What it means. An algorithm is a step-by-step process for solving a given task. The term derives from Persian mathematician Mohammad ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi (780-850), who’s considered the father of algebra. In a modern context, algorithms are often associated with computer programmers, who use them to tell the machines not just what to do but also how to do it. Google, for example, uses algorithmic techniques to establish PageRanks, which in term determine which sites pop up when you search a term or phrase.
Why the buzz? At Consumer Reports, we’re increasingly encountering the term algorithm in reference to smart appliances: dryers that know when loads are dry, refrigerators that can self-regulate their temperature, and dishwashers that sense when dishes are done. (You can bet the dishwasher shown, from a 1952 Consumer Reports article, did not feature such gadgetry.)
This leap forward in appliance design started years ago when electronic controls replaced mechanical ones. On a range, mechanical controls limited you to turning on the appliance and setting its temperature. You had to make any subsequent adjustments on your own—say, turning down the temperature during the cooking process. More-sophisticated electronic controls have allowed manufacturers to develop software settings based on an understanding of how food reacts at different temperatures.
The pizza setting on two new GE Profile electric smoothtop ranges, for instance, use algorithms to distinguish between fresh and frozen pizzas so the cheese melts evenly without burning the crust. Those same ovens have a slow-cook mode that uses algorithms. “With slow cooking, you can’t just put the oven at 180°F and leave it there,” explains Brian Steurer, systems manager at GE for free-standing electric ranges. “If it’s a beef dish, you first have to raise the temperature to break down the collagen. Then you gradually lower the temperature to tenderize the meat without boiling away the moisture.”
“Algorithms are a good thing if they do what you want them to,” says Robert Karpel, a project leader in our Tech department who handles appliances. But that’s not always the case. The soil sensors on some dishwashers misread dirt levels and increase wash time and water use even if the loads are only lightly soiled. In other tests, algorithmic settings prove no more sophisticated than standard settings: The pizza mode on those GE ovens, for instance, was only as effective as the conventional oven control.
We’re not suggesting you avoid algorithmic bells and whistles, but don’t base a purchase on them—you might end up spending more for no noticeable performance enhancement. Instead, read our reports and Ratings of washers and dryers, ranges, and dishwashers. If a feature ends up saving you time or does a better job at a given task, so much the better.—Daniel DiClerico
please ask bob karpel to get back to me