After considering 17 cheap coffee makers and testing the six most promising candidates, we think that the Hamilton Beach 12-Cup Coffee Maker (46201) is the best. For about the price of three bags of specialty coffee beans, you get a machine that reliably makes a solid cup of coffee—even if you’re brewing pre-ground stuff from the grocery store. In addition to winning over our tasting panel of pro coffee roasters, it has a host of user-friendly features that testers loved—like a removable water reservoir and a programmable auto-brew timer. Best of all, it was the cheapest model we tested.
A great cheap coffee maker should be easy to use and it should make decent coffee, and the Hamilton Beach 12-Cup Coffee Maker (46201) excels on both fronts. None of the testers in the Sweethome test kitchen had issues figuring out how to brew a pot or how to program it to brew in the morning using the six-button interface. A removable water reservoir combined with a rotating base made it the easiest to fill as well. Flavorwise, it was bested only by our high-end coffee maker pick, the OXO On 9-Cup, which we brought in as a control (although the OXO beat it by a wide margin according to our tasting panel of roasters from Lofted Coffee). To be clear, if you’re freshly grinding specialty coffee beans every morning, the Hamilton Beach isn’t for you. (You’ll get much more out of your expensive coffee if you use a pour-over setup or a high-end coffee maker.) But it’s perfect for people who just want a decent pot of joe in the morning with minimal fuss. In fact, when it came to brewing a pot of pre-ground Dunkin Donuts Original Blend from the grocery store, our tasting panelists unanimously preferred the Hamilton Beach to the OXO.
If the Hamilton Beach is unavailable, or if you like your coffee to be piping hot out of the pot, the Mr. Coffee Optimal Brew 10-Cup Thermal Coffee Maker (BVMC-PSTX95) is a capable runner-up. It made coffee that tasted almost as balanced as the Hamilton Beach’s coffee and was much hotter—180 degrees Fahrenheit vs. 172 degrees for the Hamilton Beach. And it comes with a more durable stainless steel carafe, which is supposedly insulated, though not very effective (the temperature of coffee inside fell under 150 degrees within an hour of brewing). However, it is much larger compared with our top pick, and it costs about twice as much. We liked it better than the other coffee makers we tested, but if the Hamilton Beach is available for cheaper, there’s little reason to spring for the Mr. Coffee instead.
At The Sweethome, we love coffee as much as you do, which is why we’ve spent hundreds of hours researching and testing the best coffee makers, grinders, espresso machines, and pour-over setups. For this review, we returned to Lofted Coffee, whose roasters have years of experience roasting, tasting, and brewing coffee. They gave us precise insight into ideal flavor and temperature levels for each cup of coffee. Before working at The Wirecutter, I was a barista in several high-volume Brooklyn restaurants and coffee shops. I’ve received training in almost every conceivable method of coffee brewing.
If you’re someone who wants a decent cup of coffee for a budget-friendly price, a budget coffee maker is for you. Similarly, if you don’t want to bother with freshly grinding your expensive coffee beans every morning, a cheap coffee maker can actually make a batch of pre-ground Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts joe taste better than it would from a fancier coffee maker. That’s because fancy coffee makers are designed to bring out every flavor note from the coffee—not what you want to do with pre-ground supermarket stuff.
If you’re looking for features like an effective thermal carafe or pre-infusion to achieve optimal flavor extraction, these machines are probably not for you. A budget coffee maker, by definition, will not make you the perfect cup of coffee (we tried!), and coffee machines with expert features like pre-infusion start at around $140. If you’re a connoisseur on a budget, we’d encourage you to experiment with a pour-over setup. If you’re a coffee enthusiast with a little more time and money to spare, our original guide to the best coffee maker will better suit your needs. In a side-by-side taste test, the OXO On 9-Cup, our pick from that guide, made much better coffee than even the best machine covered in this review.
However, you should know that companies have to cut corners to be able to sell these coffee makers at such a low price. Though it’s not unreasonable to expect coffee makers costing $80-plus to last a long time, cheap coffee makers are not designed to last much longer than their warranty periods—typically one or two years. That’s not to say that they will break, but you have to adjust your expectations accordingly to the price tag. On the flip side, this same cheapness makes them a good fit for an office, dorm, or other high-traffic places where you expect that it will likely be mistreated and need replacing sooner rather than later.
