots, often reported by people used to having appliances that provided at least a decade of service and who expressed surprise at the number of service calls needed for the replacements. Users are particularly annoyed by problems that crop up shortly after the warranty has expired. Several reviews of the Maytag MDB4949SD posted on the manufacturer’s website and Home Depot, for example, grouse about control panel glitches. Motherboard malfunctions are the primary irritant on the Frigidaire Gallery FGID2466Q. Both GE dishwashers we researched are dinged occasionally for maintenance issues, while the loudest complaints target the Frigidaire FBD2400K for culprits like leaks and pieces breaking off.