Welcome to Best of the Test, a thoroughly tested, expertly vetted, only semi-serious product recommendation series. Join us as we sleep with a dozen different bed sheets, make gallons of ice, air fry all the wings, and more in pursuit of the very best things to buy.
I am the type of person who reaches for an ice-cold drink even in the middle of winter. No seriously, no matter the weather, I’ve always got something cold in my hands—water, coffee, sweet tea, matcha. Now that temps are rising and outdoor entertaining is hitting its peak, having a full stash of ice ready to chill several drinks at once is more of a must-have than a nice-to-have.
Just one problem…okay, two: 1) My refrigerator doesn’t have a built-in ice maker, and 2) my freezer is often too packed to stack more than two ice trays (and precariously, at that). Driving to the nearest grocery store or gas station for bagged ice is inconvenient at best, and trying to freeze a few trays of ice and store the cubes in a bucket in the freezer (rinse and repeat) before guests come over sounds like a nightmare.
So when the time to test countertop ice makers came around, you bet I was stone-cold ready.
How we tested the best ice machines
To determine which ice machines to test, I spent hours doing market research that involved reading what other industry folks consider to be the best, filtering through satisfied (and unsatisfied) customer reviews, and browsing through top sellers at our community’s favorite online stores. Similar to my experience with insulated water bottles, there were so. many. ice makers on the market—and frankly, they all sounded the same.
So I developed a set of testing parameters—the machines had to: be sold in multiple big-box stores like Amazon and The Home Depot for ease of shopping, be easy to set up and clean, under 18 inches in height (the standard height between kitchen counters and cabinets), produce at least nine pieces of bullet ice per cycle (the market average for bullet ice makers), produce at least 24 pounds of ice in 24 hours (the average of about a dozen different models I’d considered), and have at least a one-year warranty on parts.
I tested five popular ice machines for about three weeks, running each one around the clock and putting them through a series of stress tests and real-life situations. I also spoke with our drinks expert and Resident John deBary, as well as CEO and co-owner of Appliances Connection Albert Fouerti, about ice machine cleaning, maintenance, and more.
Here’s how we tested and evaluated the best ice machines:
Setup: I set up each machine in my pantry according to the manufacturers’ instructions. While some machines needed just an outlet and water to start making ice, others were a bit more involved, requiring connecting tubes to a separate water reservoir or running a cleaning cycle before using.
Cleaning: After each week of testing, I followed the manufacturers’ instructions on cleaning the interior or running the self-cleaning cycle with vinegar.
Ice production: Variables like ambient temperature, water level, and location of the machine all play a role in how quickly ice is made, so measuring ice production was tricky. It would also be inefficient (and tiresome!) to weigh every single batch of ice each machine made over a 24-hour period to determine how much ice was produced. Instead, I timed how long each machine took to make one batch of ice, weighed each batch, and then did the math to see how much ice would theoretically be made in 24 hours in my specific environment—using cold water from the tap, with the water filled to the max line, and in a room about 74°F without any direct lights hitting the machines.
Each machine was off its marketed production by a pound or two, which is negligible. For a more useful gauge of ice production, each batch made nine pieces of bullet ice and roughly filled up half a 12-ounce glass.
Ice quality: Each bullet ice maker had the option of small and large ice sizes, so I made multiple batches of each size and compared the quality of ice. While the small bullet ice was teeny and absurdly cute, I recommend setting your ice machine to make the large size—the small ice melted too quickly, so you’d wind up with watery ice before you can even chill your drink. On the other hand, the nugget ice machines I tested didn’t have a choice for size.
Of the five ice machines that I tested for this guide, two weren’t as impressive as the rest. I’ll continue to test the top three ice machines over the next few months to see how they hold up. In the meantime, check out the handy chart below for the TL;DR of the winning machines’ specs. For the full results, keep reading.
1. Best ice machine for small spaces: Frigidaire EFIC189-Silver Compact Ice Maker
Type of ice: Bullet
Capacity: 26 pounds
This Frigidaire ice machine is tiny but mighty, and doesn’t compromise on power. In fact, the daily ice production was the second highest at 26 pounds, bested by the Magic Chef model by just one pound.
The Frigidaire fit underneath my pantry cabinets with room to spare, and the 12-inch depth didn’t peek out from underneath, either. Though it takes up the same amount of space as the Magic Chef, the large window on top of the machine makes it look more open and less cramped—a subtle but impactful design element that small spaces benefit from. It also lets you see the ice being made and getting dropped into the storage bucket like prizes at an arcade.
Setup was simple—wipe down the interior, fill with filtered water, and choose your ice size. Cleaning was a breeze, too—unplug the unit, dump ice from the bucket, and release the stopper on the underside of the unit to let the water drain out, then wipe dry or air dry.
Like all the machines I tested, the first batch was admittedly not impressive—the ice wasn’t frozen all the way through and melted quickly. But a few batches later, the small and large sizes of ice were perfectly shaped and satisfying to use in my coffee. After about six batches of the large ice, the basket was at its capacity and the machine stopped running until I scooped some out for my second (okay, third) cup of coffee. The bullet ice was uniform in color and thickness, and the cavity provided more surface area to cool drinks down quickly. One potential downside with bullet ice is that it melts quicker than nugget ice, but in testing, the difference was negligible.