Because this is our budget category, we stuck to machines with costs that ranged from the very cheap (around $30) to a mid-tier ceiling (around $100). In this price range, none of the machines are rated by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), so we sought out models that had a rating of at least 60 points on Consumer Reports (subscription required) and cross-referenced them with Amazon’s best-sellers list. We also sorted hundreds of Amazon ratings and reviews to look for any concerning patterns in order to rule out obvious duds.
While taste was of utmost importance when evaluating higher-end coffee makers and is still important here, other factors like usability and footprint weighed more heavily in our search for the best cheap coffee makers. That’s because features like programmability (to automatically brew a pot on a timer) are more likely to be used if you’re not using expensive coffee that needs to be freshly ground. Sweethome researcher Courtney Schley also raised the important point that a budget coffee maker should have an interface that is easily communicable to other users, and not have to be “explained every time.” A simple interface is particularly useful for a group setting like a dorm, office, or hotel room—all places that might be more likely to use a budget coffee maker instead of a more expensive machine. Additionally, we decided that the machine should take up a minimal amount of space on a kitchen counter, be easy to clean, and look attractive.
As for features, we decided to only look at machines that produced eight or more cups of coffee, because you can always brew less coffee in a bigger machine, but you can’t brew more in a smaller one. We also required that the machine be programmable and have a brew-pause option. Features like a removable water reservoir (for easy filling), programming that remained set after temporarily losing power, and a thermal carafe were pluses, but not a requisite for consideration. Options like a charcoal water filter and permanent filter were considered extraneous.
Given the criteria, we narrowed down our testing to the Black + Decker 12-Cup Thermal Coffee Maker (CM2035B), the Cuisinart 14-Cup Programmable Coffeemaker (DCC-3200), the Hamilton Beach 12-Cup Coffee Maker (46201), the Mr. Coffee Optimal Brew 10-Cup Thermal Coffee Maker (BVMC-PSTX95), the Mr. Coffee Advanced Brew 12-Cup Programmable Coffee Maker (BVMC-SJX33GT), and a new machine from a familiar brand: the Braun BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker (KF7150BK).
Testing finalists in hand, we returned to Lofted Coffee in Brooklyn for a side-by-side taste test. Following the same protocol outlined in our guide to the best coffee maker, we brewed pots in each of our contenders with the help of master roasters Tobin Polk and Lance Schnorenburg. This time around, we conducted our taste test twice. First, we brewed with Lofted Coffee’s own single-origin light roast to determine which machine did the best job of presenting the flavor profile they were going for, and brewed a second round with a bag of cheap, pre-ground Dunkin Donuts breakfast blend to simulate a more common at-home scenario. We also brought along our trusty OXO On 9-Cup as a control for taste and other measurements, like brew temperature.
After our initial round of testing and ruling out a few machines, we also conducted a group test in our own New York City Sweethome test kitchen. Our panel included writers, editors, researchers, and production staff from both The Sweethome and The Wirecutter. Our group test required that each participant interact with the coffee makers and report on its interface’s usability. Then, we brewed a pot of coffee using each of the finalists and passed out cups of each in a blind taste test. Each tester then filled out a rubric and rated the coffee makers on taste, usability, and value.
The Hamilton Beach 12-Cup Coffee Maker (46201) made a good cup despite being the cheapest coffee maker we tested, although it bears mentioning that coffee from a budget coffee maker just won’t equal the taste of a cup from a higher-end machine or a single-cup brewing method. The Hamilton Beach also has a removable water reservoir for easy filling (and a rotating base to make it easy to access), a compact footprint, and a simple interface. Testers were initially torn between the Hamilton Beach and the Mr. Coffee Optimal Brew 10-Cup Thermal Coffee Maker (BVMC-PSTX95), but everyone said they’d buy the Hamilton Beach after we revealed that it costs half as much as the Mr. Coffee.
The Hamilton Beach shocked our taste testers at Lofted with its ability to produce a decent pot of coffee. Though the (currently) $200 OXO On 9-Cup we brought in as a control produced the tastiest pot from the Lofted beans by a long shot, the Lofted roast masters both agreed that the Hamilton Beach made the next best coffee from their high-end beans. Polk remarked that it made coffee with “nice acidity and sweetness,” whereas many of the other machines we tested tended to make coffee with overwhelming acidity or bitterness. This was backed up by quantitative testing conducted with a VST refractometer, which analyzes total dissolved solids (the ideal is about 1.35 percent), or the amount of coffee dispersed throughout the brewed water. The Hamilton Beach measured in at 1.27 percent TDS, meaning that it was right on the mark in terms of brewing strength (the OXO was the only other machine that achieved this reading). The other machines we tested produced coffee that was either extremely overextracted and had a TDS percentage far above the 1.35 percent mark, or was very weak, with a TDS below 1.20 percent.
