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The Which? guide to buying the best washing machine and washer-dryer

It’s quite tempting to think of washing machines as all the same – big white boxes that get the laundry done. But they come in different types, sizes, running costs can vary from £12 to £47 a year and some just won’t clean your clothes that well.

You also might be a little surprised to learn several machines only let you clean two pairs of jeans at once using that convenient-looking quick wash programme, while others let you clean a full load.

To help you avoid several traps you might fall into when buying a washing machine, and for a few handy hints as to what to check when you’re in the shop, here is the Which? guide to buying a washing machine.

What are the different types of washing machine?

Most washing machines in the UK are front-loading models. This is the conventional shape of a washing machine that has a door on the front of the machine and can be installed underneath a work surface.

The alternative is to buy a top-loading machine. These are narrower but cannot be placed underneath as you add clothes via the top of the machine. They’re rare in the UK, so it’s unlikely you’ll have much choice between models.

If you buy a front-loading washing machine you now have to choose between freestanding and integrated.

Freestanding washing machines

Freestanding washing machines are the common type of washing machine that can be placed anywhere as long as they’re connected to a drain and a plug socket. They come in a range of sizes – from 5kg to 12kg capacities - and some models are available in different colours.

Integrated washing machines

Integrated washing machines are also known as built-in washing machines. These machines will be built into your kitchen and a furniture panel will be placed on the front of the machine, so it’ll look like a cupboard. There are fewer integrated models on the market compared to freestanding, so choice is limited and capacities tend to be restricted to the smaller numbers. However, the extra panel on the front of the machine should buffer noise slightly, making for a quieter wash.

Semi-integrated machines

Semi-integrated machines are like integrated models but the furniture panel does not cover the controls, so you don’t have to open the door to change the settings or read any displays.

Before buying an integrated washing machine, see if the retailer is able to install integrated modes and how much they charge. Having an integrated model installed is more costly than freestanding, so be sure to factor that price into your buying decision.

Drum size – is bigger better?

No, not always. Washing machines work best when you fill the drum to each programme’s set limit of clothing. Most medium sized households in the UK will be served well by a 7kg capacity machine.

The biggest machines on the market can handle up to a massive 12kg of clothes, which is enough for 3 pairs of adults’ jeans, 2 pairs of children's jeans, 6 shirts, 3 bed sheets, 6 pillowcases, 6 tea towels and 5 small towels. If that’s your typical wash, then a 12kg capacity machine is what you need.

But if that’s a bit much, check our free to view Features explained page for examples of what you can fit in into different-sized drums.

Spin speed – how fast is good?

The spin part of the wash cycle is responsible for removing the wash water and leaving clothes as dry as possible. The drier the clothes are, the less time they need to spend on the washing line or in a tumble dryer.

But a faster spin does not mean drier clothes. Maximum spin speeds are typically 1200rpm or 1400rpm but some machines offer speeds of up to 1800rpm. From our tests we’ve seen lots of 1200rpm and 1400rpm spin speeds get top marks for removing wash water from your laundry – they just take a little longer than the faster spin speeds. Higher spin speeds also have the potential to be noisier and can add cost to the washing machine.

You’re not going to be able to tell which spin cycles do their job or not by looking at the machine, but the Which? star rating for spin drying will separate the good from the bad.

Will it clean and rinse my clothes?

Like the spin speed, you can’t tell which washing machines will actually clean your clothes and which don’t lift stains or rinse your laundry free of detergent. That’s where Which? testing comes in.

If you want to avoid dirt and detergent being left on your clothes, make sure you check out the Which? review before you buy.

What about running costs - should I buy an A+++ machine?

Running costs can vary from £12 to £47 and are dependent not only on how efficient the machine is but the size – generally the bigger the drum, the higher the running cost.

Energy labels on washing machines range from A+++ to D. A+++ is the most energy-efficient, but the EU Energy label is largely based on the 60°C cottons programme, while most people in the UK use the 40°C cottons programme.

For every washing machine we test, we publish an energy use star rating based on the 40°C cottons and synthetics programmes, and an annual running cost based on the 40°C cottons programme. Check the Which? review of a washing machine to see how much it’s going to add to your bills before you get it home.

What features and programmes do I need?