2. Best ice machine for nugget ice: GE Profile Opal 2.0 Stainless Steel Nugget Ice Maker with Side Tank
Type of ice: Nugget
Capacity: 24 pounds
Nugget ice is the preferred ice shape among our Instagram community and Fouerti—and we can finally see why. The small shape and uneven texture of the ice maximizes the amount of liquid in the cup, so your drink will be less diluted. For my ice chewers out there, the size makes it easy to chew without cracking your teeth.
Setting up this machine wasn’t as straightforward as the Frigidaire or Magic Chef since it requires you to run a cleaning cycle the first time you use it, so don’t expect to use this right before guests arrive. There’s also a self-cleaning option, which basically involves pushing a button and letting the machine run for a while. You can also connect the unit to Wi-Fi, which is impressive for an ice maker but in my opinion, unnecessarily high-tech.
While GE’s Opal 2.0 was the largest I tested, it still fit underneath my cabinets without protruding. It was also one of two machines I tested that had a separate water tank, which was easy to fill. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for cleaning unless I used a bottle brush.
Though noticeably sleeker than the other models I tested, this was the loudest. The noise level in my pantry when the machine wasn’t running measured at 38 decibels according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Sound Level Meter (NIOSH SLM) app, which is pretty quiet. But as the Opal 2.0 went through the ice making process, the noise level ranged from 55 to 62 decibels. The noise isn’t offensive or obtrusive by any means though; it’s like a slightly louder fridge hum and disappears into the background after a while. But if we’re comparing apples to apples (or is it ice to ice?), the other machines didn’t make any noise at all.
3. Best affordable ice machine: Magic Chef 27 lbs. Portable Countertop Ice Maker
Type of ice: Bullet
Capacity: 27 pounds
The right combination of price and value, this Magic Chef ice maker is reliable and makes great bullet ice as well as any other model I tested, but at a slightly more affordable number.
The initial setup and weekly cleaning was the same as that of the Frigidaire, which I’d expected since all the bullet ice makers I tested were quite similar. The biggest difference is in the placement of the control panel—it’s incorporated into the lid and could be prone to breaking if you’re constantly opening and closing the lid to scoop some ice. It’s something I’ll keep an eye out for as I continue to test this machine.
With the ability to make up to 27 pounds of ice in 24 hours, it boasted the largest production out of all the bullet ice makers I tested. In reality, it made more like 25 pounds, but the difference is inconsequential. After the initial few batches, the ice was perfectly shaped and frozen through. Sadly, the small window on top of the machine doesn’t let you get a satisfying view of the ice being made and pushed into the bucket—a small compromise for the price.
What should you look for in a good countertop ice machine?
Ice production rate, storage capacity, and ice shape are important factors when it comes to choosing between machines, says Fouerti. The average production of my top three ice machines is about 25 pounds of ice a day and the average storage capacity is about two pounds, both of which were more than enough for my usual household of two, plus guests that came to visit during my testing period.
What type of ice do ice machines make?
Most of the countertop machines I researched and tested produce bullet ice, which is the most popular type of ice due to its versatility, says Fouerti. Bullet ice will always look cloudy or white throughout due to natural minerals in water and the process of how the machine makes ice, but deBary points out that, “Unless you’re spending tons of money on a machine, there’s no way around this, and it’s best not to worry too much about it—it’s mostly a cosmetic issue.”
If you are planning to invest though, nugget ice machines are rising in popularity and availability. Also called pellet ice or even Sonic ice (since the fast-food chain uses this type of ice for its drinks), this ice shape is Fouerti’s preferred shape because it leaves a lot of room for your beverage even if the glass is full of ice. “Since it takes up so much space around the liquid, it works very well at keeping a cup’s contents cold and refreshing.”
You’ll also see a few machines that make cubes, though they’re less popular and can cost more than a bullet ice maker.
How does a countertop ice machine work?
A portable countertop ice machine works in a similar way to a refrigerator’s built-in ice maker. There are slight differences with each model, obviously, but in general, an ice maker has an internal cooling unit that freezes nine rods that are dunked into a tray of water to make individual pieces of ice. Once the ice is ready, the heating unit kicks in to melt the ice just enough so that it slides out of the tray or mold, and then the ice gets pushed into a storage bucket. The machine doesn’t freeze the ice, so ice will start to melt if it stays in the bucket too long before you use it—over time, the water slowly drips down into the reservoir and gets pumped back up for the next cycle.
How do you clean an ice machine?
Since the mechanics of each machine differs, this depends entirely on each manufacturers’ instructions. Generally though, Fouerti advises to first empty out the ice in the storage compartment and water from the tank (there’s usually a plastic drain stopper on the underside of the machine). Then dilute some vinegar or a nickel-free cleaner like Scotsman with water and wipe down the interior (you can even use the solution to make a few cycles of ice to clear out the inner mechanics of the machine!). Once you’re done cleaning, sanitize the machine and its parts by running at least two cycles with just water, making sure the ice production times aren’t far off from normal, and then throw out the ice.
How often should you clean your ice machine?
Again, this depends on your machine, but Fouerti suggests cleaning and sanitizing at least once every six months for efficiency. “Some machines also have an alert function to let you know it needs cleaning; others you will need to keep track on your own.”
What’s your favorite type of ice? Let us know below!
This post contains products independently chosen (and loved) by our editors and writers. Food52 earns an affiliate commission on qualifying purchases of the products we link to.
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