When brewing the pre-ground Dunkin Donuts coffee, our tasters actually preferred the Hamilton Beach to the OXO because it made a very smooth and agreeable pot of coffee. The OXO brought out too much flavor: “rubbery aftertaste” isn’t an ideal start to any morning. Given the utilitarian uses of a budget coffee maker, this proves a strong argument in favor of the Hamilton Beach—especially if you pre-grind your coffee.
At 6 minutes, 40 seconds, the Hamilton Beach also had one of the quicker brew times in the lineup, which is a boon for those who need their coffee quickly. For comparison, the Mr. Coffee 12-cup had a brew time of 7 minutes, 48 seconds, and the Black + Decker took a whopping 8 minutes, 20 seconds to brew the same six-cup pot of coffee. If you like stronger coffee, there’s a bold-flavor mode that increases brew time so it steeps for longer (though instead we recommend just adding an extra scoop of coffee if that’s your goal). If you don’t need a full pot, you press the Brew Options button until the “1-4 cup” LED lights up. You can take the carafe out mid-brewing to pour an early cup if you want, but this will result in some coffee dribbling onto the hot plate below (this was true of all the models we tested, as well as the OXO).
In terms of usability, our testers in the Sweethome office ranked the Hamilton Beach the easiest to operate. Its simple button interface is easy to navigate and doesn’t have the more-complicated press-and-hold options of machines like the Cuisinart. And testers found the buttons were labeled more clearly than those in the complicated Mr. Coffee 12-cup’s layout.
In addition to producing the best-tasting coffee and being the most user-friendly of the machines we tested, the Hamilton Beach has a few great distinguishing features. Measuring at 16 by 11.2 by 9 inches, it had one of the smallest footprints of any of the coffee makers we tested. The Sweethome testers thought that its appearance was unobtrusive and downright attractive compared with the garish chrome paneling on the Mr. Coffee 12-cup.
A removable water reservoir and the ability to rotate on its base made the Hamilton Beach the easiest to fill with water by far. Four small wheels at the machine’s base make it a cinch to rotate so that you can easily reach the reservoir from any angle. A power-cable storage compartment on the machine’s back keeps your countertop free from long, dangling cords.
Finally, we are pleased to report that the Hamilton Beach’s carafe is just fine. It doesn’t dribble while pouring; it just works okay. You’d think that coffee maker manufacturers would have fixed this flaw by now, but some still sell coffee makers with drippy, slow-pouring, or otherwise annoying carafes—like the otherwise terrific Bonavita BV1900TS. The Hamilton Beach’s carafe is glass, so you either have to drink coffee soon after brewing, put it into a separate thermal carafe, or use the included adjustable warming plate that reduces the chances of burning your coffee.
Though the fact that the Hamilton Beach costs under $40 is a big point in its favor, the sacrifices made to get to that price may come back to haunt it in the long run. Many of our Sweethome testers thought that the Hamilton Beach looked a bit low-grade, particularly the black plastic flap on its water reservoir. The construction, particularly on the machine’s black plastic accents, is definitely not of the highest quality. In their testing, some Sweethome staff expressed their worry that it looked as if it might break a few months after purchase. Similarly, many negative Amazon reviews raise a longevity issue, citing that the Hamilton Beach coffee maker may tend to fail around the one-year mark. That said, it’s been a very popular coffee maker for at least four years at the time of this writing, and there are bound to be numerous complaints about any product that’s been popular for that long. If something does go wrong, Hamilton Beach’s limited warranty for the machine only covers up to one year of manufacturer’s defects; it doesn’t include glass and also doesn’t cover usage in anything but a single-family dwelling.
Although we found its coffee’s drinking temperature satisfactory, the Hamilton Beach didn’t produce the hottest coffee of the bunch. Its brewing temp was 190 degrees when emerging from the waterspout, compared with 200 degrees from the OXO or 203 degrees from the Mr. Coffee 10-cup.1 The resting temp of the Hamilton Beach coffee, once brewed, was around 172 degrees (about a 10-degree difference from the 183-degree OXO coffee or the 180-degree coffee from the Mr. Coffee 10-cup). If you like your brew piping hot, this may be an issue for you.
