Vast changes in laundry room technology are taking place. Control types and control behavior reflect this rapid pace of change. Because many washers and dryers are designed and sold as a pair, the behavior of the controls is usually similar on both.

The desire to decrease the amount of water that is used to wash a load of laundry has driven a generous application of high technology in the previously low-technology surroundings of the laundry room. Two trends are immediately obvious as you walk up and down the rows of washers and dryers--front loading and electronic controls.

Each embodies two interrelated strategies to the challenge of washing more clothes with much less water. Front-loading washing machines, by their design, require less water. Advanced load-sensing technology allows the unit to use only the amount of water that is required for the actual load. Because electronics and computer-chip brains are on board, vastly more elaborate control systems are possible. These controls, when accessible, provide equally flexible control for those who use nonvisual strategies. When accessibility is poor, the result is equipment that, we believe, cannot be used independently by people who are blind or have low vision.

Current Accessibility

Conventional top-loading washing machines and their front-loading dryer counterparts are still available. These models use the traditional turn-knob controls that most of us grew up with. The controls differ from brand to brand. Some have an easy-to-feel point on the control dial. The dial clicks as you move from cycle to cycle, making it easy and predictable to set. Some top-loaders which appear to have traditional controls have in fact been updated with electronic controls. GE washers are the most prominent example. A clear identifiable pointer chooses from among a dozen or so cycle options. Similar pointers on the feature setting controls are also easy to feel and click as you manipulate them.

The differences in brands among front-loading and some high-tech top-loading units are striking. Unlike its dishwashers, washers and dryers from Bausch appear to be especially inaccessible. Virtual knobs and controls select among cycles that are displayed on menus. With these new control designs, a large rotary control moves a pointer up and down a display menu of options. The function of the control changes with each menu on the display. Tracking the location and option for each position of the control is impractical or impossible with these virtual controls, and it is necessary to select them to adjust even simple settings, such as temperature and spin speed. Top-of-the-line LG units, also highly regarded by many, use a series of lights and a large virtual dial to select the wash cycle. As the control is turned, status lights for wash cycle, temperatures, rinse options, and so forth move progressively among the possible choices. Distinct clicks can be felt, with each change being accompanied by a clear, repeating tone. The behavior of the controls in the washer-dryer pairs in these brands was similar.

Whirlpool offers remarkably accessible controls on its Duet line of washers and dryers. Easy-to-feel pointers allow for the unmistakable selection of wash and dryer cycles. The Up and Down buttons facilitate changes in the cycles' default settings. The most important feature is the pattern of descending tones which allows the verification of a specific choice by sound. If three choices are available for spin speed, three different tones are heard as the choices are indicated.

GE and Frigidaire front-loading washers are inaccessible because of the use of an endlessly turning selector knob, as in the Bausch and LG. A Frigidaire dryer, counterpart to the front-loading washer, was found to be useful by virtue of a rotary knob that has a stop at each end, allowing you to count clicks corresponding to cycles.

A trend toward mid-sized washers, 3.3- to 3.5-cubic-foot capacity, establishes a new size class for front-loading machines. True to its record for inclusive design, the Whirlpool Duet Sport offers controls that are distinct and can be felt. LG now offers a Tronn Super Capacity machine, the controls of which are quite useful. The five washing cycles are each represented by a small light, placed in a ring surrounding the large, round control. Following the recessed light and pressing on the outer portion of the ring selects the cycle. Manipulating the buttons that adjust spin speed, water temperature, and so forth is easy, thanks to a clear chime that is heard each time a button is pressed. If you are comfortable with counting and pressing to make adjustments, this LG may be of particular interest.

Sears Kenmore offers the Oasis Canyon, Billed as the largest washer available, it may also be the most inaccessible we have found. A continuously turning knob selects cycles and hard-to-feel bubble controls adjust settings. The turn knob felt sloppy, with poorly differentiated stop positions. To make matters worse, no audible tones were detectable, not even when turning the machine on and off. Whirlpool offers a version of the same washer, the Cabrio. it uses controls which are similar to the Duet Sport.

Fisher and Paykel has a high-tech control interface that may be the most accessible offered on any washer. Pressing the various soft-touch embossed buttons on the control panel makes cycle selections. Adjusting the water temperature, spin speed, and water level by use of Up and Down buttons is easy because reaching the top or bottom of each menu results in a different-sounding beep. Pressing the Off button clears all the settings. A matching dryer that uses a novel top-loading design employs the same control strategy.

Best Options

For top-loading, conventional washers and their dryer counterparts, many models from GE, Whirlpool, Sears Kenmore Maytag and other brands are all very useable. We understand from consumer reporting magazines and experts in sales of laundry equipment that the effectiveness of new top-loaders differs dramatically, so balancing accessibility against effectiveness is critical. The basic Fisher and Paykel unit, while high efficiency, is a top loading design and offers remarkably useable controls. Front loading units such as the Whirlpool Duet offer the most accessible controls. The unique patterns of tones offer a high level of information making cycle selection easy. A Sears Kenmore counterpart, the HE 5T is similar, but lacks a pointer control to indicate the selected cycle. If you want to count and press controls to choose cycles, LG, Samsung and some Frigidaire models may be of interest.

Shopping Strategies

The larger retailers will offer the broadest selection of laundry room equipment. If you are concerned about the controls on a unit, request that an extension cord be used to connect it to an outlet. No harm will result to a washing machine by using the controls when the unit is not connected to a water supply. For an electric dryer you are considering, connecting it to power probably isn't practical. A gas model which uses similar controls can be connected, allowing you to evaluate the behavior of the controls.