A good toaster will last years, but they don't last forever. If you've found yourself in need of a replacement, you'll find better standard options than you would have found just five years ago. Make sure the one you choose handles the foods you eat most often. If you only eat specialty breads once in a while, the oven broiler can do the toasting for you. Otherwise, you may need to pay extra for a toaster that handles wide bread slices.
What to look for:
A standard toaster can handle standard breads, English muffins and bagels. Very few are made these days without the wider bagel slots. Because of these, the toaster you choose should also have a bagel setting to let you toast just the cut side.
Faster toasting time is nice, but not really a necessary feature. A fast toaster is only one or two minutes faster than a standard one. High-lift is a convenient feature if you often toast low-profile items that don't pop up all the way (like mini-bagels) but not really a necessity. A plastic fork works just as well.
Digital controls are unnecessary bells and whistles. Mechanical controls and indicator lights are less susceptible to breakdown and work very well.
Most families don't need a four-slice toaster. It takes up a lot of room on the counter and costs much more than a two-slice one. Unless you are feeding a small army in the morning, two-slice capacity should be fine.
Toasters may seem like mundane appliances, but style matters for less-than-obvious reasons. For instance, chrome and stainless steel show fingerprints and scratches, making them always appear dirty. The finish doesn't affect performance, but since a toaster spends its life on your counter, it should look good for as long as it operates.
Stay-cool tops and sides are important in households that have children. Kids move fast, and even if they need to get a stool to reach the toaster, they move fast enough to be burned when the toaster tickles their curiosity. Keep this in mind when buying if you have kids.
Every toaster needs cleaning, and a removable crumb tray is much easier to manage. Dishwasher safe is even better. Since you only need to clean the toaster occasionally, the tray, whether hinged or slide-out, shouldn't be a large factor in your decision.
The Break-In Period
Every toaster needs a little use before it will toast brown evenly. Give it about one week of regular use. You may find that the darker settings make the toaster much browner over time.
Proctor-Silex and Hamilton Beach are usually the most affordable toaster makers. You'll find that brands like Oster and Cuisinart are a bit pricier, but occasionally available for a good deal. Whatever brand you choose, don't pay more than $50 for a toaster.