After several months of testing, we still think that the Hamilton Beach 12-Cup Coffee Maker is the best cheap coffee maker for most people. It’s easy to use and to set for delayed brewing, and it makes good coffee. Our testers haven’t experienced any of the mechanical issues mentioned in several Amazon reviews, though we will continue to test and monitor the machine over the long term. We still don’t think it makes the best-tasting coffee—for that, we encourage you to check out our guide to the best coffee maker.
For hotter coffee with a taste that came close to that of the Hamilton Beach’s coffee, we recommend the Mr. Coffee Optimal Brew 10-Cup Thermal Coffee Maker (BVMC-PSTX95). This model ranked second in our taste test; tester Tobin Polk detected a “subtle sweetness” and a more balanced cup of coffee than from other machines besides the Hamilton Beach. Best of all, it makes very hot coffee—a full 8 degrees hotter than that of our top pick. We think its added features and user interface make it a solid alternate option. But considering how close the machines were, and the fact that the Hamilton Beach typically sells for half the price, this Mr. Coffee is only our runner-up pick.
At a brew time of 5 minutes, 15 seconds, the Mr. Coffee 10-cup is also the quickest of the bunch, making for a slightly stronger brew that keeps hot. Though its recorded TDS percentage was quite high at 1.47 percent, our testers found the taste and balance of the coffee it made to be very agreeable.
Although the Mr. Coffee 10-cup’s panel is not the simplest to navigate, we preferred its user interface to those of similar machines like the Cuisinart. Besides having a more direct usability, this Mr. Coffee also has a sturdier—if larger—frame than the other machines we tested. Its sturdiness meant that we found it more satisfying to use; testers particularly appreciated the tight fit of the carafe under the waterspout. Its side-loading coffee filter was easy to remove and fully washable, unlike those of the other machines. Like the Hamilton Beach, the Mr. Coffee 10-cup has a removable water reservoir for easy filling.
The Mr. Coffee 10-cup also comes equipped with a thermal carafe. Though it has definitely substandard thermal retention compared with other carafes we’ve tested (the coffee went from 180 degrees freshly brewed to 164 in the span of half an hour and fell under the “drinkably hot” threshold of 150 by the time a full hour elapsed), it’s still a good option for users who like to brew a pot of coffee and bring it over to their desk. Uninsulated glass carafes like those on the other machines we tested would have fared far worse were it not for the hot plates beneath them.
What we didn’t like about the Mr. Coffee 10-cup boiled down to size and physical attributes. Managing editor and tester Cesar Torres raised the concern that fully removable pieces like the filter compartment and the flap on the water reservoir could easily go missing. Some might also find that this Mr. Coffee feels a bit bulkier than the other machines and looks a little unwieldy. It also has a seemingly useless water filter that’s literally paper thin. We couldn’t detect a difference with or without it.
We tested the Cuisinart 14-Cup Programmable Coffeemaker (DCC-3200) because of its place on Amazon’s best-seller list and its high user ratings on Amazon and Bed Bath & Beyond’s website. Although it did have one of the sleeker designs of the machines we tested, we thought that the Mr. Coffee 10-cup produced better coffee at a lower price. Our testers also struggled a lot with the Cuisinart’s complicated user interface and found the large-handled carafe unwieldy. However, this machine did brew decent coffee.
The Black + Decker 12-Cup Thermal Coffee Maker (CM2035B) looked appealing for its small footprint and low price. Unfortunately, it was immediately disqualified in our taste test because it produced overextracted, extremely bitter coffee. This may be due to its brew time (8 minutes, 20 seconds), which was by far the longest of any of the competition. It also had a cheap-looking plastic body and a clunky interface.
We tested the Mr. Coffee Advanced Brew 12-Cup Programmable Coffee Maker (BVMC-SJX33GT) because it’s Amazon’s top-selling coffee maker and was previously a Consumer Reports “best buy” pick. It was, however, our worst performer across the board. It yielded overextracted, bitter coffee with the lowest TDS percentage (a paltry 1.14 percent) that our tasters unanimously declared the worst of the competition. We thought its interface was confusing, and its phony-looking chrome paneling made this machine the ugliest of the bunch.
We also tested the Braun BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker (KF7150BK) a new, sleek-looking machine in Braun’s renewed US-bound appliance lineup. Though it produced decent coffee, the machine was nothing special and cost nearly three times the price of the Hamilton Beach. We speculate that the Braun and Cuisinart share a similar origin, as their interfaces and coffee were strikingly similar. They even have the same measurements.
(Photos by Michael Hession.)
Originally published: June 17, 2016