For tablets, LEDs, lawn mowers, water heaters, and more, the best deal costs more

By Features Consumer Reports

Decades of testing products in our labs have taught us that price and quality don’t always go hand in hand. In many cases we find that inexpensive products perform as well as or even better than their more pricey counterparts.

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But that’s not always the case. Our testing experts have come up with a list of goods that are worth splurging on to get better performance, superior durability, energy savings, and/or convenience.

—Mandy Walker

Replacing a kitchen or bathroom countertop can cost as little as $560 for 56 square feet of laminate counter. But we found that laminate is easily scratched and can’t be repaired. Though quartz and granite countertops can cost four times more than laminate, they survived our gantlet of spills, hot pots, knives, and more abuse with top scores. Plus, quartz counters need little maintenance.

Shopping tip

You can save money by using ¾-inch-thick stone rather than the typical 1¼-inch. Consider opting for rounded edges on those materials even though that costs more ($10 to $50 per linear foot), because otherwise edges are likely to chip.

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For more tips, see our countertop buying guide. To see how each type of countertop performed in our lab tests, see our Ratings.

Although many grills that cost about $300 have some perks once found only on the priciest models, grills that run $400 or more usually offer extra features that add convenience, such as an electronic igniter, coated cast-iron or stainless-steel grates (for better searing), and higher quality materials that should add to the grill’s longevity.

Shopping tip

Burners are a grill’s most replaced part, so look for ones made of high-quality stainless steel, cast iron, or cast brass that carry a 10-year or longer warranty.

For more tips, see our gas grill buying guide. To see which grill performed best in our lab tests, see our Ratings.

You can buy inexpensive push mowers and self-propelled gas models, but it’s worth the additional cost ($250 or more for a push model and $350 or more for a self-propelled mower) to get a mower that comes with multiple speeds, better cutting performance, and other conveniences (including an electric start and easy cut-height adjustment).

Shopping tip

Don’t buy based on engine size. Our tests confirm that larger engines don’t necessarily produce better mowing.

For more details and other tips, see our lawn mower and tractor buying guide. To see which mowers and tractors performed best in our tests, see our Ratings.

These bulbs contain no mercury (compact fluorescents do) and last up to five times longer than CFLs and 50 times as long as incandescents. They can cost 10 times more, but they will more than make up for their cost in energy savings over the life of the bulb.

Shopping tip

Their brightness is measured in lumens. When buying LEDs for use in lamps and other fixtures (known as A-type, for their bulbous shape), look for at least 450 lumens if you’re replacing a 40-watt bulb, 800 lumens or more for a 60-watt bulb, at least 1,100 lumens for a 75-watt bulb, and 1,600 lumens or more for a 100-watt bulb.

For other lightbulb shopping tips, see our buying guide. To see which bulbs outperformed the rest in our lab tests, see our Ratings.

Skip very inexpensive (under $150) tablets because you’re likely to be disappointed with their display. The colors tend to be less saturated, and the viewing angles are more limited. The sweet spot for 7-to-8-inch tablets is $200 or more; for 10-inch-plus tablets, $350 or more.

Shopping tip

Tablets with an 8-inch or smaller display mostly weigh well less than a pound. Many are very thin. The best in that size range have a battery life of about 13 hours or more. Are you looking for maximum versatility? Consider a larger tablet with at least 10 hours of battery life, and well-equipped app and content stores. Be prepared to spend at least $400.

For more shopping tips, see our tablet buying guide. To see which tablets did best in our lab tests, see our Ratings.

The best top-loading washers start at $600, and paying about $1,200 or more buys a more-efficient front-loading machine that usually does a better job of cleaning your clothes. But paying less than $600 usually trims washing performance, energy and water efficiency, and—often—capacity.

Shopping tip

Know which features add convenience and durability. Electronic controls let you quickly choose cycles and keep an eye on the remaining cycle time and status. A stainless-steel or plastic tub won’t rust if it’s chipped, unlike a porcelain one. But steam settings on washers improve stain cleaning only slightly.

For more washer machine shopping tips, see our buying guide. And to see which machines were tops in our lab tests, see our Ratings.

Although we think it makes sense to spend more on a washing machine, the tips in the video below will help you save money on your laundry.

Most storage-tank water heaters look alike on the outside. But sawing them open in our lab confirmed that paying a little more usually buys a better one. Models that come with nine-to-12-year warranties tend to have larger heating elements, thicker insulation, and thicker or longer corrosion-fighting metal anodes. Having a longer warranty is also a good indication of better quality for tankless water heaters.

Shopping tip

Most water heaters are sold on the basis of how many gallons they hold. But the first-hour rating for storage-tank water heaters and the gallons-per-minute rating on tankless models are more important because they tell you how much hot water the model can deliver during a set period. A pro can calculate how much you’ll need.  

For more shopping tips, see our water heater buying guide.

This article also appeared in the October 2014 issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser

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