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Compact refrigerators buying guide Heading back to college? Choose the right compact refrigerator
A drab college dorm room or a stark office can seem more like home with a snack or cold drink at your fingertips. And adding a compact refrigerator to a media/TV room or home workshop also saves steps to the kitchen. These pint-sized refrigerators can even replace a full-sized model if you're trying to save space in a small apartment or weekend home. Add in easy transport and prices as low as $70, and it's easy to see why Americans buy 3 million of these appliances each year.

But whoever coined the phrase "less is more" couldn't have had compact refrigerators in mind. The largest compacts we tested hold only about one-quarter as much as a typical full-sized refrigerator; the smallest hold one-tenth as much. And none were tops at both refrigerating and freezing.


HOW TO CHOOSE

We advise buying the largest compact refrigerator that fits your space. Tall models not only hold more but also are the most energy-efficient and deliver the most conveniences.

Buy a compact model to refrigerate, not freeze. The tall Frigidaire FRC05L5D[B], $150, is clearly the model of choice. It was the only one that performed decently as a refrigerator and a freezer, though it never got down to the 0 F required to keep food frozen for long periods. It was also quiet. Note that this model has been discontinued but might still be available in some stores.

The tall Haier HNSE05[B], $150, and GE Spacemaker GMR04AAM[BB], $160, are sound choices as refrigerators but not freezers. While the tall Avanti 308YWT, $200, did reach 0 F in its freezer compartment, it performed less well as a refrigerator, warming significantly as room temperatures rose in our test chamber.

The best of our medium-sized models performed well as refrigerators, though not as freezers. Of the top three, the Sanyo SR-2570M, $130, had the edge in quietness.

Trying to save more space and weight? The Haier HSA02, $100, is the only tested model worth considering among the small cubes. It performed the best by far as a refrigerator and was quiet. But as with most other compact refrigerators, expect little chill from its freezer. The Haier HRT02NWC, $70, uses a thermoelectric cooling mechanism, which uses no moving parts or refrigerant in an effort to decrease noise and weight.

Check dorm rules before buying. Sales spike sharply every August, an indication that most compacts are college-bound. But some could be rejected at the door. There are colleges that ban refrigerators in dorms, although many schools have no restrictions. Some colleges provide a free compact refrigerator or microwave/refrigerator unit in every dorm room but prohibit all other models.

Still other colleges have capacity limits. Harvard, for example, limits outside dimensions to 36 x 24 x 24 inches and weight to 85 pounds, while UCLA allows one refrigerator per room no larger than 6 cubic feet. The University of Chicago limits capacity to 4 cubic feet and Columbia University to less than 2.5 cubic feet, which precludes all tall and some midsized models we tested.

Some colleges allow you to rent a compact refrigerator or microwave/refrigerator unit, but that's not always a good deal. At Harvard, renting a compact refrigerator for an eight-week summer session costs $97 plus a $40 refundable deposit. You can buy the model they provide, the tall Haier HNSE05 we tested, for only about $50 more.

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