Washing machines can come equipped with an army of programmes and features. These include:

Time remaining display

Some washing machines have a display that counts down until your washing is ready to take out. More advanced washing machines will weigh what’s in the drum, and then provide an estimate of how long they’ll take to clean.

Delay start

A delay start means you can choose for the washing machine to start washing your clothes at a later time, perhaps to take advantage of cheaper electricity tariffs. Some machines are fairly flexible and will let you delay the start by any number of hours, up to 24, whereas others are more limited and might make you choose from a 3, 6 or 9 hour delay start. Alternatively, some machines allow you to choose when the programme finishes rather than when it starts.

If you use the delay start, it’s still best to be around when the washing is going. If you’re going to run it while asleep, you need to make sure you have a good smoke alarm nearby.

Child locks

There are two types of child locks on washing machines. The most common is the ability to lock a control panel so that programs and settings cannot be tampered with by little hands when your back is turned.

The second, less common child lock is a device that will stop the door from being closed. This means children cannot trap items in the drum.

Sports programmes

Sports programmes are for washing microfibre sports clothing, designed to remove sweat marks and odours. Some machines also have a special programme to allow you to wash your trainers.

Wool programmes

Wool programmes are typically low-temperature programmes that have little drum rotation during the wash to keep the woollen garment from being over-manipulated and damaged.

Quick wash

Quick wash programmes are very popular. But the very quickest may only let you wash 1.5kg of clothes at once, which is equivalent to two pairs of jeans. Some washing machines have a full load quick wash option, allowing you to fill the drum and clean lightly soiled clothes in under an hour. a quick wash option isn't necessarily the cheapest to run.

What can you do in the shop

Open the door

A good door should open flat against the machine, or get very close, and not swing back unassisted. This makes it easier to get your laundry in and out.

Check the detergent drawer

You’re going to use the detergent drawer a lot so make sure it slides in and out easily and is comfortable to grip. Make sure you can also remove the drawer from the machine completely and without difficulty, as it will most likely need to be cleaned at some point.

Control panel

Have a look and play with the control panel. Make sure you can read all the instructions without bending down, that everything is nice and clear and that the buttons aren’t so close that you might accidentally press two at once.

Last bits of advice

Whether ordering online or in the shop, if you’re paying that bit extra to have your washing machine installed for you, make sure you check the conditions. Some retailers will only install a washing machine if it’s one metre or less from the drain where it’s being connected and some will ask you to disconnect the old machine and pull it away from the area that the new model is going.

Some washing machines may come with promotional warranties. If you’ve bought a washing machine that comes with a free promotional warranty, you must remember to send off your paperwork as you may only have a short period of time after the purchase to qualify for the free warranty.

Washer-dryer

Washer-dryers combine a washing machine and a tumble dryer in one box. It’s a great space saver but generally it’s preferential to have a separate washing machine and dryer if you have space.

A lot of the considerations when shopping for a washer-dryer are the same as if you were buying a washing machine. But there are some extra issues to keep in mind:

Washer-dryer reliability

The consequence of cramming two technologies into a single box is that reliability can be compromised. In comparison to tumble dryers and washing machines, washer-dryers are the least reliable appliance.

Which? publishes brand reliability ratings on washer-dryers. The ratings are based on the experience of people who have owned those brands of washer-dryers. Washer-dryers need to have a good reliability rating in order to become Best Buys – or offer a free five year warranty on the machine – so if you see the Best Buy logo, it should be model you can rely on.

Check the washing AND the drying capacities

Washer-dryers have smaller capacities for drying than they do for washing. So that means that if you fill the drum with laundry, you’ll have to take out some clothes before the drying starts.

Drying capacities are not consistent, and some washer-dryers will be able to dry more at once than others despite having the same sized drum. There are also washer-dryers that reduce the capacity if you want to use the machine’s sensor to detect when your laundry is dry rather than programme the drying time in yourself.

Washer-dryers and water use

It comes as a surprise to many that almost every washer-dryer will use water during the drying process as well as during the washing. Cold water is taken into the machine and used as part of the condensation process.

On the cotton programme, an average washer-dryer will use 11.5 litres of water per kilo for the washing. The equivalent drying programme will use 7 litres for every kilo. Over a year that means the average washer-dryer use approximately 6000 litres to dry clothes, which is important to know if you’re on a water meter.